We had the chance to hear from Colby Charpentier, one of our Summer 2021 Artists-In-Residence, who sat down to tell us a little bit more about his creative process and relationship with material. What draws him to ceramics, specifically? It is experimentation with the interplay of process and chemistry. “Sometimes it feels like nothing at all is working, and that’s kind of exciting. I can have been doing something for 13 years and still feel like I have no clue what’s going on. That’s cool,” he says. The dichotomy between what is and what isn’t plays a role in Charpentier’s work as he pushes the boundaries of perception and material limitation. Keep reading to learn more about Colby!
- Where are you from?
I grew up in Smithfield Rhode Island. It’s a small town with lots of apple orchards, 20 minutes outside of Providence.
- What is your preferred medium and/or subject matter?
I work with ceramics. I formulate ceramic materials and redesign processes. I make simple, completive objects. I’m always trying to leave something a little unhinged. When the form is recognizable, the materials are not. And when the materials are recognizable, the form is not.
- What’s your educational or career background?
I completed my BFA in 2013 from Alfred University in Alfred, NY, along with coursework in materials science engineering. Following that, I worked as a studio assistant to Daniel Clayman and Chris Gustin who were working with kiln cast glass and wood fired ceramics respectively. In 2017, I started travelling to long-term artist residencies including Sonoma Ceramics in Sonoma, CA, The Morean Center for Clay in St. Petersburg, FL, and Harvard Ceramics in Boston, MA. I taught classes at each of these residencies as well as at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. I most recently completed my MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, MI in Spring of 2021.
- How long have you been creating art/working on your current craft?
I first touched clay in highschool, around 2008. That first summer, I spent a lot of time with a really great instructor, Bruce Lenore. We were moving brick and taking apart and rebuilding wood kilns in his backyard. Following that, I interned at Dew Claw Studios in Pawtucket, RI. There were a lot of people early on that were really generous in giving me studio access and entertaining my curiosity.
- Tell me about the first creative experience you can remember. How did it impact you?
I spent entirely too much time in the woods with friends building shelters and bridges and getting lost. I think there was a lot of problem solving and self reliance that was necessary for all the silly things we were doing.
- Can you describe your artistic or thematic focus?
I’m really interested in the meaning that materials and objects hold. I engage a labor-intensive practice where I want people to be aware of how the work was made. My favorite quote from a critical review of a show of mine was, “Ceramics don’t look like this.”
- Are you rigid or spontaneous with your creative process?
I’m pretty rigid. I like to set myself up with constraints – which are often a process or method of working. Within that system, I work intuitively. To translate: my work is going to have a certain organization about it, but I’m still going to make a mess in the studio.
- Is there any place in particular you hope to go with your craft or a milestone you would like to achieve?
In 2016, I was fortunate enough to work on Nina Hole’s last fire sculpture. It was a 12 ft tall 6000 lb clay sculpture. I think more than anything, I hope to have the opportunity to build work on a grand scale like that. And I really want everything that comes with it. The opportunity to employ assistants and build a robust working studio is huge. Maybe one of the more important milestones would be the ability to employ multiple studio assistants full time in the execution of projects bigger than what I could execute alone. Maybe that’s a ten year plan?
- What is the current or next step to achieving that goal?
I need to continue making work and let the ambition of the work scale up. The studio build out and the assistants – that all exists in service of the work, so the work needs to grow. I want to be afraid of the scope and scale of the work.
- What is your most memorable creative achievement in your artistic career so far?
Putting together my show at Harvard was a pretty big deal. I decided to work with a soft-paste porcelain material that I had started developing while I was in Florida. There were so many months of testing and having work fall apart all the time that when the show was finally in the gallery – it felt great. I had so many moments of just not knowing how everything was going to work, or if the work was viable. Everything in that show – the material, the process, it was all sort of reinvented.
- Outside of your current artistic medium, what are your favorite hobbies or interests?
I really enjoy skiing- the full body experience of moving through space like that – there’s nothing better.
- What do you do in times of lack of inspiration/motivation?
I’m really sensitive to momentum in the studio. Whenever I’m working things out, if I hit a snag, I’ll make cups, or engage some lower stakes projects. It’s more important to me to be doing something than to be frozen, worrying about what it is that I’m doing. Some of my best thinking happens when I’m doing a labor-oriented task (mixing glaze, prepping clay), and as long as I’m doing something, I trust that I’ll figure it out.
- What does a day in your studio look like? From the moment you park in the parking lot to when you walk out the door… outline a typical studio day!
I tend to work on one type of process in a long stretch, so there’s days that I might come in and it’s just a throwing day. Or today, I need to mix clay and extrude parts. So that’ll eat up most of the day, and I might start prep work for hand building tomorrow. Working with clay can be pretty physical, so there’s a constant conversation with my body about how much of one task I can tolerate and still be fresh and ready to go the next day.
- What one piece of advice would you give yourself 5-10 years ago?
I can be pretty timid – any encouragement to be more bold would serve me well. And I think that especially applies to anybody trying to make it in the arts.
- What would you tell someone who has never picked up your material/medium and wanted to start today?
Let go of expectations. In the beginner throwing classes especially, the people who really care about making good pots right off the bat- they struggle. Those that come in open to the experience, without expectation, they often do pretty well. The reality is that ceramics has a ton of technical stuff to learn, but the most important thing is doing what we can and being patient.
- How do you hope to grow during your time in the Artist Residency at GoggleWorks?
I’m hoping to be open to the jolt of being in a new place. The work that I develop here will be specific to my experience. I’ll learn from being present and paying attention.
GoggleWorks and the surrounding area will influence my work. Right off the bat, I find myself asking what does it mean to be post-industrial, and how do I fit into that?
- What is one thing you are looking forward to experiencing in Reading/Berks County while you are here?
I really want to connect with Reading as a place and allow that post-industrial spirit of rebirth to filter out into my work. I want to visit brick factories, salvage yards, and be in the city. There’s something in the reclamation and repurposing of spaces and architecture that’s exciting. There’s a vitality and purpose that really connects with art-making practices.
It’s fascinating to learn about each individual artist and their journey from first picking up their medium to now. Everything that happens in between – the shifts in mindset and technique or methodology, as well as environment – plays a role in informing an artist’s current and future work. We can’t wait to see what Colby creates while he is with us here at GoggleWorks. Whatever it is, we know he will surprise us! Stay on the lookout for Colby this summer, and make sure to check out the class he is teaching on June 26-27!