Did you know that Tales of a Red Clay Rambler provides free podcasts on iTunes? Neither did I, until a couple of weeks ago. A whole list of podcast interviews with ceramic artists are at my disposal. The most recent is an interview with Molly Hatch; I had no hesitations starting there. Molly Hatch’s name had been dropped a couple of months ago in Craft class as an example of an artist who had perhaps “sold out.” Some said she sold out by creating a line of work for a popular company called Anthropologie; instead of making all her own wares and hand painting her intricate designs, she decided to let industry in and in effect, lost some sort of value in the art world. But after hearing her speak about her work, I would argue that something else has happened entirely. We will begin with her work in the High Museum of Art (located in Atlanta, Georgia).
“High Museum of Art–” the very name screams of fine art snobbery, doesn’t it? That is a wholly different argument. Hatch speaks of her new project Physic Garden, which is an ongoing exhibition at the High currently. There are 456 plates hanging on the surface of an entire wall. Each plate is a puzzle piece in the greater picture that spans the mounted tableware. This piece directly references 18th century Chelsea Factory plates–items of distinguished value among the high class of a time period filled with very clear class separations (a time of slavery and plantations).
Why did she use 456 plates as a canvas for this humongous, well…essentially it is a painting. “I want people [of all levels of artistic understanding] to walk in…and feel comfortable understanding it through the accessibility of a dinner plate…we all know what that is.” Really, her work is more about painting and drawing. The question she was asking herself (and I have found myself asking this about my work as well) was this: “How do I make an object into a drawing?”
Hatch is referencing historical patterns, imported goods for the high class, but she flips and tweaks it to making her work accessible to all audiences by using a low-class material low fire earthenware (in comparison to a fine porcelain, which is what those 18th century plates were made from, that is low class). I think Hatch’s backstory is interesting and gives a lot of perspective for the work she makes. She grew up in a dairy farming family; they worked hard, but had very nice decorative objects. She said her parents rejected the wealth they came from but also embraced. She said all her clothes came from the Salvation Army and they ate a lot of beef and cabbage, but the objects they were surrounded with were rather high class decorative. “I understood wealth through object,” Hatch says. This transfers into her work.
She feels as though she is in the same position of the 18th century artisan. Here she is making $50,000 sculptures that the average person will never buy; instead, these projects are funded by the high class. The part where some people wonder if she sold out is when Anthropologie asked her to sell wholesale to them. She realized she couldn’t attempt to be a factory without losing the integrity of her work and was unwilling to do so. She was willing to work with them as a designer, however, because at the time money was tight and she just could produce on that scale. Being the designer of ceramic tableware and then allowing someone else to take over the production was appealing. I love how she explains it:
“If they can make it for $15 a cup, why am I killing myself for the people who can afford a $70 cup? Which in itself is another inherent class problem. We might save, and take the time to save, to buy the cups because we care so deeply as potters or ceramic artists, or as collectors, or as people who are educated about what goes into the hand made, but for the most part most people can’t tell the difference when I put the two pieces, the prototype and the final product, next to each other, because the integrity of what I had intended the pot to do is all there.”
It took a lot of pressure off of her, and suddenly her friends could afford her work. “If that’s not a sign enough of what people value and how they value it…” she trailed off to talk about something else. She makes a very fair point, doesn’t she? It traces back to her sculptural work in the fact that she is trying to make accessible the high class things in life. Personally, if I told my friends how much a mug of mine would cost they would pull back too. But if my work could be perfectly replicated but still wholly designed by me, my gosh, they would be lining up to buy the dinnerware set for 12. It isn’t as if other artists haven’t done the same thing (enlisting other craftspersons to produce the work, then stamping their name on it). Molly Hatch hasn’t sold out. She simply uses industry as an important tool in her tool kit, enabling her to reach a multitude of people.