Turning heavy clay into something ethereal takes a steady hand and a light heart. Ceramic artist Whitney Smith possesses both.
Originally from the small town of Moses Lake, Washington, Smith now resides in Oakland but her fanciful dishware, cake plates, and vases sell to collectors around the world.
After moving to an arts-focused high school in Delaware, Smith was on track for art school but ended up at Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz where she tried a ceramics class and realized that she’d found her medium (as well as her future husband, Andrew Hayes).
“Creating pottery was really easy for me,” says Smith. “I was never satisfied with my painting and drawing, but I felt like I could make exactly what I wanted when I made pottery.”
She then went on to get a degree in Anthropology from the University of California at Santa Cruz, a process that she says provided “ a good academic foundation” for going into business. A six-month stint apprenticing with Santa Cruz ceramic artist Sandy Dihl gave her further instruction in how to survive and still be an artist. On-the-job lessons about efficiency, organization, and how to generate new ideas proved invaluable. “I learned how to make a living,” says Smith.
She started working full time as a potter in 2000. An early commission generated her signature “Poppy” line. A client asked Smith to design a plate inspired by a California poppy and Smith came up with several options, from a simple flat plate with a poppy drawn on the side to a carved and sculpted plate that looked like a poppy in full bloom—even though she had no idea how to make the latter. Of course, that’s the option the client selected.
“I’d never done anything like what I proposed, but looking back I guess that I wanted to explore that idea or I wouldn’t have suggested it,” says Smith. “I like to do things the hard way.”
Over the years her work has evolved from highly ornamented Art Nouveau inspired pieces to simpler designs like the “Seed and Pod” line that features smooth vessels crowned with shoot-like openings that evoke “little seeds cracking or split pods—things breaking open,” says Smith. Their sleek designs can be more easily molded and produced in larger quantities at a small-scale production factory overseen by another potter.
More elaborate hand-thrown pieces are still part of the collection, however. For example, one unglazed white porcelain vase resembles a piece of deteriorating wood that houses a few delicate moths and some errant moth wings.
“During my college years in Santa Cruz when the Monarch butterflies would migrate their wings would be all over the ground and it reminded me of butterfly graveyards,” says Smith. “I love the juxtaposition of death or something rotting with something beautiful and delicate.”
Other winged creatures–simply shaped birds–perch on cake plates and rimmed bowls that evoke miniature birdbaths. Smith started sculpting birds nearly six years ago because she says “it was much easier to create a bird out of clay than to get the proportions right when drawing it.” She notes that around that time a certain “zeitgeist” of bird imagery started showing up throughout the housewares market.
“I don’t know why the collective conscious directed the artistic community towards birds, but I think we’re generally more focused on what’s going on here on the planet,” says Smith. “Maybe we’re working through how flowers and animals enhance life.”
Smith’s organic pieces bloom in vivid reds and dusky plums, but verdant greens predominate. Smith says that the nature-inspired themes in her work lend themselves to green glazes and that she sees green as a wonderful neutral. “Green is just the best color,” says Smith. “When I’m working out a design, in my head the background is always green.”
Cherry blossoms, lotus flowers, and artichoke leaves appear in Smith’s work with a seemingly effortless grace. Whether she covers a small cake dome with dogwood blossoms or creates one perfect translucent petal, Smith knows how to make difficult designs look easy.
“You can’t be wrestling with hard concepts all the time,” says Smith. “Nevertheless, I don’t value things that come too easy.”