What This Artist Learned From Making Feminist Ceramics And Pregnancy Test Pipes
For artist Jen Dwyer, taboos are transformative.
Dwyer (who has a BFA in Ceramics from the University of Washington) uses clay to playfully examine social issues and celebrate the female form. From pastel pregnancy test pipes to peach-like vagina incense burners, Dwyer’s pieces have been an Internet hit since the 2016 election, earning her notoriety in Bust magazine, News week, Bullett Magazine and even The Guardian.
Beyond her online, commercial work, though, Dwyer is also a contemporary, ceramic sculptor. Only a few months away from earning an MFA at the University of Notre Dame, her latest triumphs have included her first solo show at Lucas Lucas, an art gallery in Brooklyn, New York, as well as a host of group exhibitions.
Last month, I caught up with Dwyer to discuss her creative practice as a commercial and contemporary ceramicist and the juggling act required to maintain a sustained living in the arts.
Jane Claire Hervey: Let’s start with your latest show, “Not For You, Bunny.” What was some of the inspiration behind that work and exhibition?
Dwyer: The arts are wonderful because you’re not limited to one realm of study. And I feel like one good way to sum up me as a maker and as an artist is that I have so many points of interest. I’m really inspired by the rococo aesthetic, like 17th and 18th century decorative objects and the Palace of Versailles. This past summer, I was fortunate enough to receive a research grant to go to the Palace of Versailles and observe these ornate interior decorative object-based spaces. I was able to explore these intimate settings where there were a lot of decorative porcelain objects, and a lot of the people who were really influencing those settings were women. It was a really interesting time period because women were the tastemakers then.
I love asking questions, too, especially researching modernism and wondering how things go to be the norm. Modernism is so prevalent in our society, so I’ve been wondering who are the tastemakers of that, and then tracing it back into those centuries. There’s so much power in being able to make taste for a century, and so that’s my questioning and push-back to modernism.
Hervey: What are you currently exploring in your grad studies?
Dwyer: Grad school has been a bit of a whirlwind. I’m not in the studio quite as much as I would like to be. I go to University at Notre Dame and it’s a heavy research institution. I’m also getting a Gender Studies minor, so I have quite a bit of research to do. One of the positive parts of this program is that we are required to do a laborious thesis, so that has influenced my practice. I spend the days in the library and the evenings making and the weekends making, as well.
Hervey: How did you get into ceramics?
Dwyer: I first got into ceramics just for the communal aspect. In high school and the beginning of college, my parents were going through a messy divorce, so making and creating was a therapeutic art form. So, now that I’m in grads school, I’m really diving into the history of ceramics in the US, and there’s actually this deep history of clay being a healing tool, and I love that aspect of clay. There’s this communal aspect to it.
Hervey: On top of your sculptural work, you make playful and inventively functional ceramics, all sold on our your website. What sparked this little e-commerce venture?
Dwyer: So, I was living in Brooklyn for three and a half years and I applied to grad school and a few residencies. I got into both and I did this residency for a year and I only had a modest stipend so I needed some extra support. I started to make these pregnancy test one-hitters and other fun, little things and it just took off.
Hervey: Were you surprised at all?
Dwyer: I was definitely surprised by how well the vagina incense burners did. Prior to grad school, I had quite a few galleries and stores I did wholesale with, and I still work with other wild [a retail store]. For the most part, though, I have had to focus on the fine arts sculptural research-based practice. But that’s the nice part of ceramics—you can make these sculptures that you can make in a museum, but then you also have this nice piece of affordable art that one of your friends can buy.
Hervey: What are three things you’ve learned that you’d like to share with other artists?
Dwyer: Don’t be afraid to ask questions. So many opportunities I’ve gotten just because I’ve asked. For example, this Urban outfitters pop-up I’m doing happened because I reached out to a friend and said “My aesthetic would match yours,” and they were like, “Hey, that’s great.”
Community is also really big. As a younger artist, it’s easy to feel scared, and I definitely have plenty of my own insecurities. It’s better to see other artists as community and support instead of competition.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. The fear of trying something and failing can go a really long way, and that’s something I really struggle with. It’s only beneficial to take risks and try. And save money.
Hervey: As you complete your studies and move toward working on your practice full-time, how do you see your commercial work and personal work blending (or not blending)?
Dwyer: I feel like the more deep I get into art and being an artist and pursuing it as a lifelong practice, it seems that so many people just have this culmination of commerce. The reality of me selling a sculpture every month is not real. So it’s relieving to have a combination of income. Part of my program, though, is that we teach one intro undergrad class, and I’ve realized that I really do actually love teaching college. Like I taught middle school and high school full-time before grad school, and it’s exhausting and not my favorite thing to do. But teaching undergrad is really rewarding. For me, I envision having a few different avenues by which I make an income be ideal.
Hervey: How do you take care of yourself? Especially since making ceramics is such a physical task?
Dwyer: I have a pretty serious daily self-care regimen and practice that I really have to stick to or everything gets out of whack. So I wake up ever morning and I meditated for 10 minutes, and then I cook my own food every day. I pack my lunch and dinner. I do cardio and weights for an hour, and then I go to school. So, giving myself two hours for self-care every morning has shifted my life dramatically. It’s only the past year that I have been doing this. For most creatives, there’s this inevitable anxiety, and there’s a way to push that. Exercise and good food has been really helpful. I also treat myself. Celebrating yourself and treating yourself is really important, too. Do something kind for yourself.
Hervey: Ultimately, what do you hope people understand from your work?
Dwyer: I want to make things less contentious. When I first started making my objects, I wanted them to be so shocking, to challenge the parts of people’s lives that have so much stigma. I wanted to put this fun, playful gaze on them that’s celebratory and makes it something we shouldn’t be ashamed about.