Object & Totem

Julianne Ahn


In the economic turbulence of 2007, Julianne Ahn found herself caught between the path she knew and the more malleable one she found seated at a pottery wheel. As this fiber artist turned designer discovered, balancing between two worlds offers its own lessons to learn. Hers is a story of starting over and taking form in that mysterious middle ground between what we’ve planned for and what may sweep us into an entirely new way of being.

How did you begin your career?

I went to RISD for Textile Design and then to grad school for Fiber Material Studies. I thought I was going to have more of a fine art career in textiles, but it didn’t work out that way. In grad school I was embroidering and screen printing, and then I went on a trip to South East Asia and got really interested in stenciling and muraling and collaging. But then, I graduated in the recession. It was a rat race to get something creative, so I was doing a lot of little semi-creative jobs. I ended up working at an advertising agency, but that only lasted a few years before I was laid off. Suddenly I had all of this free time. It was the winter and I was getting really depressed, just watching bad reality TV shows and knitting baby sweaters. I was overthinking so many things, like what I should be doing with my life. I needed something to take me out of myself. I couldn’t go back to school again, so I thought I might as well pick up a throwing class. That’s how it started, but then I got obsessed.  

So I started in 2011, or at least that was the year that I decided I’m really doing this. It took awhile for me to accept it, but at that point I didn’t really have that much to choose from. I felt like I didn’t fit in the art world and didn’t yet fit in the design world. For me clay was all about timing. But since 2013 I’ve noticed that a lot of people started over in their careers post recession. There were a lot of people with nontraditional routes bringing that perspective from their former careers. You no longer had just the people who went to Alford who know everything about ceramics and that’s all they do and that’s all they’ve ever done and you know what you’re going to get. You never know what you’re going to get from a ceramicist’s background. 

What effect did that transition have on you? 

When ceramics came into the picture I was just learning so much from the material itself. In the beginning there is such a high rate of loss. There are so many unknowns. I think that was part of what was so fascinating to me about it, that you can mess up so many ways in so many stages of making a single piece, even right up to the very end when something might explode in the kiln but you just keep doing it anyway. It forces you to embrace those unknowns, to become comfortable with that part of life in general. That time of life for me was important because I felt so vulnerable about starting over again. I felt like I should have already had my dream job. 

I still feel like I’m learning, and I love that. The thing that scared me the most when I lost my job was losing that curiosity I had in college. It’s so easy to lose that with the internet. You can be so incredibly inspired by the things you see, while at the same time be totally dissuaded. It can make you feel like what you’re doing isn’t enough, that you’re always a far cry from where you want to be. But that’s the internet for you. You kind of have to embrace it for all of the good and the bad. 

Ceramics really took a turn with modern technology because people are so fascinated by something that can’t be altered digitally. When you’re making ceramics, you have to literally put everything else down and be there. You can’t be holding your phone. I think this idea of being present and doing something with your hands felt so new to people all over again. Even if they’re just watching someone else do it. It’s like when you go into a vintage store and you find those random pieces of pottery by potters who are so anti-internet. It just feels so special to witness it firsthand.  

In writing about your own work you mention meditation and mechanics. Do you meditate?

I’ve gone in and out of it as a practice. I did it a lot more when I was pregnant, like I’m going to get through this. When I first started doing ceramics, I couldn’t shake this spinning feeling out of my body. It’s very physical, especially when your muscles are still learning how to behave. I distinctly remember early on after a full day of working that my hands would still be almost in position like I was holding a piece. I felt like I was still spinning a little. It never really left your body in a nice way, like a positive insanity. It kept you thinking about what you had been doing, kept you in the process almost.

I sketch a lot less than I have in the past because I find myself in the moment trying new things rather than trying to figure it out ahead of time. There’s something so nice about designing at the wheel, just trying something and taking a step back. It’s just another part of my brain. I’m innately a very Type A personality who likes orderly things, but what I love and hate about making ceramics is that so many things take you off guard. It doesn’t allow you to always be precise. It forces me to be more intuitive. I try to stay in between. So it all comes down to the way you see things, and the value you bring to the object. 

Why the name Object and Totem?

One reason is that I grew up religious. I’m not anymore, but I think when you grow up having these rituals in your life, there’s a part of you that gets very comfortable with that. That aspect of ritual transferred into my creativity. It sounds cheesy, but there is a spiritual aspect to making things. For me at the time I really needed it. 

Someone told me about a friend that they had who would wake up every morning and just throw a cup. Kind of like a prayer, in a way. They would just throw a cup, and quickly squash it down. They would never save the cup. I thought that was really interesting, and it reminded me of when I was in Southeast Asia and we went to this forest near the Mekong River in Laos. We came across these rectangular structures on stilts that maybe had a window on each end. I was told they were for monks that did nothing but walk back and forth through these enclosed hallways. They weren’t going anywhere, they’re just walking back and forth. And yet it’s like a prayer for them. I appreciate that. I even understand it, in a way. Because at some point you don’t know which end is which and it just becomes this part of you, where your body is in motion and you’re letting your mind go somewhere else. 

It also implies this balance, somewhere in the middle of art and utility. That comes up in the way that you use another pair of words in describing your own work: “control and discovery.” 

Especially with throwing I feel like I’ve gotten very comfortable with one pound of clay. I know exactly what I can make with that. But there are so many unknown variables at every stage. Glazing is one of the most challenging stages. You literally put things in a fiery box and don’t know what’s going to come out. It’s nice for me to be able to control one aspect of it but allow another aspect to be out of my control. Depending on your personality, it’s about embracing that unknown and those nuances. It’s not for everyone. There are some people that really want exactly what they see. 

Something else you mention in your writing about the work is the “tension of memory.” Can you talk a little bit more about that?

That aspect goes along with meditation. When you meditate you tend to think about things you wouldn’t normally think about, or haven’t thought about in a really long time. My parents are Korean and they have a lot of ceramics around the house that are kind of traditional, kind of not, but when I visit them now I notice these little nuanced forms that I didn’t appreciate when I was younger. They’re the same, but I’m looking at them very differently. I think it’s similar to writing. You write what you know, but every once in awhile you want to step out of the box a little bit. But there’s always something rooted in where you come from. For me that’s still evolving. But you scribe so much into what you’re throwing. You’re literally leaving your fingerprints on the inside. My first ceramics teacher told me that clay has memory. If you make a dent in something when you’re working with it, even if you fix it, there’s a good chance it will dry with some slight evidence on that place. 

That sounds like human beings. 

In your 2017 collection the pieces become much more gesture based, poetic and nuanced. Many of the pieces look frozen in time, like something that could still move if it wanted to. 

I hit this wall where everything felt too perfect. I was beginning to feel too comfortable and something just needed to break. It was partially triggered by having my son, because I had all of these new unknowns in the air. It’s also a response to the age of 3D printing and technology, that things can be made so differently now. I think it’s interesting to find something that has that one of a kind element. It feels very intimate. And even if I don’t do anything with it exactly, it’s like a physical sketch, just something fun to try out and find ways to deconstruct something. 

The pendulum shows up in your work frequently in different forms. It seems to encapsulates that tension of memory, that shifting between object and totem in your process.

The pendulum work is really a great symbol for how I work in general. The ceramic pendulum that I make is technically made through thrown pieces and then hand assembled. That was the first kind of sculptural piece I made that wasn’t really functional but still fulfilled that part of my brain. I wanted to fulfill a part of myself that I feel is left untethered. But I know for a fact that I wasn’t trained to be this crazy craftsman who knows everything about ceramics, but I still want to get to a place where I’m evolving the public interest in ceramics and the form itself. It’s important for me to feel good about what I’m putting into the world whether or not people buy it or even approve of it. There is so much out there, the least I can do is try to do something that feels distinctly me, and I’m still trying to find that exactly. 

The idea of the pendulum seems so representative of your journey swinging between fine art and the craft of ceramics, being unemployed and so on, but also of history, of a life itself.

It can be harder to be in the middle. It reminds me of the time we lived in Philadelphia. Philadelphia is this incredibly lovely, affordable place that has a beautiful blue collar working class and a community of really wealthy people. At the time I think I was really distilling a lot of that middle ground, whether it was between jobs or being in a certain place in my life that made it difficult to absorb both ends. I had friends who were buying buildings and I had friends who could barely afford rent. I think it’s rare to be in that place, to find yourself in the middle of things, but if you can manage to not lose yourself completely there’s something to learn from those in between moments in life. 

1 of 13