Ian McDonald

Potter/sculptor, San Francisco // August 2012
I believe art and artists have a role and function far beyond what becomes visible or what we see in galleries and museums...I think being an artist is also about how you look at the world, how you approach things— it’s not just about production.

Ian’s Bayview studio is about as uncluttered as it gets. Granted, he had just moved in one week prior to our visit, but I’m pretty certain he’s going to opt to maintain its stark simplicity. He doesn’t need much to make his ceramic sculptures— mostly it just comes down to his potter’s wheel (which he’s had since he was a teenager!), some basic hand tools, clay, water, and glazes. His studio is within a large shared warehouse and when we visited he was still in the process of putting a kiln in the back area of it. Ian is all business; he approached our conversations meticulously and spoke in brief, pointed sentences about his work, rarely slipping into anecdotal detours… though I managed to get a few personal bits here and there. His utilitarian studio and precise manner are indicators of how he comes to his work— in both aesthetics and technique Ian’s sensibility is minimalistic but carefully considered.

Ian acknowledges that ceramics hold the suggestion of functionality and instead of fighting against that, he allows for the possibility of it as well as non-functionality. The sculptural aspect of his work is revealed not just in the handmade pieces themselves, but also in their relationship to the fabricated objects they are arranged with— shelves, benches, rope, pedestals, metal forms, etc. Certainly Ian’s small, austere space is effective in that it necessitates focus and attention, especially concerning the subtle details of each object and how they are displayed.

Ian’s work plays with assumptions about form and function, arrangement, and the ways in which art, craft and production intersect and diverge. In thinking about Ian’s work I find myself wondering What could I use that piece for? And then I counter that with Do I need it to be useful? Particularly with his pieces that reference a vessel, (many of which are obviously functional and some which aren’t), I keep struggling back and forth with those two questions. I’m still struggling with what my expectation is. Somehow I think there’s a part of me that just wants to know I could put any of his beautiful objects to use, if I chose to.

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
I work with a number of different materials, most stemming from the point of view of a crafts person, ceramics, wood, textiles, but would emphasize that these mediums have an inherent materiel content that I find important to my work. I would say that I am drawn to materials and processes that involve a certain amount of direct manipulation as well as process that need almost none. These different languages form a third “thing” that I would call art. I think it’s important for things to not just be self referential over and over again, but instead to be in relationships with other things. In that way, I use fabricators when necessary, and work on parts of projects myself directly in order to assemble that visual language— for me the arrangement of things is the work itself. I would also include that I use function as a material and conceptual starting point.

When you are in need of inspiration are there particular things you read, listen to or look at to fuel your work?
I would say that when I am in need of inspiration I am in need of two opposing forces. Either I need a break, or I need to get started working. Perhaps this comes from a makers point of view, but in many ways I have to see the work in progress in order to know what to do next. In that way, the work itself is the inspiration. I am less apt to research out conceptual end points, and more prone to variations within a conceptual framework.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
I am on the faculty at San Francisco Art Institute, and it plays a large role in my life, both in terms of my studio work, and the practice of my life. With teaching you are constantly confronted with new ways of seeing, plus re-negotiating what you thought you knew. This goes back to the work being the inspiration, as a student may describe something to you that sounds like a bad idea, but turns out to be great. The work in that sense has the ability to challenge and change my beliefs.

Have you had to make sacrifices in order to live your life as an artist? Do you encounter misconceptions about that life or choice?
I readsomewhere recently, that one shouldn’t explain what they do as an artist and expect it to be understood. Processes are unique and in some ways private. Maybe it would be interesting for you to do some studio visits with dentists, or a tennis coach, a machinist, because they also have very specific and singular processes. Maybe it’s more about perspective than perception.

What do you think is the function of art in society? Do art or artists have a responsibility to do anything in particular?
That is a really big question, but for me, I believe art and artists have a role and function far beyond what becomes visible or what we see in galleries and museums. Also, what artists “do” in society is always evloving and what we call “art” is always evolving, so artists are part of a larger negotiation that requires their participation. I don’t think it’s useful to get too tied down to the idea that in order to be considered an artist you have to make an abundance of work. I think being an artist is also about how you look at the world, how you approach things— it’s not just about production.

Have you recently encountered an artist or artwork that you felt strongly about?
Recently I have been looking at images from The New York Public Library of illustrations of Ikebana (Rikka-zu) from Japan in the 1600’s, and watercolors from China from the 1800’s of beautifuly arranged furniture, pottery and other household treasures. I have been thinking a lot recently about the camera and it’s expediancy for documentaion versus the time and concentration of the hand made and of course the language of detail.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
Well I have recently (the past two years) dedicated myself as part of my studio work to the vessel. Maybe I should say re-dedicated. Although it has always been part of my work, in terms of overall sculptural arrangements, recently the process has opened up to me in a way that allows it to be more that pottery, but also a riff of the discreet object. All of the vessels are composed of parts, so I tend to see the object as something that exists in full dimension, as some parts are made upside down or made with no orientation in mind at all. Every aspect, at every angle has been considered so that no matter what the placement or orientation, the piece can be presented. Top, bottom, interior and exterior and any other combination are up for negotiation. I have trouble seeing this as different from the rest of my sculpture, and also then find that these small details and negotiations between forms make their way into larger sculptural projects and in some ways regardless of the scale or project, I have been noticing that the lens of focus tends to lean towards a detail of function and an economy of form.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
I have a few shows coming up that in some ways represent different but related parts of my work. A show with Matt Connors at 2nd Floor Projects in SF in November 2012, a solo show at & Play Mountain in Tokyo in September 2012, and a solo show with Rena Bransten Gallery in SF, where I am represented, in March of 2013.

To see more of Ian’s work: