Jessica Hans, Ceramicist
If you think about it, most ceramicists are obsessed with perfecting the clay — wedging it to get rid of bubbles, erasing seams that might come from using a mold, shaving off excess little bits. Jessica Hans is not that ceramicist. Her pots and planters are lumpy and misshapen. They have uneven mouths and aggressively irregular textures. When we visited her sunny, third-floor studio on top of the South Philly row house she shares with her filmmaker boyfriend, our first thought was that her ceramics all looked like they’d walked out of the prop closet from a Tim Burton movie. (Which, if you read our site with any regularity, you know is one of the highest compliments we could give someone. We’re pretty into weird.)
But Hans’s ceramics aren’t weird for weird’s sake, though to understand them completely, you have to go back to her first love: textiles. Hans studied textiles in her undergrad at Philly’s Moore College of Art and Design, then went to MICA for fiber arts and ceramics. “My textiles started from an interest in sustainability and wanting to be able to do something completely from scratch. I was into foraging for dye material, things like sumac berry or lichen. My interest in foraging then carried over to ceramics, because I was really interested in raw materials.”
What that translated to was Hans, as a student in Baltimore, driving out to clay sites like Calvert Cliffs, digging her materials out of the ground, and then firing them in whatever state she found them. “Random materials, when fired, do all kinds of crazy stuff,” Hans says. “Like toothpaste is calcium carbonate, so that will do different things in the glaze. You don’t think about it. When you go to a ceramics studio, there are all these commercial glazes. You can do it that way, or you can do it the way they’ve been doing it for thousands of years. You go and find a bunch of materials. You grind them down and you make something from them.”
So Hans is part ceramicist, part chemist, part botanist, which means it comes as no surprise when we find out that she counts among her obsessions David Attenborough’s The Private Life of Plants. But it also means that her urban lifestyle has to be chucked sometimes in favor of more nature-friendly climes. “One of my projects for the summertime is to not stay in Philadelphia,” she says. “I applied for a couple of residencies up in Maine, very, very far north. I’d go on a foraging trip for a couple of months and gather a bunch of materials and ideally make a little book on foraging.” We’d be first in line to buy that book, considering how crazy knowledgable Hans is about this stuff. Until then, we’ve got the scoop on how she devised her unconventional methods.
Jessica Hans’s Philly Top 5
1. Center City Pretzel: “The ACTUAL soft pretzel factory, not the franchise, on Washington that’s open only from midnight to 6AM. Great for late nights when you’re craving salty starchy pretzels with cheese sauce.”
2. Devil’s Pool: “A pretty weird and awesome swim spot along the Wissahickon River, right outside of Philly. Great for the most brutal of August days.”
3. The CVS on Passyunk, next to the Dunkin Donuts: “I don’t know why, but I like hanging out at this CVS, checking out the nail polish colors. I usually get my film processed here, too. Some very chill, pretty weird employees. I love it. There’s also a Rita’s Water Ice on the corner, which is sometimes fun to go to to people watch.”
4. Taqueria La Veracruzana: “Just a block away from the pretzel factory. Probably my favorite taco spot in the city, they do really great chile relleno tacos. Also pretty inexpensive.”
5. Franklin Fountain: “I used to work here when I was 19. Period-style ice-cream shop slash soda fountain. My official title was ‘soda jerk.’ Some of the best ice cream I’ve ever eaten, and I also got to dress in period style garb — high-waisted skirt, blouse, pillbox hat = way cute.”
This post is part of Sight Unseen’s Philly Week, sponsored by the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation. Curate your own Philadelphia art and design experience at withart.visitphilly.com, and follow along @visitphilly #withartphl.