Interview With Clay Sculptor Jennifer Rudkin

“Working with clay feels mystical to me. It’s always exciting –but also terrifying– to open the kiln after heating the sculptures to 2165 degrees for their final firing. Many weeks of work lie within. Has the mud transformed to stone or melted away? Have the pieces regained their vibrancy or do they retain the chalky lifelessness of bisqueware? There are always pieces for which I have high expectations that don’t catch the magic, but there are also sculptures that dance with a life I did not expect.” 

-- Clay Sculptor Jennifer Rudkin

President of the Lazy Club (Custom Piece)
 How did you get started with clay sculpture? When did you know you were a sculptor?

I enrolled in clay classes at the Y when I was very young, maybe 6 or 7. And then I took about 25 years off. I pursued an academic career. In 1995 a university class I planned to teach on Psychology and Social Change was under-enrolled so I had an unexpected free evening. A friend invited me to go with her to a drop-in clay class. When my fingers squeezed into the clay something deep was triggered. From that point on I knew I needed to find a way to work with clay again and I have done so, more and more each year. About a year and a half ago I became a full-time professional sculptor.

What made you choose animals as your subject matter? 

It wasn’t a conscious choice. I’ve always felt an affinity to animals and I almost always end up building animals. One fun aspect of sculpting is that in addition to filling custom orders and gallery requests, I can always find time in a day to create something unexpected. When I walk into the studio in the AM I never know precisely what/who will end up on the drying table at the end of the day. So far, 99% of the time, the table fills with animals.

Fool for Love - Frog

Ceramic Snail with Heart Shell
The eyes in your sculptures seem to look deeply into the eyes of the viewer. Is that intentional?

Yes and no. I don’t consciously set out to do that but I have to create sculptures that speak to me (and hopefully to others). The creations are silent and so they speak mostly through their eyes. But I don’t want them to speak only through their eyes.  When I work with very young children, who often want to make the eyes right away, I tell them the eyes are like dessert. I do all I can to get the character and personality and dog-ness or bear-ness or whatever I’m making, into the body and the pose. The eyes come last.

In your blog on your website, you mention that some of your work was displayed at the Boulder Public Library. I wonder that experience was like in terms of community feedback and library support of your work?

One of the wonderful aspects of showing my work anywhere is that my sculptures often make people not only smile but laugh out loud. I feel so lucky to play a part in that experience of joy. And I love to support libraries—perhaps the most precious social institution in my life. Writing figured prominently in my academic life and I have always loved books and words.

Exhibit - Boulder Public Library - Suessian Series
Suessian Series Slideshow on Facebook
Duck on a Truck
Hippopotamus on a Greyhound Bus
Your take on Dr. Seuss’s rhymes  in the Suessical Series made me think of Green Eggs and Ham in particular, where Sam I Am persistently attempts to convince his fellow character of the merits of eating green eggs and ham. Since clearly you are a fan of Dr. Seuss, I wonder what you think is the appeal his books have for readers, and what made you think of using that rhyming concept for this particular work?

I love that Dr. Suess is both silly and serious.  Dr. Suess was a pretty radical guy. He took on important issues. People make a mistake when they are dismissive of silliness, as any student of Saul Alinsky knows.

I’m not sure exactly where the Suessian Series idea came from (or where any idea comes from, really) but part of why I love that series is because it’s interactional.  Viewers seem to really enjoy guessing the rhymes. Also, the series stretched me as an artist. I had never made most of the animals that appear in the series before. So I got to add moose and crab and chimp and all sorts of creatures to my repertoire. And hunting for the perfect antique vehicles was great fun, too.
Golden Doodle in a Blanket

Would you mind talking about the purpose of the IDOG organization and your involvement in it? How does your work benefit that organization?

About seven years ago, when my two sons were old enough to appreciate and respect animals in our home, a labradoodle puppy named Tupelo Honey joined our family. We got him a companion (a rescue mutt named Shoni) for his first birthday, and the following year we hand-raised three abandoned kittens and kept one, Amelia. All three animals matter but Tupelo Honey holds a special place as my Muse. He is goofy, cuddly, excessively enthusiastic, and completely joy motivated—which means he gets into trouble all the time—eating what he shouldn’t, running off, sleeping wherever he pleases (the dining room table, for example).  As much work as he is, and he is a LOT of work, I really admire him. And so I welcomed a chance to create a fundraiser in his honor. IDOG is an international non-profit that supports the responsible ownership and breeding of labradoodles and goldendoodles. They also provide rescue services. During the month of October, if anyone who buys a sculpture mentions IDOG, I donate 30% of the purchase price to that organization.

You also have been involved with the  Art Students League of Denver.  What do you enjoy about contributing toward that organization through your talent?

Of course I love to support art and artists for many reasons, but one of the fun aspects of my involvement with this League is that I take classes that have nothing to do with ceramic sculpture. As a professional artist I need to be sure to make time to play.

 What appeals to you as an artist about using art to help the community in some way?

My degree is in community psychology. I have always had an interest in understanding and supporting communities. This continues as an artist. And it seems to be true of many artists—we are a pretty socially conscious and dedicated group as a whole.  I guess it has to do with the desire to make spaces beautiful and meaningful.

On your blog, you also mention that you teach clay sculpture classes. What is the most fulfilling or interesting aspect of that process for you? 

Working with clay was an important part of my childhood. My affinity with the material lay dormant for decades but when I got back to the clay, my fingers remembered. I love giving young people an opportunity to form that connection with clay, a connection that will be there always.

Oh My
Lions and Tigers and Bears. :-) Would ‘whimsical’ be a good adjective for your work? How would you describe it?

Oh my goodness. That’s a question I think on a LOT. Do you have a few hours for my answer?
Without a doubt THE adjective most commonly used to describe my work is “whimsical.”  So I’ve had to make peace with that word. 

At first I fought this descriptor. The main reason I object to the term is that it implies a lack of seriousness and depth. Synonyms of whimsical include: flighty, erratic, flaky, light, flippant, nonchalant, capricious, erratic, unstable, and careless. You get the picture. I have found that a lot of people, including quite a few fellow artists, cannot take seriously anyone whose art may be described as “whimsical.”

On the other hand, there are aspects of the term that I do embrace:  playful, odd, unexpected, singular, unusual,spirited, amusing, weird, queer, humorous, eccentric, animated. So I play with this dichotomy describing my work as “Fine Art Whimsy” or “Whimsical Pathos.”

My work is not born out of a sense of carelessness. Quite the contrary. I believe my art has grown from the heaviness I felt as a young person, the profound loneliness that characterized my daily life.  As a young child, my first sculptures were efforts to make true companions for myself. I believed that if I could really capture the soul of my subject, the sculpture would actually come to life.

I want my sculptures to bring joy but also to have depth…faithful companions as opposed to fair-weather friends.

Are there other books that have in any way inspired your work? Are you planning any upcoming series inspired by literature?

I read a lot and I love playing with language but I can’t say any books directly inspire my work. Certainly I am attracted to authors who pair seriousness and silliness. I note that I am writing these words on Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday.

As for a future series…It’s not literature exactly but I have thought of doing another guessing game based on sculptural depictions of Beatles songs.

Road Trip
This one just made me smile. Would you mind talking about this one and the creative process of bringing it into being?

Well, it’s Tupelo Honey the Muse at work again. His passion for tennis balls makes its way into many of my sculptures (check out my recent newsletter ).

The Road Trip sculpture has its roots in the wonderful toy car from the 30s. I got it cheap because of the missing doors but I knew I could find a way to make that “flaw” part of the sculpture. My first thought was to build some beasts peeking out of the car but an aspect of the toy car’s charm is the father in the driver’s seat and daughter in the passenger seat. It’s a family car.  I thought about packing up for a family trip and the idea for the sculpture came to me. The Saint Bernard has absolutely everything he needs for a road trip. Sticks and balls. That’s it. He’s ready now. I love that simplicity and clarity about what is really important, which isn’t necessarily the things that cost a lot of money.  You can’t take everything on a road trip, only what you really need to make your vacation sing.

This reminds me of the question of what you would grab if your house caught fire. What really matters? For Tupelo Honey and the Saint Bernard in that sculpture, the answer is clear.

Turtle Sculpture Ceramic Container

Buffalo Ornament
Some of your work is functional sculpture. You make dog bowls, ornaments, and containers. Are there other items of this type that you are working on or planning?

I’ve been trying to set aside time to make more vases for the coming of spring but I keep getting sidetracked. My current delight is animals in hats—jester hats mostly but also party hats. I keep telling myself, okay, enough with the hats already, but then I keep making more and the sculptures are getting bigger and bigger. I also have plans for various animals in shoes. I’ve made rabbits in Chuck Taylors and in bunny slippers and I have some new ideas for animals in various types of footwear.

Any upcoming shows or exhibitions you’d like to mention?

There are always upcoming shows but let me highlight a spring fundraiser for a local mountain biking group called SMBA.: Singletrack Mountain Bike Adventures. Last summer my older son rode the trails of Colorado with this wonderful non-profit and developed not only great cycling skills but also a deep passion for mountain biking and the outdoors. His enthusiasm is contagious and my younger son hopes to join the mountain biking fun this summer. Community-minded artists in a variety of media will show and sell their bike-themed, nature-themed, and other art at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art on May 3. A portion of the proceeds will benefit SMBA's youth scholarship program.

What is the most appealing aspect of your work for you personally?

If you asked me that question on 10 occasions I’m sure I would have 10 different answers but today what comes to mind is how wonderful it feels to make my living using the right side of my brain. I spent so many years living on the left side.  I feel so much more balanced.

Thank you, Jennifer! I really enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about you and your work!
To see more of Jennifer Rudkin's work, visit her studio, her Etsy Shop, or her Facebook page.  Additionally, she may be contacted through her email address, which is jen@rudkinstudio.com.

All images on this page are used by permission, are property of Jennifer Rudkin, and are copyright protected.

Postscript: As I have mentioned elsewhere in my blog, one of the great joys of interviewing artists for me is that I continue to learn, and sometimes my misconceptions are put right.

If you have seen the movie 'The Princess Bride,' do you remember how the character of Vizzini keeps saying, 'Inconceivable!' every time something does not go according to his plan? Many things do not go according to his plan, and he says this word many times. Mandy Patinkin, in character as Inigo Montoya, finally observes aloud to him, " You keep using that word. I do not think that word means what you think it means."

I have to admit that the word 'whimsical' lacked negative connotation for me. I honesty believed it meant the artist's ability to add an additional unexpected layer of fun to their art. It connoted for me a sense of joy in addition to the creation itself. I am sure I have used that word in many instances when admiring someone's art. If you were on the receiving end of that comment, I will hope that you know my comment was kindly meant. I will be more careful (and hopefully more specifically descriptive) now that I know better. :-)

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