When asked to interview a professional artist my mind immediately went to Jeff Downing, not only because he’s the most influential professor I’ve had, but because I highly admire his work. Jeff isn’t one for formal interviews and requested we just have a sit down without being recorded. To be honest I think this put us both at ease, allowing a much more relaxed and intimate conversation about his life, work, and passion for ceramics.
Jeff Downing was born and raised in Buffalo, New York. His first inclination for art came in the form of music. Music was what Jeff always intended to pursue first and foremost. I asked him when he first became interested in clay.
“I was in sixth grade when I made my first pinch pot. I remember it because my mom had it. I painted it green actually.” We laughed as I was wearing a green jacket and using a green pen, which he found typical of me. “I never really thought about clay again through middle school and the beginning of high school. It wasn’t until my senior year that a guidance counselor forced me into an 8 am ceramics class. See I was having a hard time going to school, she thought this would interest me into actually attending.” At this moment I realized we had more in common than I had originally known. “They stuck me on the wheel because they thought it would help me concentrate, I guess I had an attention problem.”
On Jeff’s eighteenth birthday he moved to New York City. He had a short-lived job as a picture framer, but primarily was a street musician. He told me he spent all day in Washington Square Park playing music; that he wrote three songs everyday. He ended up moving to Purchase, N.Y. where he was offered to live in a house free of charge if he agreed to do housework, but most importantly attend college, which he never planned on doing. Jeff started attending New York State University where he studied music. He took lessons with instruments, voice lessons, and even an acting class.
I had to take some extra units and thought, oh yea, ceramics, I liked that in high school. I started learning about Peter Voulkus and Robert Arneson and I was amazed. I wanted to be those guys. I asked my professor where that art was coming from and he told me California. Within a month I packed up my bags and guitar and headed to San Francisco.
Naturally Jeff performed music all over the city. He found the music scene here wasn’t the same as in New York. “There was no competition and no sense of community like there was in Washington Square Park”, he says. A friend of Jeff’s eventually persuaded him to attend Academy of Art where he completed his BFA in ceramics. He then went on to earn his MFA from San Francisco State University.
I questioned Jeff about his transition into teaching and whether he had formally ever thought that would be his direction.
Definitely not. I was still really into my music; its what came first in my life, ceramics was second. After my MFA program I just jammed out with my band for about six years. I decided to take a seven week road trip all around the country. I had an epiphany. I questioned myself. An epiphany is what turned me to teaching. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to teach kids.
Upon Jeff’s return to San Francisco, he completed his California Basic Educational Skills Test and his teaching hours working in elementary, middle, and high schools. He wanted to teach K-12, but when he contacted his old San Francisco State professor, David Kuroaka, for a letter of recommendation, David offered him to teach one wheel throwing class for the upcoming semester at his alma mater. “I was so excited about the class, the only problem was I wasn’t any good at throwing. For about three to four weeks before the course started I came in everyday and taught myself how to do it again. I tried to master some techniques I could use for the class.”
At this point I asked what year it was.
1996. The class was a huge success. We had such a blast. It was so rewarding, more so than music ever had been. I started teaching different places, but was looking for a full time position. I had been interviewing all over the area and country. I almost took this job in Tennessee. I was nervous to do so because you know its Bush country out there. Bumper stickers everywhere saying ‘Bush is King’ ‘Bush is God’, you know, the first Bush. I thought they’d eventually kill me out there. It was right before I accepted the Tennessee position when I got a call that the head ceramics professor here at SF State was retiring and the position was offered to me. This was his very office. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time.
If anybody knows Jeff’s art, you know about the dogs. Almost all of his current work is sculptures of canines. His sculptures are unrefined, but alive with color, texture, pattern, and personality. The first time I went to see Jeff’s work I didn’t know what to expect and ended up being so pleasantly surprised. Each dog is such a character, yet I was drawn to the surfaces of these amiable animals. The patterns he creates have a musical rhythm to them and I asked him if there was a connection between how he works and music. “Absolutely. My markings are made by music. It’s the “funnest” part. It’s a dance.” I asked him if there was any particular music he liked listening to while working and if he could explain his glazing process further.
There is no one particular type of music I listen to in the studio. I will usually grab about twenty to thirty CDs and DJ. You know, once one disc ended I’d go to the stack and pick another. Back in the day I would always DJ at parties, before the turntables and iPods I was always the guy picking the music. I still just do that. I like to work in the morning when I’m not tired. I glaze pretty quickly; one piece can have up to twenty surfaces on it.
Jeff’s subject matter is so focused and singular and I assumed he is regularly asked why the dogs. I felt as though it was such a repeated question, and yet still found it important to ask.
Ha its OK, everyone asks, I just don’t have a really great answer. But, no, I was doing a lot of female figures. I decided to do a self-portrait. I had this dog, German Shepherd type, he was my companion. My self-portrait was of me kneeling with a tennis ball in my hand and a second portrait of the dog to make it complete. But the dog was complete; it was the piece. My dog always had this really animated face and I just captured the true character perfectly in the sculpture, more so than the human. I mean the sculpture of me looked like me and was fine, it just wasn’t nearly as interesting. From then on out I focused on dogs. Each dog is different, as the face takes over. I never really know what kind of dog I’m making until I create the face. Just like my music, I take an improvisational approach when working, another way in which music influences my process. My surfaces have changed, they used to be smoother and flatter with less firings, but I used to be faster.
There are many ways one can achieve sculpting clay up and out. Two of the most popular methods are with either clay coils or slabs. Coils get connected on top of each other in any shape and smoothed out to a fluid surface, while slabs can be considered flattened walls of clay that are jointed together and manipulated into the desired shape. I inquired if there was any specific way he preferred to hand build. “I don’t like doing slabs or coils. It takes too long. I don’t teach my method in class, but I did show you right?” He had shown me what he does when I was constructing my tallest piece in his class. All of a sudden I felt privileged to have this technique in my bag. What he does is grab an entire bag of clay and jam a dowel down through the middle lengthways. Then he starts to stretch out the clay by moving the dowel and continuously flipping the clay. Eventually you have a longer, wider, hollow cylinder of clay.
You just get way more done faster. I will usually come in and just do that to ten bags of clay and let them dry out a little. The next day they are ready to go and I can start stacking and attaching them. I don’t teach the method in class because its not a staple method that students need to know. Besides, if I taught that in class everyone would try to just copy exactly how I do things to get an A. They need to learn and discover all different types of methods. Anyway, after my sculpture is formed is when I cut it apart to hollow it out more then stick it back together.
I asked Jeff why he preferred sculpture. “Sculpture is completely original. I mean using the wheel can be, but it’s just not the same, not for me anyway. The originality of hand building speaks volumes.” I asked if there was something about clay in the medium itself that compelled him to make art. “Yes. It’s tactile. It’s playful.” I went on to inquire if there was a direction he had wanted to go, but hadn’t yet. “Really I just want to produce more. Its hard being here all the time and making enough work to produce a solo show. I’ve had a couple, but not as many as I’d like. I’d also like to get more public commissions.”
Lastly, I asked Jeff if there was anything he wished he had done differently in his career as an artist to which he simply replied “No”. The fact that Jeff wouldn’t have changed anything makes me feel optimistic for my own artistic career. It reminds me that life isn’t always going to go as planned, that its important to just keep making art and enjoy the journey it takes you on.
Anyone to work under Jeff should be considered lucky, as his passion for teaching is obvious. He is always excited about anything pertaining to ceramics, be it a show, a guest lecture, a conference, or a new school semester. Jeff is incessantly trying to persuade art students to have an emphasis in ceramics, or non-art majors to switch into the program. I know I have personally learned so much. Jeff has helped me work through ideas and taught me new ways of sculpting. He has pushed me to go beyond what I thought were my limits and has built up my confidence for creating. I will forever value these skills, ideas, and lessons from Jeff.
Although Jeff Downing first envisioned himself as a musician, he has now put ceramicist as number one. Sculpting, playing music, teaching his students, and spending time with his family is how Jeff lives his life. He plans on teaching at San Francisco State University indefinitely.
Find more of Jeff’s work at: www.jeffdowningart.com