A series of conversations with artists about how they create

A glass cabinet in Kathy Butterly's home studio contains hundreds of colored glazes that she uses for her sculptures. (Chris Sorensen for The Washington Post)

‘The piece hasn’t suffered enough’

Kathy Butterly tortures her own sculptures — and produces exquisite, joyful results

NEW YORK — Kathy Butterly’s ceramic sculptures epitomize a kind of nonchalant irony that’s savvy, street-smart and seductive. That makes them sound cool — and they are. Yet somehow, like the flirt at a party who keeps crashing and burning, they’re also dorky and gauche.

Described by New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl as “today’s liveliest master of clay,” Butterly, 55, has been gaining ever more attention in recent years. A show last fall at her new gallery, James Cohan, was a big hit. Her alma mater, the University of California at Davis, meanwhile, will host an ambitious career survey at the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, opening July 14.

Sculptor Kathy Butterly in her home studio in New York. (Chris Sorensen for The Washington Post)

Butterly’s works are just a few inches high, although lately they’ve been getting bigger. She makes them with clay, glazes and extreme heat. Some sport wonky handles, bright little pompoms that have the texture of spongy coral, and garlands of tiny beads. They look squashed, squeezed, crumpled and pinched. But — against considerable odds — they cohere. Their colors, riotously combined, have nothing to do with “good taste” yet manage to attain levels of gorgeousness rarely encountered in any medium.

Butterly lives and works in an apartment in New York’s East Village, which she shares with her husband, the painter Tom Burckhardt. Their building was once owned by the painter Larry Rivers, who was a friend of Burckhardt’s parents, the Swiss American photographer and filmmaker Rudy Burckhardt and the painter Yvonne Jacquette.

The building’s pores exude sweaty emanations of New York’s downtown art and poetry scene. Occupants past and present have included artists Yayoi Kusama, On Kawara, Claes Oldenburg and Fred Wilson and filmmaker Wes Anderson. Butterly’s studio still has a hole in the wall created by Gordon Matta-Clark, the conceptual artist known for his “building cuts.”

The elevator opens straight into Butterly and Burckhardt’s living space. Before I step out, a small dog rushes in. The couple has two children, now 18 and 20. To get to Butterly’s studio, you walk through a beautiful living space lined with art and then through Burckhardt’s studio. “It’s a live/work situation,” she says matter-of-factly.

Each of Butterly’s pieces requires intense labor, and she works on several at once. She likes to get up early and go to yoga three or four times a week. After morning errands, she’ll usually take a shower, then get to work.

“This is all I do. This is my life,” Butterly says, laughing. Yet she’s clearly also a sociable person — good-humored, interested in others, a fluent and enthusiastic conversationalist.

The studio is where Butterly spends most of her time. A glass cabinet on the left contains hundreds of colored glazes — many no longer commercially available — in small, stacked jars. On the right, five recessed shelves hold two dozen ceramic sculptures. Each one is so unlike the ones around it that the shelves generate their own special charisma, as when a panting ensemble of great actors lines up at the edge of the stage to take a bow. After a look around, we sat down to talk about her working process.

Some of Butterly’s sculptures, which she makes with clay, glazes and extreme heat. (Chris Sorensen for The Washington Post)

Q: What stage are you at with your current work?

A: I’m at a point where things feel uncomfortably familiar and I start to become my works’ own saboteur — which is good! It’s an important time and I trust it. I’ve been here many times. It’s challenging and it’s the place where change happens.

Q: Do you work quickly?

A: It’s really good to have a lot going on at one time. But I work very slowly because the work is demanding. I start firing a kiln at 5 p.m., and the next morning after I get back from yoga, I open the kiln and start working again. It’s that fast because the ceramics are thin.

Q: How many pieces can you put in the kiln at once?

A: I used to be able to fit four at a time. Now, because I’m working on a bigger scale, I can fit only one, two at most, which really messes up my flow. I’m letting the larger works fire slower so there’s less temperature shock — so they don’t break. I realize I have to add a larger kiln to my studio. That’s the next step for me.

Previous works

Kathy Butterly’s sculpture titled “November 9.” Some of her pieces sport wonky handles.

Butterly’s work often appears squeezed or squashed, such as her sculpture “Super Bloom.”

“Grace” is another one of her clay-and-glaze works.

Butterly riotously combines colors, such as in “Glazed,” made with nail polish on paper.

Another nail polish work: “Sheer Shear.” Butterly got inspiration for these pieces from her daughter.

Q: You get a lot of texture and craquelure in your glazes.

A: And that’s very intentional. It’s layered glazing, and each glaze has a different property. There are very opaque dry glazes and I put them on extra thick and dry them really quickly so they crackle in the drying process. Because I’ve been doing this for 30 years, I kind of know what I’m doing. But still there are things that surprise me and I keep learning. The more I investigate the material, the more interested in it I become and I’m never bored because I keep finding new things to do. You think there’s an end to all you can learn, but no. Multiple doors keep opening.

Q: How do you know when a piece is done?

A: Sometimes I get to a stage when a piece looks so cool, and I think, “Oh, I could be done.” But then I realize I haven’t suffered enough. [Laughs.] Or the piece hasn’t suffered enough. Every time I put it in the kiln, the average firing is a little over 1,800 degrees. So these things are getting tortured! A piece might start off very shiny, and if I kept firing that glaze, it would tire and weather like the way skin ages. I love that, it’s really human. But on the other hand, if I wanted to have it shiny again, I would just, for the last firing, throw on a clear, shiny glaze and give it a facelift. So I’m going back and forth between so many different things all day long.

Glaze color samples made by Butterly. She says her pieces are like puzzles she has to solve each day. (Chris Sorensen for The Washington Post)

Q: It must be hard changing channels in your brain all the time.

A: It is!

Q: So how does the aesthetic decision-making get done, between all the practical tasks?

A: When I take something out of the kiln, it’s like getting a present every day. Usually I’m like, “Oh, that’s so cool.” Sometimes I’m like, “Oh, this sucks.” When this happens, and it’s pretty often, it’s just that now the piece needs to go in a different direction. It’s like, “Okay, I have to deal with it now. I have to solve this new puzzle.” And they are like puzzles. They’re all these little mysteries that I have to write and solve at the same time, like I’m a mystery writer. I have to figure out what they want, because I don’t feel like I control them fully. The best thing is when I have a “Eureka!” moment. It’s so wonderful when I have a piece that’s like a love affair and it’s just so much joy to work on it every day. But most of them are like one day it’s great and the next it’s “Oh, no. No, no, no.”

Q: You have made some works on paper using nail polish. Where did you get the idea to paint with nail polish?

A: My daughter. She was in the studio asking, “What nail polish should I use?” And she left it there. I was like, “Wow, this is so much like glaze!” And I just started painting on a piece of paper with nail polish.

Q: How do outside events in your life feed into the work?

A: Process, world events and my feelings all combine and make my works what they are. They are sort of like time capsules to me. They are made during a specific period of time, and the dynamics of events become a part of the abstracted narrative of the works.

Q: What are you trying to achieve with this new work?

A: I feel like my challenge is to get blood from a stone — to take a form, which has no sense of life to it, and to make it have life and to emote feeling.

“It’s a live/work situation,” she says matter-of-factly says of her home studio. (Chris Sorensen for The Washington Post)

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.