Robbie Lobell is a full-time studio potter and pottery teacher living and working in Coupeville, on Whidbey Island, about an hour north of Seattle, Washington. She has been working in clay for more than 30 years, receiving her education in ceramics through residencies, apprenticeships, and assistantships. Robbie was on the faculty at the Worcester Center for Crafts in Massachusetts for 10 years and has taught workshops and classes at craft schools throughout the country, including Wesleyan Potters (MA), Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill (MA), Vermont Clay Center (VT), Mudflat Studio (MA), Lehman College (NY), The Art School at Old Church (NJ), Peter’s Valley Craft Center (PA), Haystack Mountain School of Craft (ME), and Mendocino Art Center (CA), Pottery Northwest (WA), Seward Park (WA), Moshier Art Center (WA). She teaches classes and workshops on forming and soda firing in her studio on Whidbey Island. Robbie Lobell’s pots reside in kitchens, on tables, and in cupboards across the nation. Her soda/wood-fired pieces are collected and carried in galleries and gourmet food shops on both the west and east coasts. Robbie’s work has been exhibited in group and solo shows nationwide.
How did you move past the idea that clay was male-dominated in the 1970’s?
I stayed away from clay for a number of years because it was such a male dominated field. Once I decided I wanted to be dedicated and committed to a life in clay, I started looking elsewhere. I was in California at the time, and I tried going to school at the California School of Arts and Crafts in 1970. California Clay was happening. It was Viola Frey and Robert Arneson, so it was anything goes. I realized this many years later, that I needed much more discipline than that. It wasn’t, at that point, coming from within so I gave up clay for a while. I was living in Berkeley in the 70’s. I was a political activist in the streets getting arrested, protesting the Vietnam War, that’s what was important to me at the time. It was really later on when I brought my life into focus. I don’t know how you young people get so focused when you’re young. I have two Apprentices and it’s amazing the way they work, they’re very focused. When I decided to re-focus on clay, it helped that I met Mikhail Zakin and Karen Karnes and other women who were in the field. I was still very west coast oriented. There’s a different way of working, and of thinking on the west coast. It’s more outward oriented than inward. When I went to the east coast I was guided to work from my interior places rather than the exterior influences.
What made you decide to do pottery?
During the 1980s, I was making pots and working with Peter von Wilken Zook. For a while, I was making pots just to fire. I fired wood and salt. As I became further engaged, I really wanted to make pots and begin to understand why and how I could accomplish ideas of pots for the table. At that time, I needed the requirements of utility and the discipline of making functional pots. I didn’t know that then, but I know that now. At some point in my future, I look forward to a three to twelve month residency in some foreign country where I don’t need to think about home or business, and I can perhaps make sculpture – there are ideas and forms floating around in me. I’m not sure if my sculpture belongs in the world but I do know that what I’m making now does belong in the world . . . in the kitchen and on the table.
Which do you find exerts a stronger influence on your work, success or failure?
I think both affect my work equally. Failure, because it makes me determined to make a better pot. Success, because it inspires me to make a better pot. I’ve had intimate experience with failure and I’ve had a fair amount of experience now with success. Failure immobilizes me for about 24 hours, then prods me to want to keep on going. For me, failure had to do more with how I was being seen in the world, which, when I look back is interesting. As I look back, that was an important component because there was a time when I felt less than because I didn’t have a formal education and started my professional clay career when I was in my early 40’s. There were some doors that were closed to me because of this. Years later now, I feel mostly proud that I don’t have a formal education. The deep questioning had to come from myself. The critical eye had to come from within. I feel like I developed my aesthetic a bit differently in that I had to be my own teacher for many years. That didn’t mean that I wasn’t talking to others about my work, however. I was going to the Demarest shows and we were critiquing and discussing each other’s work. I was invited to that Demarest show before I was really ready because Karen Karnes was a friend. I kind of begged her to invite me to that show and I wasn’t ready. That was an extreme sense of failure because I sold hardly any pots and the potters weren’t approaching to look at my work. Then some years later at the Demarest show, this was maybe ten years ago, many of the exhibiting potters wanted to buy my pots. To me, that felt like I had arrived! I felt respected by the potters I admired and was showing with. That was true success and it really inspired me to go forth.
When did you first start in clay?
I was first drawn to clay while at camp and in high school when I took pottery, but I was just a kid then. Then I went out into the world and I kept taking clay classes at a variety of institutions I was sort of enrolled in and I belonged to a co-op in the early to mid 1970s. I had this little tiny studio in a house that I lived in. I kept clay in my life but my life wasn’t about making pots. There was a piece of my life that contained clay, and that was important and more about the act of centering, on the potters wheel. That act of centering assisted me in staying grounded and centered in the chaos around me. I left clay for seven or eight or nine years. Many things were going on in my life — I came out, got divorced, and entered a new cultural paradigm. A few years later, I started working in clay again at the Mendocino Art Center in a program called the Regional Occupational Program (ROP) in 1983 or 84. For thirty dollars a month I had class five mornings a week from 9 to 12 and I had access to the studio seven days a week. It was amazing! We built a wood kiln, a salt kiln, and a reduction kiln. At that point I began to dig a little bit deeper into the possibilities of clay. I made very pedantic pots, they were completely generic, they had very little to do with anything; I wasn’t thinking about form. I was seduced by the surface results in the salt or wood kilns. I wasn’t dedicated to form like I am now. Form is paramount to my current.
What was most difficult for you when you first started your studio?
At the Mendocino Art Center, I grew my relationship with clay and with making, but it still hadn’t become an integral part of my life. It was in my daily life for a while, but I didn’t identify as a potter. That happened when I went back east to study Mikhail Zakin. I attended a workshop she presented in Mendocino. Mikhail saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. Out of her observing whatever that was in me, led her to invite me to study with her. I was forty years old. It changed my life forever. Finding a teacher is an enormous gift, one that not everyone receives. My education wasn’t just about clay, it was about life. I was like a sponge ready to absorb any and everything that came my way. We went to New York City at least once a week. We didn’t just go to galleries or museums or visit potters, we walked the streets of New York. It was life experience as much as studio experience. Mikhail was showing me the way to what I loved or what I didn’t. I was beginning to develop a visual vocabulary. Mikhail guided me to my own voice and began to help me understand it. How do you develop that voice? How do you make it into something that belongs to you? She helped me answer those questions and I think being 40 years old rather than 20 gave me a larger platform from which to work from.
When you exhibit your work, how do you know what venues are right for you and how do you find them?
Back then I would take anything that came my way. I worked hard to get my name and my work out there by applying to shows, being accepted, and then having my name on the posters and of course, the Demarest show. That was essential for the development both of my work and getting my work out there. Knowing I was going to that show meant I had to make good work. Still, these many years later, I want to bring my best work there. After many years of seeking gallery representation, I have come to know that my pots do not belong on a pedestal, but in the kitchen and home. So I now seek high-end kitchen stores where my pots are displayed with beautiful handmade Japanese knives and hand-turned wooden bowls. In the larger scheme of art objects, I have placed my pots in the kitchen.
Can you explain the Old Church Demarest show?
The Old church pottery show is an invitational. Forty years ago, Mikhail Zakin founded an arts and culture center in her Demarest New Jersey neighborhood. Thirty-nine years ago, her friend Karen Karnes, suggested that they hold a fundraiser by having a pottery show and sale. It was all about bringing potters to this one place for a weekend, having them all stay together, cook together, eat together, and gather together to sell pots. Karen has been committed to helping studio potters make a living through this show. She cares so much about that. She wanted to develop this venue for potters to come together to create, develop, and to be in community, but also to sell pots. At the same time, they were educating the public. Potters were invited from all over the country. It was the first show in the US that was like that. Now, many similar shows that have popped up like the American Pottery Festival in Minneapolis which comes right out and says that they base this show on the Demarest model. The Demarest show has been key in many potters’ careers because there is a fairly sophisticated buying public that comes to the show.
How did you get to Whidbey island?
It was somewhat serendipitous. My partner’s kids had grown and she had retired from her position as the executive director at the Worcester Center for Crafts. That’s actually where we met in 1994. I went there as an artist-in-residence the same year she had come on as the executive director. She was there for ten years. It was a pretty fabulous time at the Craft Center. When she retired after ten years, she indicated she wanted to move to the west coast. I’m from the west coast. She was born and raised in the Midwest and moved to New England and raised her children. Now she was ready to try another part of the country. I was not quite ready. I had grown my career on the east coast. I had left the west coast because I couldn’t find my way there as a serious artist. I was a little worried about that. It took me maybe a year to get used to the idea and to gain the confidence to know and understand that I could leave my artistic nest. Perhaps I didn’t need to be in physical proximity to Karen or Mikhail anymore. I didn’t need to be within driving distance of my pottery friends, my artistic support system. I could do this. I had started to develop my flameproof cooking forms so maybe I was ready to try a new place. Whidbey Island came to our attention because my mother had taken a trip here on a sunny July weekend and she called to say ‘you guys should check this place out’. So we did, and we found our place, our 11-acre homestead. It was listed with no real estate agents. I was back east getting ready for the Demarest show while Maryon flew in and spent a week looking for real estate. She found this place, sent me pictures, called me up and said ‘should we buy it?’ And so we did, they faxed the papers, we signed on the dotted line and moved out here in March of 2005. It was very hard to let go of my kiln, the first that was all mine that I built, but I sold it to a student and knew it was going to a good home.
How important is your location in Washington to your success as an artist, is location something others need to consider?
Well, I love central Whidbey Island. If I don’t ever have to move, I won’t. Moving out here was our big midlife move. We’re both in our 60s now. I am very at home here. I don’t think living on Whidbey Island is necessary to my work but it’s a beautiful place to live and has good tourist traffic for sales. When we looked for the next place we were going to live, or maybe the last place we were going to live, there were a few things we knew we needed and wanted. An active arts community, though it didn’t need to be all about that, and we wanted small farming and sustainable food systems. We also to be around other lesbians (remember this was 2004 when that was still an issue.
My partner, Maryon has been very involved in the sustainable food systems and small farming communities. I found Al Tennant when I got here, and he helped me build my first kiln. I have three kilns I’ve built here so far. I love living on Whidbey Island even though I have to do a lot of shipping and getting places is a slower process.
Do you stay connected to your peers and the larger community of ceramic artists? Do stay connected with other artists as well?
Yes. I do keep in touch with potter friends all around the country and began finding them here in the northwest. I taught at Pottery Northwest and Seward Park, both in Seattle my first year here while I was building my studio and kiln. That was really helpful in getting to know this region’s potters and pottery scene. Unfortunately, these days I don’t get out much. I’m so busy with Cook on Clay – 50-60 hours a week busy! Staying in touch means Facebook, going to shows, and curating shows. I do stay in touch via telephone and email. It’s such a surprise to me, seeing potters on Facebook and going to their website. It’s a new way of being in contact that I have moderately embraced. I certainly have discovered some incredible young potters that way. There’s gorgeous work being made these days. Every time I go to a show or a symposium or a conference I make new acquaintances, it’s a national community and it’s a network that I utilize to find Apprentices. On a daily basis my arts community is Al Tennant, Maryon, my Apprentices, and my students. I don’t feel isolated here but I’m not at the nucleus of a clay community here the way I was on the East Coast.
Do you believe that there are certain privileges or disadvantages that today’s potters have that did not exist several years ago?
Well, technology is mostly an advantage. I think it can certainly get in the way if we allow it to. It’s a time-suck so I try not to go on there too much. Maryon does most of the social networking required for Cook on Clay. It feels essential these days to stay visible. I think (the younger generation) has an advantage with technology. I’m excited by it and also terrified of it — that someone could take a picture of one of my pots and scan it and send it to a three-dimensional printer then onto China or somewhere to manufacture it cheaply. That makes me a bit uneasy. The pots that I’m making now are so unique; no one else is making them. The advantage of when I got started, I would imagine it’s still true, is the warmth and welcoming national pottery community. For Mikhail and Karen’s generation there were very few people engaged in the material arts, it was new, it was the craft movement. For my generation, there were more people making pots and the universities were starting to teach it, when I came to it later on, I saw many potters who had been doing it for twenty years before I got there had a camaraderie. Now there are so many of you. Not that that’s a bad thing, because there’s such fabulous work being made. I wonder how you’re all going to find your way making pots to make a living.
I worry that the competition might have a negative effect as you grow. The Clay community, which is supportive, wants everyone to succeed. I do worry about young potters because you have to make a living and that is the hardest thing. That’s why Karen gave me the flameware and as she had intended, it has allowed me to make a living. It took about 8 years to get there. I make lovely tableware, but moving onto to the flameproof cookware, that has allowed me to make a living – and continue to grow as a potter. There are so many beautiful dinnerware and cups being made and they just keep getting better. I feel inordinately fortunate to have been the recipient of Karen’s generosity.
How do you divide your time between life in the studio and life at home?
I don’t, I don’t have the balance. There are people I know who are good at it. It’s so interesting to me because I have such discipline in the studio and I don’t have that discipline in other parts of my life. I’m curious about that and think about it a lot. I worked towards it. I’m mostly referring to physical activity and being able to find my way to embracing a yoga class as part of my studio practice. My studio practice should have an exercise component to it, at least stretching if nothing else but I don’t do that. It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around considering those activities as imperative to my studio practice. My studio practice should also have field trips included. I should be going to museums and galleries and visiting other artists and going to concerts and plays. It’s all here on Whidbey Island but I don’t do it. It’s really easy for me to stay in the studio until nine o’clock, grab a bite to eat, and retire for the evening. That is the hardest part of my studio life — that it is not a balanced life. Fortunately, I live in a really beautiful place. The beach is five minutes away and my dogs will lobby for some activity, so I take them to the beach swimming or for a walk, but I don’t do it every day and it’s not regular. I’m not just a studio potter anymore, I’m also a businesswoman. I’m a little regretful about that although I needed to go there and it’s growing well. It’s a challenge to turn the page from a solitary studio life to one with Apprentices, a partner, a sales room, and then adding in mold making and hydraulic pressing — there’s so much going on that is an offshoot or directly related to my life in the studio. There were a couple months that I didn’t even make a pot, I just glazed and fired. I love having young people working with me, it’s really wonderful because we all think differently. I love to be able to solve problems with my apprentices. There is much to be said for inter-generational community.
What were your professional goals when starting out and have you achieved them?
My professional goal was to make excellent pots and get recognized for making excellent pots. I wanted to be able to teach workshops. I wanted my work to develop, it was/is important to see my work grow. I have definitely achieved most of what I wanted to do as a potter – and into this Cook on Clay business. I’m excited to see what develops in my work in the next 20 years.
What is the greatest challenge facing emerging artists entering the field as professionals?
This takes me into some thoughts and concerns I have about the university system. I think that something is missing and I don’t know if it’s possible for it to be there or not. Not having had a formal education in ceramics through the university system I don’t know for sure, but I think you are pushed too hard too fast. There doesn’t seem to be enough time at University to really work something out. You have to go to a critique so you have to have your ideas fairly worked out. Having participated in critiques in a variety of settings including some colleges and at the Worcester Center for Crafts, they go to fast. Emerging artists have to find their aesthetic voices faster and faster. Young people are being asked to come to decisions before they’re ready. Being pushed isn’t a bad thing, being challenged isn’t a bad thing, but some of it feels prescribed. That seems to be the challenge around the work and actual making. The other side of that, which I feel I did missed out on, is the academia and the scholarship. A question I ask friends my own age is ‘if you had two years and everything else was taking care of and you could go back to school, what would you study?’ We all have different answers and one of the things for me is I would like to study a little more about geology/material science and some in-depth history, then there’s astronomy and oceanography. I’ve had a lot of say over my education. It never had the structure of two semesters a year for four years at a particular college being supported or not. Leaving school with an art degree and a large debt seems like a hard start. I get it that parents want kids to go to college because the parents feel safer if you’ve gotten an education. We have this society telling us ‘you can’t get anywhere without an education’. We have the work culture buying into this. Education doesn’t only happen in a college setting, there are many places that education can happen. I had an interesting experience where one of Al Tennant’s friends, a retiring professor, came to Whidbey Island to visit. Al brought him over to my studio. He looked around and asked ‘were did you go to school?’ I said ‘I didn’t go to school’ and he said ‘you re kidding me’ and I said ‘no I didn’t go to school. I don’t have a formal education. I’m self-taught.’ He couldn’t believe it because he’s always been in academia. How could I be where I am, have to skills I do without having gone to University? There is, of course, much to learn in University and college and I perhaps getting an undergrad degree in liberal arts is a good thing. For a while I was a little proud that I was the only person in my family for three generations that didn’t have a college degree. There’s other ways and I really want that to be seen and that’s why I have an Apprenticeship program. One of my Apprentices has an undergrad degree and one of them doesn’t, but their education here is like nothing they will get in a formal school. I can’t give them everything that they could get in school but I can give them some things that they would never get in school. A lot of what I give to my Apprentices and students is based on how I worked with Mikhail and Karen.
Maybe some parting words, do you have any other advice for emerging artists?
Be open when you leave school. I’ve run into a lot of young people coming out of school having been taught what they’re taught and not being open to new ways of, for example, of how to clean a kiln shelf. I encourage students to go take workshops with other potters, it’s important to get out there and be open. I’ve learned so much from watching other people work. Go out there with an open mind that what you have learned is not the end of it. My other advice is to focus. Give yourself assignments. Maybe put some blinders on for a while because there’s so much visual noise and technological noise out there. There are times to be in the midst of the noise and engage with the noise and there are times to shut it out and go into the studio. Just show up, there’s no way that you can do anything or move any further with your work unless you show up for the work, day in and day out. My apprentices are required to spend no less than 20 hours a week in their studio for their own work. Be open, show up, do the work and try not to do too many things at once. You can’t make a cup, a vase, a plate, a covered jar, and a birdbath in one sitting, you need to make 50 cups 50 plates. Develop discipline and focus. Have fun. Stretch beyond your comfort zone. Stay aware.