City: Berkeley, California

Passion: Ceramics, Intergrating Creativity & Personal Success

Website: http://www.jessicawertz.com/

Ceramics artist Jessica Wertz enjoys a career centered around clay. Encouraged by her aunt to express herself from an early age, she can barely remember picking up her first paintbrush or sketching her first portrait.

But it was only after taking a ceramics module in college, after dropping out of a painting and drawing course to go traveling around the US for two and a half years, that she discovered her passion for pottery and never looked back.

Eighteen months ago, she moved from Virginia to a new studio, Fourth & Clay, in Berkeley, where she also makes fine artisanal porcelain jewelry, and is a shining example of how you can successfully combine right-brain creativity with left-brain business sense.

ON PASSION

I had an aunt that fostered all of my pursuits; she gave me all the materials that I ever could have wanted. She is an art teacher and just one of the most inspirational people. I actually did private lessons with her after school. I also had parents who told me I could do what I wanted, so that was a good combo.
I was one of those kids that would lock myself in my bedroom after school, sitting there tinkering on little projects and it didn’t matter what the material was. I always knew I would be a maker, but I didn’t know what that meant in terms of making money. I won all the contests for drawing at school my whole life, so when you start getting that positive feedback…. in my mind I was always an artist.
I think people who don’t believe in themselves will tell you not to believe in yourself. Luckily that was easy for me to distinguish when I was younger. Of course it gets you down a little bit and makes you question yourself, but everyday I would go back to making because it made me happy. You have to start with your joy, even if you don’t end up there.
I didn’t realize how much I loved clay until I went back to college for the second time because it was the one material I had never really worked with and I think a lot of that has to do with the processes of it made it a little harder to access.
I applied to Penn State University because it’s so close to where I grew up and took an elective class in ceramics, which is where it all really switched over for me. It felt like this really intense kind of community within the clay, people just loved it and I had amazing professors.

ON MASTERY

It took years to find my unique voice in clay. It’s overwhelming how many possibilities there are with it. Then you start to see other people’s work you like – maybe a decoration or the handle of the cup - and you begin to build your library of what you like, and then you slowly start to create your own voice.
After 3 years of making, I really began to see a body of work I wanted to create. I could visualize the things I wanted to make long before I was able to make them. They looked so good in my mind, so that drove me.
After school I did a two-year apprenticeship with a well-known master potter in Floyd, VA, Silvie Granatelli. You don’t have business classes in artist school, which I think is crazy. So you come out knowing how to make nice things, but not having a clue what to do with them. Silvie really taught me how to do how what I wanted to do in a practical sense. I knew I couldn’t fly off of idealism and she helped ground me and pushed me to put myself out there. You have to show up every day, it’s not just a dream, there is so much work involved.

ON TRANSITION

I went to school my first year for painting and drawing at the Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia and I was extremely unhappy there, not because of the school but I was 18, had no money, no car, no boyfriend, it just felt like I had no personal freedom. I took two and a half years off school and I travelled. I went to New Mexico, I lived in Park City, Utah, where I did all sorts of things because I wanted to feel adventurous for a while. That scared my parents more than saying I was an artist, but I eventually decided I wanted to go back to school.
The thing that has been the most difficult and equally frustrating at the same time is no matter how things turned out before, they won’t turn out the same again. If I do exactly the same thing with every pot, they still won’t turn out the same and that is so beyond frustrating.
Clay is totally a game of patience and trial and error, but it’s so much fun to explore it. You can do anything with it and I think that is what will always keep me in clay in some way. There is a realm of possibility with clay that is so beyond paints and charcoals, you can just keep going with it.
I think my work will always keep evolving. I want to have a brand to my work and to be noticeable and cohesive, but I don’t ever want to be pigeon holed.

ON FAILURE

I’ve lost literally whole kilns of work because I might have mixed the glaze too thick, the temperature can be off. There is beyond a lot of room for error and it can be devastating. There is no room for ego. Whenever you get self-confident, the material will knock you down and I appreciate that. This clay makes sure we’re always in process. It makes you really resourceful and I can problem solve with the best of them.
There will be times when a piece looks so perfect and exactly how I intended, and then the next time I’ll regress. You are using your hands to make this, so the beauty is in the variation. I’ve also learned from my customers that they appreciate things you don’t. They helped me get over my own perfectionism.

ON FEAR

I’ve been through most of my fears about the future by choosing pottery. I feel like I’m in such a good place right now as we sit here, but maybe not a month ago. I’m totally open to the future and feel like I’ve got a lot of good things coming to me. I’m getting really positive feedback and part of this incredible community of women. As long as I can sustain myself, I’m happy. I see really big things for myself and in some ways you have to.
I get stressed when I’m on deadlines and wonder whether I have enough work to be in a show. Right now I have three summer shows coming up that are back-to-back. It’s expensive to do a show and that scares a lot of people off.
There are always times when you could give up, but you’ve got to get right back into it. When you have a picture in your mind of how good something can be, you just keep going. If you take a break you’re prolonging your pain.

ON MONEY

Most of the time it’s a struggle and I get by on the skin of my teeth and that’s awesome. Sometimes I do great shows that bring in thousands and I’ll have a cushion, but that only last so long. It takes so much believing in what you’re doing to do it because there are a million points where most artists could stop, and many do stop because it’s a struggle. You have to accept it or you can’t do it because it’s never going to be comfortable.
To be completely honest, I have a partner that supports me fully and without that I’d love to say I could do this in the same way, but I couldn’t. He is totally willing to spot me every time and that’s obviously helped. We’re doing it together.

ON SELF-LOVE

I’m not good at taking a break. I like to be in the studio most of the time so I might work for two months straight and then take a week off. I love doing what I do so it’s a mix between fun, work and stress all the time. I’m not counting the clock. I put in a lot of time in the studio and when I go home I make jewelry, and that unwinds me.
I’m a Libra so my balance is everything. I relax a lot with my partner. He makes dinner every night, which is awesome. I relax because he allows me to relax. I do yoga and drink wine. I like to get outside and I love to hike, but I haven’t done that very much this year.

ON INSPIRATION

My boyfriend is an artist himself, he’s a musician, so creative and has such a sensitive soul that just being around his energy inspires me. He’s the perfect partner for me.
I’ve travelled to 46 out of the 50 states. I spent time in New Mexico, where just being around the people and the crafts in such a deep way was so inspiring.
Having a studio with two other women is inspiring because it’s helpful to be in the community situation. Josie is a master decorator and Christa is a master at form, and it is really helpful to get feedback from them.

ON SUPPORT

You always have the people who you studied with before. Clay really does bring about a sense of community. There is so much to know about it, there is this open discussion forum that happens within ceramics that helps us all evolve and your work progresses a lot quicker as a result.
My professors Chris Staley and Elizabeth Quackenbush have been huge inspirations, and Liz has been a mentor for me for a long time. It’s so cool to have this community who want to support you.

ADVICE TO THE COMMUNITY

Find yourself a community of people. Start doing what you want to do and don’t stop. It has to be something you love to feed you on multiple levels. You’re going to have a lot of reasons to say no. Our society scares people off from what they really want to do. If nobody had to pay rent, we’d all be much more likely to do what we wanted to do.
It also doesn’t have to be your day job, there is no reason that it can’t be. You have to start with what you love. You’ll be screwed if you pick something to do to make money. I believe if you start on the track that you want to go down, doors will open. We get stuck with how things should look like, but we live in a world of infinite possibility.

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Written By: Aoife Anderson

Photo Credit: Nina Menconi

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