In a world roaring with visual cacophony, Lori Katz counters by keeping it simple. Like cool jazz, her designs get down to basics—black on white, rough against smooth, voids broken by lines, circles or squares. Riffs on these minimalist motifs play out across plates, platters, vases and wall installations—composed with balance and without a wasted note.
The occasional teapot, strikingly colorful and curvaceous, lingers as a vestige of an earlier period. When Katz became a professional potter two decades ago, as she tells it, “My work was very, very painted, brightly colored and fun. It was as much about the decoration as the pot.” Back then, her functional pieces, suffused with vibrant colors and sculptural energy, seemed lively enough to walk off the table.
But five years ago her longstanding attraction to the graphic image took hold. “I made a conscious decision to simplify my work,” Katz says. One day, while teaching at the Art League School in Alexandria, Virginia, and demonstrating different ways to use clay, “a light bulb went on,” she recounts. “The idea of black stoneware inlaid into white stoneware really grabbed me.”
This new approach also suited her passion for precision. While her results seem simple and spontaneous, she is quick to point out that “everything is carefully planned and designed throughout. This process is as meticulous as painting—in a different way.”
The process often starts at her studio in Alexandria’s Torpedo Factory. Behind a polished gallery of finished pieces, Katz stashes tools and works-in-progress. As forthright in her own manner as in her design, she works with black and white stoneware without adding color. “I like very much the calmness, strength and simplicity,” she says. In its natural state, stoneware appears grey and brown, firing to creamy white and coarse black.
Katz transports pieces between Alexandria and a second studio in her home basement. There among metal shelves stacked with works in progress and boxes with orders ready to ship, she glazes and fires pieces in an electric kiln. There too she throws teapots on a potter’s wheel, including a new prototype design in white stoneware. She’s developed a way to structurally integrate her characteristic black inlay by slicing the teapot’s round, hollow body.
Her earlier teapots were made of earthenware, which chips more easily than stoneware but produces more vivid colors. In contrast, stoneware fires to a higher temperature and goes through a vitrification process, becoming harder and stone-like.
As her day begins at the Torpedo Factory, Katz moves back and forth between her worktable and a bright blue slab roller, used to roll out sections of 25-pound hunks into quarter-inch slabs. She proceeds with very simple tools: a kitchen rolling pin to flatten black stoneware, an X-acto knife for cutting squares and design shapes, a woodworking tool to even edges. With a ruler and plastic triangle she measures straight edges to precise dimensions, from five-inch wall squares to 24-inch-long serving platters. “I can be a little obsessive about this, taking care to make it just so,” says Katz, happily pointing out how the process distorts this perfection. “Pieces shrink and become squarish and wavy. The results are always different.”
After ovals or circles are cut out and arranged and the clay is ready to be worked, she returns to the slab roller. Carefully examining the clay to remove specks that could mar its surface, she then adjusts two metal rollers that determine the slab’s thickness. Once rolled, Katz gingerly changes the slab’s direction and repeats the cycle, notching down the spacing between rollers by paper-thin increments, as the black clay slowly merges into the white. “I’m trying to control it, turning so that it spreads evenly and produces the effect I’m after,” she explains. The process typically takes eight to 10 cycles to complete.
Buckets of water and sponges for separate black and white cleanup stand ready. “Because clay is such a receptive material, you have to work it very clean,” Katz says, washing her hands after each step. To protect the stoneware’s pristine whiteness during rolling, she places the slab between primed canvas sheets, sprayed and dried after each cycle.
For design variation, Katz may remove a section of black clay after two or three passes, leaving its impression as a shadowy indentation. In the past year, she introduced small pieces of gold leaf into wall pieces, glittering counterpoints to her spare black-and-white geometries.
She enjoys the process. “It’s really repetitive, almost meditative,” she says. “I see and correct problems as I’m going along.” She also welcomes visitors into her gallery; they often ask about influences on her work. “I don’t have a simple answer,” she responds. “I’m very much influenced by good design in unlikely places—it could be a well designed water bottle or a great-looking trash can.”
Katz’s focus on the functional vessel remains constant. She is adamant that “I want the pieces to be used, not put on the sideboard and admired.” Couples have listed her dinnerware on their bridal registries; Katz displays her pieces at home, where she confesses to spending too much time arranging them to best effect. Her wall installations are an extension of her functional wares. “I think of them as a series,” she says, “a group that works together.”
Katz graduated from George Washington University and apprenticed with a potter at the Torpedo Factory before being accepted there herself in 1980. She’s always worked with clay. “I really love the material. It’s very responsive and satisfying,” she says. “My work has evolved. I imagine it will keep on changing.”
Writer Tina Coplan resides in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Lori Katz’s ceramics will be exhibited July 9 though August 27, 2010, at Gallery 555, 555 12th Street, NW, Washington, DC. Her work is available at her Torpedo Factory studio—open Wednesday through Sunday—at 105 North Union Street, Alexandria, Virginia. For more information, visit www.lorikatz.com or call 703-475-1640.
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