Rituals & Reflections with Ceramic Artist and Painter Jen Dwyer

Jen Dwyer, Stay Hard & Soft, Ceramic sculpture, 2020

In the several years preceding the pandemic, Jen Dwyer completed her MFA in Ceramics at the University of Notre Dame, exhibited at Miami Context in 2019 as well as in back-to-back iterations of Spring/Break, and saw her work profiled by Forbes and Architectural Digest. Then, when the rapidly increasing toll of the coronavirus caused the collective art world to press pause on what promised to be yet another whirlwind year, she took the slower pace of life as an opportunity to embrace deeper introspection in her studio practice. This newfound creative intuition wove its way into the production of her most recent collection of sculptures and paintings, which the artist recently debuted at Wassaic Project in New York.

Dwyer describes her newest works as familiar but foreign, an apt interpretation in more ways than one. In her installation, she presents us with many recognizable objects from her oeuvre – the decorative mirrors, vases, and Venus of Willendorf-esque figurines that she’s become known for. Yet, these are not exactly a continuation of the amalgam of 18th century Rococo aesthetics and contemporary gender politics we’ve seen from her previously. In this new body of work, her ornate ceramic sculptures and intimate, illustrative paintings instead explore the theme of daily rituals. We caught up with the artist to further discuss her thoughts on this series, her process of working between the mediums of clay and paint, and what she has planned for 2021.

“During a time when our country feels more divided than ever, my work has evolved to highlight the duality of both celebration and mourning, which clouds our daily lives. While people are more isolated than they have been before, and when there are endless news sources to obtain the ‘facts’ from, the line between truth and fiction, reality and simulation feels very blurred. Little moments and actions we can feel, see, and do seem extra precious. I use the mediums of clay and painting to embellish my sculptures, to depict emotion and feelings of love, loss and connection. I sculpt and paint everyday rituals such as one’s yoga practice, preparing food, calling a friend, and going for a walk — among others. While things feel like they are moving at a snail’s pace, daily rituals now feel extra precious in helping us become acquainted with our new existence. My ceramic objects have anthropomorphic, surreal qualities and my hope is that the viewer feels comfortable but a bit off center, similar to the bizarreness of this time. Similarly, my paintings are set in a familiar yet unplaceable location, perhaps a friend’s bedroom, or a lucid dream, familiar but foreign.” – Jen Dwyer

The pandemic has had a profound effect on all of us both personally and professionally. In your case, how did you feel your art practice changed in 2020?

What changed about my practice in 2020 was working more intuitively. During this special time when everything seemed like it slowed down, I have felt like it has created more space to reflect, which has led to working in a more intuitive way and exploring and sharing new processes.

Congrats on the opening of All In/All Out at Wassaic Project in November! Can you share more about the work included in this installation? What are some of the ideas you aim to express through this body of work?

I have been thinking a lot about the unpaid labor that is going into working from home, the disproportionate amount of women that were laid off during the pandemic, and the ways that women’s mental health has been affected during this time. So it’s about acknowledging those invisible things, and then celebrating the small daily rituals of self-preservation we use to get through them. Little things like stretching, dancing, taking a hot shower or bath, listening to music, brushing your teeth, calling someone you love, or getting out of bed all feel a lot more precious now.

I’m really pleased with how the show came out. It’s the first time I’ve exhibited my paintings and ceramics together, and I’m excited about how they talk to each other in the gallery. I think it’s my favorite installation/body of work I’ve created so far.

Jen Dwyer, It Felt Like, Installation view from exhibition at Wassaic Project, 2020

You mentioned being particularly excited about one of the sculptures called “Feel You”. What was the process of creating this piece?

This mirror piece uses an amalgamation of ceramic processes. First, I sculpted the positive frame of the mirror in six sections and casted it in plaster, so I could mirror, use the same gilded motif, on the top and bottom. I spent a few days going in with a paintbrush to clean up the large gilded ceramic frame, and then I sculpted roses, intertwined fingers, and butterflies, and attached them. Afterwards, I dipped lace into slip (essentially liquid clay) and lathered that onto the frame. I let the sculpture dry out for a week or two and then I bisque fired her (the first firing), painted her with glaze, and fired her again. For this piece, I used a few different shades of black and silver glaze. Finally, I adhered the frame to the mirror and installed her.

Jen Dwyer, Feel You, Mixed media ceramic sculpture, 2020

You’ve been producing more paintings recently as well. Can you discuss more about how you approach each medium?

Ceramics is my love language. I feel that people initially fall for clay because of the tactile quality of the medium and the communal environment it’s taught in. That’s the case for me, too, but it’s also the way ideas come to me. Sometimes, when I’m on a run, a new sculpture idea will pop into my head and then I’ll go straight to making. Painting is a more individual and premeditated medium for me. I like to do a watercolor or drawing beforehand, but once I begin painting, the feeling reminds me of throwing on a potter’s wheel. You can fall into a flow pretty easily—it feels pretty magical, like time doesn’t exist. If I need to do something, I often have to set an alarm.

Wet clay also has a short lifespan. From the moment I begin a new sculpture, I have less than a month to finish her—once a certain amount of water has evaporated from the clay, you have to stop. There’s a balance between fear and excitement that is involved in ceramics. It’s such a magical medium, but also a very technical one with a high failure rate (I can’t tell you the number of pieces that have cracked, blown up, or fallen apart in the kiln). Despite that frustrating part of clay, I do feel like I enjoy few feelings more than opening a glaze kiln and having everything turn out just how I want it. Painting is more immediate—it’s such an initial excitement, at least compared to clay. You can mix your colors and know exactly what it will look like on your canvas, but when adding color to ceramics—whether that’s through glaze, luster, mason stains, etc.—there’s always a bit of variation (although there are ways to control those variations).

In terms of how they relate to one another, I think of my paintings as extended stories or vignettes of my ceramic sculptures. So I often think about what they, the venuses/ female ceramic figures, would be doing and use that as a starting-off point to begin a painting.

Jen Dwyer, Judy, Mixed media ceramic sculpture, 2020

Jen Dwyer, Hear You, Mixed media ceramic sculpture, 2020

What do you have coming up in 2021? Any other projects, collaborations, or exhibitions that you’re looking forward to?

Yes, I’m really excited for 2021. I will be curating my first exhibition in NYC. I can’t share which gallery yet, but it’s in Chelsea, and it’s going to be a craft show called Magic Touch. I will also be continuing my year-and-a-half-long residency at the Wassaic Project (which ends at the end of April 2021). I will have a two-person exhibition at House Guest Gallery with sculptor Gracelee Lawerence, curated by Samantha Simpson (from February 5th to April 3rd) and I will participate in a group show at Georgetown College.

I have found mental health to be at the forefront of my mind this past year. At first, I thought that my world wouldn’t be affected too much, because working in isolation is essentially the life of an artist but it’s hard to not feel impacted with all the global mourning and loss. I also feel like this last year has been a lot about reflecting on things that have been normalized. Thinking forward about what could change feels exciting.

Jen Dwyer, Lavender Rose Knuckles, Mixed media ceramic sculpture, 2020

All photo courtesy of the artist

Alicia Puig is a curator and arts writer currently based in San José, Costa Rica. She earned her MA in Art History from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia and is a regular contributor for Create! Magazine, Pikchur Magazine, and Art She Says. Her second book, “The Complete Smartist Guide”, was recently published in the summer of 2020 and is currently available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.