Jonathan Dazo is the current Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen Artist-in-Residence, where he runs Dazo’s Clay Studio and creates fine ceramic art. For our first Interview with an Artist, one of the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen assistants, Shaun Turner, speaks with Jonathan about how he came to ceramic art, his working process, and more.
Shaun Turner (ST): First I wanted to say thank you for taking the time to sit down with me.
Jonathan Dazo (JD): You’re welcome, and thanks for the interview.
ST: So, how long have you been a member of the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen?
JD: This will be my first year in November. I’ve been making art in the guild since last November.
ST: So what is your role like, as the current Artist-in-Residence? What do you do here?
JD: My primary role here is as a ceramic artist, and so I am an active demonstrator who also runs a store. I practice my work, I create inventory and fulfill orders, and other roles I’ve adopted after being here—such as being a representative of the Guild and showing our guests what an artist is by principle and by application, by demonstration. In any way I can be a representative of what it means to be a Guild artist.
ST: Your business is named “Dazo’s Clay Studios”, right? I was wondering what it was that brought you to ceramics. Could you explain the process of how you came to ceramics as your chosen mode of creating art?
JD: This has more of a story to it. My first real experience with clay was when I was eight years old. I found this pack of colored modeling clay for kids in my mom’s closet. It was for my birthday, but when I found it, she had to give it to me a bit early.
I was a Lego’s kid. I was always interested in architecture and wanted to build things, but I started playing with clay and I learned something interesting: there was no set dimension with clay—it could be anything that I wanted it to be. It could take any shape I wanted, and really, as long as I have the imagination for it, I can create anything. After, I never looked at Legos the same way.
Then in high school, I had a gap year—I had finished my requirements early—and I was the arts teacher’s assistant. I helped grade tests and sort the colored pencils—that kind of work. One day, I found pottery wheels in the art store room and I just asked if I could use [them].
While my art teacher taught class, I would try at the wheel. At first, I was as good as you’d expect someone to be—not very good.
ST: So would you say that you’re self-taught?
JD: When I first started out, yes. My art teacher taught some clay classes, but never throwing on the wheel—she taught more freehand ceramics. With the pottery wheels, there was never enough equipment to teach all the kids who were interested. Mostly, she would give me diagrams to learn from. One of the first diagrams was that of a teapot, which aren’t easy to make. And as a beginner, I didn’t realize the lid was supposed to be thrown separate from the pot.
After high school, I went off to Berea College, where I known about its work program. My mom was an alumni of Berea, and my sister was a Berea student, so I learned what it was like in Berea since 2008. It’s safe to say I came to college for the labor program.
ST: So what was your labor experience like at Berea?
JD: My first job was as a janitor. I cleaned the Arts Rogers Building—the already-clean studio areas and the ink-covered printmaking areas. After I’d clean, I’d sit at a table and do homework.
So then I asked my supervisor at the time if there were any departments that needed us—that were a little more difficult. She mentioned the ceramics studio, which is in the Art program but is also related to Student Crafts area. So they transferred me the next day to the ceramics department and then I was in.
ST: So you started off at the ceramics department in this janitorial role. How did you make the transition into production?
JD: Let me tell you, that took some effort. To work in ceramics at Berea College, you first must take the prerequisites to get a ceramics labor position. You need to know the basics of pottery—how to throw clay and center on the wheel—before you make items for retail. So while I was there, I learned what it meant to be a ceramics apprentice. As a janitor, I’d watch alongside the ceramics apprentices, clean off the wheels and floors, but mostly I was paying attention to how they did their work. And so what I did throughout the Fall was come in at 6:00 PM, when they did a lot of their work, and I would watch and see how they threw.
The following Spring, I applied to be a part of the ceramics course. That way I could come in as an apprentice during my sophomore year. Student artists have to make a certain quota of work. I’d say that the student ceramics program is different than other areas of student crafting in that at the time, there was no set schematic for making specific wares. You would make a mug, and that would be your style of mug. Or you’d make several different styles of mugs—they’d call these Variety mugs.
When I was a part of the apprenticeship program, I learned where an artist needs to cut their time or cut their cost. I learned that to make production on a Jonathan Dazo mug, I needed to complete it in roughly a ten-hour work schedule that I had per week. At first, they wanted to make sure I made mugs. As time went on, they wanted more interesting mugs. And so I learned more about what it meant to be a producer. I needed to make content and the style of it changed.
In order to exist as an artist, you need to have inventory to sell. Creating a signature item then experiment. Having the main thing you produce and then making time to create other items.
ST: So let’s talk about how you create a Jonathan Dazo mug. What are your signatures as an artist?
JD: There’s a fancier way to say it, but I’ll just describe it in the regular way—dead fish.
When I was in Berea College, I had to answer this question about how to make work that’s [my signature], being high quality and having a high quantity of inventory. I really wanted mugs that sold what I really believed in as an artist but also satisfied the labor program because I respected them, and I wanted [my work] to do well. I wanted to listen to my advisors—even when I wasn’t actually listening, I admit.
I started thinking about stamp work. I followed an artist named Gary Jackson who makes his own ceramic stamps and he uses them to decorate pieces and make patterns. He makes very uniquely-styled mugs, high in quantity and in quality.
I aspired to do the same. I made a bunch of stamps using sculpting and polymer clay just at my desk. I’d go use the convection oven downstairs in the boy’s dorm building and smell up the place. I’d make all these things and come in to work after all my classes.
One of the first stamps happened to be this fish fossil stamp. I didn’t even expect it to be good. I just tried it out on some test pots. I left it crooked on the mug. For some reason, everything else I tried failed, except for the fish fossil. It was deep enough to trap the glaze well during the glaze firing. It really encapsulated this fossilized fish. It showed really well in darker colors; the favorite was shino,a metallic, almost golden-like glaze we kept in the studio. All the time, the fish fossil worked really well. Over time, I got to know how glaze worked with this stamp, and this became the Jonathan Dazo mug—fish fossils.
ST: Besides the fish fossil stamp, what are some of your other focuses and influences?
JD: The fish fossil was never a focus, per se. What interested me most was how the glaze got caught in the form. As an artist, I like how glaze interacts with surfaces. I like how an impression (fish fossil, leaf, carving, sgraffito) have influence on the surface of the pottery, and how glaze interacts with the surface.
An interesting thing about glaze is not color, per se. It’s a chemical process. If you have more glaze on one end [of the pottery], you could have different colors from one part of the pot to another. And with those stamps, I change the dimensions. I make objects wider or make my glaze more concentrated in order to get a wider range of color.
ST: So part of pottery is that transformation from clay to an unglazed piece to the final glazed product—an entirely new work. Do you do other types of art that speak to transformation?
JD: I think the newest thing that I’ve done is working in polymer clay. It’s in my roots as a stamp-maker. It bakes in any conventional oven and leaves impressions, but the polymer clay is where I really got my feel from clay back when I was eight years old, using modeling and sculpting clay. I went from that to making jewelry, and from there, I became attuned to color combination.
In polymer clay, you can make canes—spiraling color—and making different decorations and designs. With ceramics, I kept that relationship with polymer clay and kept the eye toward color in my work. I don’t change mediums very much, but its how I use the mediums that changes.
ST: Where do you see your pottery moving in the next two years?
JD: As I’ve been doing my throwing work, I realized I’ve been making my ceramics bigger. I’m looking everywhere—sending work to galleries such as the Kentucky Artisan Center and the Living Arts and Science center, and doing galleries elsewhere. I’m using more clay, building up on [my ceramic pieces]. I want to make more contemporary, non-functional pieces.
My focus is on the glaze and the color and texture it adds. My work can be more than functional—but I always want to make functional, food-safe work for personal use and hospitality businesses. People can have personal relationships and pride in their tables because [ceramics are] so specific. There’s a mystery to it all—the glaze, the kiln. It’s something people are interested in.
Why should people buy from artists? To support the arts. The more people buying art, the more art becomes available to people.
ST: Where can people go to find your work?
JD: Here at the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen Gallery, the Berea Artisan Center, other shops in Old Town Berea, and by checking out Dazo’s Clay Studio online.
ST: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.
JD: It was my pleasure. Thank you so much.
Jonathan Dazo is the owner and artist of Dazo's Clay Studio and artist-in-residence at the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen.
Shaun Turner is an assistant to the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen. His fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have been published in national and regional literary journals such as Tin House online, Appalachian Heritage, and Bayou Magazine, among others. He is recipient of Kentucky Arts Council's Emerging Artist Award. Shaun teaches at the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen Academy, the Carnegie Center Lexington, and at Eastern Kentucky University.