Journeys in Time with Christina Carfora

by Robin Gary

We are finishing a stellar second year of interviews with a stellar featured artist, Christina Carfora. Christina is a positively prolific clay artist, student, educator and world traveler who has spent much of her early career in Houston, Texas. She is now working on her MFA at University of Florida. Christina shares her path, experiences and techniques with us. She sets an energetic standard for education as a life-long endeavor. I hope that all readers find this discussion inspiring to continually develop your individual voices in clay!

Starting off with a BFA in Ceramics and Art Education at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, you came out of the gate running with your first job teaching high school art in Laramie, Wyoming. You also had collected two travel opportunities by then, one to France and one to Peru. What kept you on the path of creating art and working in clay while you were teaching full time? What were the early signs that your travels would influence your work?

Teaching at the alternative high school in Laramie, Wyoming was very inspiring because I was constantly trying to generate new ideas for lesson plans and create visual examples.  This naturally led to an overwhelming influx of new ideas and techniques I wanted to explore for my personal work.  After students left the ceramics classroom in the evenings, I would loose myself in a new project until hunger or exhaustion would bring me back to reality.

I spent a summer studying the textiles and ceramics in Peru with the University of WI- Milwaukee just prior to graduation.  Eager to share this information with my students, I planned lessons and brought in cultural items I acquired on my travels.  My work was influenced by the form and finishing style of the Moche pre-Columbian ceramics.  After moving to Houston, I also traveled to South Africa and was influenced by the surface design of a wooden mask I acquired from the Ivory Coast.  The repetitive carving in this piece influenced the aesthetics of my early sgrafitto work.

After a successful tenure in Wyoming where you established the high school ceramics program, had your first show and taught full-time, you landed in Houston. Travel opportunities also brought you to study in Plzen, Czech Republic and live in Jakarta, Indonesia. Upon your return, you enrolled and completed an M.A. in Sculptural Ceramics at University of Houston, Clear Lake. What were your goals for the MA? While working on your degree, you also were teaching again. How did study in Plzen and living in Jakarta effect your techniques, process, daily creative life and your teaching (loaded question!)?

When I applied to the MA program at the University of Houston- Clear Lake I had two goals: 1. Take the technical skills I had learned in undergrad and at the Glassell School of Art and expand  my visual language. I wanted to be able to communicate my ideas more clearly through my work.  I had the unique opportunity of living abroad and traveling to twenty-three countries. I was compelled to share these experiences with a greater audience and really explore some of the social issues I encountered during my travels. The combination of my studio courses, Texts and Images courses (Literature combined with art history) and my study abroad courses really helped improve my work.  Living in Indonesia and studying in the Czech Republic did not directly impact my technique since I was drawing, taking photographs and making prints (in Plzen) but the ideas generated in my drawings are integrally tied to my ceramics. 

And yes, I was a graduate teaching assistant for the undergrads at UHCL in Advanced Ceramics and Raku, an intern with Jeff Forster in ceramics at Glassell School of Art, restarted the ceramics program at the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston and taught a couple workshop for artists and teachers.

This year you have worked as a resident artist at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft as well as enrolled, studied and worked in TWU’s Post-Baccalaureate studies with Colby Parsons.  No moss under your tools!  What was your greatest take-away experience as resident artist? What were your goals in the Post-Bac program?

My experience as a Resident Artist at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft was absolutely incredible!  If I had to sum it up in to one word, I would say, "community."  Everyone involved with HCCC from the Staff to the Resident Artists to the Volunteers worked together to create a positive creative environment. Working side by side with six other artists working in contemporary craft material (such as ceramics, metalsmithing, jewelry, fibers, paper, etc.) was both enriching and inspiring.  We could simply step into the next studio to learn about a specific technique or have lunch out in the garden to discuss a new concept we were grappling with.  The art world is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary and it’s stimulating to see how another artist may be expressing a similar concept with a different media.  Several of the Resident Artists have worked collaboratively as a result of these interactions.  Interacting with the public on a daily basis helped me articulate some of the important concepts I was trying to figure out.  Meeting gallery owners and members of the art community opened new doors for exhibiting and teaching.

The Post-Bac program with Colby Parsons at Texas Woman's University gave me time and space to focus on improving some of my ceramic surfaces and finishing techniques.  I spent the semester working on layering colored slips, underglazes, glazes and cold finishes to create a richer surface that doesn't have a dry, flat feel.  I also took a course to experiment with various printmaking techniques that I intend on incorporating in to both my ceramics and drawing.  Colby was an incredible mentor.  Through discussions and critiques, he is able to help generate new ideas and figure out creative solutions to technical problems.  He is currently working to grow the post-baccalaureate program and expand the MFA Ceramics program at TWU. 

Tell us about your techniques. How have your techniques developed over time and experience?  How have they stayed the same?

The first figures I made using a soft slab technique and slip trailing on colored slip.  I rolled large 1/4 inch thick slabs of low fire white clay and draped over 5 inch wide tubes.  As they stiffened, I would slowly stand them up and gently manipulate them into tall sinuous figures.  The slabs alluded to fabric and a slight twist of the form could imply movement.  Then I applied a colored slip (using Mason stain for the pigmentation.) Using a tiny, empty glue bottle, I applied hundreds of tiny, white dots to create repetitive lines and patterns on the surface.  Of course I have discovered better tools for this application since then!  I sculpted the head, arms and hands separately using needles to achieve subtle detail work. The completed pieces were about 18 inches tall. (See “Making An Arsenal of Masks”)

After completing a series of these figures, I began to experiment with figures using two soft slabs, one for the front and one for the back.  I would roll out a rather large, 1/4-inch thick slab and lightly sketch out the front of a torso (minus the arms and head.)  With a thin knife, I cut out the front of a flat torso.  Then, I lay it on the second slab, trace and cut the form and use that piece as the back.  Then as the slabs dry, I slowly start manipulating the slabs from the inside to form the abdomen, breasts, back etc.  When the slabs are stiff enough to stand up (but not quite leather hard) I attach the front and back of the torso.  Then I make a solid head, hollow it out and finally attach the arms and hands.  The resulting work from my first series I completed using this technique was very stylized and sinuous.  I applied black mason stain slip and carved repetitive sgrafitto lines to complete the surface.  Then, I began stamping and making marks in the slabs.  From there (influenced by an Alternative Firing Class at Glassell School of Art) I began adding large amount of grog to the exterior and cracking the surface.  As time progressed, I slowly started working more and more realistically.  I was also taking an anatomy sculpture class at Glassell School of Art and worked with various live models.

Then, a few summers ago I took a summer workshop at Santa Fe Clay with Lisa Reinertson.  This was a major turning point in my work.  In one week, we completed a full life size figure using a coiling technique.  The resulting piece (The Way of the Dodo) is made in two adjoining pieces and does not have any internal infrastructure.  I never really enjoyed coil building, but in one week, I was hooked.  I still use slabs when working smaller, but lately the majority of my work has been life size.

Another major influence on my work has been my drawings.  I recently completed a series I call my "Unnatural History" drawings.  Based on experiences from my world travels, they explore social issues I encountered along the way.  The drawings are integrally tied to my ceramics.  An example of this is "Invasion of a New Environment."  Which is currently in the "In Residence" exhibition at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft.  I have also begun to draw directly on to the surface of the clay body using sgrafitto as seen in “An Indonesian Epic." 

You have a rich set of experiences but we haven’t talked about shows, sales and awards, yet. When did you feel the first inner glow of a good sale? How did you network in the various communities where you have lived and worked?

I had the fortune of getting connected with an incredible gallery and network of amazing people within the first few months of living in Houston.  I enrolled in two post baccalaureate/ continuing education ceramics courses at the University of Houston and Glassell School of Art immediately.  One of my classmates who worked in the museum district saw my work and recommended that I contact the Asher Gallery in the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft.  I found a photographer to take some slides of my work and set up an appointment with Asher Gallery Manager, Suzanne Sippel.  She took the three pieces I presented, they sold fairly quickly and we have been working together ever since!  HCCC has helped to provide a strong backbone of support to the ceramics community and art community as a whole.  Many of the resident artists stay in Houston after completing their residency because they are able to find jobs teaching and have many exhibition opportunities.  As a result, the art community has grown significantly over the past few years.  For me personally, HCCC has been more than simply a place to sell my work.  I taught outreach classes, was a volunteer and was eventually accepted to be an Artist in Residence.  Whenever I move to a new city, I always do two things: 1. Enroll in a ceramics class 2. Volunteer at the main art museum or center in the area.  This has provided me with countless opportunities and I have met some fantastic people along the way.

You are just now starting an MFA at University of Florida. Who, what, why influenced you to go on for the MFA? Who will be your advisor? How are you finding the initial transition: new studio, new city, new adventures?

In December, I completed my MA from the University of Houston- Clear Lake.  My ceramics professor, Nick DeVries became not only my mentor but also my role model.  In both the studio and classroom, Nick's optimistic, thoughtful nature can be felt.  I hope to model my own professional and educational career after him.

I applied for the MFA at University of Florida because I wanted the opportunity to work with ceramic professors Nan Smith, Anna Calluori Holcombe and Linda Arbuckle and be a part of this strong ceramics community.  Also, I hope to teach on the college level and most programs require a MFA to qualify.  At the time of this interview, I have completed the first ten weeks of my first semester and my experience has been outstanding!!!  The day I was accepted in to the program I was showered with emails, messages and even a couple phone calls from current UF graduate students and alumni alike.  There is an incredibly strong support system filled with so many ceramicists that I truly admire.  The studio is filled with a flurry of creative activity both day and night.  The nature around north central Florida is stunning and there are an overwhelming number of creative social activities provided by the UF art community.  The classes have been challenging and I have already been exploring several new concepts and techniques.  I know my three years in my MFA program are going to fly by.

For more on Christina check out the following video and links:

Video of Christina Carfora's Artist Talk from Solo Show "Wanderlust"

Images from “Wanderlust”

Christina's website

Christina's Work || Christina's TCAA Profile Page

Texas Clay Arts Association 2014

Images in header (from left): Annie Foster, Karmien Bowman, Mimi Bardagjy

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