Interview with James Lobb: Director of Pottery Northwest

By Liz Duarte ~ photo credit: Judith Bushnell.

Tell us about yourself: where you grew up, your background & where you went to school?
JL: I’ve moved around a lot, all over the country but mostly grew up in Western New York State. I earned my BFA from Rochester Institute of Technology’s School for American Crafts.  I did a 5th year in Northern Michigan, a residency in the mountains of New York and then was a tech at Savannah College of Art and Design in SE Georgia.  I came to Washington State about 6 years ago to do a residency here at Pottery Northwest.

When did you become interested in clay?

JL: After high school I wanted to get as far away from my home town as possible so I moved to Alaska. I enrolled in UAA in Anchorage which I had no idea, had a pretty nice clay program for not having a major & being a small state school. I took math & science, some writing classes.  Then I did everything you’re not supposed to do when you go to college: got in trouble, drank too much, hung out with the wrong people, ignored my homework, failed most of my classes. The the next semester I took a ceramics class, photography class, guitar, creative writing, tai chi- all of the things that sounded fun & cool and had a much better time with that. It was a shift in direction where it seemed like I was failing, but then I just changed what I put my efforts towards. It totally changed my outlook and what I wanted to do with my life because I found something that was really interesting. My ceramics class with a woman named Pam Pemberton. I was in the studio working, and I lived off campus, and I remember looking up at the clock and seeing that it was 2:30 in the morning- all of the buses were done running and I had to spend the night in the studio. I had gotten so involved in what I was doing I totally lost track of time. It took me about a year & a half to decide that that’s what I needed to pursue. I ended up back in Rochester NY, and enrolled in the clay program there, got my bachelors degree, & everything’s just been building off of that. I can look back & say it was that moment in that class when I looked up at the clock. Or maybe it was that moment when I failed trigonometry, or got busted for drinking in the dorm room, but it all led me here. 

Were you ever worried that wouldn’t be something you’d be able to live off of?

JL: Yeah, constantly through my entire 20’s I was just trying to scrape by and do what I could just to keep myself in the studio. I had a pretty classic route where I could barely afford rent but I was doing what I could to find studio space & keep making work.

Who are your influences?

JL: Teachers, peers and family. People that I have watched work. Steve Godfrey in Alaska was the first person that was doing great work and really enjoying what he was doing. Then my teachers at RIT: Rick Hirsch, Julia Galloway- really driven & focused people and very disciplined. The kind of teachers that didn’t take any bullshit from you. “You’ve got to show up, you’ve got to do the work, your work has to mean what you say it means.” My family has played a big role in who I am: my father & my mother, my brother & sister, my wife. My family has always helped me keep thing real and keep things human.  Making excellent work is important in this world, but so is being fair, being respectful and kind.  

Is your family in NY?

JL: I just lost my father about a year and a half ago and my mother still lives in Rochester, my brother’s in North Carolina, my sisters in New York City. After losing my dad, I started realized how important person he was. At his memorial service there were so many people who came up and told me all these stories about how my dad meant so much to them in this way or that way. I knew who he was to me, but then I realized what a big deal he was to everybody else. He was always very practical. He’s the guy that said “Okay you can go to art school but make sure you take a business class” but didn’t stand in my way, didn’t say “don’t go to art school”. He was very supportive. My mother is an actress and a very creative person- actually in a production right now- and she’s weird & wacky, and a really cool lady. Growing up in that household where there’s the practical side but then the creative side- they’re really great.

What do you bring to PNW?

JL: I am relaxed and welcoming and want to provide opportunity. I think that the feeling of the place is very welcoming. Wally & I have talked a lot about how we want this to be a place that provides opportunity for students and for residents.  There are always going to be parameters that people are pushing up against. There are financial constraints; time and the constraints of clay, the material itself. I want to do what we can to make things more possible; what can we do to provide opportunity for resident projects or student projects and that sort of thing. That’s deep seated in me to have that attitude: Yes you can, yeah sure, give it a shot! Also I’m a very approachable person & that’s what people love about PNW and I think that it will stay that way.

How will you balance your time between PNW & your own work?

JL: I think they call it ADD. I get bored easily, so I work on this for a little while, the I go to do this & that. Actually that translates really well into this type of work where I’m going to be working on this one thing for a couple of hours, then I’ll shift over, I’ve got to answer some phone calls, do some emails, go load a kiln, make some pots.

All those syndromes fuel a person that thinks differently.

JL: Sure, it’s a different way of working. I remember listening to an interview with Dave Eggers, the author & he called it productive procrastination. You’ve got this one thing you know you have to do, but you put that off for just a minute, because you don’t really want to do it. Then you do a long list of other tasks. I related to that right away.

Do you plan to make big changes?

JL: Not in the first six months. You know what’s great about Pottery Northwest is, it’s constantly changing anyway. We are always getting new residents, and there’s always different workshops coming through.  I want to improve on what we already have rather than making large sweeping changes. The residency program is strong and I going to work to help it become stronger. I want to do more short term residencies also.  I don’t look at it as you have the residency side then you have the students on the other, and one’s higher than the other or anything like that, because I feel that they really support one another. Most of our faculty comes from the residency program and the big thing we do here is teach classes so those things will definitely still be there. If you have great residents then you have great classes. You have great classes you have great students. It just builds the excitement.

What are the first things that you want to start working on & are they things that you are excited about or are they things you just need to get done?

JL: A little bit of both. There are already a few balls rolling. We do our annual salad bowl which is a really cool thing. I’ve already started work on that- that will be in September this year. It won’t be anything drastically different than it has been. It’s a great fundraiser. It keeps building & bringing in a good amount of money, a little more each year.  But I always think about the programming that we do, the reasons that we exist and how we can bring more of that back into that fundraiser so it’s clear we’re here to be an excellent ceramic arts organization. A lot of times we get side tracked with the task, to make sure we bring in a lot of money and that’s not unimportant but I think that we can do both at the same time.  that would be better essentially. The idea of the handmade bowl is a great thing; everyone gets a handmade bowl to eat dinner & take home with them and that’s kind of the crux of the event.  But can we do more things like that, expand that concept a little more. Then we are going to turn 50 next year, so there’s going to be a lot that happens with that.

PNW opened the same year NCECA started?

JL: Yes, I’ve been thinking of how to correlate those two things. It occurred to me recently that PNW and NCECA are both turning 50 at the same time (it’s funny to be in my 30’s and talk about being 50 years old). At Carol Gouthro’s opening last night I met half a dozen people who said things like “I used to work at PNW in the 80’s” or something along those lines. It’s so cool to just meet those people. I like that it’s so much bigger than one person or any one group of people. Where it extends way back to the 60’s. So we’re going to do a lot & try & get those people back in here to be part of the celebration. I’m not concrete about what that celebration’s going to look like just yet but there will be workshops, gallery exhibitions and probably some kind of auction or sale.Wally Bivins has been, as Jean Griffith was in her time, a big force for PNW. He’s been the director here for just a little over10 years. I never really knew PNW without him because I came here only 6 years ago, but I know he’s had a dramatic impact.  He’s made a lot of changes and really strengthened the organization.

Before that the residents were pretty much indefinite. The 2 year system brings so much life…
JL: Yeah, vitality. That it is changing. A lot of us are deadline people, I know I am. So, if I know I’ve got a deadline on the horizon, I had better get to work. Where if the residency program were indefinite who knows maybe residents wouldn’t show up to the studio for a month at a time.  I think it’s been a great thing for the organization. (At Wally’s) exit show in the month of April in our gallery. folks (came to) share their appreciation and have the opportunity to help seed a fund in his name.  This will go towards a program of his choosing.  Something like the residency program, the residents artist project grant- I think that’s up to $5,000, where residents can apply for a up to $5,000 to work on a specific project that will fuel their work.

This is the grant you received, right?

JL: That’s right, I got half of the first one back when it was $1,500.00, Jessi Li and I.  So, I got $750.00 to make a trench coat to display & sell cups out of. So, That’s one of Wally’s projects that he started that I want to make sure that we are able to support in the future. Also the crossing the bridge, that brought in cross media artists like the De la Torre brothers who are glass artists from Mexico, John Grade, a sculptor that works in all kinds of different materials. We’ve got a number of different artists that have come in to use the studio to make a clay project. So that’s another thing that I want to keep going. One of the things I know I’ve run into… some people say, “I’ve lived in Seattle 20 years and I’ve never been here before.” I don’t expect to be front and center in Seattle life, but the more people that know what we’re doing, the better. Especially knowing that we’re here. I think sometimes people get blinders on like, “Oh that’s clay stuff, that’s not that interesting, I’m into my own thing, I’m into video projects or modern dance” or whatever. Why not bring a dance troop in here? I think that would be great. Within reason, where it’s appropriate, where it relates back to clay somehow. We are a clay studio, I don’t pretend it’s anything different.”

Anything else that you want to bring to our attention?

JL: I hope we continue to do work with the WCA. Like I said, being inclusive & creating opportunities. I like that idea of big family.

People are wondering how things will change, how will you handle PNW after Wally?

JL: Well, I’m not Wally Bivins, that’s for sure, I don’t have his stage presence. But like I said, I like the way things are and I don’t want to make any broad sweeping changes. There will be little specifics, I might need to paint a few walls. Stay tuned!