Building Block

Building Block

Jordan McDonald

Photography by Christopher Squier

Jordan McDonald is a ceramic artist based in Philadelphia who we have long admired for his delightfully informal and expressive work. While the majority of Jordan's pieces take shape in the form of tableware and vessels, he has more recently been expanding his repertoire into unexpected objects for the home. From mirrors to toilet paper holders, Jordan has been exploring the limits of how ceramics can live in the space between form and function, craft and sculpture.

We had the pleasure to speak to Jordan at a time in his career where a certain comfort with adapting to change has allowed for a greater freedom in his work. Below, is a thoughtful conversation and photo tour of Jordan's studio in West Philadelphia.

Can you describe the path that led to the work you do now?

I’ve always liked artists that can grow, change and adapt to new circumstances, and I think these days we have all needed to adapt. I used to teach at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) and that ability to be malleable was always one of my overarching themes. I would often use examples of artists who throughout their career remained curious, or moved through various disciplines. Noguchi is a good example. One thing that always kind of shocked me as a teacher was when I gave out a new assignment, a student would inevitably approach me and say something like, “But that’s just not what I do!” You know like, "I don’t make functional work! I’m a sculptor!” or, “I’m a potter, I can’t make sculpture!” My response was usually to say: Well, what’s the harm in trying? What are you afraid of? These are all self imposed limitations, and it can be so helpful to recognize those automatic responses.

What I realized over the past couple years was that I was doing this self-limiting myself. I never noticed that I had some very rigid rules for myself: I made pots, pottery, cups, bowls. But I was occasionally being asked by clients to make things like lights or stools, door pulls, but I kept sheepishly saying, “No, I don’t think so...but thanks for asking.” So to make a long story short, I kind of made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t say ‘no’ anymore, at least not automatically...It’s been really exciting to make lights, coat hooks, door pulls, toilet paper holders.

Your work has such a strong improvisational quality to it. No two pieces are alike. Is this something you are purposeful about when making work?

That’s funny, because I feel like right now my work is the most consistent it has ever been. But, I can absolutely see what you mean looking at it all from a different perspective. Oddly enough, consistency is something I’ve been striving for in the past few years and I’ve started using equipment like an extruder and moulds so there’s more uniformity in the shapes and forms. In the past I only used the potter’s wheel, which in some ways make’s uniformity harder to achieve. It’s kind of like the David Pye idea ‘craft of certainty/craft of risk’—meaning that the tools or processes I’m using now inherently give a backbone of uniformity to my work.

But it is true that deep down I’ve always been afraid of being locked into an aesthetic or repeating myself day after day at work, so I guess I allow myself to go free on the surfaces. And I think people tend to respond to that energy. You know I’ve always loved Staffordshire figurines, because the figures would come out of a mould and be all alike (uniform), but they would also be hand-painted. So each one would have little idiosyncrasies, you could see the painter’s hand. That’s a kind of balance I think I’m striving for somehow.

In some of your decorative surface work, we notice nods to Chinese or Japanese painting motifs, though with a more expressive hand. Do you find yourself inspired by certain historic moments in ceramic art?

Yes, I am especially moved by Ogata Kenzan (1663–1743) and Kitaoji Rosanjin (1883–1959). These are influences that I’ve kind of lived with for a long, long time and lately I’ve been trying to put them aside. For a while I kind of had blinders on in the studio, because outside of work I would be moved by all kinds of things in the world. For example, I have always loved Ettore Sottsass, Michael and Magdalena Frimkess, and so many others...but it would always be so hard to shake off Kenzan and Rosanjin in the studio because it became second nature to turn to them when I was stuck, you know?

But with Kenzan and Rosanjin, I can’t get over the sophistication of their decoration. Both of them had a certain genius when it comes to integrating a motif on a form...Rosanjin’s camellia bowls make me weep. And there is a particular vessel decorated by Kenzan; when I first saw it, I thought I was looking at an interesting pattern of white dots moving across the black ground on the form of a vessel. But after looking a little closer I realized I was looking at these tiny blossoms—white circles with the most delicately articulated features. It reminded me of being in a garden at dusk, especially in spring when blossoms, like magnolia or cherry, seem to be illuminated and the rest of the tree disappears into the background. I can’t really do that, of course, but can I try in my own way.

What are the ingredients for how you find balance in your life?

I am not the poster child for a well-balanced life, but I can say that sleep has become so important...especially after having a kid. I used to love pulling all-nighters in the studio, but when you have an infant, life’s like, “Oh you love staying up all night, do you?! How about no sleep for two years!!” I’m exaggerating, of course. But I’ve learned when I’m getting close to a deadline, I’m better off just going to bed at a decent hour and getting up early. I suppose it goes without saying, but with some rest my thinking and decision making is just so much clearer...and in the end the work is better and it’s less stressful.

We tend to carry tiny mementos in our wallet—do you keep anything like this in yours?

Quite literally, I think my old wallets acted as mementos. I used to make my own wallets out of tyvek or thick clear plastic (I never did the duct tape thing). Into the walls of the plastic I would insert old labels and odd packaging I used to collect. That was a fun, art-school wallet to have. I really enjoyed making them. But now I really just want to carry the essentials, as little as possible.

Tell us about a collection you keep.

Being someone that loves working with ceramics, it’s only natural that I have a small collection of pottery. I live in a very small apartment, so my collecting is very restrained. I was very, very close to buying an Ole Jensen mug a couple days ago, but talked myself out of it. One of my favorite pots is a ‘flower brick’ by Walter Ostrom. It’s two small vases glaze-fused to a red brick made out of Nova Scotia lantz clay. In each of the vases is a cast iron flower made by Gerald Ferguson, who is mainly known as a painter. Both Walter and Gerald were professors at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, where I got my BFA.

What's your favorite thing about being your age right now?

I’m not quite forty yet, but I feel like at my age I’ve experienced enough to feel comfortable with certain decisions about my life and career. Things aren’t too close in the rear-view mirror, so to speak, so I can look back and see clearly what was or wasn’t working and be comfortable with those decisions. But I also feel like there is enough open road ahead to really have fun on the path I’m on now. That’s a great feeling.

Jordan owns a Simple Wallet in Vegetable Tanned leather. Discover Jordan's work.

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