Featured Artist

In the Beginning Was Clay

By Published On: May 31st, 2024

My directions to Eve Kaplan’s Taghkanic studio were to turn at the pink mailbox. Originally red, it has now faded to a fabulous electric pink. Eve Kaplan hails from an artistic background. Her Norwegian mother was a ceramicist whose first husband was a painter. Her brother was also a painter. Her father, Richard Kaplan, was a documentary filmmaker who directed films about Martin Luther King and Eleanor Roosevelt. Creativity is embedded in Kaplan’s genes. 

Kaplan’s gilded age

“I attended Bennington College, which has a strong art department but is not an art school. I felt lost then; I did not want to attend art school, so I studied painting, sculpture, and theater. My interest in gilding and furniture restoration developed, and my first job was at the renowned Thorpe Brothers Restoration in Manhattan. They had terrific clients, so I worked and learned on exquisite pieces. I was not as knowledgeable regarding decorative arts, but they threw me into it. I felt so lucky. On the job, with each piece, I learned a great deal about gilding. I remained in that world for 30 years, immersed in the language of furniture, enjoying working with my hands. Initially, I conceived of old furniture as formal and rather fancy, but when I touched and felt the older objects, I discovered they were fun and creative. You can uncover many narratives within the decorative arts, including scenes of animals, birds, and flowers that reveal fantastic imagery in some early carved woods. I am fascinated by furniture’s history. Gilding techniques have remained unchanged; I still undertake the same early processes today.” Gilding is an ancient decorative technique, commonly employed by Egyptians and Phoenicians, and involves the application of thin, fragile metal leaves, oftengold or silver, onto a surface, resulting in a lustrous finish after burnishing.

“Eventually, I co founded Fitzkaplan, opening our antique restoration studio in New York City. My gallerist Gerald Bland became a client then; now the table has turned, and I am one of his artists.”  

For centuries,the person who received the most and often the only credit for a finished piece of furniture was the maker who created the wooden frame and carved the wood. The upholsters who sold the work were unrecognized, as were the gilders; only the carpenters making the wooden frame and the inlay received acknowledgment. Gilding was a hidden craft. Eve Kaplan has undoubtedly turned that chair around. Her large, bold body of work is unique as she pushes the alchemy of clay and glazing finishes. 

The upstate base

“We have been in this area for over 30 years. Doug, my late husband, and I bought this wholly gutted house with a falling-apart barn. He was a contractor who rebuilt it except for the shell. This space was the old garage, which Doug renovated into a studio for me. He knew it needed to be larger, but I resisted at the time. Now I’ve finally expanded, and he was so right! We always had a base upstate, even when working in the city. I had to escape, always getting out for the weekend. I never thought I would live in Manhattan for so long. When I came here, I realized how much I love the countryside. Growing up in the suburbs, I often went backpacking; getting out is essential and good for our souls.” 

In the newly renovated back studio hang Eve’s ceramic chandeliers in various modes of making. Early abstract expressionist paintings Kaplan made in the 1980s hang on the walls alongside a beloved fireplace abandoned on a sidewalk. Large work tables center both studios, and the walls are lined with shelves packed with glazing materials, small work samples, and a treasure trove of work. Huge, glazed windows overlook a long field, and her sleepy dog snoozes beside an old leather armchair. 

Changing Hats

“After many years of working in restoration, I felt restless and wanted to explore ceramics further. I was not too fond of the pottery wheel; instead, I enjoyed hand-building the pieces, and once I discovered this, I could not stop. I started creating built-up pots. Most ceramicists start with pots, and my mother taught me to pinch pots. The journey began with one piece of clay, building up and up. I experimented with glazing and introducing gilding into the ceramic pieces, quickly realizing that gilding on glaze resembles gilding on glass, like verre églomisé.”   

Kaplan’s work is a marriage of techniques; she has pushed boundaries by incorporating a contemporary twist to 18th-century decorative pieces. “An early work that caught Gerald’s attention was a mirror made up of a series of small block forms in dark rock-glazed clay. I thought of them as rocks built to form a mirror. Gerald recognized it and exclaimed it was akin to a Georgian mirror with all the correct dimensions. I had worked with Gerald for years as his furniture restorer and gilder and it was an easy transition to become one of his artists! Ever since, he has represented my work, and we have not stopped working together.” 

“One project led to another: commissions requested that I create varied techniques on original pieces or create those forms smaller or larger. When I was in college, I had always thought asking an artist to do a commission was weird; if someone had asked me to paint a painting to fit a size and make it purple, I considered that ridiculous because the work must have your voice in it. But I quickly realized these assignments challenged me, forcing me to expand where I might have just remained on one object. So, I will work on an object with different finishes and change the proportions.” 

The work has now created its own journey. Kaplan’s prolific practice includes ceramic wall-light fixtures, large hanging chandeliers, pieces of furniture, huge pots, candlesticks, pedestals, and tables. One is amazed that they are all made of clay with no supporting parts. 

We are looking at a clay rope table with a glass surface, a commission for a decorator who wanted a traditional rope-style piece. “These stools are usually carved from wood and occasionally gilded; I always saw them as ottomans. This designer approached me and asked if I could make a rope table with clay. I copied the rope concept literally in the clay, down to the knots as feet. Sometimes, claw feet may appear with small animals embedded in the legs, and vine-like imagery creeps through.” 

Kaplan showed me images of the powder room she created for designer Alex Papachristidis, whose conception was a shell grotto; here, she embedded tiles with shells and animal and bird images made with clay and installed them in mirrors both in front and behind, giving this room the sense of infinity. One feels transported into a garden folly by a room made of clay.

Behind the tables are two tall pillars, which Kaplan regards as sculptures. 

“They are quite different, but when I see them together, they talk to each other a little. So when I’m not working on a commission, I can head off the deep end and play,” she shared. Many smaller objects fill the shelves, both old and newer ideas. 

And what inspires you as an artist?

“The historic world of objects constantly inspires me, as does being outside, walking, and surrounding myself with nature. Occasionally, I use leaf or flower forms, but my work is not literal. I don’t do a lot of drawing or sketching. It all comes up from the clay as I work,” but she smiles at the advantages of drawing before sculpting. “I started doing animal tracking and learning more about woodlands. Now, when I walk in the woods, I notice every little action and the various relationships. Like what these mushrooms are, their relationships, and how they will communicate and support each other. You know, the connectivity of nature is interesting, but only if we could be the same.” This practice seeps into her work, making it feel organic in nature. 

“Is that a Medusa up there?” I ask. “Yes, I was afraid of doing any figurative work, so I took a figurative sculpture class in Italy. I enjoy seeing images carved on furniture – classical faces, gargoyles, and creatures. Even though there aren’t necessarily faces in my work, I see faces, or other forms, appear now and then. So there’s a column where I put a little ram’s head. I’d done some other mirrors where I included some animal narrative.” There is a sense of humor in her work. 

Can you describe your transition from painting to clay? 

“I loved the abstract expressionist painters; my painting work was loose, and I achieved a similar energy when making ceramics. Many ceramic artists work much more freely and loosely today, leaving the craft tradition of making beautiful pots. That’s interesting to me. But I still think I get my looseness from my background in painting; I still want to get back into painting but find it very hard. Sometimes I make wall pieces, which are similar to paintings. It’s always good to keep pushing the boundaries of the artform. My objects are not easily recognizable; they are my interpretation. It is all about the tactility of the clay and the process, the sensual experience of it. That’s why when I stopped painting and worked in restoration, I was so happy mixing colors and applying them to objects. Sometimes, it’s the physical act of making that holds you. Most materials are from Sheffield Pottery. I want to work with local clays. Ceramics involves so much technical stuff, so you need a reliable source. There’s a stream back there, and I’ve taken clay from it, but if it could handle better, I would use it more.”

What’s the scariest or the most complicated piece you’ve ever done?

“The chandeliers were initially nerve-racking because I didn’t understand how they were constructed and did not think I could do that in clay, but I relished the challenge. I slowly figured it out. Some of my mom’s early glass chandeliers started these pieces off. I know this plate is in the middle, and the arms can go this way, but I didn’t know that before. After a time, I’ve mastered these technical problems. A prototype can take weeks or months, and then you suddenly figure out a system. I lose some of the spontaneity of the original ones once I have a system. Some pieces have actual weight, and it’s fascinating that clay is so robust and heavy. I am getting to my maximum in terms of size. I rely on Joanne, my assistant, for the larger pieces. We created an oversized fireplace mantel, so we had to make everything in sections. I might make a single large piece, divide it up to fit the kiln, and reassemble it; there is no metal inside these large pieces to hold them. I created the eagle consoles, and my assistant and I have since worked on them and made other iterations. More than 50% of the commissions are from my original ideas. The early rock-like mirrors were rectangular, and I am now working on a rounded version. The sunburst objects have morphed into different shapes as well.” 

What would you choose if you could own any piece of work in the world?

“I would buy a Georgio Morandi painting, but it could also be an early Italian Renaissance or medieval art piece. But really, I don’t need anything. I have an enormous house, and it is already filled with stuff. Sometimes, I make work I want to hang onto longer, but they tend to leave immediately. Some of these older works on the shelves are for my notetaking and practice. They’re better than little pieces of paper to jolt the memory.”

What do you think of the Japanese kintsugi approach to repair?

Japanese kintsugi is a form of repair often used in ceramics, whose philosophy regards breakage and repair as integral to the narrative of an object, rather than something to disguise. 

“I always thought that was an exciting way of repairing work with the urushi lacquer mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum to highlight the break rather than hiding it. In some of the early mirrors, I hid all the seams so they would disappear. However, one day, I thought, why don’t I make it a visible kintsugi repair? I made the seams in gold leaf. I incorporate the seams into the design rather than making the edges and joins disappear. In some baroque-style mirrors I kept the tiles’ grid visible rather than hiding them, separating each piece with gold leaf. Now, it is an exciting part of the work.” Kaplan shows me a mirror and explains, “First, I made the whole mirror, then cut it into pieces so it fits in the kiln and doesn’t warp. The mirror rejoined after firing, and these joins are visual elements like the bones of the work.”  

What motivates your practice?

“My need to work, my need to use my hands to work. It is not an intellectual thing or a concept. It’s generally motivation to make objects. But seeing artists that are more intellectual or conceptual and go from one medium to another puzzles me because it differs from how I am. What defines an artist is some obsessive personality that they must do this work. If there’s nothing else they can do, this is what they do; you follow that path. I keep going to the studio every day. I realize restoration is tedious and requires lots of patience, and I don’t think of myself as patient. I’m rather impatient and work quickly, but I have the same obsessiveness.”

Do you have a specific routine for firing the kiln?

“I don’t have a big wood kiln; if you have one, you must fill it up before firing. I don’t have that patience. When I make something, I want to fire it right away. I don’t want to let it dry for three months. I like to work fast. I tend to have much more energy in the morning than when working late. I put in a typical working day.” Kaplan is prolific, so much clay comes through her hands.

There are two kilns in Kaplan’s back studio, one of which her mother used in her ceramic studio, and it is still working hard. The shelves are filled with pieces of glazed clay, ‘spares’ as Kaplan describes them, ready to be added to work, “These are from chandeliers that I didn’t use; nothing wasted, you can use them at some point, so I keep all the bits and pieces.” Two chandeliers hang over the kilns; one is a rock/glass creation that incorporates a broken crystal chandelier, which was too severely damaged for repair. “I made loose copies of all the pieces that I glazed. We then made two chandeliers that were opposite to each other, half ceramic, and half glass. It feels akin to kintsugi putting it back together and repairing it, with some of the repairs being obvious.”

We ended up nattering about the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland, which was born from interlocking basalt columns caused by an ancient volcanic eruption. These are deep rock formations. Rocks deeply inspire Kaplan’s practice and constantly remind me of her work, which is born of the earth. •

You can see more of Eve Kaplan’s work through her gallery at Gerald Bland, Fine Arts Building, 232 E 59th Street, NYC. Visit her website geraldblandinc.com and Instagram @evekaplan.