If you will, imagine yourself walking into a used bookstore on an overcast Sunday afternoon. A tiny bell rings overhead as you push open the door and you are confronted by that distinct, seductive scent of old, brown, crispy paper.
An elderly woman greets you with an almost inaudible “Hello!” from behind a stack of books in the back of the store. You reply happily and begin weaving your way through stacks and shelves, scanning each title as you slightly tilt your head to the side to better read the worn, gold-leafed titles gracing each cloth covered spine.
Your hands drift over titles, picking out those that catch your eye as you flip through the pages. You want to look at every single book, knowing that there has to be a gem in this place that you can take back with you.
Now, imagine each book as a delicate piece of ceramic. Each piece makes a tiny little clink as you pick it up, feeling smooth porcelain in your fingers, turning the object over and over, trying to find where it begins and ends. Pieces line the shelves that tower above you, each offering a new opportunity to touch and embrace something special in your hands and get closer to the artist’s intention.
This is Liz Quan’s studio. As we sit down to chat at her wooden table in the center of her light-filled studio in Boulder, CO, a wall of windows reveals the majestic Flatirons as our backdrop.
Quan gave me a handmade mug filled with water as we both sat down at the work table that was overflowing with small ideas, tests, unfired ceramic pieces, and finished works. All of these pieces connected to each other in some unique way, be it through similar colors, familiar arcs and curves, or simply proximity. The objects that surround us act as Quan’s sketchbook, allowing her to manipulate the pieces, moving and shaping them until they offer a unified creation.
Quan says this type of workflow encourages her subconscious mind to take control and create combinations out of the accustomed language in which she has become fluent. Manifesting serendipity is what I call it. By mentally removing constraints, Quan is able to create work that simply yearns to exist in its current state, and asks nothing more. The work continues to resonant with itself even when it finds a new home, leaves the studio, or is on display in a shop or gallery.
Working this way also allows Quan’s pieces to take on a special life of their own, much different from other ceramic processes I have encountered. Through experimentation and a process driven practice, she has found a way for her vision to come through the pieces of clay that have been formed.
In an approach she describes as “Make it ‘til you make it,” every piece gets used in some form or another, and if not used right away it is put into a box for later. Consistent with a ‘no-waste’ studio practice, every little bit and bob that is created in the studio is stored, used, or thought about in a critical way. The cut off pieces of ceramic being slip-cast, a process of pouring fluid clay into a plaster mold, are used to make necklaces and small sculptural objects. Cast pieces become pendants, pendants become light fixtures, and all the smaller pieces become fridge magnets.
Quan works around the concept of play, but does not feel bound to the idea that her works needs to fit into that prescribed concept. She is happiest making her work, adjusting as she sees fit, and assembling pieces that do not necessarily feel playful, all in the essence of play through process.
When she incorporates color, which she makes using chalk pastel and a sealer, the pieces bright and playful, often referencing blocks in a child’s playroom. But it’s the way she creates that’s at the heart of her playful idea. Not bound by a need to create an object that carries a conceptual weight, Quan allows herself to connect with the material and let that guide her to create finished work. This connection is meant to also extend outside of the studio; all of Quan’s pieces are intended to be picked up, manipulated, moved around, rearranged, and felt.
Chains of multiples and piles of smaller pieces build up to create flowing organic towers, a work that is complete in its own right, and yet still somehow a work in progress. Using the medium of clay as a vehicle for experimentation, Quan uses her muscle memory and intuitive senses as a guide during creation. There is often not a concrete start to new work, but rather an investigation into what was created before and how that can relate to a new object. Formal qualities are strong in Quan’s ceramics, piling work to create sculptural objects with harsh lines, lyrical movement, and clean execution.
There is a certain quality to her work that makes it feel nice to move around, though I can’t exactly put my finger on what that is. Perhaps it is the weight of certain objects, the nice hand-sized proportion of her work, or the mixture of ceramic and textiles that draws you in. Regardless, taking the time to sit and manipulate a Liz Quan installation is time well spent. Maybe even better than a Sunday stroll through a used bookstore.
Studio.Public is a bi-annual publication featuring artists and creatives. It’s curated and written by Drew Austin and Jessica Kooiman. Learn more about their publication and podcast at wearestudiopublic.com.