Up and Coming
Ian McDonald, Artist and Ceramicist

To understand what it was like for Ian McDonald growing up in California’s Laguna Beach, it helps to refer back to one of the greatest television dramas of all time. Not, mind you, MTV’s vapid reality show of the same name, but the heart-wrenching high-school football epic Friday Night Lights — McDonald’s hometown being pretty much the diametrical opposite of Dillon, Texas. “Laguna was founded as an artists’ colony,” he says. “Our school mascot, The Artist, ran around with a brush and palette and a beret. Even the football stars took art classes.” In fact, one of McDonald’s earliest run-ins with the medium that would eventually become his life’s work happened when his own sports-star brothers brought their ceramics projects home from school, where their art teacher was a local studio potter. “Most kids would ask their mom for milk money; my older brothers were always asking for clay money,” he recalls. By the time he himself got to high school, he says, “it hit me really hard: This is what I want to do.”

Of course, anyone familiar with McDonald’s current oeuvre, which is marked by sculptural one-offs and elaborate mixed-media wall installations, will recognize that he’s taken his calling well beyond what his upbringing might have prescribed. While he apprenticed to local potters as a teenager, and put himself through college by doing ceramics demonstrations at Laguna craft fairs each summer, he quickly moved away from a traditional practice as soon as he understood the possibilities of using clay in a more expansive (and not necessarily functional) way. As an undergrad, a UCSB grad student, and eventually a burgeoning professional — he set up his San Francisco studio in 2000 — McDonald eschewed the potter’s wheel in favor of freeform sculpture. “I was making these odd ceramic blobjects; larger, hollow, abstract forms,” he says, ones that would be more comparable to the work of Ken Price or Franz West. As time went by, however, he started to get sick of making single pieces “just to set them on the table and be like, here it is.” He started gravitating towards multi-faceted arrangements that often incorporated their own custom shelves or tables, as seen in shows like Optimism in 2008 and Wearing in 2011.

Within that framework came McDonald’s return to pottery. Some of the wheel-turned pieces that populate the landscapes of Wearing, for example, are theoretically useable, while some even have the feel of mid-century stoneware. And a recent collection at South Willard called Look Throughs includes totems created by repeating and merging standard thrown forms to create something much more abstract. As McDonald puts it, “the potter’s wheel becomes this spinning device with which to make sculpture” — a turning point for him, in so far as his thought process when making blobjects versus pottery used to be completely disparate. His upcoming shows at Tokyo’s Playmountain (September 28) and his San Francisco gallery (November) will take that newfound merging of practices as a starting point. “If I take a sculptural object or arrangement and apply the same sort of rigor and process as I would at the wheel, the objects are far more interesting,” he explains. “Even though people aren’t going to pick up my sculptures and hold them or use them, I’m pretending they could. I want that level of detail.”

Favorite everyday object: “Overall, things that work: a good apron, good bags, a good pair of shoes, good blankets, notepads, bottle openers, things that store other things.”

What you’d make if you weren’t allowed to use any ceramics: “I’d work with textiles or paper, or some type of material that also contains an artistic form or transformational progression within the process itself. This allows for a little bit of magic and a lot of working through the idea that I find interesting.”

Last great exhibition you saw: “It wasn’t a show, but rather a film called Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It’s the story of 85-year-old Jiro Ono — considered by many to be the world’s greatest sushi chef — and his restaurant in a Tokyo subway station. It’s dedication personified.”

Favorite source for online inspiration: “I pretty much stay in this neighborhood: South Willard, Ready for the House, An Ambitious Project Collapsing, And a Half, Reference Library, Atelier, Gravel and Gold, You Have Been Here Sometime, Handwerk, Klaimco, and Lloyd’s Blog.”


What inspired your Wearing series? “There are two points: The reference point and the real point. In many ways Wearing tried to blend the two together in that the arrangements could reference handwork, interior design, and decoration, while the real points of physical balance, weight, and the usable form activated the situation. An example of the process would be taking a counter top, or a surface found in the home, then ‘dressing’ it with objects.”


What inspired your Wearing series? “But to take it further, this surface would then be floating or counter-weighted, giving the sculpture a type of real consequence, and really allowing objects to be used for their physical weight or real point versus just how they looked. The details and balance involved in the exhibition were critical, as the wall works would contain furniture and objects balanced to create an all-in-one type environment."


What inspired your Wearing series? “The project was originally titled Wareing; ‘wareing’ in my mind has to do with the work itself, the wares, but ‘wearing’ is more related to an acting out of form, giving space dimension and a sense of depth. ‘Wearing’ also refers to clothing and personal decoration, plus a sense of being worn out or worked over in such a way as to be over-determined. This was the genesis of the show, as the work tended to be variations on that theme.”


Favorite tool: “A bandsaw blade removed from its housing to be used as a ceramic-forming tool. When it’s removed, you have both the serrated side and the smooth side, which are equally useful in working with clay. The tool bends and can deal with larger flat surfaces. Overall, it works better for my projects than its original function of just cutting.”


Haiku describing the average day in your studio:
In the winter cold
Working in a process old
New form, from hand warm

(The image above, by Klea McKenna, is taken from a fantastic studio visit with Ian on the website In The Make. To see more studio visits with West Coast artists, go to www.inthemake.com)


Design or art object you wish you’d made: “This tends mostly to be pottery, but I wouldn’t say it has as much to do with the thing itself as it does with the time and variation I know took place to arrive there, the continued concentration and focused looking. Also, the detail in a single, focused piece of pottery is something I try to bring into all of my sculpture projects, as if each object is based on the detail of a single serving bowl, where the viewer has intricate access to the mechanics of form.”


Design or art hero: “Guiseppe Penone, as his work has a certain material logic that I respond to as well as the idea that the mystery, magic, and content lie within the material. This is a point that I try to keep in mind while working with ceramics: that there is inherent material content, be it usability, the handmade, decoration, or regional/global historical traits. All of those can be used as content, and a work of art can operate in a way so as to interrupt that logic or work with it to reveal something new.”


Design or art hero: “In a recent ArtForum article, Penone claimed that “painting covers, while sculpture discovers.” I hope to be somewhere in between that logic and interruption, covering and uncovering.”

4x5 original

Design or art hero: “I’ve also always had an affinity for the work of Robert Turner, the potter, Quaker, conscientious objector, and teacher who started the ceramics program at Black Mountain College in the 1950s. His work to me is so direct; nothing wasted, nothing unnecessary.”


Most inspiring place you’ve ever been: “The Kodai-Ji and Kyomizu temples in Kyoto. Both are amazing places with their interior and exterior environments in perfect balance. The floor at Kodai-Ji is perfectly smooth, sanded fine from years of feet moving across its surface.”


Most inspiring place you’ve ever been: “Kyomizu, built in the 1600s, uses not a single nail — it’s joined only by a series of cuts and wedges. It relates back to details for me, a detail that can only be achieved through attention, focus, and time.”

First fish

First thing you ever made: “The first thing I still have access to is a print of a fish I must have made in pre-school by simply inking a fish and pressing it to paper. I wonder if they still do that these days?”

First thing vase

First thing you ever made: “The first object I remember considering — or at least that’s had a lasting impression on me — is a Native American clay pot my great-grandmother collected while traveling in New Mexico in the early 1900s. I also remember the way it was aligned with other objects in the house, including a wooden mirror frame and a strange photograph of rope and netting, which I thought was terrifying as it looked like dead animals. All of these things sat on a brick fireplace in my early childhood home."


First thing you ever made: "The vessel now lives with me and marks my early interest in pottery and the way objects exist in an environment.” Above: Detail from McDonald's 2008 installation Today and Others.


Most interesting thing brought back from your travels: “I was recently given a dandelion seed head perfectly encased in resin as a gift from my last show in Japan. No one can tell me how it was done, but the dandelion seed snow is perfectly undisturbed in the resin — not a single delicate parachute out of place. I still stare at it with confusion, but have concluded it’s pretty much straight-up magic.”

SU_flea find 2

Last amazing thing you bought at a flea market: “I bought a 1960s Open-Road Stetson at the Rose Bowl Flea some months back that makes me feel like Gregory Peck. Early Gregory Peck.


Archival image you’re currently obsessed with: “Obsessed seems heavy, but I recently found a snapshot in a book in my studio that someone took of a ceramic vessel I made when I was probably 18 or 19. Pretty shocking how close it looks to current projects…”


What you collect: “Mostly small things. I have a modest collection of marbles, including a few from the 1800s which are hand-formed and way out of round. I also keep small rocks and minerals, shells, small ceramic objects, notebooks, folders, and textiles.”


Right now, Ian McDonald is: “Thinking of a number between 1 and 10."

Image above by Klea McKenna for In The Make