You left your hometown Susanville, California, to pursue architecture studies and land development at Texas A&M University. Did your architectural background influence your artistic style? If yes, how?
Yes. I’ve always been drawn to clean lines and bold forms. I was significantly influenced by an early course in construction methods and materials, and I’m always trying to push myself technically. There’s a lot of physical stress when you take a vitreous material up to 2,250–2,350 degrees Fahrenheit. Clay works best in compression. By contrast, I jam on designing and making work that defies the material’s natural characteristics. I often create external structural systems to allow for the design to make it through the firing without caving in on itself. Having a background in architecture allows me to evaluate the material differently and push technical boundaries.
After a 15 year career in commercial real estate development, you decided to return to your first love, working with clay. What made you finally choose to follow your passion?
The real estate development industry leaves much to be desired as an occupation. Self-enrichment at any cost is the order of the day. To succeed, you’ve got to park your dignity and integrity at the door. I couldn’t continue down such a soul-sucking path. I needed to make a change. The love of creating is central to who I am and so is swinging for the fences. And it helped that my husband was extraordinarily supportive of this career metamorphosis.
How would you describe your artistic vision and where do you find inspiration?
Wow. Well, I find inspiration everywhere. Most of the time I find it while I’m in the process of making something. I see a shape I’m working with and an idea hits me. Maybe it’s an amalgamation of something I’ve seen mashed up with the shape or volume I’m working with. I have a lightbulb moment. I think, “Oh, yeah – I could make that bigger and into a chair or a planter or a lamp.” I love Instagram. I love being connected to so many artists and designers across the globe. I like seeing what people are doing and what materials they’re using. I find inspiration in merging component volumes and seeing how they work together. Other times I’m inspired by history or other cultures or world events or injustice. Those things, though, only obliquely show up in my design work.
I’m never at a loss for ideas. My sketchbook is full of things I’ve yet to create or try, and I doubt I’ll ever catch up with it. That doesn’t bother me. Our lives aren’t a straight line. I wouldn’t be the artist/designer I am if I hadn’t had such a circuitous route getting here. Had I gone to art school straight out of high school, there’s a great likelihood I would have been influenced by another artist/mentor and may have tried for years to develop my own style living under that shadow. I don’t have that baggage. Because I started working with clay full time relatively late in the game, I don’t care about how I’m “supposed” to do anything. My artistic vision is essentially – go for it! I’m not self-conscious about my work. If you like it, you like it. It’s bold, it’s ambitious, it’s different. My vision is to be myself and see what happens. It’s an aggressive, breakneck drive to see what I’m capable of.
You’re an artist who’s not afraid to bring energy and vibrant colors to the work. To what point do your creations reflect your personality?
Wholly. My creations are 100% an outpouring of my soul. Anytime you buy, use, touch, live with something that was made by hand, by someone who really gives a damn, you can tell. It’s like food. You can tell if there’s love in what you’re eating. Without sounding all hippy-dippy there’s an energy in anything made with the care of a craftsman or artist. My work is all about my personal swing-for-the-fences, nothing-to-lose ethos. That’s never going away. I don’t do subtle and I don’t do boring. Also, I’m not either of those things.
For your decorative pieces are you looking for contemporary forms and minimalist designs? Are you always satisfied with the final result? What do you enjoy most from the creative process?
I’m huge on both process and prototyping. I build by hand and I don’t like doing the same thing over and over. Boring. I’m a bit obsessive and have a hard time with gestural work, so I lean toward those smooth surfaces and bold lines I mentioned before. That doesn’t mean they’ll be machinist perfect. I’m not a robot. This is a throwback to my architectural training.
I’m not always happy with my designs, but I have a rather good success rate. Sometimes the proportion of one thing to another is slightly off when working a prototype, but that can be adjusted on the next one when the design is strong. The benefit of working in 3D with a malleable material is the ability to make adjustments on the fly. My favorite moment in building a piece is the assembly of all the component parts. It happens so quickly. One minute you don’t have anything that looks like anything and the next minute – boom – you have a piece of furniture.
What would be your advice for the young artist starting their career now?
Seek out a mentor but follow your gut. Also, challenge yourself. Constantly.
On your website you state, Why can’t art just be? Is it bad design if it’s visually pleasing but fails to be “comfortable?” How would you answer these questions for those who like to complicate things?
A lot of people like to overthink art and make it into something it isn’t. Plenty of art is referential and draws upon history or experience or whatever. There’s also plenty of work where, if you asked the artist what inspired them, they would say something like, “Well, I was thinking about ‘something’ and so I painted a picture of it.” It’s this unwritten imperative to “say something” about the world at large. What if Jackson Pollock just felt he was crazy and out of his head and it calmed him to drizzle and splash paint around on canvas in a way that felt visually stimulating? That’s not such a crazy idea.
There are many books dedicated to the analysis of those paint dribbles and splashes. I bet a lot of artists made up inane, highbrow statements just because a gallery or museum needed to say something about them. I get it. What I’m proposing is irreverential and it doesn’t bow down at the altar of institutional art. Art is feeling, not a thesis. I don’t understand why as a society and as consumers we separate artists from designers or craftsmen.
Not that long ago, craftsmen built beautiful cathedrals and homes with incredible attention to detail. They were technically skilled, had an evolved aesthetic, and could design and build nearly anything in the material they had mastered. We don’t prize those traits today and people get siloed into being one or the other. In reality, an artist, designer, and master craftsperson is all of those. It’s a shame those traits are compensated and valued differently.
In architecture school, students are taught that form follows function. That’s good advice if you’re building a school or a hospital. But if form only follows function it negates those lightning rod moments in a building or a piece of furniture when the tension created in the space brings pleasure and joy – and sometimes even pain and unease. For design to be dynamic, it must engage. If we forget those inspirational moments, we live in a world void of what connects us. And what is it that connects us? Emotion, empathy, surprise, fear, love – none of those are comfortable, but they’re all so essential. We can’t design work that’s only comfortable. That would be like living on tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches for eternity. Comfortable but uninspired.
What are your next projects?
I’m working on a series of objects to sit on called “Seats of Power.” It’s an exploration into the uses, abuses, and sources of power.
All images with courtesy of Sunshine Thacker