Arts & Life

‘The goal is to continue to evolve’ Ceramist Heather Browning discusses working amid the pandemic

With the stroke of the fingers, a musician is able to produce sound. With a steady and precise hand, a tattoo artist is able to create a drawing on skin. 

“Acherontia Atropos”, 6” x 16 ½” x 8”, Ceramic, 2019, Moth. My first time using paper clay, which is easier to sculpt with because the paper helps give they clay strength while building, and keeps the piece light, as the paper burns out during firing. I am drawn to moths, specifically the death’s head moth. You will likely remember these from the movie “Silence of the Lambs.” Their markings make them highly unusual, and they are drawn to light, much as I am drawn to flame. And much like butterflies, they go through a great transformation. When you look at things that you are enamored with in life, it is remarkable how much they mirror your journey life.
Photo by Heather Browning.

As a ceramist, Heather Browning utilizes all of those techniques. And as she works, Browning finds a form of therapy through it.

Browning first took a ceramics class at Long Beach City College three years ago. She fell in love with the feeling of working with her hands. 

One of the techniques that Browning uses is the coil technique, where artists turn clay into coils. Each coil, when formed, is stacked on top of one another. This method is one of the most versatile techniques in pottery-making. 

One of Browning’s early works exemplifying this specific hand-building method is a coffee mug, crafted with a coated glaze. Browning said that she typically uses this method for much of her work.

Before Browning’s journey in ceramics, she was a hairstylist for 25 years. Now, Browning is a fourth-year ceramics major at Long Beach State who will finish her ceramics undergraduate degree in a year.

Marie Wright, who has known Browning for four years, kindled a friendship with Browning through an introduction to ceramics class at LBCC.

“Desert Relic”, Gallery Installation, ceramic, sand, 2019
Large skull
In a perfect world I would have displayed this in a sea of sand as I pictured it as a relic stumbled upon in a desert. It echoes the past, suggesting that we are not necessarily alone in the universe, as this could be an alien, or some sort of differently evolved creature from an alternate timeline. Displayed in the gallery in the Ceramics department in FA2. Photo by Heather Browning.

“We learned a lot from each other,” Wright said. “That’s the great thing about having potter friends, we learn from each other’s successes and failures.”

Browning’s creative practice and work ethic highlights how the hands of an artist are one of their most essential tools. 

When CSULB enacted a campus-wide closure last semester, it stripped away Browning’s access to the studio for ceramic artists. In addition to the campus-wide closure, she was left unemployed for six months.

“I was able to take some clay and tools with me,” Browning said. “That’s where I began to work on some pieces that involved assembling by hand.”

But Browning found it difficult to work on her projects due to the limited space in her one-bedroom apartment with her husband. During this time, Browning endured a creative block and severe depression, something she had been diagnosed with in the past.

“I thought I had been doing great and once the pandemic struck, I felt like doing nothing,” Browning said. 

“Forgotten Escape”, 6” x 14” x 15”, Ceramic, 2019, Stone Cave
Time is portrayed in this tableau, but it is difficult to tell if it is far in the future, or a long ago past. The touch of life is present in the worn path and fabricated stairs. Burnt wood implies that there were structures of some sort, but destroyed either in fire or some other manner. Very highly detailed, and at first glance, if you didn’t know it was ceramic, you likely wouldn’t know. Every stone and piece of wood is made of ceramic and painted with multiple layers of mineral oxides.
Photo by Heather Browning.

Those pieces that she started creating since the beginning of the pandemic now sit in her living room unfinished. Despite the mental challenges, Browning stressed her desire to continue working on newer and older projects.

Since the fall, the school has allowed limited in-person activities, giving Browning an opportunity to access the studio to follow up on her unfinished projects. Browning is currently enrolled in two in-person classes, which she said have helped rekindle her creative drive.

One of Browning’s instructors is Tony Marsh, a professor at CSULB in the School of Art of 34 years. 

“Heather is the kind of student that I appreciate very much,” Marsh said. “She is eager to learn, works hard and always wants to improve.”

Despite the setbacks, Browning copes by spending long hours in the studio. Since she only works one day a week at the hair salon, Browning has been able to focus more on her ceramics courses and personal projects. 

“I have had life issues, problems, that I eventually worked out inside my head while on the machine,” Browning said. “I definitely get some therapeutic factors from this.”

For Browning, Instagram is a source for inspiration where there is a large community of potters and sculptors. One inspiration to her is Jennifer McCurdy, a notable ceramic artist with an extensive and widely recognized portfolio

A collage of Heather Browning’s pottery work. The two white vases in the second row (middle) were inspired by ceramic artist Jennifer McCurdy. Pablo Unzueta/ Daily Forty-Niner

Browning said that her goals for the future are to be awarded grants and residencies in order to reach wider audiences. For now, Browning hopes to continue to maintain focus on her projects. Usually, she has two projects going on at once since the drying process takes time. 

And according to Browning, sometimes it’s the clay that dictates the end result. 

“The goal is to continue to evolve, this process never seems to stop,” Browning said. “I wish I could just wake up every morning and grab a piece of clay to start working on something.”

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