Known for the charming, organic forms of her ceramics, Jan Burtz has been hand-building clay since she was a child. Her creamy porcelain works finished with homemade glazes bring us back to the basics, illuminating the simple grace of handmade pottery. We met with Jan at her Connecticut studio, and spoke with her about her love of hand making, her beginnings in ceramics, and the motto that defines her work to this day.
How did you get your start in ceramics?
JB: Growing up, I always loved making things. I was that little girl just always creating and sewing and gardening — I guess it was my way of expressing myself. And then when I was in middle school, I signed up for a pottery class that met at night once a week, and I immediately fell in love with the material. Clay.
Was there something about clay that you felt specifically drawn to?
I just love the way it feels. I love really physically using my hands. I guess that was it. I mean, a lot of people start by throwing on the potter's wheel, and I didn't immediately learn how to do that. That's not the way my mind was creating. I was like, I want to use my hands. I kind of went against the grain. Everybody was throwing and I wasn't. There are century old techniques of hand building, but the one that I just fell for was the slab.
What is your favorite thing, or one of your favorite things, about making ceramics?
I really get a lot of joy from it. What brings me the most joy is making something that I can then incorporate into my life and my lifestyle. Something that can be used, like on my table, or to hold a plant or flowers. I also love making things that are asymmetrical, because that's what inspires me. Everything of mine is one-of-a-kind, unique. Even if it's the same piece, it's never exactly the same, because it's each made by hand.
From where do you draw inspiration, and what do you do when you are feeling uninspired?
I'm inspired by making people happy and incorporating the beauty of my surroundings. I mean, it's not ever just the pottery, but it's the flowers that go inside, or, I don’t know, the guacamole that's going to go in this vessel. That maybe you weren’t expecting to put guacamole in, but it just ends up being exactly what you need in that moment. When I’m feeling uninspired, I’d probably go read, or just take a break. That’s the best thing — taking myself out of the situation for a time. Get out of myself a bit.
Is there a particular piece of yours that you have a special place in your heart for, or that you particularly love?
There actually is. And it’s something I don’t make anymore. I created the original way back when I was in college. I made this little demitasse set, and it was triangular. I got a lot of good feedback on it, because I think it was really different from what anyone else was making at the time. I don’t know if it was entirely functional, it was more just beautiful. More as something to look at, like beautiful art, this idea of having a triangular set. I mean, the whole thing was triangular. Each handle. And that is probably one of my favorite things I ever created.
Do you have any advice for anyone who might be just getting into ceramics? Or any takeaways from your experience as a ceramicist who started her own business?
I’ll tell you my motto, which is, “less is more.” I don’t overwork pieces. That’s really my motto. I was doing asymmetrical work when everyone else was throwing on the wheel. The thing to do back then was this sort of heavy, wheel thrown style, and I was making this light, airy, delicate, feminine work. Art students really liked it, but it was a struggle at first to actually sell my work. But then, abc saw it. Paulette Cole saw it. And now I’ve been selling at abc for 35 years.