Set your dinner table with ceramicist Irma Starr’s place settings and you won’t need a centerpiece.
Her latest creations consist of plates that slide into the outstretched arms of vases shaped like the upper body of a human trying to hug you. You can put bouquets of flowers or balloons in the hollow heads, stand forks and knives upright in the hands and voila! You have a festive yet hungry dinner partner.
Starr created a set of the dishes for herself and uses them for dinner parties.
“At Halloween I put masks on them, and on New Year’s I put hats on them,” she says.
The dishes, which combine a post-modern aesthetic with a 17th-century art form, are on exhibit in the window of the gift shop at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Starr created them to coincide with the 50th annual conference of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts, an event that will draw 5,000 artists, collectors and other ceramics aficionados to Kansas City Wednesday through Saturday. She and ceramic sculptor Linda Lighton were instrumental in the bidding process that brought the conference to Kansas City, beating out the likes of New Orleans and Washington, D.C. Exhibits will be scattered at venues across the city.
The dishes in the art museum’s gift shop are painted with gold hats, bow ties and pocket squares, then decorated with gold sparklers, candles and balloons to reference the conference’s golden anniversary.
Their whimsical nature fits with Starr’s warm, friendly personality as well as her other highly collectible work, which includes Christmas ornaments, jars, candlesticks, mugs, figurines and “Wizard of Oz”-themed pieces.
Starr makes pottery in the English slipware tradition, which involves painting with clay that has been thinned with water and colored with mineral oxides. She compares the process to a pastry chef decorating an elaborate cake. The pieces are then covered with amber glazes and fired in a kiln on low heat.
Her interest in slipware was piqued while studying under Ken Ferguson at the Kansas City Art Institute.
“He’d tell each student, ‘Go over to the Nelson, find an object you love that fits your personality and research it and make it,’ ” she says. “I went into the Burnap Collection room, saw a mermaid and fell in love with her and that was the one for me. I was lucky because (Ferguson) loved it too. He did rabbits based on the one in the Burnap Collection.”
Several years later, Starr visited the studio of Michael Cardew in England. Cardew, a slipware ceramacist, had researched and re-created the color formulas from 17th century England.
“I opened my book (portfolio of Burnap reproductions), and he put down his tools and gave me all the slipware formulas that they had researched,” she says. “It was so special. Having those formulas really put me into orbit. And I share them with everybody. It’s not a secret.”
Since then she has worked extensively with the Nelson’s gift shop to reproduce dishes, posset pots, cradles, puzzle jugs and other pieces from the museum’s Burnap Collection.
In 2000, Hillary Clinton commissioned Starr to make a commemorative plate for the Clintons’ 25th wedding anniversary. Starr also has created ornaments for the White House Christmas tree, and in 2002, the Smithsonian Institution commissioned her to make a commemorative plate for the 30th anniversary of its Renwick Gallery.
“Irma is doing a superb job of continuing the tradition of late 17- and early 18th-century English slipware,” says Catherine Futter, director of curatorial affairs at the Nelson. “She’s done a lot of work in rediscovering techniques they used and draws inspiration from the past but does very contemporary subjects as well as pop culture such as the ‘Wizard of Oz.’ ”
The plates on display at the Nelson can be commissioned through the gift shop.
Shoppers can also commission more traditional plates from her to commemorate special occasions (they cost about $500 each), and she sells her Christmas ornaments and some “Wizard of Oz” pieces in the store. She also designed the shuttlecock mugs (they’re mass-produced), which sell for $19.95 at the store.
“The stuff she makes by her own hands are more expensive … understandably,” says Brian Day, museum store manager. “It’s one-of-a-kind art. It’s fun because we always have 12 or 13 ideas in the pipeline. She’s always thinking, and it’s fun to bounce creativity off of her.”
Most of it’s whimsical because Starr wants people to have fun and smile when they have her pieces in their homes.
“Reproducing the Burnap Collection at the Nelson-Atkins, they’re very humorous and so that influences my work. It’s perfect for me, that collection, because it’s so adorable with the pointy shoes and smiling faces,” she says. “I take the tech and humor from that collection, add it to my humor and it works out really well. I like to do happy things.”