We sat down with Karen Fiorino, the artist behind the beautiful pieces at Clay Lick Pottery, to try and get inside her head. Here’s what we learned!
So what is Clay Lick Creek, and how did you come to choose it as the namesake for your business?
Clay Lick Creek is a short creek in the Shawnee Forest, a tributary into Cedar Lake. It gets its name from its abundance of clay deposits, which are naturally white in color but which fire to a warm, peachy orange at cone 04 – which is about 1938 degrees Fahrenheit. I’ve made small pieces with it in the past. The “Lick” part in the name comes from the fact that animals seek out the deposits in the clay to get minerals that they need in their diet. As for choosing it as a namesake, since the creek runs through our property, which we bought before I become a potter, the name just made sense.
You mentioned that animals are drawn to the creek. Do you get to see a lot of wild creatures?
Yes! I’ve seen a variety of animals near the creek, including a bobcat, soft shell turtles, and box turtles. But animals aren’t the only neat things you can find along the creek. I’ve also discovered various skulls and bones, interesting fossils like Calamites, and all sorts of spring flowers and ferns. In fact, I make a point to go out looking for new flowers of all kinds each spring. I greatly admire the trout lilies, spring beauties, and all the fern species. I like the way the fiddle heads unfurl into new fern fronds. Maiden hair fern is my favorite kind because I like running my hands through the fronds because it feels like feathers. I like seeing the mosses, too. The greenness of all of these plants sometimes just calls me to stop and just stare at the color!
So, would you say that your surroundings inspire your work? What are your favorite things about living in the forest?
Definitely. Growing up as a child in Southern Illinois, I was fascinated by all the various forms of wildlife I encountered. I liked to study the beautiful and captivating patterns of local plants and wildflowers. I also have a thing for color, as I sort of touched on, so I naturally loved observing the different colors of geological formations to those of the sunrise and sunset. As far as my favorite things about living here… even though they are not native, I love the daffodils in the spring and look forward to their blooming every year. I like finding them in the woods because when I do, I know that at one point, someone in the past planted them in their garden. That means that even though I’m deep in the woods, I’ve stumbled upon an old home site.
Looking at you now, you seem happy and excited about your work. But you weren’t always a potter. How did you get into the craft?
Well, I originally earned my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Southern Illinois University in Zoology. I then began doing scientific illustration, working in the Research Photography and Illustration department at the University. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy that work, but as technology changed, there became less and less demand in the marketplace for one person creating graphs, illustrations and other visuals used in publications. As computers became more advanced, it was easier for images to be reproduced and the process became more automated. I felt the change in the air, and I was getting bored with working in a 2D, virtual medium anyway. I wanted to create something tangible with my hands.
So, In 1996, I left my job at the University to pursue pottery. In the beginning, while I worked on my early pieces, I still supported myself by working as a freelance scientific illustrator, producing illustrations for textbooks.
Speaking of Zoology, I hear you share your home with two dogs and two cats. Tell me about your pets! Do they inspire your work?
Yes, it is quite a menagerie here! All of our animals have interesting quirks. My dog Kia is a black and white border collie/terrier mix. When she came to live with us at 3 years old, she was afraid of the dark and wouldn’t go outside at all in the evening. In fact, when camping, she would practically jump through the screens on the camper to get inside when the sun when down! She is much better about that now. I don’t allow my dogs inside my studio, but Kia sits outside the door no matter what the weather is. It rained today – she’s under the table smelling like a wet dog right now.
The other dog, Ziggy, is more my husband’s dog than mine. He is almost totally black except for a small white spot on his chest and the toe tips of his front paws. We think he is a German shepherd mix, but call him a Union County breed as that’s where he turned up. For a big dog, he acts very freaky. He dislikes being brushed to the extent that he runs off at the mere sight or mention of a brush.
The two cats are Cleo and Pisces. Cleo is an older white and grey striped tabby. Her photo is immortalized in one of the microbiology textbooks I worked on, representing how genes can be expressed. I looked and looked for a calico cat to photograph at local shelters, and in the end we used her. She’s a small cat. I call her the “Bulimic Wonder” because she throws up a lot. (update: Cleo died in 2016 - we miss her alot! )
Pisces is a black and white tuxedo, and a BIG cat — “Fat Cat” is his nickname. We named him Pisces because my son, Orion, was asking what kind of star’s names would be good for a cat. Since Pisces is a fish… it just stuck as his name. The two cats bring a lot of excitement into the house in the form of mice, frogs, chipmunks and birds, all of which we try to rescue if we can. I can tell when the cats sneak into the studio because I find their dirty little paw prints on some of my white glazed pieces that are waiting to be decorated. As far as inspiration goes, their antics helped inspire my paw print shallow bowls!
Thinking back on your previous life as a scientific illustrator, do you find that your experience there informs your designs?
Yes, due to my background, I’ve developed an eye for detail and accuracy. But for me, art is about having fun and getting to let my creativity out. So, I like to take creative license with scientific details and mix them up in new ways. I also enjoy letting the psychedelic colors and illustrative influences of my childhood play a part in the creation of my pieces. I’m a little contradictory, so combining that very whimsical, folksy aesthetic with the rich jewel tones of the historic majolica technique is amusing to me. I have a lot of fun with it.
Do you listen to music while you’re working? What’s your favorite genre?
I mostly tend to listen to whatever WDBX is playing at the time. It’s one of only two community radio stations in Illinois. They play all kinds of genres, so there’s always something interesting on. Other than that, I like Americana and blues. I’m also fond of small, local bands. I like that raw, creative energy of artists who are just starting out and doing what they love.
So, what is it like to work with clay? What is your favorite part about the process?
Working with the clay itself is a lot like learning to dance. There is a rhythm for each movement and a time for each gesture. It’s a process of understanding the rhythms of the clay itself and the role that the environment plays in shaping the new creation. What pleases me the most about the process is the tactile feeling of working the clay. I like the physical involvement of creating a 3-D object – something that can be held in the hand, something of permanence. And while I’m enjoying the physical process, in the back of my mind I also know that I am creating something full of life, something that can bring pleasure and joyfulness to another person.
What do you mean by ‘life’?
Well, I mean that my works aren’t mass-produced utilitarian objects. Since my pieces are hand-made, they are naturally one-of-a-kind. I do replicate some of my more popular designs, but the end results are never exactly the same. But I put my heart into what I do: channeling personal experiences of joy, passion, humor, and wonder. I let those things flow through me, and into the clay and the design. So the idea is that I put part of myself into every piece, giving it a life of its own.
You have quite the international following, thanks to your online Etsy shop. What is it like to have fans from all around the world?
Yes! The paradox of my somewhat secluded life in the forest is that my pieces are now out there all over the world. And since I have been creating pottery for over 16 years, the network of people reached has become quite expansive! It is great. I really enjoy being able to add that little bit of joy, that little bright spot, to the lives of others. Just the other day someone wrote to me and said, “I was feeling sick the other day, and I ate some soup from one of your bowls and it made me feel better.” I get chills just thinking about it!
So, where will you go from here? What can we expect to see from you in the future?
I hope that I will continue to be able to do what I’m doing for many years to come. My goal for Clay Lick Creek Pottery is simply to continue having fun creating art that brings joy to others. As for what the future holds… As my son gets older, I can devote more time to individual pieces. I have been drawing more ornate patterns. I have also been creating larger platter pieces which give me a much larger surface to decorate with my intricate mandala patterns. Meanwhile, I’m on the hunt for new and different experiences to inspire my work!