Sean Gerstley’s Clay Objects Live In A World Of Their Own
Following the trajectory of Delaware-born artist and designer Sean Gerstley’s practice, it feels a bit like he’s always, intentionally, scaling down. “I went to Rhode Island School of Design for architecture before finding ceramics,” he says of his creative coming-of-age. “As a kid I was, and still am, super interested in interior spaces. My ceramic practice started as sculptural work that was kind of about interiors and domestic space in abstract-installation form.” As he worked, and moved to Philadelphia to focus on ceramics full time, he found himself creating the things that would populate those worlds: pock-marked lamps with patchwork glazes, spindly nightstands with ambiguous functions and color-blocked tables put together like jigsaw puzzles. “Slowly,” he continues, “my work transitioned from sculptural abstraction to fully functional objects in furniture and tableware forms.”
Now, having just launched a new collection of dinnerware in collaboration with the Brooklyn shop Sounds, he’s scaling down once again with a series of pastel vases, plates and candelabras with his instantly recognizable pinched clay surfaces. We spoke with Gerstley about how he creates his utterly charming pieces (which you can also find at the nomadic Brooklyn gallery SuperHouse!), developing a signature style, and his new venture into tabletop.
Can you take us through your process from idea to development? Do you start from a sketch or just begin building with clay?
I often start with sketches for commissioned projects or when I’m working towards a show. Once I have the sketches, I like to make a couple of variations of the thing in clay. This practice probably comes from working for a potter for eight years. In ceramics, there are so many things that can go wrong along the way from drying, to bisque firing, to the final glaze fire. Production potters especially know to make extra pieces to prepare for the percentage of work that could fail in the kiln. Making all those extras has the added benefit of discovering new forms as you go along.
Walk us through your construction process. How do you build up your pieces?
I’m almost always hand-building. I use coils and slabs. Some larger pieces are made in parts and attached with epoxy.
I’m interested in the dappled surface many of your pieces have. Would you call that your signature? Where did that come from?
The dappled surface comes from the way I pinch the coils together as I build a form. I’m definitely not the first to use so much pinching texture, but I do consider my pinch to be one of the signature elements of my work. It feels like a language that I’ve developed over so many thousands of pinches — traditional or recognizable forms translated through this pinched texture. Then there’s amorphous or leggy forms executed in the same manner, and recently I’ve been interested in contrasting the field of pinch with smooth surfaces. The repetitive physical action of all of those pinches is like a meditative experience while I’m making the thing, and the process has come to feel like my voice.
Let’s talk palette: Walk us through how you color and glaze your pieces.
I go through phases of being drawn to different color combinations. For a long time, I was developing glazes that were super clean/pop/candy/plastic looking. Almost like a vinyl sheen of glossiness in a saturated opaque application in bright happy tones. I’m starting to play with using more volatile and dynamic glazes, with varying levels of movement or transparency. And then I circle back to the fun cheery colors after a while.
I think my favorite piece from your latest collection is the Cubby Hole table. Where did the idea for that form come from? How did you build it to keep its structural integrity?
The Cubby Hole Table was a variation on a bedside table commission. The cubby is supposed to be like a little nightstand drawer. It has a hole in the back for your cell phone charger cord. The smooth flat slab areas are pinched onto frame-like walls of coils. Pieces like this are often built and fired in parts- the top and the legs are separate pieces that are attached later.
The puzzle piece-like block tables are also made in a really interesting way. Can you describe how they come together?
I’m really excited about the direction of these pieces, which are made up of what I call tile-blocks. They are essentially slabs with walls of pinched coils. Sometimes they are all glazed as separate blocks and then tiled together later using epoxy or something like that. Other times, like on the Cubby Hole Table, I’m building the slabs into the pinched clay form at the green stage. I’ll be making more pieces in this way in the future.
We heard you were also working on dinnerware — how is that coming along?
Yes! My good friend Ester Kislin invited me to make tableware when she started her beautiful and inspiring shop called Sounds. Even though I had worked for a production potter for many years, I had never actually made functional tableware in my personal studio practice. I see the tableware project as a place to explore ideas faster on a smaller scale and really get to test a lot of glazes. I love how intimately people experience and interact with the objects on a daily basis in their homes.
What’s next for you?
We are hurtling through 2021 and I’m busy with several projects to finish out the year. My plate is full with some large-scale outdoor furniture, more lighting projects, tableware, and some exciting opportunities to present the work in-person.