Studio Visit
Bari Ziperstein, Ceramics Artist

To know a ceramicist is to see their test pieces, and Bari Ziperstein has the kind of overflowing studio that doesn’t happen in a minute, that comes from years of private experiments and the hard work of learning not to care so much. “I think of these pieces as sculptural doodles,” she says, referring to a series of small, accidental ceramic sculptures. “They’re such a discrepancy from how I usually work, something no more than two inches. It’s really free and immediate.”

After a residency at Anderson Ranch Arts Center last year, Ziperstein returned to her Los Angeles studio with boxes of rejected clay shavings, cut-off parts from other ceramic sculptures. “I kept the excess clay from building my large sculptures, and I kept them wet, and then I just started working with wire and clay to make these engineering models, just to test the wire to see if it would break in the kiln. Eventually I learned how to keep them from falling over.”

This rigorously experimental process led to B.Zippy & Co., a new line of jewelry, vases and lamps. The pieces are a departure from her fine art, less modular and pre-planned, and the range of references is looser, too, from musicians Patti Smith and Stevie Nicks to Marimekko and the illustrator Peter Max. “I had to master the basics before I could loop back around and find my own vision within clay,” says Ziperstein, who moved into her studio in 2004 after graduating from CalArts. “And then I was able to pull out my weirdness because I had that dexterity. I’m constantly renegotiating with myself.”

There are some recurring threads between her sculptural and design work for those who are looking: an interest in that thin boundary between three-dimensionality and flatness, and a particularly keen sense of color and surface. “I’m definitely not chromophobic,” she says. That much is apparent from her test pieces, of which there are boxes upon glorious boxes in her studio. Here, she gives us a peek at the mistakes that — seen another way — are what we might call becoming yourself.

Su Wu is the proprietor of I’m Revolting.

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A box of saved test pieces that didn’t quite make the cut: “I think I’m equally as rigorous, but now I’m easier on myself,” says Ziperstein, who was a self-described “art fart” in high school.

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A wire and clay “engineering model,” part of a series of work that will be shown in the show “LA Ceramics,” curated by Julia Haft-Candell, at the NCECA Conference in Houston in March. “I can imagine these huge, also, like playground, human size.”

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“I originally planned on glazing them all,” Ziperstein says of the raw clay sculptures with mason stain slips. “To relook at the work for what it is rather than what I expected it to be was a big turning point for me.”

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Handpainted clay, wire and leather necklaces (inspired by the small sculptures) from B. Zippy & Co. The dyed straps are a collaboration with L.A. Leathercraft. “How do you turn a flat drawing into a 3D object?” she asks. “I’m still trying to figure that out.”

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Ziperstein cites Finnish company Marimekko as a huge influence, not only for their founding ethos of designing an affordable lived environment from apparel to home furnishings, but also for “these outfits that kind of look like architecture so when you put your arms up you look like a building, this walking pattern.”

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A table of tools and a strapped up slip-cast mold. The studio in Glassell Park was an unrenovated sweatshop when Ziperstein moved in, and for months she would find balls of lint stuck in wall cracks.

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A corner of the studio, shadowed by a vent: a ceramic piece, a bundle of sage, a stack of cardboard pieces that were a model for Ziperstein’s “Box Series,” and a postcard of a work by German artist Imi Knoebal.

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Ziperstein grew up with a father who wore turquoise suits and two-tone shoes, who painted his living room Pepto-Bismol pink and traveled around the country collecting 1950s cookie jars. “It was my first experience looking closely at ceramics,” she says. “He taught me how to discern objects and to think about how to understand the aura of an object.”

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“With mold making, you know what you’re going to get right away. You pour the slip in the mold and you pop it out. That’s it. I mean, not everyone works that way with molds, but I do. So, I wanted to get back to a place of experimentation and whimsy that I’d been lacking for a while.”

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Wiring the first lamp in a new series, based on a pyramid form like an inverted lampshade with the drips of automatic gesture. “I’m coming to design through the backend; I’m not a trained electrician or a trained ceramic artist, though now I’ve been working with clay for some time. And I feel like that approach gives me a different relationship with clay. There are advantages, and there are some disadvantages -- explosions and all those things. But I don’t feel as much as the weight of history,” Ziperstein says. “I still get exuberant when I make something I like.”

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A new series of vases, available at Kneeland Co. Mercado, built in stoneware and dipped in layers of a glaze that goes from purple to green to near-black depending on thickness.

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Ziperstein has a special blender just for mixing mason slips, which she keeps in little plastic takeout tubs.

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“I’ve been thinking so much about what I like, where the forms come from, and what’s their impetus,” Ziperstein says. “That funkiness mixed with quietness is definitely who I am. There’s a part of me that has all this manic energy and another part of me that’s sort of meditative.”

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Bags of powdered stain and two framed photographs with hand-drawn architecture on top from a series called “Growing Beams.”

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A table full of the small-scale sculptures. “I’m starting to let clay be clay,” says Ziperstein, who looks to mentors Pat and Beverly O’Neill and to California pottery as an inspiration, from Joe Soldate to Peter Shire to the Funk Movement. “I’m drawn to clay’s transformative properties, this process of starting from mud.”