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Interview with Ellen Pong

Interview by Nicole Helen Brunner

Photographs by Bowen Fernie

Ellen Pong

Ellen Pong is a Brooklyn-based artist who graduated from UC Berkeley. Recently she sat down with Nicole from Wild Bower Studio to discuss her inspiration, future, and how humor helps push the boundaries of what ceramics can be.

Nicole Helen Brunner: We’ve known each other for sometime but could you tell us about yourself and how you got to the place where you are now?

Ellen Pong: I grew up in a suburb outside of Seattle. It was boring. My friends and I spent a lot of time driving around, sitting in the parking lot of 7-Eleven, etc. Then I went to UC Berkeley for undergrad, where I studied art history and art practice. After school, I got an internship in New York, moved out here and have been here ever since.

NHB: You have a degree in art history from Berkeley with a minor in art practice, what did you focus on and how does that influence what you are creating?

EP: While studying art history, I was mainly interested in American modern and contemporary art, but I think what I really enjoyed about art history was how it could intersect with many other fields, like economics, media studies, anthropology, and so on. My art practice minor was kind of just a mish-mash of whatever art classes I could get into, but I ended up really loving sculpture and installation.

I guess majoring in art history, for better or worse, has forced me to think about my work in a broader context, and on a larger timescale. Like part of what I think is so cool about ceramics is that they’re so intimately involved in people’s everyday lives, and throughout history, they’ve carried with them so much knowledge about historical civilizations.

NHB: Can you talk a bit about how the study of anthropology has played into your work?

EP: Well I don’t actually know anything about anthropology, but I was in Mexico City last October and I went to this museum that Diego Rivera built to house his own collection of pre-Columbian sculpture and ceramics, the Museo Anahuacalli. And something that really stood out to me was how central humor and playfulness seem to be in so many of these pieces, because these are characteristics that most people wouldn’t readily associate with art of that age. I get that humor is culturally and temporally specific, and I could entirely just be projecting, but I think that it can also be universal in many ways, and profound in its ability to create a sense of shared humanity.

At the very least, you get the sense that the people who made these things--like this chubby little dog vessel, or this little figurine of a guy falling on his face--took care to make sure they would be enjoyed, and made things with a sense of playfulness and enjoyment themselves.

I get that humor is culturally and temporally specific... but I think that it can also be universal in many ways, and profound in its ability to create a sense of shared humanity.

NHB: How does this sense of humanity and humor play into your work?

EP: I try to do the same. I make things that I enjoy and find amusing. I also ask myself how I can make things that are specific to my understanding of our time. Like, ‘what are all the stupid, mundane, unofficial histories that are worth telling about this moment?’

NHB: Is there a specific way that you would define your style and how did that style develop?

EP: I’m not even sure if I have my own developed style yet. I’m just always asking myself ‘what ideas are worth making into a permanent form?’ A part of me is also like, ‘what can I convince people to put in their homes?’ My style is still evolving, but it starts with, ‘how do I make my dumb little idea into something that people want to use and treasure?’

NHB: Where do you draw inspiration from? Do you have any major influences and how are they pushing your craft?

EP: I look to a lot of artists for inspiration. I’m always impressed by Jamian Juliano-Villani’s paintings--she’s truly on another level. I’ve also been following Katie Stout’s work for a while now. It really broadened my perspective on what functional objects could do and look like.

On a similar note, I recently saw Dozie Kanu’s show at the Studio Museum in Harlem and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I used to think that making furniture and functional objects was something too complicated for me to ever fully grasp. But Kanu has this very compelling way of transforming pre-existing, available materials, and it was a nice reminder that making furniture doesn’t have to be this highly technical process, it can be more intuitive and open-ended without sacrificing sophistication.

I also spend a lot of time on Instagram and probably an equal amount of time shopping online, so I end up drawing inspiration from these places. I like Etsy because it really is where home goods go to die. There’s so much to browse, and a lot of it is stuff I wouldn’t ever think about otherwise. Alibaba can also be fun if you’re in the right headspace. I probably spend the most time on eBay though. I made it past page 100 of the search results once.

NHB: When beginning a piece, do you have a specific process? Does it start with a shape or end goal in mind, or do you let it form as you work?

EP: I usually have a general idea of what I want to make when I go to the studio. I keep a running list of ideas and I have a sketchbook where I work out my ideas into plans. I tend to get my best ideas when I’m trying to fall asleep, which is annoying. Other than that though I don’t really have a specific process. By the time I go to the studio, I’ve probably thought about what I’m going to make for a few days, so I just do it. Of course, there are always things I don’t account for, and I always underestimate how many ways things can go wrong, so I’m always changing my plan.

NHB: One of my favorite series that you created were your ceramic lottery tickets. Can you tell us a bit about that? How did they come to be and where do you see this series going?

EP: Yeah, I used to love buying scratch cards when I was really young. Sometimes when my mom was checking out at the grocery store, she’d give me a dollar to buy a scratch card from the vending machine. I got caught a few times though--I was probably like six years old. I think I was just really attracted to the graphics. I have an art history background, but I also have some design experience, and I currently work for a graphic designer, so I spend a lot of time thinking in this realm. I definitely have a soft spot for the maximalist approach to designing scratch cards. They’re honest, in a way. I’d love to be a scratch card designer.

Last summer, I was bored at work and I decided that I’d buy a scratch card at lunch everyday until I won something, but as penance, I’d have to make a ceramic version of each card. It took me seven days to win five dollars. I also never finished making all the cards. They’re really time consuming and I got sick of the process, but maybe someday I’ll finish the last two.

NHB: Is there a reason you haven’t finished the scratch cards series?

EP: Recently, I’ve been thinking more about the afterlife of the things I make once they leave the studio. I think partially why I never finished them is because I have them all in my apartment now and they just sit there, I don’t know what to do with them.

Part of me is hostile to clutter because my dad is kind of a hoarder and his house is filled with things that don’t have a proper place. I’m not saying that everything has to have a strictly utilitarian purpose, but rather than treating each individual piece as a completed whole, or even as part of a series, I’m trying to think of the things I make as more like moving parts of larger, interactive installations. I want the things I make to be a part of people’s lives.

NHB: You’ve created a lot of sculptural pieces with fine detailed painting but you’ve also been exploring pieces that function as home decor like lighting fixtures and mirrors. Where do you see your practice moving towards? Are there any new techniques or projects you’d like to try in the future?

Yes. I recently moved into a new apartment so I’ve been thinking a lot about home goods. But like I mentioned before, it wasn’t too long ago that I was really interested in sculpture and installations and furniture. I feel like now, I’m just merging those interests with ceramics. I’d really like to start making bigger things, like chairs and tables, so I think that’s the next project I’ll take on.

I want the things I make to be a part of people’s lives.

NHB: What is it like to be a New York-based artist? What makes this community unique?

EP: I still don’t really know anything about New York. I don’t think I’ve lived here long enough to say. I guess it’s fast-paced and kind of stressful, and you have to choose between doing laundry, feeding yourself, and going to the studio because each of those things requires so much effort? I mean it’s very cool and surreal that so many of the artists and designers I look up to all seem to be around here.

There’s an energy that makes things seem more possible here than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. There’s also always something to do, which is nice. I feel like that kind of constant sensory stimulation is good for coming up with ideas and finding inspiration. It’s not an easy city to live in by any means, but there are redeeming things about it that make me excited and grateful to be here, and I think it’s still a viable place to meet cool people who are doing cool things.

NHB: Are there any other local makers whose work you’re really excited about?

EP: I’ve been really into Dan Mandelbaum’s sculptures. Also, Stephanie Temma Heir — she’s a super talented painter and ceramicist.

NHB: If people want to keep up-to-date on your adventures, where should they go?

I’m on Instagram @ellen.pong!

NHB: Anything else you want to share?

EP: I’m having a little show with my friend, Nick Philips, who’s a glassblower, in April. The details are TBD, but we’ll post the info on Instagram soon. It’ll be fun, I promise!

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