Bonnie Lynch is in between studios, so we met at her beautiful modernist home where she led us from room to room, showing us the pieces that she is currently living with.
Lynch makes hand-built, smoke-fired vessels, some as large as five feet tall, others small enough to fit in the hand. Her color palette is minimal and plays the whiteness of the clay against the deep graphite blacks achieved by saggar firing, a process that sometimes also deposits hues of blue and brown. Her work is simple to describe but is not necessarily easy to talk about. It is ceramic but is decidedly sculpture, standing apart from functional ware. Each vessel has a distinct presence and holds its own space with a fineness that belies the inherent sturdiness of the objects. They may look as fragile as eggs, but Lynch said it takes a hammer to destroy a piece. With subtle patterns left by minerals drying in the clay, colors and textures revealed by changing light, and elegant curves terminating in uneven flattened edges, it is work for the keen-eyed.
Lynch is deeply inspired by the creativity of others, and sitting in her sunny kitchen, she spoke about Rufus Wainwright, conversations with poets, and the work of William Kentridge and Robert Wilson as impetus for the studio. Asked about her smaller work, Lynch retrieved a box from the garage and unpacked it on her kitchen counter. I sat holding a set of nesting bowls that fit neatly into my palm and couldn’t help but wonder about her fascination with the form.
Sarah Bradley: What keeps you making vessels, specifically?
Bonnie Lynch: It’s something that I’m always thinking about and wishing I could articulate; I’m not sure why. I love that it’s a form that has been around forever, and I love it that it’s usually utilitarian. I think about that all the time. I’ve always loved to cook and to feed people, so it might have some connection to that, but maybe it’s partly from seeing really, really old vessels like from shipwrecks or in ancient Greece. I’m not really sure; I don’t know why. I think these more recent ones are getting more abstract, but I still want to make vessels.
“It’s like suddenly you’re completely present, even if it’s for thirty seconds. I think that’s really important in people’s lives, especially as things get more frantic and more digital, and it’s definitely a priority in my work.”
Ages ago, a good friend of mine who’s an artist—she was actually also my first ceramics teacher—I was struggling with coming up with an artist statement. We sat down one night, and she just fired questions at me about why I did my work, and what it boiled down to was that I was primarily interested in beauty. In this day and time, you can be criticized for contemporary art if that’s your priority—it’s like it’s not legitimate enough. But ever since we articulated that, I’ve continued to think about it in terms of what beauty can do for different people. To me, I’ve had so many experiences where I’ve seen something that really catches my eye—and, of course, it’s very subjective, what you think is beautiful—but to me, it stops everything. It’s like suddenly you’re completely present, even if it’s for thirty seconds. I think that’s really important in people’s lives, especially as things get more frantic and more digital, and it’s definitely a priority in my work.
How long have you been working in this technique?
Forty years. I love it. I haven’t wavered from the process. My style isn’t changing; I think they’re getting more refined. When I look at my work from fifteen years ago, it is heavier and it’s thicker, and these are getting more ethereal, almost floating.
These are all coil-built, hand-built; I’ve never used a wheel. I was always bored with working on a potter’s wheel—the forms are too symmetrical for me—but I have a lot of respect for that kind of work. From the first time I started working in clay, I didn’t want to glaze anything. I still have my first big, lumpy pot that was coiled, and I put a clear glaze on it and I was so disappointed because it came out shiny like glass. And ever since then, I’ve only smoke-fired. And just when you think you can repeat a mark or a surface, it just doesn’t work. It’s very humbling.
I love hand-building because it’s a slow, methodical process. When I’m doing the large ones, I usually have half a dozen going at one time, because you add on clay and then you have to wait until it sets up and loses moisture before you can keep going. So you sort of go from one to another. By the time you finish the fifth or sixth one, the first one is ready for more clay. This would drive some people crazy, but I’m not in a hurry! The large pieces, they dry for six to eight weeks, and the last part to dry is the rim, the opening, and that’s the most vulnerable. If you get a crack on that opening edge when you’re drying it, it’s almost impossible to fix. It’s just futile to try.
So there’s beauty in that process for you.
Yes, because I love the material. I love working with wet clay. There’s a stage of clay, whether you’re making coffee cups or sculptures, it’s called leather-hard, and it’s when there’s still moisture in the clay and there’s this sheen to the clay—it’s not dry and chalky looking. That leather-hard stage is so beautiful because it looks like it’s alive. It’s just the materials. I find it very comforting and therapeutic and just fun to work with the clay. But I do enjoy all the various stages: the firing and getting the surprise after it’s smoke-fired and seeing if you like it or not. I think my favorite part about doing this work is it’s such a great mind space to be in to just work.
I noticed that your sister, Linda Lynch, is an artist, too.
Yes, I’m her biggest fan, and I cannot believe that I don’t have one of her pieces up. She does big black-and-white pastel drawings that are abstract. I’m getting ready to hang one of her big drawings—when they’re framed they’re about three feet by five feet. We’ve shown together a lot. We never collaborate; we just work separately, but if there’s an opportunity to do a show, we’ll bring a lot of work into the room and see what fits. It’s great fun.
From the photos that I saw, it’s interesting: your art is very distinct but there’s also something relational between your work.
It’s definitely from growing up in West Texas. We grew up on this beautiful ranch that was a hundred miles from the city. We spent a lot of time outside when we were growing up, and I see that environment in this work so much—and Linda’s too, even though it’s not literal.
Does that tie to the landscape relate to beauty?
Oh, absolutely. It’s a subjective thing, because somebody who grew up on the ocean or in the high mountains with forest, they may not be comfortable with or intrigued by the desert. In the place where we grew up, it’s seventy miles visibility ’til you see the mountains. It’s this expansive Chihuahuan Desert with rugged mountains and much more open than where we’re sitting in Santa Fe.
When I think about growing up in this place, I feel like I was outside ninety percent of the time. I was literally close to the dirt and the stones and this rugged terrain. I think it instilled a very strong preference for minimalism in me and a minimal aesthetic, because you have to look closer. You have to appreciate these tiny flowers that only come out in the rain that you may not see for three years, or the types of beetles that live there. The palette of that landscape is not broad: it’s brown and beige and blue and gray. It definitely created the aesthetic I hold closest.
I’m interested in how self-directed your career seems to have been. Did you have any big mentors or anybody who tried to direct you?
It’s a good question. You know, I really didn’t. I had a real strong idea when I started working in clay that I wanted to make large hand-built vessels. I never wanted to glaze them. And I think it has been so strongly self-directed because I didn’t ever get lined up for really any length of time with an established dealer. All the time I’ve done this, I’ve been with very few galleries. I also think I’ve always straddled that line between sculpture and craft or pottery, and so most of the shows I’ve done were one-time shots with dealers, and they were in galleries that only show sculpture and painting; they weren’t ceramics galleries. So part of that might be that there wasn’t a niche for what I was doing. I started thinking outside the box of where you could exhibit and what you could do independently, and I’ve sort of continued that here in Santa Fe, because I’m not with a gallery and don’t want to be. I did a show in this house two years ago, and I’m going to do another one in the summer next year with my sister.
So you’ve done a lot of it yourself.
Well, I mean, if it’s not happening, you have to decide how you’re going to promote the work—or not. And sometimes—I’m sure it’s true for a lot of artists—you feel like you’re tripping over your work because maybe it hasn’t sold this year. But that’s never stopped me from continuing to make new pieces or see how else to get it out there. You’re always hopeful if you do an exhibition that you’ll have some sales, but you cannot—absolutely cannot—focus on that, or the exhibition’s not going to be right.
It doesn’t keep me awake anymore. I’ve always just been so devoted to doing the work. That was always the priority. It’s wonderful to have exhibitions and get feedback from people, but it really has to be about the time all by yourself in the studio.
Did you ever find not having a gallery discouraging?
Well, there’ve certainly been times when I wish I could hook up with somebody who would really promote the work and do what art dealers are supposed to do, but that’s really hard to find. And I don’t want to just show anywhere, so I’ve been incredibly particular about that. But when I think about all the years and who’s seen the work and where that work has ended up—I’ve got six or seven large pieces at the Judd Foundation, and Martha and Robert Wilson have pieces, and there are pieces at the Menil [Collection] in Houston. It’s not like things haven’t happened; they just don’t happen every six months.
Those are some fantastic places!
The validation from people you respect is so important. That can carry you for years, I think.
But I don’t get the sense that you necessarily need a ton of outside validation.
Because it really is about the work. I just love my work, and I really believe in it. I’m sure when I was younger I had some doubts about where I was going with it, but it’s been like a companion, almost. I know it’s good work, and even if nobody sees that from this day forward, I am really happy with it. I feel like one of the luckiest people in the whole world because I’m an artist and always have that work, even if you have long periods of time when you can’t get in the studio, like right now. I don’t have a workspace, but I’m not worried about it. That will evolve.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.