A lace-quilted dessert plate, cup and tumbler.
A lace-quilted dessert plate, cup and tumbler.
An ombré vase bathed in soft blue-green and earth tones with floral appliqués.
Briegel peels a porcelain slab from one of her handmade plaster molds, revealing its luxuriant pattern and texture.
A black vessel with a gold-braided rim.
A graceful teapot.
A sequin-and-lace-quilted dessert plate.
Near her rural studio in Randallstown, Maryland, Briegel holds a gently contoured mug.
If everything old is new again, then the pendulum is swinging toward Samantha Briegel’s sparkling, pixie-dust porcelains. With their lacy patterns, gilded trim and mother-of-pearl luster, her work revives the lavish tableware and rococo extravagance of Victorian days. At the same time, Briegel introduces contemporary touches. Through a meticulous process, she transfers the richness of fabric pattern and texture to ceramics, adapting the plush maze of Victorian crazy quilts. Soft curves that distinguish each vase, bowl, cup and teapot carry personal meaning.
“When you talk about a vessel, you’re talking about the lip and body and foot,” she begins. “I want to use that comparison in a kind of autobiographical way.”
Beneath the surface of her pretty, feminine pieces lies deeper commentary. “Clothes imply bodies,” says Briegel, who often recasts items from her own closet in her art. “Instead of wearing the clothes, I’m reclaiming their identities to make functional objects that provide nourishment. It’s a little bit of body acceptance,” explains the potter, who traces a long line of artists using ceramic vessels as stand-ins for bodies, from the anthropomorphic bottles of Peru’s Moche society to modern vases by Picasso and Betty Woodman.
On a recent morning, Briegel is standing in the Randallstown, Maryland, farmhouse she shares with her partner, Matt Nierenberg. After the two met online, he wooed her with an offer of studio space in his childhood home. “I moved in on our third date and never left,” she says, smiling. “It worked out.”
As light streams into her basement studio, the ceramic artist demonstrates a few steps in her rigorous handcraft. It starts with a plaster mold of her creation. To make one, Briegel takes a lacy swatch cut from one of her dresses, flattens the 11-by-17-inch fabric on a sticky surface, places a barrier of boards around it and plugs up the edges with clay. She then pours in wet plaster and waits for it to dry, generally over two days. With this technique, the potter has amassed some 40 molds, each based on a different garment or fabric border.
Using a mold, Briegel creates a clay slab formed of three layers—the first painted into the mold’s crevices with a liquid clay called slip, the second a poured slip, then a layer of rolled clay pressed on top. Once all are bonded together, Briegel peels off the clay slab. Its pattern stands out in high relief, just like the lacy fabric it came from.
Porcelain is the potter’s clay of choice. “It captures all the details of fabric texture,” she says. “Its translucence relates to the see-through fabrics I use. And it is very challenging to work with. I’ve always been attracted to challenges.”
Case in point: Building a useful object out of pieces cut from the textured slab. Like a professional tailor, Briegel plans out patterns for cutting into the clay slab before joining pieces together. A single bowl may involve 10 seams. “With porcelain, the more seams you add, the more potential places there are for the object to crack,” says the potter, who fires most pieces three times in electric kilns located in a barn near her studio.
She minimizes breakage in part by throwing a separate base on a potter’s wheel, then attaching it to the object’s upper body. “I call that quilting them together,” she says. “I like to use the same language for the throwing and sewing processes.”
When she was nine, Briegel received a sewing machine as a Christmas gift; it now holds a place of honor in her office. “I grew up in the ‘Project Runway’ generation,” observes the 31-year-old. A highlight was the show’s “unconventional challenge” competition, which involved making garments from something other than fabric. “It had a big influence on what I do now,” she reflects.
Besides sewing, Briegel was also interested in painting and drawing, and intended to study arts education upon entering The University of Tennessee, Knoxville in her hometown. After taking a pottery class and meeting graduate students in the program, her goals expanded; she went on to receive a master’s of fine arts degree in ceramics at Ohio University.
The ceramicist also learned advanced clay techniques as an intern at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Montana—“a very formative experience,” she says. Landing the first residency at DC’s District Clay Center brought her to the East Coast; that was followed by a second residency at Baltimore Clayworks. Briegel is now an adjunct professor at Maryland Institute College of Art and teaches workshops on her technique around the country. For the past three years, she has exhibited at the Smithsonian Craft Show.
Briegel continues to experiment in her studio, striving to make pieces that are ever more comfortable to use. “I like my work to be functional—but beautifully functional,” she clarifies, continuing, “Wouldn’t you want to use a beautiful mug for your morning coffee? My work is pretty indulgent in that way. It adds a little bit of sparkle to the day.”
For more information, visit samanthabriegel.com.