Tempest in a (ceramic) teapot

by Minji Kim

When working with architecture, most people start with small-scale models that eventually grow into the grand edifices that dominate our cities. Christa Assad, a San Francisco-based ceramics artist, works the other way around. At Harvard Ceramics this weekend, Assad demonstrated how she shrinks the unique architecture of industrial buildings into the small form of the teapot. Her first solo exhibition, "Vestigial Tales," focuses specifically on the influence of Pittsfield’s General Electric transformers and will be on view through Oct. 16 at the Ferrin Gallery in Pittsfield, Mass.

Assad conducted an all-day workshop from 10am to 4pm, during which she created

an entire matching tea set in front of an audience of 30 to 35 people. In the style of an informal Food Network program, Assad described what she was doing while answering questions and sharing humorous anecdotes (the horrifyingly nervous and incompetent intern who mistakenly created a new way to glaze, the time when she accidentally flung a chunk of clay while "performing" on stage)—all the while, of course, making the craft seem easy. After a quick dinner break, she concluded the first day's workshop with a slide show chronicling her background, artistic influences, and plans for the future.

Assad grew up, quite fittingly, in Pittsburgh, the "Steel City," but her travel itineraries can fill as many pages as does her impressive resume. A Fulbright Scholar and graduate of Pennsylvania State University and Nova Scotia University, Assad has flown all over the world, including China, Israel, and Greece, to slake her voracity to learn, make and marvel.

"Travel is a tremendous influence. I think of it as education. I’m inspired so much by the industry of each place—derelict, industrial buildings of the past that used to serve a specific purpose, the history of the architecture," said Assad.

As funky as Assad’s architecture-inspired teapots are, don’t expect the lighthearted whimsy of Alice in Wonderland. If the Mad Hatter insists on an appearance in your mind’s eye, think of Assad’s Wonderland as a surrealistic, industrial wasteland, a majestic world of buildings retired from their original functions. Assad takes advantage of clay’s forgiving malleability and the numerous elements of a teapot—lid, handle, body, spout—to infuse dramatic geometry and imitate hard steel in the traditionally docile form.

"I think of myself as more of a builder. I throw the teapot on the wheel, but then I take it off the wheel and add things to it, construct off of it," said Assad. "Aesthetics definitely comes first. Like how some people say ‘Function follows form.’ It’s more like imitating something large-scale like buildings and shifting into an intimate scale, the challenge of engineering a building into a teapot. Function is less of a goal for me."

While she absolutely despises computers, electronics and "all the junk that blinks at you," Assad indulges in the paradox between industrial buildings as symbols of a rapidly progressing modernity and the fact that human hands built them. She insists on making objects by hand as a way of preserving human touch in a world of machinery, but also values the human-made quality of the buildings that pump out such machines and "junk."

"You see those huge buildings that you think should have been placed there by a machine, but you realize that they were made by humans. That kind of contradiction, the confusion is what gets me going," said Assad during her Powerpoint slide show after her wheel demonstraion. "I’m just hoping people look at my work and see nostalgia, memories, feelings. I’m just stirring the memory pot for them."

Assad’s next project will explore this very concept of the manmade versus the machine-made, though she refrains from revealing too many details. Now that she has worked so extensively with teapots, Assad feels ready to break out from her role as just a potter working with functional vessels.

"In any craft, you go from simple to difficult. And then at the end, you get to the point where you think, ‘Well why am I making this thing? Why do I have these parameters?’" said Assad. "So, I’m kind of moving away a little now. I’m still within the realm of industrial and engineering symbolism, but working with ‘objects’ now, being a sculptor rather than a potter."

[Caption: "Transformer" teapot, from "Vestigial Tales" exhibit, courtesy of Christa Assad's blog]

[Caption: Finished spouts and lids from Saturday's workshop]

[Caption: Sugar bowl from Saturday's workshop]