Studio Art Q&A: Grace Buerkel, Pottery Enthusiast

Story by Hallie Neller

Photo courtesy of Maddison Bradke

Grace Buerkel is a current junior enrolled at Central Michigan University. She is majoring in studio art with a double minor of psychology and business. As an artist, her favorite medium to work with is pottery.

Currently, Buerkel is uncertain of the specific path she wants to take for her future career, but she knows that her art will be involved. Although her future is uncertain, she does plan to spend more time and energy in her business where she hopes to expand into a shop that is regularly updating its stock.

How did you get into pottery?

I took an advanced art class in eighth grade; ceramics was introduced to me in slab building and slab carving. In my freshman year of college, I took the course “Introduction to Ceramics” taught by Greg Stahley. It was that semester and through that class that I really developed a love for pottery.

Why do you create pottery?

I create pottery for many reasons, one being that it’s become my favorite creative outlet. The process of pottery and throwing on the wheel is very therapeutic for me. I often spend a lot of time by myself and it gives me time and space to just think and to just be.  I spend a lot of time in the studio getting lost in my newest project – if I don’t set alarms or pay attention to my phone the hours will pass without me noticing. I become so focused and aware of what I am creating that time flies.

How do you balance your coursework and studio time?

Balancing coursework and studio time has always been a struggle for me. I have found that purchasing online textbooks that can be listened to in an audio book form is the best way for me to get my courses’ reading materials done. It allows me to listen to the textbooks and then, as needed, I can go back and re-read the passages or take notes on them. There are often times while in the process of pottery that you have moments to either re-organize or plan for your next project while something is drying, mixing, setting. I use that time to work on my laptop to complete my other course work. If I get my work started before I sit down to complete it, it seems much less overwhelming.

How much time do you spend on each piece?

The time spent on each piece can differ. If it is thrown on the wheel, I often have pre-prepped clay and just need to grab my tools and a bucket for water. Set up is usually less than 10 minutes for a wheel session unless I am preparing clay and then it’s usually 25 minutes. Throwing a bowl on the wheel can be done in about 10 minutes. Then, that  clay must sit out and stiffen so that the excess clay can be trimmed off. Trimming is very simple once you get the hang of it, but it takes practice. I spend usually less than 4 minutes trimming a single bowl. After that the clay needs to dry out completely to bone dry so that it can be fired. After the initial firing the clay then can be glazed and then set aside for its final firing. We usually fire our pieces as a class or together as project due dates come up. Something could sit on the cart for a few days waiting for more pieces to fill a kiln. In my home I am lucky enough to have not only a pottery wheel but also a kiln. This allows me the chance to set my schedule and pace depending on the project or how much free time I have.

What is your favorite part of the process? What is the most challenging part of the process?

My favorite part of the process is getting to put my own creative spin onto my pottery. Getting a chance to explore different methods and fine tune your own techniques is an amazing opportunity.

Where do you advertise your creations?

I have begun advertising my creations on my Instagram and my personal Facebook. Currently, my main customer base is my friends, or friends of friends. I hope to be able to expand to fully stocked online platform.  I was going to try and kickstart an online platform for myself to sell my available pieces but have not had the time between school and work. My goal is to have a platform to sell and promote my newest creation!

What has been your most challenging creation?

My mushroom vase was a creation of mine that took the most time, effort and thought. I created a vase that had a morel mushroom meadow around the edge and the top. I took a lot of time sculpting the mushrooms and painting them to look as close to the real deal as I could! It is the most challenging piece of mine but also one of my creations I am most proud of.


Tell us about the studio: where is it located, what it is like, how COVID-19 has affected the studio, what do you see when you’re there?

The studio on campus is located in Wightman Hall. It is a very open space with a clay mixing room and a glaze room. There are many tables, pottery wheels, shelves, and sinks. There is plenty of space and lots of room to dry out finished pieces. Before COVID-19, the studio was not limited to how many people could be present. Now there can be no larger than a group of 13 in the studio. This is difficult to manage when there are students in a class that is occurring and there are students who have free time and want to work on their art. This semester I have not run into the issue, but I know it’s something I try to be cautious about.

What is provided by the studio? What is the quality of the provided items?

The studio provides the clay as well as many of the tools we need. At the studio before COVID-19 we had 20 plus pottery wheels set up; now there are 13 wheels spaced out. The studio provides the ingredients and resources to make clay and each class has a designated bin full of clay. There are many tables to pug your clay (get the air bubbles out), work on sculpture pieces or design your next project. If you need extra tools there are community tools that are available for use with proper cleaning and sanitation. There are many tools such as a rollers, modeling tools, trimming tools, piercing tools, trimming tools, and molding and stamping tools. The tools and equipment that are provided in the studio are respected by students and staff and are in great conditions. Keeping the studio and the equipment clean is a great way to maintain the quality.

Have you worked with other students in the studio? Is the studio open to all students or just art students? What is the atmosphere of the studio like?

I found one of my best friends in my introduction class. Maddison is also very passionate about pottery and is one of my favorite people to bounce designs off. Before COVID-19, the studio was filled with many people. Friends would come in to study while their friend was finishing a project. We would have photography students come take photos of their friends throwing on the wheel, and the sculpture studio is connected to the pottery studio and many students have classes in both studios. There is a club at CMU called Ceramics Society. Once you join the club you have access to meetings, a bucket of clay for the club, and access to the pottery studio. It is mainly important to be educated on the equipment and etiquette in the studio as many tools can be dangerous if not properly used. The atmosphere is very relaxed and there are often students bouncing project ideas back and forth. The environment is very welcoming, and I find it easy to focus my creativity while in the studio. In the beginning I was very intimidated but getting aquatinted with your peers as well as the space can help set up a more comfortable environment. Many people are often zoned into their work and very quiet – a lot of us are just thinking about what we are going to do next!

Where do you draw inspiration from?

I draw a lot of inspiration from my personal experiences, my imagination, and observing and learning as much as I can about art and the process. My professor Greg Stahly has been such an inspiration in my ceramics career. The first day of class I remember how he was so excited and thankful that he was able to wake up every day and pursue his passion: Ceramics. He motivated me to push myself past the idea of ceramics being just a hobby. The passion and love that he puts into his work and into his class is very evident. He continues to push his students to create their next best piece of pottery. Everyone has flaws in their work and it’s important to recognize you can always improve yourself. Trusting the process is important. Being able to look back and see where you started is a great feeling. That also gives me a lot of inspiration. I get excited about unloading the kiln after coating the pieces in glaze. The possibilities are endless and that’s the most inspiring thing of all.

What do you dislike about your work? How are you working to overcome this?

I am a perfectionist when it comes to my art and that makes it very easy for me to pick apart pieces and find the subtle impurities. Handles are something that I re-make until I have it to my standards: a comfortable grip. A slightly off-center handle, or uneven and bubbly walls can quickly turn into problems down the road, so it is easier to fix the problems to begin with.

What other forms of art do you create? Which art type is your favorite?

Other forms of art that I also create range from drawing, painting, wood burning, sculpture and glass blowing. Pottery is my favorite medium and glass blowing is a close second! I just love the aspect of taking clumps of clay or rods of glass and turning them into masterpieces.

What is your dream project?

My dream project is creating something that not only incorporates ceramic but also glass into the finished project. I think that both of these art forms are amazing in their own ways and brought together there is a multitude of possibilities.

What is the most important tool in crafting pottery? Something you cannot live without in the studio?

If there was tool that I couldn’t live without in the studio it would probably be a sponge! It is one of my most used tools in not only wheel throwing but also sculpture. I am always going back to my bowls or cups and smoothing the inside or outside to remove fingerprints or dents and nicks acquired while transferring the piece.

In terms of pottery creation, what does your future look like? How do you plan to continue your art while working in your career (after college)?

In the future I have hopes to open up a pottery and glassblowing studio to either teach classes at or have studio space available for people to use and expand their knowledge of the medium. If I choose to pursue a career outside of art, I will need to manage my time accordingly. I do someday want to expand my business with updated stock. My future will definitely involve a lot of planning and time management.

Have you seen improvement in your work since you first started?

There is a vast improvement in my pottery from day 1 to today. I remember trying to make a 6-inch cylinder and at the time it was the most frustrating thing to complete. Now, most mugs and cups that I create stand at least 6inches tall. When I began pottery I was not as focused on the little details as I am today; I honestly was excited just to have a piece to put in the kiln. These days I spend extra time sanding down my pieces in the different stage and perfecting small things when I see fit. I can see a difference in the thickness of the walls, I trim the bottom of my pieces differently, my handles are larger, and overall all of my pieces have started to grow in size.

Do you find that art has a purpose?

I truly think that art means different things to different people. Like me, some people find art to be a creative outlet. There are some people who use it to express themselves. Some people are bored and like art. It’s truly up to the person.

At any part of the process, do you experience artist’s block? How do you get past this?

Artist’s block is one of the most aggravating things to encounter halfway or at all throughout a project. I try to overcome the block by starting with taking a break from my project and taking a walk. I try to focus on my creative intentions for the piece and the purpose of why I am creating it. If that doesn’t help or I am overwhelmed, I plan out the different steps and design choices and sketch out the ideas. I try my best to organize my thoughts and think of a plan of action, then go from there.

Any advice for beginner artists or those who are thinking about branching into art?

If you want to start drawing or painting or working with clay go for it 100%. You don’t need to be your definition of “good at art” to create it. Art is not limited to those who have been given the opportunity of classes and mentorships. Art is taking a blank canvas or a ball of clay and creating something that helps you express yourself! It takes time to build skills and strengthen whatever it is that you’re working on but it’s never a bad time to start.