Playing with Clay Becomes an Art in the Hands of Kristin Gruenberger

In the playful spirit of today’s subject, let’s start with a riddle: When is a pot not a pot?

Ceramic vessels become playful creations by Kristin Gruenberger

Kristin Gruenberger’s playful ceramic creations begin with wheel-thrown pots like these.

Answer: When it’s joined with other pots to become something else. In the picture below, ceramic artist Kristin Gruenberger holds some of the pieces pictured above. When she holds them in this order, do they remind you of anything? Think transportation and 1800’s.

Wheel-thrown vessels join in playful creations by Kristin Gruenberger

Several wheel-thrown vessels will join together in one playful creation by Kristin Gruenberger.

If you thought of an old-fashioned locomotive, your vision matches Kristin’s.

The engine pictured below isn’t the completed version of what Kristin holds above. But it does combine three wheel-thrown pots with slabs of clay and assorted metal objects that she collected. To Kristin, the train engine isn’t sculpture. “I still think of it as pots,” she told me, “and that’s the fun.”

Whimsical ceramic train engine by Kristin Gruenberger

Kristin Gruenberger used three wheel-thrown vessels, slabs of clay, and found objects to create this whimsical train engine.

Art for the Fun of It

Fun is what Kristin always has in mind when she makes the line of ceramics that she calls “toys.” She never sketches her work in advance. Instead, she lets her imagination play with the clay as it turns in her hands above her potter’s wheel. When she completes a pot, she thinks about what it could become. It might be a train engine or one of the cars following it; it could be an airplane or a tugboat or a hot air balloon.

Kristin Gruenberger used a variety of objects to put pattern and

Sandpaper mesh, hair curlers, a serrated tracing wheel, and buttons were among the objects Kristin Gruenberger pressed into the surface of this ceramic locomotive.

Then she pokes, prods, and stamps the clay. Kristin enjoys its malleability and addresses the surface as if it were a canvas — playfully, of course. She presses what we might call “odds and ends” into the clay to give it texture and design.

You can see several examples in this front view of another of Kristin’s locomotives. Kristin pressed buttons into the clay at the base of the small pot that became a smokestack. A serrated tracing wheel — a tool familiar to those who sew — made the row of tiny dots encircling the front of the engine.

The small grids beyond that row of dots came from sand paper mesh pressed down and lifted carefully. The larger grids at the back of the engine are the imprint of old-fashioned plastic hair rollers.

The cow catcher and the wheels repeat the design of other old objects in Kristin’s cache of found items. For design elements like these, Kristin makes plaster molds of the original object. She then pours liquid clay (slip) into the mold, which gradually absorbs water from the slip. Every “toy” she creates is different, but the molds allow her to repeat some of these special features.

Playful Art with a Function

Whimsical business card holder by ceramic artist Kristin Gruenberger

This ceramic frog held the business cards of its creator Kristin Gruenberger at Denver’s Park Hill Art Festival this year.

Kristin puts most of her effort into functional ware these days. But even that is full of fun. Shapes she creates for items like butter dishes and small covered containers are as playful as her toys. Colors are playful too.

She decorates many of her functional pieces with drawings, using a technique called mishima. With her pin tool, which has a point as fine as its name suggests, Kristin carves her drawings into the clay before firing. She scrapes off excess clay that collects as she carves and fills the hollow lines with black glaze. The results are drawings with the finest lines possible on pottery, Kristin told me.

You can browse through Kristin’s functional ware and see more of her “toys” on her website. Kristin has been so busy selling her art at festivals that her Etsy shop (you will see the link on her website) is currently empty. Check back soon or click “contact” on her website menu if her work brings to mind that fun-loving, needing-nothing person on your Christmas list.

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