Giselle Hicks in Helena, Montana

Once upon a time, it was nearly impossible to have a creative career without immersing yourself in the artistic community of a large metropolitan area. But with the ease and connectivity that comes with living in the golden age of the Internet, it’s become more and more common to see people working in places most would consider more than a bit off the beaten path. Take ceramicist Giselle Hicks: In 2011, after completing an artist-in-residency program at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, Montana, Hicks relocated to Philadelphia for a six-month stint and found that she wasn’t cut out to live the big city lifestyle. “The city felt like an obstacle course. It overwhelmed me. I felt like I was just keeping my head above the water,” she remembers. “I longed for the big sky, open spaces, and the beauty and ease of life in Montana. I love the culture and diversity and opportunities a big city has to offer, but in my daily life and studio practice I need quiet and lots of space to grow and evolve.”

Perusing her website, it’s hard to image her simple, perfectly proportioned pinch pots outside of the context of Montana. Of her work, she says: “There’s a certain pace to the making. It’s rhythmic and slow and quiet. I find watching the form come up into the space really satisfying. I don’t agonize over it like I did my previous work — which I was constantly doubting and judging and beating myself up over. I think I have a better understanding of where this work belongs in the world and my criteria for evaluating it is more intuitive than intellectual. I do wonder if it’s enough to like a thing for its ‘thingness,’ for the inexplicable way your eyes and gut are drawn to a form. But I am at a point in my studio practice where I think it is okay to go to the studio to make the thing you love and daydream about the most, and to forget about all that academic pressure or need to intellectualize everything. I feel that way about my life here. I have everything I need — a great home, studio, and friends. I am happy and healthy and experience beauty on a daily basis. Occasionally a little voice comes in and asks, ‘Am I doing enough? Am I missing something out there in the big city?’ Then I go for a hike or head to the studio and the voice goes away.”
“I spent my first summer in Helena, Montana, in 2011 as a resident at The Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts. The Bray is a public, nonprofit, educational institution built on the site of the former Western Clay Manufacturing Company (Est. 1905) which produced brick, sewer pipe and hollow tile from local clay deposits. Many of the buildings in Helena are built from this brick.”
IMG_2662 “It was a magical summer working with 10 other artists in a beautiful old brick warehouse studio. Many of the factory buildings, equipment and beautiful beehive kilns still stand on the property and the many of the artworks on the grounds are made from the brick and pipe.” “After being around the red brick on a daily basis, I came to appreciate the warmth and depth of the iron-rich surface. I used to work strictly in porcelain and had a serious aversion to brown. This particular clay body is undeniably beautiful and similar in tone to the bricks around the Bray.”
unnamed “I was granted an opportunity to return to the Bray in 2013 for a two-year residency and have since decided to make Helena my home. There is a great community of artists here who have done the same. I currently share a studio with four other artists in a building in downtown Helena, three blocks from my apartment. Beth Cavener, a former Bray resident, bought and renovated the space into studios for up to five artists. It’s brand-new, top-notch ceramics studio complete with kilns, woodshop, and classroom. The space is located downstairs from a yoga studio and next door to a gin and vodka distillery, which help keep things in balance.”
IMG_8551 “I’ve moved every couple of years for the last 15 years, following various career opportunities wherever they might be. I’ve enjoyed living in a lot of those places, but I always knew I was going to leave for the next thing, and therefore held back from investing in the surrounding community. A couple years ago I started to feel the urge to be a part of something bigger than a roaming studio practice, to be a part of a stable community, to have a place to call my home. Helena has provided the things I was looking for in such a place. I’ve never lived in a place where it was easier to make and sustain friendships, to get involved with and feel supported by the local community and to run around outside.”
IMG_7105 “To the south, the town of Helena backs up to open land covered in miles of trails. On typical workday, I take a break at 5 to hike up the hills from any of the dozen trailheads that are just a five-minute drive from my studio. An hour or two later, revived by the fresh air and scenery, I head back to my studio, or, occasionally, I’ll stop in to the Brewery for a good beer with good friends. There is ease to the lifestyle here — very little traffic, affordable housing/food/drink, tons of free recreation and open space — rivers, mountains, hot springs nearby. The beauty of this place is powerful and it’s ever present.”
IMG_1669 “There is a quality and sensibility that I’ve been looking for in my work and studio practice for a long time that relates to the ease and simplicity of this place and my lifestyle here. For a long time my work and processes were rather complicated, involving a lot of steps, technical skill, knowledge, and material. By the time I finished a piece it would feel suffocated, overworked and overwrought. I started making the pinch pots in response to the frustration with this other work. I wanted to make something with a process that was as simple and direct as possible. About 15 years ago I remember watching an artist named Sam Harvey pinch and coil vessel forms. He had so much control with such a simple system and his forms were so dynamic and fresh. I wanted to see that freshness or directness in my work and experience it in my working process. A few years ago I started making pinch pots using only a banding wheel, hand-rolled coils, a fork to score a seam and a knife to cut an edge for a transition. That was it for tools, and the technique was as basic as it gets.”

IMG_3863“I look at the landscape for color. The grays, blues, purples of the sky here are endlessly varied, and on a moody day you can see multiple weather systems at one time because the sky is so big against the open land. Hiking at dusk in the winter yields the most interesting sky-meeting-snowy-mountain combo, especially with the glow of the town reflecting off the overcast sky and snowcapped mountains. I have a non-artist hiking partner who I occasionally play  “name that color” with when we see these variations of blue, gray, mauve, purples and oranges — usually in the low light or temperamental winter conditions. Fire season here also (unfortunately) makes for some spectacular hazy skies.”IMG_7845“I also like winter tones — whites, grays, and blues. After living in the Northeast for 12 years, I needed to find a way to appreciate the winter. There is a soft quiet to the winter. Sounds are muffled, the edges of things soften from the snow cover. I use an opaque glaze that is soft to the touch like a worn river stone. There are some yellows, reds and greens that come out in the fall flora here, that I would love to integrate into my color palette. It will take some dedicated glaze testing time. It’s on the list of things to do.” “My goal was to create forms that explored volume, proportion, posture, shape, color. The qualities I was and still am looking for are: generosity, stability, slowness, softness, simplicity and beauty. It all starts with the cylinder. I LOVE the cylinder. I don’t know why, but I have always responded to that form. I think maybe I see it as the most generous and stable form.”

“At first, I made these pinch pots for myself. They weren’t for anyone or any deadline but they were very satisfying to make. Despite that, I didn’t think they were ‘enough’ to put out in the world as a serious thing. However, I found that both my colleagues and random studio visitors responded to them sitting in the background of my studio.”