Calvin Wong on Ceramics, Catharsis, and Change
Calvin Wong is a San Francisco-based ceramicist, painter, and curator. He makes and sells signature cups and bowls on his website in addition to making intricate sculptures that he shows in galleries from San Francisco to Italy and beyond. His work contrasts juvenile innocence with emotional expressions of joy, sadness, and anxiety, making something delicate that requires care but retains a crude roughness. As a former gallerist, he now makes art nearly full-time and has hit his stride in crafting art that can be both decorative and expressive, simultaneously. We caught up with Wong about his practice, his progression, catharsis in creation, and more.
Eben Benson: Where are you from? And how did you start making art?
Calvin Wong: I was born and raised in San Francisco. I first got interested in art after taking drawing/ceramics classes in high school. It wasn’t something I thought I would pursue at the time, but I continued to make it on a daily basis. From there, I started incessantly working in different mediums in college (lithography, relief, darkroom photography, etc) until I eventually decided to work solely with ceramics and focus on that one medium.
You used to make a lot of paintings, what were your first pieces like?
I used to draw and paint a lot of representational, detail-oriented figurative and portraiture work. It was a very reference-heavy process. Although I enjoyed working in this way, I’ve always felt in the back of my mind that it was too rigid and regimented. Like a script. I would search for a few references to copy and try to change or personalize the references at hand. I always felt like the work I made was missing something.
Lately, I’ve kept the same foundational understandings from my prior work but do things a little more intuitively, with little to no references. It’s a liberating feeling; when an idea is executed in an improvisational manner, instead of looking at something and copying it. Working without references is a more satisfying process for me.
You founded an art gallery and have done a substantial amount of gallery work in the past. How has this helped your artistic practice?
My experience as an art handler and gallerist is something that has really influenced and inspired me. I’ve spent around 6 years helping with installation work and 3 years curating. We would spend countless hours helping artists with their installations, helping with murals, buffing walls, stretching canvases, receiving/packing/shipping artwork, etc.
When helping with installations you really get into the mind of an artist, and that mentality of turning an idea into a cohesive show has helped my practice. Being around and being influenced by so many different artists, you eventually develop your taste and what approach you personally want to take with your own practice.
I’d say what has influenced me the most during this experience is being around artists who produce work constantly and are not bound by any restrictions when it comes to making work. They are the types of artists who aren’t painting the same thing over and over and are conceptually reaching for something that is thought-provoking and evolutionary as opposed to momentary recognition from doing something that looks nice, over and over again.
How has selling your work online helped you? Do you think this is ever something you could subsist off?
I’ve been recently selling work online and it has helped me save up for a kiln and get the studio I currently make work at. I still work a serving job, but it has been a pleasant surprise to see the support from people. I don’t know if I can subsist off of this, but hopefully, I can in the future.
Is making art a cathartic experience for you? When do you feel the most urged to work?
Totally. If I don’t make anything for a certain amount of time, I sort of become unbalanced, grumpy and depressed.
The reason I’ve chosen to work with ceramics is because there’s always something to do, but there’s also a point where you have to stop (waiting for things to dry, waiting for work to be fired, etc.) With ceramics, you really have to plan and obey the medium. Even if I'm not motivated, I head to my studio and do little things (glaze work, throw, hand build the faces, etc.) that eventually lead to more new ideas and new sculptures.
I don’t think I was born with a lot of talent or have a magic touch with art, but I do spend a lot of hours in the studio and am pretty consistent with the amount of time I spend there. I feel most urged to work on things when I’m in the middle of projects. The day after I work on things, I head straight to my studio when I wake up because I know I have to finish something before it dries too much. When I’m working on one thing, I start thinking about more projects, so it kind of snowballs from when I’m in the middle of whatever I’m working on and that’s when the urge comes.
Who are some of your favorite artists, past or present?
What’s the difference between the work you make for shows vs. the work you sell on your webstore?
I got into pottery as a segue out of making representational, reference-heavy, detail-oriented work. The therapeutic part of throwing, I like, but I definitely enjoy hand-building more since I can explore different topics and ideas more freely.
The work I make for my webstore is a combination of throwing and hand-building and the work I make for shows are purely handbuilt unless the gallery wants me to throw things for the exhibition. I guess the differences are, if I’m making work for my webstore, I know the whole process start to finish, but with work I make for shows, there’s more excitement in not knowing exactly what you’re going to make yet.
What’s one concrete goal you have for your work and yourself?
I recently just got my own private studio in San Francisco. It’s not the biggest studio but it’s definitely enough for me right now.
My goal is to keep making work, every day. I know I’ll eventually outgrow this studio, so my goal is also to get a bigger studio in the future if things go well.
Do you have any shows coming up that you’re working on?
I had work in the Juxtapoz Clubhouse in Denver and also in a group exhibition in Imola, Italy with Tales of Art Gallery.