Interview with Lissa Hunter
Lissa Hunter is one of the wisest people I know. I’ve learned many things over the years, talking with Lissa while she coils baskets and shares some of her wisdom without knowing she’s doing so. She is a craftsperson, a sculptor, a writer, a painter, a drawer and a teacher among many other things.
Her studio is in the same building that houses Angela Adams design studios, furniture making, our store and offices. While there is a team of us, running up and down stairs, opening and closing the store, designing and making product… there is only one person in her studio and she puts out impressive bodies of work for galleries and museums around the country.
She is endlessly experimenting with new materials and techniques and manages to balance talent, focus, inspiration and discipline with humble certainty.
Over the years I have observed you working in a broad range of mediums. Basket weaving, painting, porcelain, drawing… is there one medium that you feel most comfortable with? Or does the work in progress dictate the medium? How do you make those decisions?I guess you’d say that I’m a product of my education. I didn’t start studying art until I was a junior in college at Indiana University and to be an art major meant to draw and paint, so that is what I did. In graduate school, I studied textiles. And then, most recently, because I was looking for something new to explore, I have been working with porcelain clay. But the experience of working with each feeds into the others. Learning to work with clay at this point has been delightful.
I literally watch my hands learn, as if my brain were not involved. The kind of shaping and formal skills that I developed in coiling (a basketry technique) directly relate to handbuilding with clay. The kind of underglaze work I do is just like drawing on paper. It’s all related. The choice of what medium I use is based on the effects I can achieve to say what it is I want to say.
When you enter the studio, do you always know just what you will be working on? How are those decisions made?My studio, probably anyone’s studio, is an odd combination of living and working space. I do think about “going to work” when I go there, but I’m just as likely to be writing an email or reading a book or eating lunch or any number of other things that I would do at home. Most days, there is something that I know I’ll do, often dictated by a deadline, but I go pretty much every day, whether there is something specific to do or not. The easy days are those on which there is something specific to be accomplished, when work is mid-process. The more difficult ones are those on which I walk into the studio and have to figure out what’s next. Sometimes it’s a matter of rearranging shelves or scrubbing the floors, anything to keep engaged. Then my eyes fall on a drawing I had liked or a porcelain form that I thought I could improve and the next work process begins.
Lissa Hunter, Fade to Black, 2004, waxed linen thread, paper cord, paper, paint, pencil, fiberboard, and plaster, 27 x 8 x 4in
One of my favorite things about your work is the storytelling that emanates from each piece. Your pieces seem to have history and a life lived—even when they are not even completed. How do you incorporate that magic? Is it intended or is that just an energy you weave into your work without knowingly doing so?I would love to take credit for something either intentional or magical about my work! But mostly, I think that what you see is a “language” that I have developed by using certain materials and structural techniques, by looking, by paying attention to how I work and pushing myself in new directions based on what works. I love the Chuck Close quote, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” It has a lot to do with claiming your sense of being an artist and getting on with it.Do you think your childhood in Indiana shaped your creative life? Were you raised in a creative family?I suppose that childhood shapes everyone’s life. My parents were hardworking, intelligent and wonderfully odd, in a conservative, Midwestern kind of way. Mom was a secretary who made our home beautiful with no money and lots of work and skill. Dad was a salesman and a magician and a restorer of antique cars. We were always doing things together such as scraping wallpaper or building a patio with scavenged concrete blocks or upholstering a couch with pillow ticking. I’m sure that the respect for work and beauty and silliness present in our home formed my sense of a creative life.
Lissa Hunter, Come Winter, 2013, clay, wood, charcoal, and paint, 12 x 12 x 4 in
I love the image that comes to mind when I think about your family. The midwest-magician-salesman idea sounds so Wizard of Oz to me. Growing up on the coast of Maine, that movie was my first real taste of what life in the Midwest was like.
I certainly didn’t feel like Dorothy, growing up. Her life was MUCH more dramatic than mine, but looking back I see how she identified people she loved to become important characters in Oz. There were folks my parents knew, the “adults” in my life, who became not heroes exactly, but certainly very cool characters. Charley, a jazz musician (my best friend’s father), Otis, a laconic Mr. Rogers-type guy who always had time for kids (a next-door neighbor), and Marita, a woman who wore an armload of silver bangle bracelets all the time and reminded me of Audrey Hepburn.
Is there a particular plant, animal, bird or natural creature or species that you relate to? Why?As characters, I admire crows very much. They are so elemental and brash. And squirrels. They are industrious, clever, and endlessly entertaining. I don’t think that I’m anything like either crows or squirrels but I do like them. And the quiet lives of plants move me. From the first appearance of a bud or blade in the spring to their fading, shriveling demise. It’s such a beautiful visual metaphor for all our lives.
What is your favorite part of the creative process?
That it is totally mine. I know that sounds selfish and it is. But I like having a part of my life that is completely my responsibility and yet is attached so strongly to the world around me. Everything I experience runs through the filter of my creative process. Crows amassed in the treetops, a kind gesture made by a good friend, the death of a parent, memories of my grandmother’s house, words, the forms of plants as they adapt themselves into existence have all been subjects that were developed into work.
As I get older, I realize how important the process of trying to understand life has been to the work and how important the work has been to understanding life. It’s all still a work in progress.
How did you make the decision to be a full time artist?I was a tenured, assistant professor, teaching at a small college in northern Pennsylvania, recently divorced, and realized that if I had to fill in the blank on an application that asked for occupation, I would say “teacher”, not “artist”. I didn’t like that, so I left and moved to Maine and started doing artwork full-time. I never looked back. Best dumb-luck decision I ever made.
If you didn’t do what you are doing now– what do you think you would be doing? If I weren’t an artist…hmmmmm…I guess I’d still be teaching in Pennsylvania. I like to think that I’d be an actor, but I don’t think I have the courage for that.
Can you share with us what you are currently working on?Since I’m still trying to figure all of this out, I feel as if I’m going in many directions, led on with the discoveries that each path presents. I am continuing to use sgraffito (drawing on greenware by removing underglaze with a tool) on tumblers and pitchers, liking the graphic character of the drawing. I’m starting to explore a more traditional sense of drawing on bisque slabs using underglaze pencil and chalks that look very much like drawing on paper. Maybe I’ll throw in some oxides, as well, that can be used as watercolor.
Producing the porcelain drinking vessels is a departure from your sculptural work. Do you approach the design process in a different way?I haven’t really had to consider function before. Now I’m thinking about size and proportion and surface in a more practical way. These things have to go through the dishwasher! That has never been true of anything I have made. At first I just made shapes, hoping that they would hold together and hold liquid when fired. Now I’m thinking more about proportion, how they feel in the hand, how easy they are to clean, how the rim feels against your lips.
How did you decide on the shapes? Did you have a beverage in mind when creating these?The shapes are pretty much the simplest that you can make with hand building. Since my concern has been mostly with drawing on the surface, this simple, straightforward form works really well. I have thought in terms of tea bowls, aperitifs, juice glasses and rocks glasses as categories, not in a strict traditional sense, but in a more practical sense. I can imagine (and have actually tested) cold vodka in the small ones, an afternoon cup of tea in the squatty ones and water to swish out toothpaste by the bathroom sink in the medium ones. And the smallish, brown ones seem perfect for bourbon on a winter’s evening.
left: Lissa Hunter, Imposter, 2013, waxed linen thread, paper cord, paper, fiberboard, plaster, paint, china marker, 26 x 26 x 3.5in right: Lissa Hunter, Stonestack, 2009, waxed linen thread, paper cord, paper, paint, fiberboard, stones, colored pencil, 22 x 24 x 2in
Why Maine? What does Maine look like to a Midwestern daughter of a magician and secretary?South Berwick, Maine, was the closest I could get to Boston, my true destination, where I could afford to live. I fell in love with the state and with the man who has become my husband so here I am 30-some years later. And, believe me, we’re not in Indiana anymore, Toto! Mountains, water, space, trees, stones, it’s the physical reality that is so different.
That sounds almost as if you had to leave Pennsylvania to become an artist. Did you just feel that you had to change the channel in order to change course?Exactly.
What advice would you have for someone that was considering a new direction, such as following a creative dream?I would invoke one the great philosophical mandates to come out of the late 20th century: Just do it! (Thank you Nike.) Become a part of a community that supports your efforts. And prepare to work very, very hard. There are other things, such as contribute to an IRA from the beginning and develop a yoga practice, but those don’t sound very inspiring do they?
Lissa Hunter, Founder, 2012, waxed linen thread, paper cord, paper, encaustic wax, pencil, paper, acrylic paint, 36 x 24 x 3in
Please share some of your favorite Portland, Maine places:
favorite place to eat: Back Bay Grill— it serves really wonderful food, has a swell small bar, has jazz nights every now and again, and we really like the maître d’. It’s out of the Old Port and downtown so it has a kind of reverse snob appeal. You don’t think of a first-class restaurant next to the post office and across from Bubba’s Bar.
favorite place to eat: The Lobster Shack— a tried and true Maine institution. Really fresh and well prepared fried seafood, served in a basket with fries and cole slaw. Sitting outside in the summer is a treat. The Porthole— in the Old Port of Portland, a former fisherman’s restaurant when it was open at 4 in the morning to serve breakfast before the boats set out to sea. Now it’s a more sophisticated menu with really good food (especially breakfast and brunch) and outdoor seating on the deck overlooking the boats by the wharf. Very Maine, very Portland. favorite place to shop: I don’t really shop all that much. I like very much the local shops, Ferdinand, South Street Linen Company, places that have a singular point of view. And angela adams is fabulous! It really is where I am most likely to buy gifts, even for myself. LL Bean is, of course, a destination for out-of-town guests and really is pretty amazing. For food, I like Rosemont Bakery that has much more than baked goods and Standard Baking that really is the best bakery anywhere.favorite place to visit: PMA— The Portland Museum of Art is a fine, smallish general interest art museum that shows international, national and regional artists. It really is a gem. And I think that Portland is a truly walkable city, so I would say that the “peninsula”, as they call the downtown area, is a place to visit. Walk along Commercial Street around the East End, down Congress Street to the PMA, then circle back down to the Old Port and spend some time there. The architecture is lovely and there is something of interest on each block.
View more of Lissa’s work on her website. We have her drinking vessels in stock, so feel free to stop by the store and check them out!
Boxes of Inspirations