Norman Rockwell meets wabi sabi: the innovative world of Jeremy Brooks
by Sara Sobota
Take a look back, embrace a traditional concept, and find new methods and materials for exploring it. Top it off with an element of the unusual.
This ethos has guided many bodies of work for Jeremy Brooks, who joined CCU’s Department of Visual Arts in August 2018 as assistant professor of ceramics. From functional wares such as plates and vessels, to animal figurines, to repurposed iconic Norman Rockwell images, Brooks’ work urges the viewer to consider the spaces and possibilities within, around, and beyond the item itself.
Brooks’ current interest involves chemistry and craft in addition to art, a wholly original medium that combines two centuries-old traditions with a newfangled material that resists recognition.
Over the past six years, Brooks has developed a process for creating clay that displays elasticity rather than plasticity. This product he has created is stretchable, yet returns to its original form, like a rubber band, when tension is released. Brooks uses this clay to create products out of crocheted patterns, resulting in intricate porcelain vessels – mostly tea cups, so far – that surprise and delight for the dissonance in their visual and tactile qualities. The item looks like a woven basket, but it feels like a delicate china cup.
“What makes [the clay] elastic is some unique fillers in the clay recipe that make it stretchy, and other fillers added for color,” said Brooks.
Brooks embarked on his initial material research in 2013, when he found an article from the 1980s suggesting that this kind of clay modification was possible, but it was never developed in a documented way. Brooks began testing and working with materials to achieve a specific blend of ingredients that would result in a clay product appropriate for his task. Many of his early attempts cracked or broke when subjected to the 2,000-degree heat of a kiln, so finding the balance between flexibility and strength was a challenge.
While Brooks has created an impressive array of works in the medium, he’s still tinkering with the process.
“It took a long time to figure out what would survive the kiln, and also to get the right qualities in the clay,” said Brooks. “I’m looking for a certain color, and I have to get the shrinkage right. My success rate is about 50 percent.”
The second element in the task is the process of crocheting, which, Brooks states, was more difficult to master than some may expect.
“It’s been a challenge for me,” said Brooks. “I was the last student in my grade to learn to tie his shoes, so things like tying knots don’t come easy to me. It took a while to be able to count correctly and to recognize the stitches visually. I’m very much still learning that.”
Brooks said the nature and tradition of the tea ceremony itself also plays a role in his work.
“There’s a philosophy of wabi sabi, which is embracing imperfections in things,” said Brooks. “These items warp in all sorts of ways during firing. They’re very different in finished form than when I make them, so it embraces that kind of wabi sabi sensibility. There’s a humbleness to it that involves embracing natural materials. It applies to all sorts of things and is definitely tied to the tea ceremony and the wares that are part of it.”
Logan Woodle, assistant professor of sculpture in the Department of Visual Arts, said Brooks’ artistic approach, in both its technique and its content, brings value and interest to his work.
“He found an old recipe for stretchy clay in a 30-year-old magazine, and that was his jumping-off point,” said Woodle. “That’s what I love about Jeremy: He’s grounded in the theoretical and technical history, and it allows him to do these transformative things. He’s pulling back to that traditional craft, and doing it better than the other people in his field, but then having the freedom to adapt it or, frankly, bastardize it – that’s what makes him special.”
While Brooks does not teach this particular technique or genre, elements of the process become material for the classroom in his upper-level courses.
“This is advanced material exploration,” said Brooks, “so at the advanced level, I talk about customizing clay and glazes to get the results you want. I don’t teach students how to make the work I make; I teach and guide them to make the work they want to make.”
Brooks’ other bodies of work involve similarly creative methods and ways of representing traditional content. One series involves decalcomie – a French term often shortened to “decal” – a decorative technique involving printed imagery on ceramic ware, or in Brooks’ case, plates. Another focuses on altered iconographic images, and a third involves modification of figurines based on classic Norman Rockwell images.
“In most of my work, there’s art involved, but there’s a lot of technique and craft involved in it too,” said Brooks. “Even though my background is in ceramics, I work with a lot of found objects and materials. Some are clay-based, and some are not. A lot of them deal with the history of that object.”
Woodle notes that Brooks’ work is consistent with a larger movement within the academic art world toward blending genres, and the department is fortunate to have a vanguard of the trend among its faculty members.
“I think we all came from traditional schools where if you were a sculptor, you did this; if you were a ceramicist, you did this; a metalsmith did this. That just doesn’t work in today’s economic model, and now we make artists. I think Jeremy is doing it more successfully than any of us. He’s questioning how his background in science and theoretical knowledge he has in his craft can be applied to being an artist and not a ceramicist. That’s where the field is transitioning, and he’s doing a great job of staying ahead of the curve.”
Making clay and crocheting works takes a lot of dedicated, concentrated time, and Brooks looks forward to summer as an extended period not for research or leisure, but for focused work.
“I always love making,” said Brooks. “It’s definitely a part of who I am.”