Congratulations to CJ Niehaus, Contemporary Craft’s 2017 LEAP Award winner! Hailing from Cincinnati, OH, Niehaus’ functional ceramics feature vibrant and whimsical depictions of animals and nature. Her intricate drawings come to life with under glaze pencil making them both elegant and elaborate. Read on to learn more about the artist and her process. And stop by The Store to shop her bowls, plates, teapots, and sculptures, which will debut on January 20 and be showcased continuously throughout 2017.
Tell Us About Your Work.
My work is about being, nature and connection using memories. My imagery can be seen simply as a homage to the natural world. However, I am sharing a very personal story where the natural world mingles with my memories and my identity. It documents a time, a place and different people in the guise of various animals. Using an avatar, I can allow the viewer to insert their own meaning and make a connection to the work. In this way, I create a world where the viewer, nature and myself are joined.
How Does Your Background and Education Influence Your Work?
I received a Bachelors of Art from a Jesuit college, Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was an excellent liberal arts education, well-rounded in biology, history, literature, art, philosophy and theology. The most important aspect of my education was the Jesuit message in every class. No matter the subject, the final question was, “How will you help to make the world a better place?” It caused me to choose Art Therapy as a major. This led to ceramics, as a requirement. I wasn’t thrilled about clay at first. “Making dishes” wasn’t art. But, like many who work in clay, I had an immediate and intense attraction to the material. After graduation, I went back for two more semesters of ceramics and changed my direction.
Why Were You Drawn to Clay?
The directness of clay attracts me. The sensation of manipulating material with my bare hands makes sense. It allows me to rip and tear, add and subtract, and texture and smooth. I build forms of varying size and structure, then create a narrative on its surface. I can use a variety of techniques to construct a three dimensional story. Clay is a tactile joy. From my hand to the user’s hand, a vessel generates a relationship.
What Are Your Inspirations?
Most definitely, the natural world is my greatest inspiration. The human relationship to and our place in nature influence me. Seeing the repetition of line and form in nature and man creates a craving for connection, a sense of purpose. I am intrigued by existence.
What is the Best Piece of Advice you received as an Artist?
There are two comments that shaped my art life. The first was in Undergrad from a professor that I didn’t really like. She said, “I don’t care if you’re inspired. Just do it. Keep working and the inspiration will follow”. She was right. The other was my undergrad ceramics professor. I had just done my first art show/fair …it went poorly and when I saw her afterwards I expressed how discouraged I was. She said, “You might as well quit now if this upsets you that much. There will always be rough times and learning curves. You just have to push through them.” She was right too.
What Advice Would You Give Others Considering a Career In Art?
- Do what you LOVE, not just what sells. Buyers can grow fickle, you can get burned out, but if you are excited by what you do, others will feel the energy [that] generates.
- Look for residencies, opportunities to apprentice for other artists, work in galleries, museums, art centers. Find ways to get your hands dirty and meet people in the business. Direct one on one with other creatives will give you practical information and valuable networking resources for letters of recommendation, etc.
- Make! Make! Make! Apply! Apply! Apply! Always be making and applying for shows and residencies.
- Never Stop.
How Will the LEAP Award Help With Your Practice?
Being given the opportunity to be exhibited at and promoted by [Contemporary Craft] will open doors…I look forward to the exposure and validation from this highly respected organization. The award money will make my studio space safer to work in through the purchase of an air cleaning system. Silica dust is the biggest threat to clay workers; so finding ways to control it is of immense importance to the longevity of a career in ceramics.