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A Conversation with Frank Zhu


Introduction & Interview by Jackie Zhao

Photographs by Frank Zhu, Cydney Cosette Holm, and Cristina Fisher

Frank Zhu is a ceramicist who has been practicing in Austin, Texas for over ten years. I came across his work while visiting the studio East Side Pot Shop during a recent visit to the city, and was drawn to a magnetic presence his pieces seemed to have. Displayed at the studio were a series of large wheel-thrown pots that embodied a natural purity and openness in form and surface treatment.

I spoke with Frank about his story, about teaching at the studio, and how mentorship has played an important role in his work. He told me he always likes to incorporate a bit of history and philosophy into his ceramics teaching, for reasons which he shared in this interview.

Recently, Frank started an initiative to support his local community called Help Austin Now, where local creatives have banded together to host an ongoing auction that benefits Austinites struggling with food insecurity, local businesses, and anyone who needs assistance.


Jackie Zhao: What is your story?

Frank Zhu: I haven’t spent much time looking back in retrospective until quite recently, the COVID-19 outbreak slapped a giant pause on just about everything related to ceramics that I do. It has forced me to step away from the community studio where I teach and make my work in light of the quarantine that is taking place.

In terms of my own history, I grew up in Beijing, and I relocated to Austin, Texas when I was 17 during the end of my high school years. Austin was a nurturing city back then, things were slower paced compared to Beijing, and places were easier to get to. People were very friendly; many of these aspects still ring true, but the definition of Austin has expanded tremendously since then.

I was very lucky and received a lot of help throughout my journey in Austin. I stayed in Austin for college and became more and more invested in the city that I live in and gradually, I set some roots here. Now it's been 10 years since this transition from Beijing to Austin. That transition did wonders and opened up many experiences that I wouldn’t have otherwise experienced, and ceramics is one of those experiences.

JZ: How did you get into ceramics?

FZk: I started college as a biochemistry student. It was something that I picked partially because most of my family is in biology or chemistry related fields, and partially because I didn’t know what else to do. So, I picked something I was exposed to throughout my life. It was the easier choice.

But the deeper I dived into my studies, the discomfort grew more and more. I didn’t feel like I was in love with what I was doing. I didn’t see myself becoming a professional in the field of science like the rest of my family, and these doubts only continued to grow.

I changed my major to general education and took courses in the school of humanities, sociology, philosophy, global studies, literature, and at the end, art. These art classes acted as my first introduction to clay as a medium.

I still remember the first assignment I had: pinch pots. I made several, some of the first few were thick and heavy, and I didn’t like them very much either. I picked up the demo piece my professor did. It was elegant, light weight, and delicate, but not fragile. And It had a nice open profile, a very inviting type of pot. I knew it was a nice pot just by looking at it and holding it. I was amazed by his ability to control the materials so effortlessly and thoughtfully, so I made a few more attempts to mimic what my professor did. Towards our first critique, I had made somewhere around a dozen pinch pots. My professor was surprised by the progression I made. He was encouraging of me during the critique.

I felt overjoyed, the most joy I have ever got from an academic environment. I was happy, not only with his encouragement, but with the whole process of art. The world of clay opened up to me from that moment on, little by little.

I began to realize what I have for clay is the love and passion that was lacking in my other studies. As time went on, I started changing my schedule and lifestyle to fit more time in the studio. I was a student working a full time potters’ schedule. I had a pillow stashed in my locker for some long days to take a quick nap somewhere; I can’t believe I even did these things sometimes.

People do crazy things when they are in love. (Stan Irvin has been my mentor since college, he is retired now, but he still makes work in his studio in Rockport, TX. We are still close and see each other often.)

 

JZ: I love that mentorship is a theme in the lives of many ceramicists, personally that’s how I got into ceramics too - I had a mentor in New York who guided me in my practice and created an environment where I could nurture and develop my work. What has been your relationship to mentorship in your practice?

FZ: The idea of mentorship used to mean you may have to leave home and travel and seek out a teacher that holds the secret. I feel like ceramicists today are very lucky in many ways. We have so many resources and support at our fingertips because of the internet. The idea of mentorship has changed as well. I hold somewhat an old school view on mentorship, yet I embrace all methods of learning and teaching.

I think sharing the physical space with your mentor is something every serious ceramicist should experience. Learning from being in the studio while working on clay is important, and so is observing how your mentor interacts with peers, with patrons, with their own teachers. I think it is great to learn from teachers on the internet, and sometimes that may be the only option for many students. But, we often underestimate how much we can learn by being there physically in the studio with a mentor, it paints a bigger picture.

I have traveled and stayed at many different studios in my student years, some for longer periods of several months and some for brief visits. These are some of the most valuable experiences I’ve had so far. By the time I began to travel and seek out mentors that have distinct techniques and understanding of clay, I was quite technically proficient. Similar to speaking a foreign language, we all simply want to communicate through the medium of clay, and how we communicate is very different.

Similar to speaking a foreign language, we all simply want to communicate through the medium of clay, and how we communicate is very different.

I’ve worked in production studios where the day begins with pugging hundreds of pounds of clay and making dozens of cylindrical mugs - each expected to be made in under 45 seconds. All the clients of the studio at the time were mostly wholesalers around the country, ranging from gift shops to restaurants, and more.

I learned that it’s a hard life to be a production potter, in the studio and outside the studio. You are limited to making what is able to be sold: precision and repetition are your two best friends. The work puts a strain on your body. My former boss developed arthritis from decades of production style wheel work, and I remember she had to use hot water when she was making work to ease the pain in her hands. But on the other side, she supported her kids with her craft. I think it takes a very balanced combination of skill and personality to be able to succeed in production pottery.

I‘ve also worked in a ceramic tile production studio, where I learned about the tile industry as well as the technical side of tile making. My mentor was an excellent artist who balanced a separate studio pottery practice alongside tile making.

I love ceramics and I want to make pots for a really long time, hopefully until I am very old. I was very interested to learn how people are doing this as their full time gig while also maintaining the passion that is required to go to the studio every day. The challenge is, what works for others may not work for you. But learning what doesn’t work for you is just as important as learning what does.

Learning from a mentor is the best way to gain insight into the dilemma between passion for the medium and sustainability as an artist.

Learning from a mentor is the best way to gain insight into the dilemma between passion for the medium and sustainability as an artist.

JZ: You teach at East Side Pot Shop, can you talk about your teaching practice?

FZ: I have been making work at East Side Pot Shop since the shop started over two years ago. I was offered the opportunity to teach lessons there, and I was very interested in gaining experience in teaching as well. I think I teach by placing myself in the student’s perspective. It’s a lot about learning the student and their vocabulary, aesthetics, and style. Once you have a basic understanding of the student, you can speak to them in their language and build a teaching relationship from there. I find this way a lot more effective than preaching, although it does take time to build that relationship.

I also like to introduce students to good studio etiquette. I was a pretty messy student, and messiness in the studio could harm your practice. You lose focus more easily, your work becomes less organized, and in the worst case scenario, a messy studio could be hazardous if you are not careful with the chemicals, dust, and equipment required for making work.

The richest part of ceramics is its history, and I think the journey of a potter is to learn the history through working with clay and eventually finding where you are in this continuation of history. I like to introduce the history and philosophy of pottery whenever possible.

We are also very hands-on at the studio when we teach. Clay is such a multidimensional process, so teaching from demonstrations is not enough. Some of the students who have come from other teaching studios will often struggle even if they have completed many sessions already, but once we sit down and start troubleshooting through the tricky areas, I often see them make impressive progress in short periods of time. I love when I see students moving forward in their processes.

JZ: Can you give us a brief lesson on history & philosophy of pottery?

FZ: I think ceramics, being one of the oldest abstract art forms, carries a lot of metaphors of life. We describe different parts of pots using words like “foot”, “lip”, “shoulder”, “belly” the list goes on. Pots are the abstraction of humanity and you see it in almost every ancient civilization from the pots that they produce.

Take Chinese pots for example: through examination, each one from a different time period or dynasty tells a lot about the economic environment and mentality of that time. Some dynasties are a lot more frugal because of war and instability, and the pots will reflect that environment - the forms and glazes are usually more simple.

Then you look at powerful dynasties such as Tang Dynasty and Ming Dynasty, and they have some of the most extravagant surfaces and colors, and the forms are very expressive. Some bigger pots are voluminous which symbolizes good harvesting, yet they will never hold any grains because removing functionality from a vessel was a luxurious thing to do.

To me, learning history and philosophy makes me examine life in a deeper way. This is an ongoing dialogue for me, observing what’s happening in today’s world, how it affects me as a potter, what kind of pots I want to make. We have what traditionally would be referred to as “good harvest,” but how are we still behaving in such a deprived way?

We describe different parts of pots using words like “foot”, “lip” ,“shoulder” “belly” the list goes on. Pots are the abstraction of humanity and you see it in almost every ancient civilization and the pots that they produce.

JZ: Where do you derive your inspiration from for your work?

FZ: I look at pots everywhere all the time. I even love the pots that I “hate” because at the end, they contain qualities and values that I disagree with. I find it very informative to look at work that I like and dislike equally.

I am finding myself making two bodies of work with a focus on different techniques. I throw larger forms on the wheel that are more classic and follow geometrical proportions that I learned from Eastern Asian pots. The history is so rich in Eastern Asia, I don’t think I will ever look away from these pots. I also do a lot of hand building and wheel throwing and alter the forms. Lately, I have been looking at some African pots for form, and some German and English pots for surface as well.

JZ: When I saw your work at the studio, I was instantly drawn to your forms in their simplicity, balance, and finish - and they seem to command the space around them. Can you talk a little bit more about what draws you to East Asian pots? What makes you connect to these forms?

FZ: I think it’s very natural for me to look at my own roots and draw inspiration. I like many virtues that the Chinese pots possess. Fullness, precision, technical excellence, and every aspect of the pots are thought out. I make work to embody these values. But when you look at Japanese pots, these makers understand the balance and the lack of balance are the constant duality that we encounter. And they leave room for chance and chaos to happen, I am also drawn to that drama. I create with these various vocabularies in mind. I connect to the idea of both traditions - if you really ponder on their relationship, they are actually not mutually exclusive. This is an exciting thing to explore, and trying to embody these qualities well is part of my motivation to make work.

JZ: What is the ceramics scene like in Austin?

FZ: The work we do at East Side Pot Shop directly feeds into the growing scene in Austin. I truly believe that anyone can make a good pot if they have the right balance - by spending the time to develop a good understanding of technique and materiality, with having thoughtful guidance from a skilled and invested teacher.

It’s a really exciting time for ceramics in Austin because Austin has the right environment for pottery. We have a few older and established potters in town that connect the younger generation to traditions and roots. We also have an extremely generous community of ceramic artists all over Texas that feed into the growth of Austin ceramics. We have really curious students that want to learn the ins and outs of clay. These are all necessary conditions for a healthy scene to flourish.

JZ: Where do you want your work to live?

FZ: I think some of my bigger works live best in an environment with a lot of open space. It actually makes them seem less significant which is a humbling feeling. I have quite a few works in the lobby of a high end hotel in downtown Austin with nicely designed interiors, and they are set up alongside other work that is quite monumental. My pots seem comfortable there and I am happy many people will see them.

I like pots in good homes too, somewhere in the home that brings some balance and joy to the owner. At the end of the day, I am just communicating some of the qualities and virtues that inspired me. So for anyone that shares these views, the pots are for them.

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2 comments

  • We’ve been watching Frank since he was in high school. It’s been a joy to watch him developing his unique artistic gifts!

    Eileen
  • I was very impressed wit Frank’s articulate explanations and insights and how he has so beautifully assimilated so much from varied sources. As his former teacher at St. Edward’s University, I’m am very pleased to have
    been part of his early experience and ongoing evolution as a clay artist..
    Stan Irvin

    Stan Irvin

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