EVERYDAY ARTIST* / Surprised By Clay

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*Everyday Artist is original to BoHo Home.

Our first Everyday Artist came to work in clay following a full career in dance and musical theatre, while today’s featured artist started as a painter and moved to clay as a distraction from her job in the decorative arts industry.  Though the latter may seem like a shorter trip, Robin Roi of RobRoi Design says clay gave her the opportunity “to get back to a clean slate of ‘not knowing,’” where creating art could once again surprise her. Read about her journey and see some of her beautiful clay creations, just begging to enhance your boho home’s decor.

Describe the art you produce now.

For the last 15 years, I’ve worked in clay. My ceramic work is mostly utilitarian but with a decorative flair, sometimes verging on sculpture, or at the least, the not-so-utilitarian. Although the pieces I make can function as everyday vessels, their decorative surfaces and inventive forms give them a unique quality, much like a piece of art.
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From left: Small Condiment Pitcher, Crackled Pitcher, Stars & Moon Pitcher. Pitchers also double as vases, Roi reminds.  RobRoi Design

Pitchers are a favorite form of mine as they can be very playful, and the slightest shift in the slant of a handle or spout can drastically change its personality. I love in equal parts the forming of the vessel and the decorative painting and glazing of surfaces. Sometimes I’m amazed at how the simplest form can become an object of such beauty with the right glaze or surface design and, likewise, a fabulous form without a wonderful surface is wanting.

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Roi’s “oil can” pitchers are inspired by the whimsical shapes of vintage oil cans she’s collected from flea markets up and and down the Eastern seaboard. The originals are made of tin and sheet metal. “I love giving them a new skin, with vibrant colors and patterns that reference other cultures and times.” Clockwise from upper left: Green Oil Can, Blue Oil Can, Tattooed Oil Can, Polka Dot Oil Can, and Black-and-White Striped Oil Can. RobRoi Design

And before clay?

I was a painter. After graduate school and three years as an artist in residence in North Carolina, building my portfolio and learning to support myself as a full-time artist, I returned to NY in 1977 and found myself part of the “Pattern Painting” movement. I had quite a lot of success at that time under my maiden name, Robin Lehrer. I was included in numerous exhibitions and collections, and was represented by the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York and the Hans Strelow Gallery in Dusseldorf.

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This detail from one of Robin’s pattern paintings, “A Leopard’s Dream,” (1979, gouache and watercolor on paper) shows two-and-a-half pattern repeats in a painting that is fully 72 inches long and 20 inches wide. “The images are random things pulled from art history or around my house,” she explains. “The idea is that leopards, like humans, only see the world (or dream) through their spots. And though you can’t escape your point of view, knowing that it alters what you see can be transformative.”

For many years I supported myself as a painter, working primarily in gouache and acrylics on large, long scrolls of paper. Detailed geometric patterns were the structure under which I layered and wove personal narratives. Source materials were everything from illuminated manuscript pages to antique quilts and 1950s wallpaper patterns. The narrative imagery—freaks, architectural wonders, hunting scenes, and domestic and historical scenes all became personal metaphors.

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Another of Roi’s signature pieces are her hand-built “boats,” from left, Holy Boat, Flower Power, and Flower Child. She says they are “a shape I’m constantly drawn back to in my work. Sometimes they remind me of an eye rather than a boat.” Add tealights and they cast shadows of the patterns onto surrounding walls. RobRoi Design

Later on, I had many wonderful backup jobs—The Drawing Center, The American Crafts Museum, Heller Gallery, and finally, Evergreene Architectural Arts (Evergreene Painting Studios then). Evergreene was the perfect marriage of my love for the decorative arts and hands-on painting, as well as providing a living for my growing family of a husband and two children.

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“The boats make great centerpieces for a dining table, coffee table or buffet table, filled with fruit, napkins, shells or candles—whatever pleases you,” Roi says. This boat is the Flower Child Centerpiece. RobRoi Design

How have other careers or jobs influenced your art?

I’ve always worked in the arts whether in art galleries, teaching college art courses or freelance art projects. I only recently retired as Evergreene’s director of decorative finishes after a career that spanned 33 years. In that time, I worked on many, many large-scale, as well as residential, projects throughout the United States, from New York to California, including the U. S. Capitol Building in DC, hotels in Miami Beach, the ceiling of a yacht in Ohio, and many more.

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Detail of Flower Power Centerpiece and Holy Boat. RobRoi Design

I’ve designed stencils and wallpaper patterns, marbleized columns and walls, created color palettes for theaters, painted ceiling murals, and gilded domes inside and out. I’ve worked on iconic projects in New York such as The Rainbow Room, The Chrysler Building, The Plaza Hotel, The United Nations, The Empire State Building, The Park Avenue Armory, Carnegie Hall, Bloomingdales, and Bergdorf Goodman, as well as smaller, jewel-like residential projects.

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Two views of Roi’s Pinecone Covered Dish. RobRoi Design

I learned decorative painting techniques from many masters at their craft as well as invented and created many of my own. Through my work at Evergreene, I collaborated with the most talented painters, sculptors, designers and architects in their field. For me, the worlds of fine and decorative art have porous boundaries, and one continually feeds the other.

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Three views of Roi’s Pagoda Jar, a blend of stoneware and paper collage. RobRoi Design

But juggling home, family and a demanding job left little time to focus on my personal painting career. I wanted a place to be creative outside of my job and the distractions inherent in a home studio, so I decided to try a medium, clay, that I was completely unfamiliar with, to get back to a clean slate of “not knowing.” I’ve been working in ceramics ever since. I still do quite a bit of drawing; some are sketches for ceramics, but I also do pen and inks, watercolors and collages.

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Roi continues work on the sushi plates at Third Avenue Clay. Rob Roi Design

Describe your daily art-making routine, along with your studio or workshop.

I started making ceramics at the Third Avenue Clay in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn. About six years ago, I started alternating between Third Avenue and Greenwich House Pottery in Greenwich Village in three-month intervals, to provide myself with different work atmospheres.

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She then applies the glaze to the first plate. Rob Roi Design

Greenwich House, a much larger, busier studio, provides a lot of stimulation, excitement and a variety of instructors. Third Avenue Clay is a more serene environment where I can focus and sometimes be more productive with fewer distractions.

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Roi continues her work on the same sushi plates in her home studio. Rob Roi Design

I also have a home studio, which is a perfect place to do some of the more intricate surface designs I produce, as well as a place to work at odd hours when I can’t go to the potteries. I have a large drawing table and good lighting with big windows that look out to my garden, providing the necessary expanse for gazing time.

What or who has been the primary influencer of your art?

I was born in Far Rockaway, Queens, NY, and lived in a large house with my parents, grandparents and aunt. We were a block from the beach and had many small apartments filled with summer residents, as well as a few year-round tenants. Surrounded by people I knew, I was in and out of every apartment at one time or another.

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The set of sushi plates—each one unique—is ready for the kiln. Rob Roi Design

Every room in every apartment had a different patterned wallpaper design. I loved those patterns, it seemed, from the moment I was born. I remember farm scenes with silos, chickens, cows and windmills in my grandparent’s kitchen. I remember the flocked, Kelly green leaves in the living room and floral prints in many of the bedrooms—big flowers on black backgrounds and big flowers on mint green and beige—as well as the dining room with hunting scenes—dogs, horses and riders in full equestrian dress.

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The finished set of sushi plates, each one slightly different from its sibling. RobRoi Design

My patchwork memory of those colors and patterns made a lasting impression on me and are a constant source of inspiration. My mother also had many artistic talents, and much of our time together was spent on creative projects—drawing, painting and gluing beans, pearls, shells or whatever was at hand onto various objects. Like my mom, I’m never without a project. This is something I’ve passed along to my two children, who are also artists and project-driven.

Do you ever get blocked? How do you deal with it?

Although I miss painting, after working almost exclusively in ceramics for many years I don’t think I could ever go back to painting the intricate patterns I once did. Initially, I stopped painting to raise and help support my family, but I also felt I’d said all I had to say about pattern. The well was dry and I felt lost, without a direction to go in.

The truth is I had too much fame too fast and no guidance as to how to manage my career, saying “yes” to everyone with no consideration as to how I was going to accomplish any of it, which caused total burnout. So I stopped painting for years. I went to work full time at Evergreene, raised my family and dabbled with my own work at home.

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From left: Dervish Covered Dish, Indian Urn, Covered Jar with Gold Luster Applied.

Finally, I needed to break the spell, and my discovery of ceramics provided just the right impetus. Ceramics actually saved me, gave me a way to be an artist again. I’m still drawn to pattern but have found that the medium of clay, by its very nature, loosens my hand. However much I want to control, the kiln makes its own mark, as if to say, Okay, control all you want, but then you have to let go. So I’m learning to simplify, to allow for surprises, to let the process lead me, to not know where I’m going.

What other artists influence your art?

The arts of many cultures have influenced me, particularly Japan and India. But I’m extremely eclectic in my tastes and continually discovering and falling in love with new artists and their work. I look at a lot of art and make a practice of one day a week going either to a museum show, a few gallery shows, or an art fair if there’s one in town.

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From left: Floral Covered Dish, Woodland Bowl, Feathers. RobRoi Design

There’s always someone whose name I know but discover their work anew, like Alberto Burri at the Guggenheim or young potters like Bill Wilkey and Kenyon Hansen, whose workshops I’ve attended. Off the top, here are a few oldies but goodies: Hans Coper, Diego Rivera, Georgia O’Keefe, Walter Keeler, Francis Bacon, David Hockney, Joan Mitchell. Oh my, I could just go on and on!

What advice would you give an aspiring artist? Any books to suggest?

I read a lot of artist biographies and autobiographies and would say that reading about their lives, rather than their work, has had the biggest impact on me. When I read about their commitment to their art and the hardships they endured, the circles of other artists they socialized and worked with, and their own unique creative process, I’m completely inspired. The very act of making art inspires me. Whether I like what they produced or not is secondary.

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A collection of Roi’s work, illustrating a range of shapes, sizes and finishes. RobRoi Design

See more of Robin Roi’s ceramics at RobRoi Design. Roi is currently exploring additional venues for selling her work but in the interim invites email inquiries through the website. You can also follow the (affiliate) links below to check out some of the books about artists that inspired her. And, as always, I’d love it if you’d follow my blog with Bloglovin.