Bitten by the clay bug

Work-in-progress by Salvador JiménezHarvard Ceramics Program artist-in-residence Salvador Jiménez Flores talks about a passion for clay, community life and the practice of his work. 

By Ian Askew '19

Salvador Jiménez in his studioSalvador Jiménez Flores considers himself a nomad, traveling from city and city, engaging with communities and producing art that reflects his experience. The Mexican-born artist, who is an artist in residence at the Harvard Ceramics Program, has made waves in the Midwest scene through his public installations and project exhibitions. While he is quick to say he is no expert on sociology, his intense contemplation of identity and social politics shows through his art and drive to collaborate at Harvard. I sat with Jiménez Flores outside the Harvard Ceramics Studio, and we talked about his origins and what his goals are for this year. The following Q&A is an edited excerpt from our conversation.

On working with clay: I’m not sure if it was one of those things that I chose, or if it was organic. The first time that I started working with clay was after my undergrad [years] when I was living in Chicago. I was very involved with the arts community there.

One of my friends was trying to do a fundraiser for an organization, and she decided to do a clay marathon. She invited a lot of artists with clay or no clay experience and so I went. I started building a bowl by putting a slab of clay in a plaster mold and then from there I realized that that material can give you so many options. And it felt good. But I didn’t think about it that much until I applied to grad school.

I was in denial for a little bit. I was like: “I don’t want to get into this clay business.” A lot of people say, “Watch out! Once you get the clay bug it’s kind of hard to get out of it.” But I though “Nah, I think I’m just going to do it for a little bit”. But then I had a really great experience. Our professor, Israel Davis, would do a wood-firing workshop. And he would invite over visiting artists and it would be very communal, just an overall great experience. And I knew that was essential for my growth as an artist, creating more of a network with other artists.

On Clay All NightI feel like anyone can relate to working with clay. Once people get beyond the “Oh, I’m going to get dirty” point, it's really a great material for everyone to play with. Once you start working with clay, in particular, sometimes you get into this rabbit hole, and you get lost and lose track of time and just start building because it’s a very physical, very tactile medium. You have to touch it and move it around. I think events like [Clay All Night] are great in the sense that you just allow people to get together and make art.

Salvador Jiménez FloresOn the purpose of the work: The whole purpose of my artwork is the idea of trying to create awareness and propose actions through my artwork, whether that’s by coming to see the work and people starting to question some notion or idea. Maybe they see something that is funny, maybe there’s something that they can relate to. But there’s not much control that we have as artists after we put the artwork out there. I think that’s kind of the beauty of art, too. You create something that is very personal and it has a lot of meaning to you, but once you put it out there, people might not even care. Or, at the same time, they might even add more meaning than what you thought they would.

On labeling art: I make art that is relevant to my experience in this world. And once I put it out there it is the viewer who is really going to assign those categories. Ideally, if I were to decide, I would want them to see the artwork as what it is and not necessarily put where I’m coming from first, like “Oh, this is a Mexican artist,” or “Latino artist.” But, at the same time, I do acknowledge that that’s the kind of work that I’ve been doing and that's also the kind of work that I’m passionate about.

On his class at Harvard: I’m teaching one class at the ceramics studio: Interdisciplinary Sculpture. That class is open to any Harvard student and any members of the community. Right now, that group of students is mostly people who have been coming to the studio for a while.

The way I think about that class is thinking more about ideas and how I can assist the students to make those ideas happen – not letting them be limited by clay, but thinking about what else they can do with it. It goes back to my practice. Whenever I’m trying to make something, I try to find the material that will better fit the idea that I’m trying to address. And sometimes that’s clay, sometimes that’s drawing, sometimes that’s painting. That’s one of the things I’m trying to push: Think about the idea, think about what is that you want and then think about what material would better fit that idea.

On the Harvard community: I’m really looking forward to collaborating with other organizations or institutions. I’m open to working with anyone, pretty much. If there’s a way of combining art and also talking about these things or these themes, I’ll be open to that. That’s also a big part of my practice. I think eventually, meeting the right people, I can do other projects besides just working here on my own.