Interview with Michael J Strand

“I did not see a path into art before taking my first ceramics class, and after this moment of discovery I knew this would be in some manner my life’s work.”

American Ceramist Michael J Strand visits The Model this week to present a talk on his work in the Bureau of Radical Accessibility. Ahead of his visit, Erin Fox had a chance to ask Michael about some of his projects, his achievements and his artistic and social practice.

EF: I read that your work begins by scrutinising the function of art and craft in contemporary society. What do you think the function is? What do you think it should be?
MS: Traditionally function and craft has been related to how it in some manner enables the consumption of food, storage, etc (in the case of ceramics). For other crafts, there are equivalent functions iron works – tools, etc – and that function has served humanity as technology. There was a time when ceramic innovation via vessels was a high technology. So I examine this history and consider new ways that functional objects can operate – for instance, can a cup be a part of a mediation process, of course it can – and it has historically. But what other social functions can ceramic objects serve? These are the questions that drive my practice.

EF: Your artistic practice investigates the potential of craft as a catalyst for social change. How might you advise other designers use their craft in this way?
MS: Consider the space between what we make and the public as a viable space to design. That is, how we acquire, interact, encounter an object that is made and how that object serves a social situation is wide open for innovation.

EF: How did the Misfit Cup Liberation Project influenceCuplomacy?
MS: Cuplomacy actually began before Misfit Cup Liberation Project – but it is a highly complex project that is aiming to infiltrate a very powerful social system. The project, which will be delivered in September, has taken five years to develop. But with that in mind, when I developed the Misfit Cup Liberation Project I learned a great deal about the power of the narrative, the story. So the key to unlocking how to complete Cuplomacycame with the realisation that I needed to reengage with the public through a similar questionnaire that I used for misfit cup. When I engaged in this, the project moved forward very quickly, because the project was no longer extending from one opinion about the state of our political system, rather from nearly 1000 North Dakotans.

EF: What was the most interesting cup in the Misfit Cup Liberation Project?
MS: There are many – but I love the cup that I received from an elderly woman from an Island off of Tallinn, Estonia. The morning of the exhibition at the Applied Arts Triennial, she heard about the project from a television program and immediately booked a ferry knowing she had a cup for the project. She arrived at the opening, never having been to the museum and personally presented her cup – the last remaining cup issued by the Soviet Union that she had in her household. It was a moment of relief – this cup is a treasure, not for its material worth but rather for its connection to this moment of exchange.

EF: I read you studied psychology before switching to ceramics, did you have an interest in crafts and design prior to this?
MS: I really had no connection to art other than a really great high school art teacher. I did not see a path into art before taking my first ceramics class, and after this moment of discovery I knew this would be in some manner my life’s work.

EF: Having studied psychology and then ceramics, can you describe your journey from making objects to working as a social practitioner?
MS: The term social practitioner is a problematic term from my perspective. Although it accurately describes how I operate my practice, I have always pushed against any form of category. But certainly, my interest in psychology and social justice has a large impact on the reasons I engage in the social realm. I rather prefer the term a “Village Potter” – but examine the village in new ways. As a village potter, I assume a similar role historically, it is that I have extended function into new realms.

EF: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
MS: The ability to do the amount of work that I do, and maintain a great family life, for example my eleven year old son Ian is along for my time in Sligo. My son Malcolm was with me for a month in Europe for project development last summer and I plan on traveling with my mother-in-law to South Africa in February of next year. Specifically to my career – being named Ceramic Artist of the Year by Ceramics Monthly is something I could never have imagined, but what I am most pleased about with that award is the reality that it recognised an artist who is working beyond object innovation – and recognise what I do is not simply service but also an artistic practice.

EF: What is an important lesson life has taught you?
MS: I have had very low points in my life, like many people. Over the past eight years I have lost 200 pounds of weight and have remained sober for over a decade. My second chance at life, literally has provided a lifetimes worth of energy and direction. The lesson in all of this for me is to maintain a steady, consistent pace and focus on what you value. At times there will be opposition, but to remain true to the goals you have.

EF: Which artist do you most admire?
MS: The former mayor of Bogota, Colombia – Antanas Mockus – a social scientist who became a politician and utilised creative acts as a mechanism to transform Bogota during the late 90s. Also the late Samuel Mockbee – architect and director of the Rural Studio – who transformed architectural education as an applied and socially minded endeavor. Artists are interesting, but I look to other fields for primary inspiration.

EF: You’ve used cups and bowls as catalysts for social change, what’s next?
MS: I work in a highly organic nature – If I knew what was next, there would be no reason to continue. I am on the cusp of moving towards more issues around food and wellness within my own work – and with significant agency within these two areas via personal experience – I am looking at ways of merging my practice to include ceramics, wellness and food (which makes complete sense) I just do not know exactly how this will manifest.

EF: What do you hope to get out of your visit to Sligo?
MS: I am really looking forward to engaging with the community and the landscape of Sligo. I hope to plant a seed for future work – and to connect with interesting people. I am also looking forward to reconnecting with Megan Johnston the Director – a curator that I admire.

EF: What do you think of Irish craft and design?
MS: I am most familiar with Irish ceramics which has a long tradition of outstanding makers. Michael Moore and Ewelina Wojtowicz are two artists that come to mind when considering Irish based ceramic practice. I also very much appreciate the alignment of craft and design in contemporary Irish practice.

Michael will hold B.R.A office hours this week. His talk takes place at 3pm on Wednesday 13 May.