None of us become who we are in a vacuum. We aren’t born with personalities fully formed, just waiting to be unboxed as we grow; all of us are shaped through a million little interactions between inner and external forces. We all have to work – sometimes even struggle – to grow into our most authentic self and carve out a fit for it within the external world of other bodies, social relationships and power dynamics.
Art can help us navigate the interactions (or clashes) between self and outside world. Creativity can offer a way to express parts of yourself that your cultural environment may not make a lot of room for – and in turn, art that uplifts marginalized experiences can help carve out a little more space for those experiences within a community.
Take the work of ceramic artist Tab Link, for example. Normally based in Iowa, Tab is currently the ceramics artist-in-residence at the Sonoma Community Center, and considers pottery to be an especially suitable medium to examine questions about identity, cultural norms, and the interactions between them. After all, ceramics are meant to be held in your hands; to be used and exchanged. They’re intimately involved in all kinds of social rituals.
“I use clay to create familiar forms with subtle queer qualities,” Tab explains. “Growing up in the Midwest, I didn’t have many queer role models. I felt different, out of place, and without the words to describe it for most of my life. I am still unsure, trying one thing or another until I find a place to fit. This is also the way I build my pots, altering traditional forms, attempting to queer their posture, presence, and usage. Using a mix of impulsive and calculated moves, I bend, carve, and combine forms until they feel like a whole.”
And it’s not just through their finished pieces that Tab’s work explores interconnectedness and queerness. It shows up, too, in the process they use to finish their pieces. Tab works with ‘atmospheric’ firing techniques. These are firing methods in which certain compounds are introduced into the kiln when it’s at high temperature; these substances then interact with the pieces in ways that are completely dependent on the conditions inside the kiln at the time.
“In a non-vapor kiln,” Tab says, “the chemical reactions between glaze, clay, and oxygen content can be very predictable and repeatable. You can use similar glaze and clay combinations in a vapor kiln, but we add in another variable that depends on the space in between pieces, rather than on the surface treatment of one individual piece. The vapor moves along the air and flame currents, navigating the maze between pieces. Where there are broad spaces it can flow and land like soft snow; in tight spaces it can whiz through, like water from a hose that is half-covered by your thumb. These different vapor movements create different effects on the clay and glazes. Since each form and its relationship to its neighbor changes the path of the vapor, the way a kiln is loaded greatly affects how the pieces will turn out.”
In other words, it’s not unlike the way all of us are impacted and shaped by the conditions of the world around us. Tab likes to think of the kiln as a collaborator; an active participant in driving all of the reactions that have to take place for a body of clay to turn into a piece of ceramics.
Their latest collaborator is “Julia,” the brand-new soda kiln at the Community Center – named after the late benefactor who funded its construction. Tab helped hand-build the kiln last fall as part of a three-day community workshop; now, as resident artist, they’re helping to put in the finishing touches. Once ready, Tab’s pieces will be the inaugural ones to be fired in the new kiln.
Meanwhile, Tab has been enjoying their new surroundings here in Sonoma, and the sense of community at the Center’s ceramics studios. “The Sonoma Ceramics community is special because of its variety of skill levels and interests. Students help each other in class and in open studio, whether it’s sharing tips and tricks, or simply compassion when a project doesn’t work out as intended. There is a balance between making work and conversation that is encouraging to members of all levels, and helps beginners feel supported in their learning.”
Tab will be at the Community Center through July. Once “Julia” is up and running, they’ll be teaching several soda firing workshops; also watch out for their solo gallery show, coming up at the Center towards the early summer.
Charlotte Hajer is the executive director of the Sonoma Community Center.