Studio Visit
Heather Levine, ceramic artist

If designers are especially complicit in adding things to the world — and for stoking our desire for more and more stuff — they also get first dibs on the act of destruction. “I smash my own pieces all the time,” says Los Angeles-based ceramic artist Heather Levine. “You have to make quite a bit to get what you like, and I don’t keep all the tests. I’ll destroy them or try to make them into something else. I don’t want to see things in the world that I’m not happy about.”

So it’s perhaps fitting that Levine’s latest work is borne of incisions and reuse, and of a certain dexterity with a sharp wood-handled knife. For months after a commission of her clay pendant lamps — for places like the Parisian oyster bar Le Mary Celeste or the refurbished Ojai Rancho Inn — Levine would save Ziploc bags of cut-out teardrops and dots, thinking she might at least rewedge and recycle the raw material. “For one thing, it’s a lot of clay. It felt like a big waste,” Levine says.

But when it came time to crush the leftover pieces back into lumps, a spark went off: “At first we thought we might make windchimes,” Levine says. “I started cleaning all the parts, firing them with no glaze, putting holes in them and stringing them together to see what they would do.” The resulting wall hangings were just part of an exhibition of West Coast craft at IDÉE in Tokyo, which also featured work by Sight Unseen favorite Stan Bitters. “It’s one of those things that I didn’t expect people to like,” Levine says of the hanging pieces. “But I think the moment was right: people got tired of everything being manufactured and everything sort of looking the same. I mean, there was a point where you would go into someone’s home and everyone had the same crap, the same plates, the same furniture, and I think everyone just really phased out of that.”

In this studio visit, Levine gives us a look at some of the pieces that made it past her discerning eye to survive another day. “With ceramics, you always get better. I could look at a piece that I loved four years ago, and your feelings change. There’s such a skill element to it,” Levine says. “It’s not that it’s juvenile. It’s that it becomes your past.”

 Su Wu is the proprietor of I’m Revolting.

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When she’s carving her lamps, Levine thinks about the shape of the room, about the height at which the pendant will be hung and its distance to the wall. She considers the pattern of shadows and light, and whether it will be right for the space. “You can’t have three walls of polka dots if it’s meant to be a reading room,” she says. “Light is so atmospheric. In half an hour, when the sun goes down, this will be a totally different room.”

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On artist James Turrell, whose work Levine cites as an inspiration: “He can change a room with a hole of light or a bar of light. It’s so emotional and otherworldly, and it changes your mood. It changes everything. That’s what light does to people.”

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Levine has specific cravings for certain types of light: “Yesterday, I came home from the studio, and I just thought, oh my god, I need to feel the sun on my back, and I sat on the porch and fell asleep on a blanket.”

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A shelf of fired lamps in Levine’s studio, a converted warehouse on the edge of Silver Lake and Koreatown. That’s her studio companion, Pierre Pedro Levine, chilling in a box.

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Levine’s glazed stoneware pieces on site at California’s Ojai Rancho Inn, which was recently refurbished by the design team Shelter Social Club. “I love carving into the lamps, figuring out the spatial relations for each form, figuring out what will be interesting when there’s an actual light bulb in it,” Levine says. Photo (c) Nancy Neil

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Instead of light, Levine’s wall hangings cast shadows. She’s starting to experiment a bit with color in the pieces — which she sells at Lawson-Fenning in Los Angeles — and with incorporating natural elements, including a perfectly cold-bleached stick she found at the Perito Moreno glacier in Patagonia.

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A teardrop-shaped piece, painted in high-fire underglaze.

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Levine hand throws each large form on a wheel, carving holes once the piece is leatherhard. “Clay is a material that changes every day. It’s all about the water content,” Levine says. “The clay will tell you when you have to do what you have to do.” Photo (c) Heather Levine

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Levine spends about four hours carving each lamp, and smooths each hole once the piece has dried with “a light sandpaper sponge, this brillo-y thing,” that changes the texture. “Those little details are so important. That’s what actually defines somebody’s look,” she says. Photo (c) Heather Levine

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Porcelain triangles, ready to be fired. “I grew up in New York City, and when I came to L.A. I was, like, I can’t believe people get to live here. It was one of those easy transitions. I had no issues ever finding a job and no issues finding a great place to live. It’s always been smooth in L.A. I think if you try to do anything other than acting in Los Angeles, it’s a really welcoming city.”

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“Everybody’s hands are different, everybody’s touch is different. Everybody’s breath is different. There are so many theories about making ceramics and how you breathe, and they’re true. It’s how you move and push and add pressure and breathe. You can have a terrible day of throwing, those days when I’m like, I have to leave, because everything I make has anger in it,” Levine says.

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A lamp from an earlier collaboration, painted in porcelain slip and carved by artist Joanna Bean Martin.

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One of the first experiments with the reused clay scraps: a wind chime that still hangs from a lemon tree in Levine’s backyard.

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A porcelain bird’s nest, made by Levine on an A.I.R. Vallauris artist’s residency in Vallauris, France, where Picasso lived for several years and worked on pottery.

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“There’s something really satisfying about thinking, ‘Oh, what would that look like?’ and then physically making it,” Levine says. “Instead of going to someone else, I’m the one who actually has to go in there and figure out the problems.”

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A new tile experiment (we think they kind of look like mozzarella balls!): “They’re not for everyone. I was thinking I would try to install them somewhere, maybe as a backsplash, or in a garden or around the edge of a pool, with moss growing around them.”

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New wall hangings, waiting to be shipped (the blue tape is an identifier for retailers). Levine has been playing around with taking her wall hangings off the wall and creating 360 degree mobiles, and with incorporating the pieces into lamps.

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“Clay is a very demanding medium,” Levine says. “You have to be there. You have to physically be there, and be touching it.”