Art Q&A: Kansas City ceramist and painter Erica Iman sees the beauty in imperfections

Leonardo da Vinci once said that “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

In Erica Iman’s Westport studio, abandoned and accidental art has turned out to be some of her best work. 

The ceramist and painter is drawn to raw, earthy textures, extreme landscapes and unpredictability. She embraces explosions in the kiln and natural cracks in clay. Her intuitive sculptures might look like small, natural landmarks — but they evoke much larger landscapes.

Iman will demonstrate her process and showcase her ceramic masterpieces alongside other potters at the Kansas City Urban Potters’ Midwest Pottery Fest April 27 and 28 in Westport.

Kansas City Spaces: You spent two years volunteering in Mongolia with the Peace Corps. How did that inspire your work?

Erica Iman: Before, I was searching in a lot of different avenues of pottery with your basic cups, mugs, and other projects like that because usually in school, that’s where you started. I think in the time of being away from my work during the Peace Corps, I learned what it was I loved about these materials and the art. I realized it wasn’t just about making objects. 

I wasn’t really interested in making something functional so I started getting into sculpture... Now, when I make a cup, my thoughts are more: ‘What is clay? Well, it’s made of silica, alumina and other raw materials’ and ‘I love that feeling in my hand when I rip an edge.’ At this point, I am literally digging into the emotions that draw me to this type of work. 

KCS: What is your process?

EI: I experiment — a lot. So, all my work is pretty different. It’s rooted in working with earthy materials: clays, powders and other materials that are dug out of the ground. I’ve done a lot of experimentation to the point of feeling like I’m getting to know these raw materials’ inherent properties and how they react to the extreme heating and cooling of the kiln. I mix a lot of soft clay myself, dust a dry version on the top and then let it naturally dry and crack open. I can just take my hand and shove or rip on a piece of clay, and it’s instantly transformed. 

The actual forming of this piece may only be 30 minutes to two hours. I’m not into fussing with things. I want the work to happen immediately, so I work quickly. I want the piece to feel pretty serendipitous and almost as if made by nature itself.

KCS: What makes each piece more than just an object?

EI: I feel like most objects we look at give us some sort of emotional feedback, even if it’s a deadness. I really key in on a certain emotion in my work. Most of the time I’m looking for a visceral connection — or as I’ve described it before, the meditative, serene, quiet feeling you get when seeing a dramatic landscape. Being in Mongolia for two years, there is just a lot of big, open, vast spaces.

I try to reflect those extreme contrasts. I want (my sculptures) to have a little simplicity and earthiness as opposed to something that is manmade... if it looks heavy, I want it to be heavy. I don’t want it to just look like a rock; I want it to be a rock.

KCS: Are there any limitations to working with clay?

EI: There are lots of limitations — I’m constantly struggling. I’m always trying to get the materials to do things that (they) won’t necessarily do. Really, half of the surfaces and forms I’m making now are from a mistake. For instance, something comes out of the kiln and I think ‘This is terrible.’ So I set it in the corner of the room for a month or two. Then, I start looking at it and realize it’s actually pretty cool. This has taught me a really good metaphor for life: you always have these expectations of something and if you just let them go a little bit, you’ll realize what you have is pretty amazing.

KCS: Tell us more about the Midwest Pottery Fest.

EI: KC Urban Potters invites six urban potters from around the country. We host a full weekend of events and free demonstrations at The Drugstore (an art gallery and studio space at 3948 Main St.) and the KC Urban Potters studio (at 4 Westport Road). There’s also a big sale for visitors to see and buy a variety of handmade pottery. There’s a wide range of pottery styles from my natural chunky texture to another potter’s work that’s very refined and functional. 

We also do a flower bar, so when you buy a vase, you choose between an array of flowers, and fill it with a fresh bouquet right in the studio. We’re wanting to show a more contemporary side of what’s going on in the ceramics world.