Studio Visit
Emily Counts, Artist

PHOTOS BY CARLIE ARMSTRONG

Portland is a place where, so the saying goes, the ’90s are alive and well. And it may very well be the only place that could have spawned an artist like Emily Counts, who deals with the self-reflective nostalgia of outdated technological innovations once found in her childhood home: dial-up telephones sculpted in porcelain and stoneware, a life-size fax machine, an interactive Mac SE computer made from walnut, casting epoxy, glass, porcelain, copper, and electrical wiring that acts as a two-way mirror after a button is pressed on the keyboard, lighting up the sculpture’s interior. “I’m interested in the mystery of these inventions that we seem to take for granted in our everyday life,” says the 35-year-old Seattle native, who we first spotted on photographer Carlie Armstrong’s blog Work.Place. “For me, there’s a thin line between technology and magic.”

Magic, of course, is another particularly west-coast fascination, and Counts regularly incorporates it into pieces like painted plywood volcanoes bursting with latex lava, oversized crystals, and mystical ceramic heads. Although Counts received her BFA in painting from the California College of Arts and Crafts, she’s resolutely a mixed-media artist, and she says that sculpting clay actually comes more naturally to her than brushwork. “When I’m working on a painting, I have to be constantly inventive and creative at all times,” she says. “I like that sculpture allows breaks in my process, when I can sit and mold and do something without thinking. Sculpture is more meditative.” For her face figurines, though, her glazes act like paint; they’re delicately pigmented with real white- and yellow-gold luster. (Lusters being solutions containing real gold and other metals, which after firing at a relatively lower temperature, fuse to the glossy glaze.) “It’s important to me that the gold is real,” she adds. “It gives the end product more meaning and value.”

Along with her signature use of gold, Counts’ other trademark technique is her distinctive use of poured epoxy resin, a corroded-looking coating that gives her sculptures a sense of fluidity, movement, and decay. She makes the pieces in a spacious studio in the basement of her North Portland home, where Armstrong shot the photos for her blog that we’ve borrowed for this story. The setup allows Counts to be as messy as necessary. “When you’re experimenting with resin, there’s always a learning curve involved,” she says. “That being so, it’s nice to have a forgiving concrete floor.” Though the space is convenient — especially considering her habit of working late into the night, every night — she admits it can get lonely. “But I also like that solitary time; I’m addicted to surprising myself, and that’s why I make art.”

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Counts has always been obsessed by telephones; on a recent trip home to Seattle, she came across a childhood sketchbook full of drawings of dial-up rotaries. Telephones C (white) and B (silver) are made of stoneware and porcelain that goes through three separate kiln firings: bisque, glaze, and gold luster.

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Counts then adds stained glass and the electric components that allow them to light up from within. “You have to let go of control when dealing with porcelain,” she says of the process. “It’s beautiful, but it’s the most unforgiving of clay bodies due to its high shrinkage rate.”

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These self-portrait ceramic heads — originally part of a sculpture titled “The Centotaph Conductor” — were made using a mirror and photographs of Counts’s face taken from different angles. They were then cast from a plaster mold and decorated with her signature gold lusters.

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The geometric sculptures sitting on the sofa — also part of a larger installation — are made from bookbinding board, tape, graphite, wax, ink, enamels, gouache, acrylic paint, and silver and copper leaf. The piece actually consisted of 50 of these sculptures, along with more complex structures.

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More geometric shape sculptures, in a pile with a few crystals from a piece called “The Battle Lost: The Prophecy of Deadly Objects.”

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A glazed-ceramic electric candle titled “Candle A,” which uses a flickering bulb that mimics a real flame. Learning how to do the wiring for this series was a major creative challenge for Counts. “I try to learn how to do everything on my own, but there are times when I’ll ask friends questions until they get irritated,” she laughs.

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On this studio shelf, Counts keeps works in progress and bits of defunct experimental pieces. Most of her past work is either in boxes or placed around her studio as relics. She keeps certain ceramic work on display as references for specific glaze applications.

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Underneath are several of her ceramic sculpting tools, along with leather supplies, glues, and a one-inch canister of white-gold luster that typically costs upwards of $50. Counts buys all of her tools and materials locally, most of them from Portland’s Georgie’s Ceramic and Clay.

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A collection of works constructed in other cities that were too large to transport back to Portland in their entirety. All that remains are smaller parts.

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An example of one of those larger pieces: "Pyroclastic Devotion."

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Counts will show her “Computer” at Garboushian Gallery in Beverly Hills this May. After constructing it from walnut, glass, porcelain, copper, and a two-way mirror with a light inside, she poured epoxy over it to give it a glossy, dripping look. “When my parents got their first Mac SE when I was a kid, I thought it was the fanciest thing in the world,” she says.

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Count’s dog Boozer, a 10-year-old miniature poodle. “I wish he would hang out with me in the studio, but there are often hazardous things on the floor like plaster dust or glass shards,” she says. Two watercolor portraits of him painted by her mother currently hang in the living room.

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Counts wearing porcelain jewelry of her own making, which often reflects forms and ideas she’s working with in her art practice. Until recently the jewelry was all one-of-a-kind — like this hand-carved, unglazed pendant — but she's started to experiment with slip-casting, detailing pieces afterwards with glaze and luster.

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An unfinished sculpture from her "Figurines" series.

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Counts says she sketches when she has a vision, but admits the drawings are less blueprints for her work and more conceptual outlines. Her other studio rituals include listening to music and snacking.