Performing a Cup: Lars Voltz Interviewed by Ryan Tucker

Considering contemporary ceramics.

Burnt orange and brown wood fired vessel titled Pedestal Cup by artist Lars Voltz

Lars Voltz, Pedestal Cup, wood fired stoneware, 4 × 3.5 × 3.5 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Lars Voltz is a ceramicist and potter who explores the relationship between geologic time and human experience. His work, though functional, incorporates the sculptural in its suggestion of geological processes. We had a chance to catch up over coffee to talk about some of the ideas behind the work and what it means to make objects that people live with in intimate ways. During the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts conference this March, he will be a part of Critical Function II at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond in Virginia, an exhibition that incorporates jurors’ interpretations of what functional ceramics are and can be.

—Ryan Tucker


Ryan Tucker Why geologic interest? Why, particularly, in the context of these forms?

Lars Voltz For me, the geologic is a visceral thing. Geology happens on the same scale as knowing when the sun is going to explode. It’s this thing that’s so huge you can only feel it. Scientists can quantify it, label it, and come up with all of these interesting words for these immense scales. Ultimately, though, mountains are formed when tectonic plates slam together to lift incredible masses of crust. I just have a visceral attraction to that. But it’s also fun for me because that’s how you get clay. Clay happens because geology happens. So the pot becomes the nexus for the geologic and the cultural. They’re at a crossroads. When a cup is “performed” in clay, that is, when we take our idea of what a cup is and enact that idea by making a cup, does it diminish that visceral relationship? I don’t think so because it gives it a lot more room to play around. You know, I could make rocks.

RT Like in the sense of just sculpting rocks?

LV Right.

RT Why not sculptural objects that are strictly sculptural? Because of this space of surprise?

LV Kind of! Maybe it’s my subconscious background of growing up in a place that values useful things or doesn’t have a lot of stuff for its own sake. In the Midwest, things have to perform a function. They may or may not be valuable. It’s just not in the culture of my family in Bemidji, Minnesota. 

RT Scandinavian Protestants?

LV Yeah, maybe, or it gets back to why I started doing this in the first place. For me, the performance of sculpture is different. It’s still a performance that’s just as beautiful or interesting, but I don’t put my arms around it like I do this other thing.

Pear colored wood fired stone with yellow spots titled Plate by artist Lars Voltz

Lars Voltz, Plate, wood fired stoneware, 1 × 10 × 10 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

RT For my collection, I generally don’t buy sculptural objects. I tend toward functional objects, and there’s something about their interactive quality that appeals to me.

LV It’s obtainable; it’s graspable. I’m thinking here of when I had tea in China while my wife, Joyce, and I were living there and how it’s a casual thing. There are a lot of really special-looking objects that are a part of that, but it also just is. It’s a great way to interact with objects that were made with care and concern.

RT The Japanese tea ceremony is so formal, and I’ve read that part of that formality is about bringing together people of different groups in a space and having everything performed in a way that’s expectable.

LV The performance of tea becomes the constant, and everything else is a variable. We will, together, harmonize under the umbrella of tea.

RT Right, but a fundamental part of the tea ceremony is passing around the cup and admiring it. Part of that is performing the politeness of saying that the host has shared this cup with me, but it’s also about actually being able to touch it and say, “Look at that thing.” Asking people to slow down, and not just use it, but to think about this thing right now.

LV Part of my own gravitation toward making functional things is so that you can have something that works. With sculpture there’s a separation. I know that’s not how it is entirely—sculpture can be a lot of things—but I feel that this object [picks up a mug] is sculpture just as much as anything else.

Dark brown wood fired stone mug with grooves titled Mug by artist Lars Voltz

Lars Voltz, Mug, wood fired stoneware, 4 × 5 × 4 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

RT The category isn’t perfect. It’s true that if you walk into someone’s living room and encounter a five-foot stalagmite, you’re going to have to interact with it. But you’re probably not going to drink coffee out of it.

LV You may not do anything except look at it, and that’s okay. But I want to make clear that neither one is better than the other. I at no point feel that there’s a hierarchy. In Tokyo I had an experience with art in which there was this giant room, and it appeared that there was nothing there, except that in the middle there was a crumpled piece of paper, and I said to myself, “That’s absurd.” Then, suddenly, I saw that crumpled bit of paper rise, and I realized that it was hooked up to a string connected to a motor. And I was in this huge space watching this little hand-sized crumpled piece of paper lifting. But down where the wall meets the floor, there was maybe a two-inch gap, or maybe a false wall installed, where I saw a bright blue LED, and it went “bleep bleep bleep,” and then suddenly the paper dropped. (laughter) I thought it was one of the coolest pieces of art that I saw in Japan. All of that, for that. It was great. It was brilliant. You can’t do that in a cup, necessarily; but maybe, maybe you can.

RT Usually it’s just so available in its initial assessment, right? When a person looks at it as a thing, it is what it is.

LV I believe in the slow revelation of a thing over time, but you also kind of get a lot of a thing right away.

RT It’s different and it changes over time, but an immediate assessment is available and true.

LV But through the application of intellectual reasoning to an object you’re going to develop, probably, more and more diverse and interesting connections to that thing.

Grey wood fired stone blocks in a splayed bundle titled Cookie Jar by artist Lars Voltz

Lars Voltz, Cookie Jar, wood fired stoneware, 16 × 14 × 13 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

RT How does the world of “craft” pottery move from the space of someone like Warren MacKenzie or Shōji Hamada and their specific shapes and specific types of glazes?

LV A lot of people also point to Peter Voulkos, but there were other people. Viola Frey and Betty Woodman were doing stuff that was really cool. And there are arguments to be made that they were influenced by people from Europe. Modernism was about trying new things. But once this is accomplished in ceramics and “high art” is made out of mud, the ideas that inform that kind of art then trickle down to a person who can “perform a cup” and get those “high-art” ideas into the world of the daily, lived object. That’s what happened, and I think that’s what’s happening now.

Lars Voltz’s work can be seen in the exhibition Critical Function II at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond in Virginia until March 28.

Ryan Tucker is a writer and ceramicist living in Iowa City. Part of his research considers how our conceptions of self are constructed via our relationships with objects.

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