Interview with Ceramicist Caitlin Rose Sweet

I had an idea to make a pipe in which the user smokes from between the legs of a woman’s body. I typed “Pussy Pipe” into my google search bar. Though I didn’t come across anyone making the form I had in mind, I did come across ceramicist Caitlin Rose Sweet, producing a line of feminist pipes including a series featuring vulvas of varying shapes and colors. Though it was these functional art objects that drew me in, I was blown away by the entirety of Caitlin’s art practice that involves immersive ceramic installations and sculptures in conjunction with her line of functional art objects. Her work toes the line between fine art and craft and has everything to do with body politics, queer identity and political and social consciousness.

How long have you been working with ceramics? How did you get started?

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I come from a creative hippie family. My dad is a retired glass blower and my mom played music, made our clothes and later was a graphic designer. So I was raised around artists and makers. Art was always presented as a valuable part of life. I went to art school in the 90's at Ohio University. I took some ceramic classes there,but I didn't major in ceramics because the department was focused on functional ware and wheel throwing. I graduated with my BFA in sculpture with a minor in women's studies. I didn't work with clay again until 2007 or 2008 when I started taking community classes in Oakland, CA. Every Friday for 4 years or so I spent time with an amazing group of women who were mostly in their 60s and 70s making ceramic art. Then I went to grad school at PNCA/OCAC in 2012, graduating in 2014 with my masters in applied craft and design. There I did textiles, ceramics and video - mostly installations. Quickly ceramics just took over my art practice. For the last 3 years I have been a working artist, making ceramic sculptures and a functional design line of ceramics.

What does your average studio day look like?

I generally start my day fusing over my space, plants, crystals, snacks, checking on the pieces drying. I spend most of my time working on orders and working on new designs. I move back and forth between the design line and sculptures. There are a lot of pieces I start that never survive - I start them and I don't like the direction so I just collapse them and use the clay for something else. I have recently taken over the studio space so I also do cleaning of the common space and equipment. Working for myself means I can work at my own pace, which means lots of breaks, stretching, watching netflix and working long hours. There is some much social media and energy about women who hustle which is rad... but the reality of running a creative business means I have no paid time off, sick pay, etc. I make everything, maintain my web store and page, social media, shipping and billing. So my day in the studio is a mix of all those activities.

What is your relationship to clay and ceramics itself? I often feel the medium can be unforgiving and even scientific. Do you find this to be true, and what was the process like getting to know the nuances of clay and firing, etc.?

Clay is scientific and unforgiving...do it wrong and it will literally explode in the kiln. There is serious chemistry in glaze mixing but it’s also a really visceral and intuitive material. I do some drawing before starting a sculpture, but I really let the clay guide me - it pushes back, falls, cracks, has a mind of its own. I love how you can capture messy quick urgent feelings and gestures with clay, then put it in the kiln and have this fragile piece transform into something hard and rigid. It feels really important to making with clay. Ceramics is one of human's longest used technologies and so embedded in our lives. It’s the kitchenware we put to our lips, the toilets and pipes that carry our waste away, and the urns that hold our ashes. My relationship to ceramics has changed over the years. At first I was only focused on abstract surrealist sculptures and so resistant to functional work. The thing about the sculptures and installations I created is that they have such limited impact and lives. I show them and then they go back into boxes. It’s hard to sell work for "art prices" but I realized that I could make smaller pieces that were related to my fine art practice and these craft objects had a bigger impact on people because they were accessible (price) and became a part of their daily lives (because they are functional). I have had to develop different ceramic skills to create functional work. Ceramics is a field that is like a bottomless pit of learning, which I love.

With that said I love how visceral your work is!

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What are three adjectives that you would use to describe your sculptures?

Visceral is such a good way to describe my work. My 3 words would be raw, vulnerable, and powerful.

What are themes you’re exploring in your work?

The visceral feeling of having a queer femme body, which for me is a mixture of sexual power and pleasure, glamour, oppression, resistance, and finding strength in community and interdependence. I am also exploring ceramic history, material, and process. I am really focused on the importance of vessels, the power of holding, sharing, and the refusal to hold (leaking) in relationship to feminine labor. I have this ongoing series called “My Body as Weapon” that is mace style weapons covered with lipsticks, boobs, and fingers with long nails...it really sums up my feelings of rage, glamour, and how women and femmes really have to put their bodies on the line everyday. Some of the pieces are fragments or broken to speak about how we are vulnerable and powerful at the same time.

How do you relate these themes to our socio political landscape of gender, sex, race, and feminism? And how do they relate to you personally?

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My work is political - I don't think you can make art about the body without being political because our bodies are so politicized. Clearly, I am heavily influenced by feminist art and queer theory, but my work is abstract and surreal so I feel that the work speaks to the complex ways bodies and politics interact. My work can be heavy handed but deep. Since the election there has been an upsurge of feminist political art, which is great, but as someone who has been making political art for years I was like, “Welcome to the party!! It’s about time.” I am interested in pushing the conversation to deeper, messier, rawer spaces rather than slapping some political imagery on a pot. Sometimes it feels like "resist" and "feminist" have become marketing tools, and I am like, “What the fuck is this?!?!?” As a white cis queer woman I feel like it’s important to be skeptical of the impact of "white feminism" and how it has drown out the voices of trans women and women of color. My pussy pipe is a piece that gets a lot of attention, which is cool, but I feel like my artwork actually questions the ways feminism limits itself by only representing itself with vagina imagery. I have recently released a new smoking vessel called the “Hard Femme”. It was designed with the help of friend of mine who is a trans woman, she wanted a piece that was affirming of her body. It was a great moment of making something that expresses my commitment to decentering cis feminism and supporting trans woman.

Was there a moment when you realized that the body is politicized?

I am trying to remember when I realized that our bodies are so politicized...I had a feminist mom so I had a head start in thinking about power structures and my body. I feel like being queer makes you super aware, living in a world that still has laws against gay sex makes it really clear your body is a political object. For me it’s about holding that reality and like forgetting at the same time so I can just have a body and live my life. Our food, medicine, water, and the air we breathe is all political. I worry about how Trump's government is attacking our environment and how that is going to impact future generations.

I also feel like feminism has become a trend since the election. I think it’s great that more people are aware of the conversation but some may buy into it because it’s hip. How do we keep it genuine?

Keeping feminism genuine is about action, not just words or imagery. It’s about making daily decisions to live a compassionate intersectional life, to listen, to protest, to assist, to care for people around you. You can't market and sell actual coalition-building because that’s about forming relationships and interactions that can't be boxed up and marketed.

Apart from your fine art sculptures, you make pipes and other functional objects. How does this practice differ from the other if at all?

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The design line, which is mostly pipes, are just smaller functional sculptures! Everything comes from my commitment to feminism, queer resistance, and body positivity. With the art I can do whatever I want, I mostly show at nonprofit spaces so there isn't the pressure to conform to capitalist gallery trends. But with the smoking vessels, I do have to pay attention to what works and sells. My craft supports my art. I sometimes feel like the design has consumed by sculpture practice. Never in my life did I think I would be living in Brooklyn with a thriving pipe business! It makes sense, but I just never saw it coming. When I was in grad school, I was really interested in the idea of making a kitschy design that related to my complex installations, like fun takeaway pieces because no one is buying a giant immersive installation. A few years ago I started to make myself and friends pipes and small functional domestic objects, and via social media, it just took off. One of the reasons I position my work as craft is that craft is more accessible and embedded in our lives. It’s so bodily! My fine art is about pleasure as a transformative place of resistance, so making pipes that people (mostly women, queers, and femmes) use to create temporal shifts in reality feels pretty amazing.

We live so much of our lives on a screen, but that often shields us from acting and actually living out the things we preach. Do you have any calls to action? Anything you practice on the daily or wish you saw more from other people to encourage compassion and understanding?

I am not like a super politically active person anymore...I have a lot of crowd anxiety that has gotten worse so I can't do protests, marches, rallies and calling/texting my representatives is important but feels empty. But there are so many ways to be political and trying to build a better feminist world. Like there is a small compost garden in my neighborhood and carrying my bag of food scraps over there and talking with the diverse (gender/race/class/age) group of folks there feels really important. Voting in local elections, sending money to community members in need, sharing resources, being kind and present with the people around you. For me, I follow that old hippie bumper stick "Think globally. Act locally." I try to keep an eye on what the big view is and find ways I can support and grow with folks around me. I am not a hopeful person, I don't have a lot of faith in humanity, but I want to use my time in a way that counteracts how shitty the world is.