If, like us, you began hearing the name Helen Levi only a few months ago — well, there’s a pretty good reason for it. At this time last year, Levi was balancing four part-time jobs, working as a photo assistant, a pottery teacher, a bartender and a waitress. “I’d been doing pottery since I was a little kid, but mostly gifts or for myself,” she told me when I visited her Greenpoint studio last month. “It’s the dream to be able to make stuff you want to make and have that support you, but I never really thought that was possible.”
Then, at a random cocktail event last fall at one of the Steven Alan shops in Manhattan, Levi met the man himself: “I met Steven Alan by chance and was telling him about my work, and he was like, ‘Send it to me.’ I didn’t even have one photograph!” Levi laughs. “But once I met him, it was the spark. I quit all my other jobs and I just tried to do this. Maybe it doesn’t work out and I go back to balancing four things, but it didn’t take a huge investment of money. And so far it’s working.”
Working is an understatement. Levi not only landed a spot making ceramics for Alan’s new home store, which opened in Tribeca last March, but she’s also already completed her first dishware commission for a sushi restaurant and she’s working on porcelain charms for shops like Mociun. (Not to mention she’s the studio manager at a communal space in Brooklyn, where she shares with like-minded ceramicists like Josephine Heilpern of Recreation Center and Rachel Howe of Small Spells.)
“I figure this is the time to run with it and see where it goes. I have myself and my dog; that’s what I’m responsible for. It wasn’t until my sister was born that my dad went to law school, so I’ve always felt like you don’t have to have a serious career until you have a baby. And my parents have been incredibly supportive. Well, supportive with a measure of realism. I’ll be like ‘Mom, look at this write-up I got on Design Sponge.’ She’s like, ‘Helen, don’t let it get to your head.’”
Favorite everyday object: “My dog’s rope leash. An old strapless batik dress of my mom’s. My cell phone camera because I take like 50 pictures a day on it. This really amazing drug store chapstick called Baby Lips.”
Favorite place to shop for materials: “I love shopping, not just clothes but grocery shopping, hardware shopping, and now, ceramic supply shopping. There’s a store in upstate New York called Bailey’s that I love so much. The ladies who work there are so sweet and so knowledgeable. I’ve called them many times just to ask random questions and they always indulge me. They have an incredible showroom as well so whenever I go up to my parents’ house upstate I always try to stop by and pick out some stuff. Last time I went I had my dog with me and I wasn’t sure if he was allowed in, but as soon as I brought him they each came out of their cubicles one by one with a Ziploc baggie of dog treats.”
Favorite Google Image search:
“Probably something to do with puppies. I’m always trying to figure out what breed my mutt is so I google image different breeds as puppies and see if they look like him.”
If you weren’t a designer, what would you be?
“A photographer. Or a math teacher.”
Visit Helen and see more of her work in person Friday, September 27 and Saturday, September 28 at the Back 2 Cool pop-up!
Before he moved to Philadelphia in September of last year, Ben Fiess was living on a Minnesota farm, 20 minutes south of St. Paul, five miles from the nearest small town. “One of my friends in graduate school’s parents had recently retired and inherited the family farm,” Fiess says. “No one had been there for a decade or so, so it was in disrepair, but they actually had a lot of kilns and equipment because my friend’s mother taught art. It was a good opportunity to live for free and keep making work.” When he wasn’t making ceramics, Fiess spent his time planting asparagus roots, working at farmer’s markets across the border in Wisconsin, and ripping up sod. “I could go a week without seeing anyone unless I drove into the city,” Fiess remembers. So how is it that when we visited Philly back in January, every other artist and designer we met knew exactly who Fiess was? (“That guy moved to Philly? That’s so cool,” was the typical refrain.)
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 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.
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.”