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Under the sea
During Carla Potter’s early years as a ceramic artist, she searched for what her version of “good” art was. Early on, she was surrounded by the strong influence of the simplicity of the Japanese aesthetic in pottery, until the day she had an epiphany.

“You know what? I’m not Japanese,” Potter says.

As Potter indulged her own ideas about art, beauty and creativity, a fanciful, detail-rich style of ceramic sculpture emerged that is instantly recognizable as not Japanese and entirely Potter.

Growing up in the island community of Ketchikan, Alaska, before moving to the city of Anchorage three years ago, Potter says she was quickly drawn to incorporating images from her coastal community into her sculpture.

“As I re-examined the landscape, I started seeing associations with my own personal life,” she says. “It became a metaphor for a lot of things that I see in society. All the ruffly seaweed reminded me of embellishments in fashion and it was gooey and slippery and smelly.”

The ocean theme, which is evident inspiration to her tentacle-adorned and seaweed-topped works, evolved along with Potter’s rambunctious style.

“I began thinking about monumentalizing things that were kind of underfoot, like barnacles,” she says. “People scrape them off boats, they hate them. I just started putting them in a place where you had to kind of confront them and they were part of beauty and decoration.”

Potter says her work allows people to examine the undersea world, filled with shapes that are exotic and weird, slimy and pokey but also frilly and ruffly and feminine.

That’s not to say, however, that her work aims to recreate any of these seaweeds or ocean-dwelling creatures.

“It has to do more with finding the character things,” she says. “As I move along, things become less about realism and more and more about the form, about taking that form and playing with it and making it something completely different.”

The resulting works are often hybrids of natural forms, mutated to suit the artist’s whim and emotion. Seaweed ruffles sprout from a tower of bulbs, melon-colored octopus tendrils reach from a lime-green four-legged base. A rocky reef covered with barnacles and sea stars is topped with a dollop of silky-smooth, white porcelain sitting in a fur-lined nest.

In Alaska, her sculpture has gained recognition with “Deviant Biology,” a 2003 exhibit at the Anchorage Museum of History and Natural Art. Other exhibits have spanned the state and beyond and her work has received recognition in the Alaska Juried Clay Exhibition as well as the statewide Earth, Fire and Fiber show in which she twice received the juror’s award.

Part of what makes Potter’s work so amazing, especially to anyone who has tried to coax clay into a particular shape, is that all of her art is created by hand rather than by using a mold. Starting with a pinch bowl-type form, the artist creates a gesture of the figure she is moving toward, adding legs and other details before allowing the clay to dry to a leather-like consistency. Then the details begin, fashioned meticulously one by one.

Underglazing helps Potter obtain the desired intensity of her colors—a signature of much of her work.

In recent years, Potter has moved from low- to high-fire clay and glazes, adding more depth to her work, but reducing her control over the outcome. The move was fraught with some challenges, like an entire show’s worth of work that had to be recreated after it slumped during the firing process.

But Potter says she has persevered and becomes more proficient with the high-fire glazes and process with each kiln firing.

“It puts a lot more edge into my work because there’s the way the glazes run together,” she says. “Sometimes I have an idea of how a glaze should come out and to me it looks horrid. But someone else comes in and says, ‘Oh my god, that’s gorgeous.’ It’s teaching me a lot to let go of that expectation.”

“It’s kind of like your kids,” says the mother of two teenage sons. “You teach them and expect them to be this one thing, but you have to accept their individual personalities.”

Through the switch from low- to high-fire glazes, Potter has maintained a highly colorful palette that she says some might find brash.

“I don’t think that art has to be only about dark or angry things to be serious,” she says. “I think it can be about serious things but that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be ugly or brown.”

One of the undertones of much of Potter’s work is her own journey with sexuality coming from a Catholic background where she was encouraged to suppress her femininity.

Her work incorporates pokey, abrasive outsides with smooth, serene inner
cores, often with an entry point of some sort, some of which even look vaginal.
“I don’t even think about that when I’m making a work,” she says. “It’s more about opening up in general and how you dress it up. Sometimes access to people is hidden.”She says she’s not trying to lecture on the failures of society to embrace sexuality, but more express her own comfort level with who she is.

“It’s kind of re-examining some of the things I was squeamish about,” she says. “It’s a sexy and voluptuous process.”

Potter says she sees other hints at her past experiences in her work, like the influence of growing up in a large family.

“You always had to fight to get a word in edgewise,” she says. “My pieces are kind of like that. I’m elbowing my way in to get attention and speak loudly. I’ve kind of allowed myself to accept that my soul wasn’t this serene thing. It was much more rambunctious.”

Her passion for art of all kinds and interest in those who have explored before her are not so much an influence but an inspiration, says the Humboldt State University graduate. When traveling in Europe, she was impressed when she visited exhibits of Picasso’s work.

“I saw sketch books just full of similar things being worked out,” she says. “It gave me permission to fail more, to try stuff and then just toss it aside.”
During her years as a Ketchikan artist, Potter regularly taught all ages through artist-in-the-school programs. The experience of teaching others helped her refine her art.

“You have to figure out for yourself why you do things,” she says. “I would always use metaphors, like, ‘Pretend you are like an explorer and see what you can find in the clay.’ Later when I was at home and I didn’t want to think about what to make, I would say to myself, ‘OK Carla, let’s be an explorer.’”

The child’s creative process was also inspirational. “I would look at some of these things, especially little-kid art, and they would amaze me. These little kids are very deliberate. Every mark and pattern is very deliberate and intricate. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t replicate it.”

In coming months, new influences will be plentiful for Potter. In February, she embarked on a yearlong residency program at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Helena, Mont. She is hoping the experience will allow her to experiment, both with different types of firing as well as with ideas she would like to develop further.

“One of the challenges as an artist is it is very isolating,” she says. “I’m looking forward to critical dialogue about my work.”

Potter says perhaps her contribution to the art world was similar—to inspire others to do what they want, regardless of what is deemed “right” by the art world. “My work is very personal,” she says. “It’s about me and where I’m from, not having the big city tell me what I have to be to be respected. I don’t necessarily think I have to be that to be a strong artist.”

Carla’s work can be found at the Bunnell Street Gallery in Anchorage, Alaska.