Founded by artists Andrew Kennedy and Magda DeJose, Sculpture Space NYC – located in Long Island City, NYC – is a stunning ceramics and sculpture center of 4,500 sq. feet of individual and communal workspaces, high ceilings and natural light, equipped with potter wheels, slab roller, clay extruder, electric and gas kilns, and a glaze chemistry room for its members – artists, designers and craftspeople – to experiment, learn, make, reflect and develop their artistic skills. SSNYC also provides classes, workshops and mentoring to help artists and designers develop prototypes and realize their clay-based projects.
When and how did you start your partnership? Where did you meet?
Magda Dejose: We met in a ceramics studio, which was more like a pottery studio – very small, very crowded. Andy [n.b. Andrew Kennedy] and I started talking and at one point he mentioned he was a fan of David Lynch, which surprised me, because I had never met any American who liked Lynch. And in Brazil and Japan Lynch is totally idolized.
Andrew Kennedy: That studio was actually more geared towards classes and education. I started taking a wheel class there 10 years ago and I found that working in clay is just so fulfilling and amazing to me. Magda convinced me to do collaborative work with her. So I would throw a large vessel on the potterswheel and then hand it to Magda and she would take on the sculptural part, shaping it and making all these incisions …
MD: Then I would give it back to him and he would add something and so on. It was a great way to start the idea of a collaboration and mute off our egos as artists. Actually, Andy is not a stereotypical artist in that way. He’s introspective, he never talks about himself, he is very low key. Even though he went to an excellent school – The Cooper Union -, he never mentions that. Generally, here in the States, people have a tendency to bring up the schools they attended. When you meet a person that is humble, it becomes a lot easier to work together when there is less ego involved. He does not talk much about the things he does, his accomplishments …
AK: Well, that’s changed now … [they laugh]. We had a group of MFA [n.b. Master of Fine Arts] students from Queens College come visit and speaking to them, I became aware it took me a bit out of my comfort zone when I have to deliver, that is to speak about our project, and of all the things here in the studio.
Why did it take you out of your comfort zone? In what way?
AK: I guess it is because I am not used to that type of a situation where I have to speak in front of a large group. Still, this is our domain, this is our space for which we worked incredibly hard. So, I am more comfortable in this setting. I am undoubtedly very proud of the space, of what we accomplished, and I love to hear what MFA students are doing, to know what directions they take in their own artistic study, etc. So now I enjoy it. Though if I had a preference I’d rather be working in the studio … there’s so much to do.
MD: It was not the first time we did that. Especially MFA programs reaching out to us because they want us to talk about artists being entrepreneurs or artist-run spaces.
Since you just mentioned artist-run spaces, it looks like there is an increasing number of such initiatives. Why is that?
MD: I think it is partly because we all want to be part of the conversation. In a scheme where there is the establishment, the museums, the big galleries, you’d either play the game or you’re out. Those who are out – either because they did not play the game or could not be part of it – felt like they have something to say, so they start their own thing. When we started the studio, we had no idea there were other artists doing the same thing. And that’s what we tell the MFA students, for instance: you don’t have to play the game. You may not make a lot of money, but eventually you will find people who will listen to you and add something and then you will have a conversation. You will not be the one outside looking in through the window and wishing you could be part of that. After we looked for so long for something to suit our needs, we were finally able to start our own community, we set up a studio and a gallery that provided everything necessary to become a good, prolific, healthy artist.
Basically, let’s say 20 years from now, this period could be mentioned in the art history books as such, in a dedicated chapter: Artist-Run Spaces. It would be something that defines the times we are living, like a movement, a shift of paradigm … We are in the middle of it, living it … it is quite enthralling!
MD: Very probably so. And also, in the case of ceramics, the period when it was finally accepted as contemporary art. A decade ago, when we started, people would not understand why Andy, as a painter, would want to make pots, for instance. They reduced the idea of ceramics to pottery, it was more like craft-oriented in their minds. In my work, I mix paper and wax into ceramics pieces and they’d comment: well, this is not ceramics.
AK: In my case, working in a different studio, actually touching clay for the first time and spending time working with the material, seeing all the possibilities, I started idealizing what a streamline clay studio should be like, what possibilities it would offer. So, we talked about developing this space and aiming it more towards sculpture, large-scale clay work and elevating how ceramics is seen. And the more I played around with clay, the more convinced I was of the direction we were taking. It felt right.
How strenuous was it to find the ideal space?
AK: Searching for the ideal space was a long, tedious process. We started with the notion of 1500-2000 sq.ft studio space, but after looking at the New York real estate … it was just brutal. You have to contend with realtors that will hardly give you any time; they show you three spaces and if you don’t agree with any, they move on and you have to find another realtor. It was a full-time job for 10 months.
MD: More precisely, we started talking about having a space in the summer of 2012. More jokingly, at first. And every time we mentioned we were artists, the realtors would send us to Brooklyn. Such a cliché! This location in Long Island City was Andy’s idea. He knows New York really well, so his strategy was to have a studio that is easy access from Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens. Back then this area was not so well-developed. Now it’s changing. In 2013, though, we intensified the search and it became a daily job. We saw a huge amount of spaces – 3 or 4 per day. We had a very clear idea in mind about the ideal characteristics of the space. Natural light was very important, so a skylight would be a real asset. A funny anecdote: since we would ride our bikes everywhere – being the fastest way to go see spaces -, a friend suggested at one point that we should rent a car and arrive like some big shots and be more impressive, otherwise no one would rent anything to a couple of bike-riding artists. Eventually, we found somebody who, for some reason, trusted us and … here we are! Well, truth be told that reason may be related to the fact that our current landlord was very impressed by Andy’s previous studio and he trusted we would do something similar to this space.
Where did you have your studios before SSNYC?
MD: When I moved from Chicago to New York I had to downsize. I became one of the many artists in New York who rent a small cubicle space. I would complain constantly about that type of studio being so generic. I hated it. Then I visited Andy’s studio, which was in the same building, the same floor, the same configuration, and his looked … amazing! My studio was a mess, and not in the sense of cleanliness, it was just stuffed with things, everything was happening there. The aesthetics of the new space started with Andy in his studio. It’s difficult to sign any commercial lease agreement if there is no business history already in place. Since this was the case, landlords would ask to see our studios just to get a clearer picture of what we were trying to start. In the end we’d always show his space, not mine. He had a small studio that was more of a showroom/workspace, painted white, clean and organized.
Going back to this spectacular space that is now SCULPTURE SPACE NYC …
AK: There was an incredible energy here when we first came in. It was functioning as a laundromat for hotels and restaurants, after it had previously had several different lives, once as a Corvette factory in the 1950s and construction companies, amongst others. We stepped in and we had this instant feeling that this is the place. A coup de coeur! The upstairs mezzanine, a huge sprawling and extended space, high ceilings, the light that was so dramatic … I just could not believe we finally found it. Admittedly, it was in a horrible condition, and it was such an ordeal to tear everything down, like the walls that were everywhere, even the skylight was covered, we resurfaced the floors with epoxy, we had to hire a crew to clean the ceilings, etc. A tremendous amount of work! We always wanted a space that would have very little visual noise. Now we make sure that all the plastic and all the dirty parts that come with the ceramic territory are in the storage room. We always hide that mess. So, we created a white box. All that effort paid off when we opened our doors in 2014, it felt like a dream. It was a great moment for us!
MD: For me it was a bit scary. We did not have lights or anything, the previous tenants had taken everything … the pipes, the lights, they had cut the plumbing. Empty space. Dark. Cold and empty. And then everybody who came to the space would say we were too ambitious. And not really as a compliment. More like: are you sure you can pull this off? And, of course, there were moments when we were not 100% sure, we had our highs and lows, but for us it was more like we HAVE to do it, there is no way we cannot not do it …
Sometimes you reach a point where you simply cannot stop, you cannot go back …
AK: Right …
MD: And we were also aware that we should not be driven by the fact that we need to prove ourselves in front of others, and still there was a constant reminder that that’s what people were expecting from you. And Andy – who is very skillful – was building everything, including the carpentry and furniture. I was doing the cleaning, helping with the demolition, things that would put a strain on me physically. I would go home and never had problems sleeping anymore … [she laughs]. Speaking of physical labor, that is a constant thing in working with ceramics. And I realized that it dignifies your work. We worked so hard and I had this constant feeling that it would eventually pay off.
What happened after you finished setting up the space? What was the next step in your strategy?
MD: We began reaching out to sculptors and ceramists whose work we could identify with. It was important for us to have a diverse group of artists, in terms of gender, nationality, background, type of work, age … Slowly we started a community that understood the value and benefits of working in a communal studio. We designed an open floor plan that allows fluidity. While we share the studio we also share our knowledge, we all become more generous in that sense. With this model we could offer an affordable studio and at same time give access to top of the line equipment and facilities. And you don’t have to sacrifice your privacy, as long we all know how to respect each other’s personal space.
Andy, you seem like the type who needs his personal space …
AK: I do. But I also like things in flux, I like the change. There are times I work downstairs, I like working at the wheel … The problem is that I get distracted when there is so much activity, so I like to move away and have my own private space. My newest little space is behind the gas kiln. It is only a couple of square feet, but I can go back there and go over glaze tests, firing schedules and glaze recipes. And I also have a private wheel upstairs. Thinking about it, it’s a dichotomy, because I also like being around other people working. In school we had the communal space but also a little side area to retire and work alone. Here as well, we have that set up so that we have the luxury of walking away and being in a private space.
MD: … but not for long, because I always go to Andy’s studio and ask if I can work there.
AK: [he laughs].
MD: The idea is that I like working with people around me, so I don’t need solitude. But I am also by myself a lot of the time. It is interesting though because as a child I liked spending time alone, I did not care much about having a lot of friends. I dislike parties, and when I go I try not to mingle much. It comes as a contradiction that I like working with people around me. Maybe to counterbalance my lack of desire to have a vibrant social life and be out there.
How do you reconcile your dual status of artists and managers of the space?
MD: It is not easy, but we are getting better and better at it. Certainly, it is not a lot of fun to deal with accounting, banks, reply to business-related emails, manage people, etc. I usually save that for the morning when my creativity level is low anyways. I don’t function as an artist in the morning, I always work at night, so …
AK: I am in a constant process of trying to get better at scheduling my time. On the other hand, the studio has developed so much in the past year that we are now at that point where we can dedicate more and more time to our own artistic practices, which is definitely exciting.
Do you also mentor and train the members?
AK: A little bit. We need to make sure that there will not be huge disasters in the kiln. We make sure they understand the ceramic process, the clay they use, the temperature, the glaze. Not all accidents can be avoided. Studio members have had some works that melted in the kiln, and myself as well. When you’re experimenting with combinations of materials in high heat, unexpected things occur, hopefully nothing too damaging.
Who are your members?
MD: We have an interesting group: young and mid-career ceramists, artists that work in different media and want to be introduced to ceramics or incorporate clay in their art practices. We also have architects, graphic designers, usually people in creative industries.
AK: There are full time artists as well. Also people who’ve either left their jobs or are thinking about it and want to become full-time ceramic artists. So, they start businesses and sell their work in stores. We have a lot of members in that transitioning mode. We have a really nice community happening here.
Do you also promote their work? For instance, in your gallery. What is the curatorial program?
MD: In addition to providing resources for artists, we also promote their work. We have an annual group exhibition dedicated to our members and alumnus. In 2015 we opened our project space and started our curatorial program. We accept proposals from independent curators and artist-run gallerists. Our aim is to have 4 Group Shows a year. We also offer residency program opportunities by invitation based on funding and availability. For instance, we had artists who worked from three to six months then we proposed a solo show featuring the works that were made during their residency. When we had the MFA students here, one of the questions was about our application for the SSNYC Fellowship. What we want to see is their work, not their résumés or artist statements. The résumé is not necessarily relevant. You may be a great artist and not have had a chance to show your work yet. During interviews we would ask the candidates to give us 5 events in their lives that helped them be where they are as artists. One of the artists said one of them was the death of his father and the birth of his child. It is always interesting to see how people choose what’s important to them in life. But he said this was important to his WORK. When you give people space to be personal and without boasting about what they have accomplished, it is easier to understand their work.
AK: Magda and I curate one show a year, as a rule. And that show is on ceramics. Our gallery specializes in sculpture and three-dimensional works and mixed media. But when we curate the show, it is exclusively ceramics.
Let’s shift the focus on the gallery for a bit: what response have you received so far? Have the shows been successful?
MD: The gallery is taking more and more of our time lately. Ideally, in the future we’ll have a board of directors and make it even more active. So far, we have had really good shows, if attendance is a way to measure success. We always have an amazing show-up. And the space is perfect for a show. Usually, when you go to such events, it’s hard to see the art because of all the people crowding the galleries. But here they just move on into the studio space to talk and drink and mingle, so the gallery space is always aired up. You come to the opening, you can see the show and have a good time, without feeling suffocated or pressed.
AK: We often talk about how success can be measured. Different ways, certainly. For some people it is money, profit, etc. For us, it’s being able to add something useful to the art community, getting recognition from our peers, and being able to sustain ourselves while doing what we love.
Can you get only respect from your peers or maybe a little bit of a jealousy as well? You obviously have done a spectacular job here and, let’s face it, not a lot of artists would be able to pull something like this off. Andy is such a perfectionist endowed with a serious amount of expertise in working with different materials and a great vision of the space. You created your own independence in addition to setting up a fantastic studio / gallery, all of which can be quite enviable …
MD: When people come in, they just see the final result, not the years of searching and labor and the sacrifice we made giving up our working time as artists to make this happen. However, we found a way to communicate what this is all about. I go back to our meeting with the MFA students. Our message was to pursue their goals. We talked to them about the process itself, not about our accomplishments. That it is important to take risks and not to listen to discouragements. That’s why when we have the SSNYC Members exhibition in October 2018, we do not want to call it a celebration of SSNYC’s 4th anniversary. Instead it will be a celebration of our members’ work and our community. I guess it is also about understanding human nature. And that is what we do as artists, we create metaphors to explain our civilization. And to do that you have to understand humankind. This requires a lot of research, trying to understand yourself at first, interacting with the world around you. It’s tiring but it is part of being an artist. And if I identify human reactions that I deem unhealthy, I just avoid them. I do not want to mislead people into thinking we have it all, because we don’t, but at the same time I am happy and privileged that everything during the day is about art. Even when I’m doing tedious work, it is about art. I feel fortunate. Another thing I noticed here in the States is that people think you failed as an artist if you also have to teach to earn a living. And I do not understand why it should be shameful, since in other parts of the world, to be a teacher is such an honor.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane and talk about your education backgrounds, your favorite teachers and mentors, if any …
AK: I’m the first in my family to have had a serious interest in art, enough to pursue it. I consider myself lucky to have really supportive parents who allowed me take this scary, unstable path. My favorite teacher was from high-school: Mr. Nicholas Todisco. He was an exceptional teacher that inspired me and influenced many students. He was pivotal in my development as a young creative person and he really pushed me into applying to The Cooper Union. I had to get my portfolio together and make sure my work was somewhat cohesive … This was 1986! I applied and was accepted with full scholarship! Nick made sure that everyone around him knew that they had inherent value, inherent strengths, talent … he would say now just go out and use it: “Go for broke, Andrew!”. He was an important figure in my life – as a teacher, mentor and friend. Later on, at The Cooper Union, the school was loaded with many accomplished artists and educators. Irving Petlin, Margaret Morton, Don Kunz, Hans Haacke, and Dore Ashton were stellar and super important to me. Hans Haacke was an incredible instructor. He made sure we went out to see important exhibitions … to be politically aware, to get involved and see what was happening outside school walls.
MD: The school system never had any appeal for me, but I was lucky enough that my parents saw that I was really serious about art. In Brazil, the public education is quite horrible. If you want to study art, you have to wait until you attend college. Since my parents lacked the means for a private school, their strategy was that I’d go to a public school for 8 years, then they’d pay for a private high school. After this I’d try to get into college. My parents had a good collection of books and so I was fortunate enough to have as much information handy while at home. My mother searched and found the only art high school operating in Brazil, so I applied and was awarded a scholarship. It was a really progressive school, that allowed for a lot of freedom, which was not always the best thing for me, but eventually I found my way. My literature teacher at that time was Lenora de Barros. She is a wonderful artist, poet and mentor. She introduced me to the works of the great Russian poets – such as Mayakovsky -, and the Brazilian Concrete Poetry and Neo-Concrete Art Movement. A few years later I met her again. She was the art director of a newspaper where I applied for a job as an illustrator. I was very young, 19 years old. Too young for such an environment, but she guided me throughout the process. When we opened the SSNYC Ceramic Center, I found out that she had just moved to New York – pure coincidence! – and became our first member, which was a very important moment for us. During my Art-in-Residency in Japan, one of the older artists showed me the Japanese technique for printmaking. Before he started he made me promise that I would share the knowledge in my turn. I said ok. So, when I met Andy, I showed him that process but only after he promised he would share the knowledge on. He laughed. It really seemed like a Star Wars type of dialogue. But it somehow sums up one of the main ideas that our studio is founded on: BE GENEROUS WITH YOUR KNOWLEDGE! All good things can come from that.
Both of you have embraced the ceramics field coming from different mediums – Andy from photography and painting, Magda from print-making. What attracted you to it?
AK: I spent many years working as a carpenter and I was always curious on how things were built. Even in my painting there was usually an understructure, so when I approached clay, it was about the building of vessels, its formation. Through the ceramic process, there are so many clay types or clay bodies, each with its own properties, personality and application so when I started working on the wheel, I was interested in throwing the largest pot I could possibly make. Thanks to my instruction from artists Peter Goldwater and Sang Joon Park, I would throw sometimes up to 65 pounds of clay but that would require a certain type of clay body that could hold its weight and wouldn’t slump. That was always a physical feat, to be able to do something like that. I was amazed … it wasn’t perfect but I was able to do it. With this I could apply any sculptural intention. It was the perfect go to material.
MD: The vessel as the core symbol for ceramics: it goes beyond functionality, it is about the meaning of it. It is when we started making vessels to carry food and water that we became civilized as humankind. The simplicity of the vessel and the meaning it carries, that’s something extremely important for every artist that works with ceramics.
AK: I started working with clay 10 years ago. I had taken a long break from painting and was aching to get back to feeling creative. I came across this great short documentary on the avant-garde artist Beatrice Wood. She was a part of the American Dada movement, connected to Duchamp and was a renowned ceramicist, also known as the “mama of dada”. She was in her nineties when this documentary was filmed. There is a moment when she’s opening the kiln and it’s filled with gold luster ceramic objects and she was so excited to see the results! She seemed like the happiest person on earth. I wanted to feel this way too! Dammit. I found my way to clay and that was it. I was hooked. I became completely immersed in throwing on the wheel. It can be a meditative experience to sit at the potter’s wheel or it can be total chaos and destruction. I have this inner coaching voice happen. I try to focus my attention first on the centering of the clay then eventually raising the walls. It’s a challenge to be mindful of every detail, balancing the speed and centrifugal force of spinning clay.
I haven’t left painting, but painting is always a struggle for me. It is all about critical thinking, what it means, how and what you apply to your canvas. Working in clay is freeing for me, it’s an immediate connection to your material and intuition … simple as that. Clay can be a painting, it can be a sculpture, it can be a utilitarian form; it can also be frustrating as all hell. Patience is important in ceramics and you have to be able to accept disappointments and failures so I try to prepare myself emotionally. We’ll place kiln gods (small figurines) for good luck on the kiln door. I have mini sumo wrestlers in place as a charm. Some pieces might crack and warp while some others survive the firing unscathed.
MD: Usually, people wait for that majestic moment to happen. They just live their lives waiting for great moments to happen, but what about the little things that form up our lives? Those little things we don’t pay attention to or do not see as special. As such, our life would be made of 50 years of nothing going on and 2 years of something special … That’s not how I want to live my life. I am never very comfortable. I appreciate every moment when I am happy and when things do not go well I know it is just temporary and something good comes after.
It is about being mindful, really …
AK: Exactly! Slow down! That is the other thing when we have new members coming in, some tend to rush, work as fast as they can and then skedaddle. It’s easy to forget and it takes effort to focus but to produce strong work, it matters.
MD: In ceramics time is totally different than in other mediums. You cannot work today and come back several days later. If you do that the piece is going to crack. You have to attend to your piece every day. You have to nurture it.
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Interview ✒ ADINA SHOLLENBARGER
Photos © SCULPTURE SPACE NYC