Like most ceramic artists we know, Julianne Ahn didn’t originally train at the wheel. “I went to school for undergrad in textile design, and then I got an MFA in the Fiber Materials Studies department at SAIC — which is a way more conceptual major,” the Philadelphia-based designer told us when we visited her studio this winter. “I did that on purpose to complement my undergraduate degree, which was about technique and craft-making. Somewhere in the middle, I’ve managed to find a balance between concept and design.” It’s a balance that’s even reflected in the name of her studio: “Object” implies inherent function, while “Totem” suggests something much more mysterious or mythical. As proprietor of that so-called studio, Ahn has become majorly sought after in the last few years for her necklaces — pretty mash-ups of braided rope, embroidery floss, and hand-thrown ceramic beads — and interestingly glazed vessels.
So where exactly was Ahn’s a-ha moment? “After school” for Ahn happened to fall in the financially gloomy year of 2007, and though she moved home to Philadelphia with a job (her parents live in a suburb 40 minutes outside the city), she soon found herself without one. “I didn’t really enjoy working there anyway, so it was kind of convenient,” she laughs. What followed was an intense period of self-education. She took a few classes at the Clay Studio in Old City to learn how to throw, and, she says, “It’s a complete blur from there to here. I had so much time! I was really persistent about learning, went to the Free Library, took out a ton of books, watched a ton of YouTube videos. I absorbed as much of it as possible. And I’m still learning, which is really nice. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m this old hippie who’s been doing it for 20 years.”
And because clay is a notoriously fickle material, “still learning” for Ahn means taking baby steps. “I’ll fill two pages of my sketchbook, then I’ll get in the studio and cross them all off,” she says. And, she says, anything that has to do with firing or glazing still makes her incredibly nervous: “It’s like you’re baking but every single time the recipe is completely new, and you can’t control certain variables.” Even so, her methodical experimentation has paid off: Though her forms are often traditional, and the glazes she uses commercially available, there’s something daring about many of her pieces —strange colors or bold patterns that stem from her days back in two dimensions. “I come from this different understanding of the material,” she says. “I have this respect for clay, but I come from a completely different side of wanting to build a contrast with something that I think is really familiar.” When asked if she can think of anyone in the ceramics canon who might have informed or inspired her aesthetic, she says: “I feel the overwhelming responsibility to say yes. But really, I’m just like anybody else just finding ceramics for the first time.”
Julianne Ahn’s Philly Top 5
1. Wissahickon Valley Trail “My husband and I like to go running here on nice days and be reminded of how out of shape we are. It’s a 20-minute drive outside the city. There are a ton of trails that run alongside the Wissahickon Creek and vantage points like the city’s first drinking fountain and a 15-foot Lenape Native American marble sculpture overlooking the park.”
2. Reading Terminal Market “Old indoor food market where you can buy everything from Amish baked goods, Thai food, local honey and Old City Coffee. Always bustling with tourists, so it can get a little rowdy, but for all the options of food, totally worth it.”
3. Ranstead Room “My friend Britt told me about this place years ago. It’s so simple. A beautifully adorned nook of a bar with flocked wallpaper, naked lady paintings, and killer cocktails.”
4. The Philadelphia Museum of Art (Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Art Collection) “It’s a nice hidden section of the museum not a lot of people venture into, but there are some really amazing pieces like show plates, clay figurines, and weaving tools.”
5. The UPenn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology “They house a really wonderful selection of Native American textiles, baskets and ceramics, not to mention a beautiful assortment of Iranian tiles, bowls and lamps.”
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.