For all the anxiety this situation continues to cause, spending quality quarantined time in our homes has had one small, unexpected upswing: making us feel much more grateful for the objects that inject a little joy into our everyday. A carefully chosen art piece, some sassy candlesticks, a striking vase—the things we choose to surround ourselves with have the power to improve our mood, and who isn’t in the market for mood boosters these days?
In the league of beautiful objects turned life buoys, Helen Levi’s ceramics set the bar high. A supremely cheery, speckled dinnerware set, a happy-making pair of mugs, a beachy pitcher, a swirly-glazed, shallow bowl that’s perfect for pasta. If vases are your thing, you won't wanna miss the three monumental stoneware stunners she made especially for us. And (GASP!) at noon today she has a whole bunch of new work going live in her webshop. (In case you were wondering what we’ll be doing during our lunch hour.) There promises to be some particularly excellent “labors of love” born out of a surplus of studio time ℅ social isolation.
Which brings us to today’s extra special treat: a virtual tour of Levi’s Queens, NY studio. There are gorgeous glazes. There are shelves stacked with spectacular ceramics. There are pics of her doggo, Bill, whom we’ve learned she takes on walks to break up her day. And there’s more! Including a lovely interview in which she tells us why the humble tape dispenser is her most treasured studio tool, dives into the importance of denim with double-reinforced knees, and contends that keeping a regular, relatively 9-5 schedule helps her stay sane—plus a few other creative insights we’ll be filing away for future. Catch the full tour below. — Team 20x200
Where's your studio?
What's your favorite tool in the studio?
My most satisfying tool is actually my paper tape dispenser, which we use for packing. It’s one-handed, which is a dream when you have a million boxes to assemble.
What do you wear when working in the studio?
Jeans or overalls with double-reinforced knees—it’s a must! I’ve blown out the knees of so many pants. And Crocs are crucial as well with all the spills that happen.
What's on your in-studio playlist?
We listen to a lot of podcasts while we work—on a huge range of topics. Our single most-played album is probably Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour. Never gets old!
What's the first thing you do when you arrive at your studio?
Check the kilns, and unload any that are cooled down enough. I’m always eager to see how things turned out!
What's your work style? Late nights? Intense creative bursts? Slow and steady wins the race?
I’m not a night owl or an early bird—I keep pretty regular hours and try not to come in too much on the weekends. I love my job so much, but I have to be careful not to work too much and get burnt out, which has happened in the past.
Coming from a degree in photography, how'd you get into pottery?
Pottery has always been a hobby, since I was a small child. I didn’t conceptualize it as anything beyond that until I got a chance to sell my work for the first time about 7 years ago.
How did your relationship to pottery shift as it went from a hobby into your full time job?
At the time it didn’t feel lucky, but looking back it was lucky I happened to be mostly unemployed when I got the first opportunity to sell my ceramics, because it meant that I didn’t have to make the difficult decision of when to quit my day job. I had a ton of free time to just throw myself into it!
What's your favorite way to procrastinate in the studio?
Make a cup of tea, or take the dog on a walk.
Whens, Hows & Whys
When did you first realize you wanted to become an artist and how’d you get there?
Growing up, I used to wonder what my ‘day job’ would be, and I could never quite picture it. I spent a few years after college balancing several part time jobs and trying to pursue photography, but it never really materialized, but when I started selling my ceramics I didn’t realize I was picking a career. I thought I was just trying something out, and it took at least a year for me to realize that this is what I really saw myself doing for the long term.
How do you get over creative blocks?
I get a lot of inspiration from the physical processes of ceramics. I’m not one to sketch things out beforehand—I like to just try it out in person, and see if it feels right or not. I have a lot of tests that don’t make it into production, but testing it out is the only way for me to know if I want to move forward with it.
What do you like best about 20x200?
I can really get behind the idea of making art accessible. For the first many years of my business, I couldn’t have afforded my own work, which was kind of a funny reality. But now I really try to invest in handmade objects when I can. I feel like it’s good karma.
Which artists' 20x200 collections do you most covet (and why)?
I love the classic photography collections on 20x200—eyeing a couple Dorothea Lange prints at the moment.
Why do you think it's important to have a dedicated work space for your art? What advice would you give to artists looking to build a creative work space?
For my practice, because there’s so many tools and machinery required for working with clay, there’s no way I could avoid having direct studio access. But when I was doing photography, I never had a studio space or felt that I needed one specifically. I think it really depends on your medium, but I started in a space with 30+ other potters, where I just had one shelf, to keep expenses down, and then slowly moved up and grew as my business grew. I definitely would advise keeping your overhead down as much as you can when you’re starting out.
The 411 on Helen Levi
Helen Christgau Levi is a photographer and potter born and bred in NYC. She has a small ceramic production studio in Queens where she focuses on functional stoneware.