Interview with Ceramicist Rebecca Blevins

What initially drew me to Rebecca's work was her charming "Girls Plate". It's a hearty white and black glazed plate covered with the repeated simple illustration of a girl looking off thoughtfully. Beyond the playful plate and her collection of bowls, pots, cups, and more (all available in her online store Raccoon Valley Rouge) I got to peek beneath the surface and learn more about her creations and her inspirations. Rebecca eloquently describes the role environment - both external and internal - play in the creative process and acknowledges the vitality of art in paying homage to herself and others (like her own female role models - hint: see "Girls Plate"). 

How did you start Raccoon Valley Rouge? Have you always been a ceramicist?

Raccoon Valley Rouge came from a need to be grounded. It started out of necessity. I had just moved from Austin, TX back to the small town I grew up in in Illinois. I needed to be productive for myself and that came in the form of an online store. I started selling vintage clothing, but it didn’t offer a challenge every day. It didn’t take up enough mental space for me to be satisfied. I studied the basic concepts of clay in college. There is endless potential in the forms and functions within ceramics. This was a challenge. It helped that the craft is so rooted in the earth. For me it serves as meditation, the mud on my hands, each form I push or pull. The clay process allows me to chill out and have fun.

Your artist statement reveals that the environment is a huge influence on your work, and you describe your studio setting as being dreamily located on national forest land in a 1920's bungalow with mention the Mississippi River and sandstone cliffs as inspirational! There's a lot of beautiful images of impressive landscapes here...can you describe them further and how exactly they influence your work?

I live in the country so when I’m not sitting at the wheel or in my studio creating, I'm outside. I'm lucky enough to live in a place that offers a National Forest (Shawnee National Forest), the winding waters of one of the longest rivers in the world, and a landscape that changes with the setting sun. How could you ever believe I’m talking about Illinois? My more adventurous friends have dared me to see the beauty of Southern Illinois; we hike through and sail across some of the most beautiful hidden gems in the state. Inspiration Point is a short hike to cliffs that overlook groves of pines and swampland reminiscent of Louisiana, and one of my favorite spots is the wigwam, which is actually a Native American structure called a Mandan - it is in such a secret place that drawing a map doesn’t even help, if a person wants to visit it they must be escorted by someone who has already been. I treasure-hunt and scout forms and patterns to create in the studio on these adventures. The Mississippi River has offered more inspiration for me than any other natural landscape. I play in the floodplains, finding examples of ancient native pasts, and bring them home to my work. This year, our adventuring led me to the local swimming hole diving for kaolin clay, which, if all goes well, will be used for dinnerware this summer in a farm-to-table local artist's dinner. One day I would love to claim 100% sustainability for my work, sourcing clay locally and working from the environment that inspires me every time I step outside. 

What other things inspire you creatively?

I’m very inspired by modern design as well. Functional sleek forms appeal to me. Aesthetically choosing to leave something white, to showcase it’s form, really turns me on.

What rituals do you have to start work or maintain working?

I wish I could say I have a ritual that makes it happen for me. I sit, I stand, I walk in a full circle around my house. I spiral into the internet. What helps me truly start my day is coffee and my overly productive partner. If Brett is in his studio in the morning already carving another woodcut, then I have to be in my studio at least thinking about what I’m going to do that day. Also lists. Sometimes those help. Sometimes…

You state on your website, "It takes courage to make art. I'm still figuring out what it takes to share it." Why do you think creating is a courageous act? How has it been so for you? In regard to the second part, do you feel fear or anxiety about sharing your work, or what kinds of emotions does sharing it elicit in you?

Creating art is a matter of vulnerability and taking that vulnerability and muscling it around into a piece of art. It’s about being brave enough to show work. Everyday I push the limits of what I think I can do. It is, after all,  just me. I’ve noticed small business descriptions (even I do this) use ‘we’ to appear less vulnerable, but for most makers and artists there is just one person visualizing, creating, branding, and selling. For me it has been difficult and time-consuming to create a business that I can take seriously. It takes courage to admit that what I’m making represents my style and that I’m satisfied with the final outcome enough to want to share it. Self-doubt is my biggest obstacle. Is what I made good enough? The craft aspect of ceramics allows for the maker's mark, which for me can sometimes be unwanted. If I’m doing production for say dinnerware, I may not want fingerprints or slight imperfections, but I have to realize that if I’m making (by choice) everything by hand and painting every piece by hand, the work will undoubtedly show that I made it. That’s the hardest part. Having the courage to trust that what you made is worth sharing.

In that vein, have you encountered criticism of your work? If so, how have you handled it?

I am my biggest critic. It's difficult for me to trust myself. There is a constant comparison to other artists. Where are they in life, in their business? What is their skill level? I have to catch myself and realize I’ve already come a long way. Two years ago I didn’t have a studio, a wheel, a kiln. It’s a slow process when every night you wake up scheming some large outdoor installation or larger-than-life pottery and realize you may not have the skill yet, or the clay, or the help. As long as I’m in my studio every day working on something, I feel good. It’s when I look up that I get off-balance. I just need to keep the wheel spinning.

Who are some of your female role models?

My female role models are my girlfriends. I’m sure every lady can agree that these super-human, totally kick-ass women that weave in and out of her life are what keep her going. I look to my role models for advice, real advice, painfully true, heartfelt,  throwing-punches advice. They are the women I surround myself with, that I look up to more than anyone, ever. Their struggles and stories help me remain sufficient and allow me to be strong.  Miles away, knowing that my role models are waking each morning and lacing up their boots helps me to do the same. That’s where the Girls plates and planters came from. They are a total shout-out to my girls.

What or who can always make you laugh?

Haha, this sounds so crass, but what keeps me laughing is every time I open the kiln and something is broken. Or when I accidentally step on a pot I just made because even though I could have put it on the shelf, I put it on the floor. It’s best to make light of these situations because they are constant. In ceramics you have to learn that no matter how much mental thought and protection you put into your piece, at some point the process is out of your hands. Techniques are born from surprises. Or you make a mosaic at the end of the year and title it, “Oops”.

Where's one of the coolest places you've visited or traveled to?

It may have been circumstance, but whether it was the right people or the rising tide that had me scrambling up a mud embankment and walking on Redwood-sized driftwood, the Olympic National Park Wilderness is the most amazing place I’ve ever been. It was terrifying and unforgivingly beautiful. I went with a great group of friends. We slept by a river that fed into the ocean, swam with river otters, and passed out by a fire on the beach just barely waking up to the tide. We walked with deer through the forest. No one else but us. It’s the type of place you have to check in with rangers to get your bear-proof canisters. It was something I had never done, to be squeezed between a vast ocean and an enormous wilderness. I felt like a true explorer. 

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

This question tugs at the deepest parts of my brain. How could I not be a feminist? What does it mean to not be? I really can’t imagine because every day I wake up knowing I’m a woman, and there is a struggle to keep that close and safe. There is also, at every moment, a quiet fire in my belly telling me to be angry because I can’t shout it loud enough. I find strength in my feminism. I believe it is all-encompassing. Everyone everywhere should be proud to identify as feminist because it allows for a conversation about humanity and the way people identify and sympathize with one another.