Handmade Ceramics by Beth Bolgla

As much as I don’t like winter, I do love a cup of hot coffee in the morning. I recently kicked it up a notch with this gorgeous mug by Beth Bolgla:

The coaster looks like a makeshift pedestal where the happy little mug stands proudly. I met Beth Bolgla during the GO Brooklyn weekend and I loved her work – she is a delightful person and didn’t mind me snooping around. We ended up talking for a while at her Park Slope studio, which she opens to the public several times a year.

Since receiving her Master’s in Fine Arts from Georgia State University in 1978, Beth’s work has touched ceramics, painting, drawing… lots of stories to tell, including a stint in the Middle East working with women artists. A veteran of the New York art scene, she recently relocated her studio from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and she couldn’t be happier. Beth talked to us about her career, her inspiration, Brooklyn, and even one of her other passions – pie.

When did you make the transition from Manhattan to Brooklyn? How was the change?

I moved from 37th Street and 8th Ave., in the heart of the ‘fashion district’ in Manhattan to my current location in Park Slope, Brooklyn in March 2011… so I’ve been in Brooklyn almost two years now. I can’t say I ever even looked back, and although the commute is a bit longer, I love riding on trains. The time it takes going there and back is always well spent either preparing for the day making lists or doing sketches, reading, or simply thinking and observing. There really is never a dull moment in this amazing city. The studio in Manhattan was very well equipped, and although I had close relationships with some of my studio mates, I did find it difficult to concentrate in such a large group setting of about 20 ceramic artists. I now have only one studio mate, the very talented May Luk, and our studio is set up so that our individual spaces are quite private, and we have very different work schedules.

Also very important for me, is that my immediate neighborhood and really Brooklyn as a whole is very supportive of artists and of all things handmade.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

It’s a good question, but one I rarely consider much at this stage of my life. I no longer really question where my ideas come from. I am very much the sum of many experiences, including deep human relationships both personal and professional, incredible travels to wondrous places… Syria, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Spain, Portugal, and lots of the rest of Europe, and my higher education and varied work experiences. My place as a woman and mother is also profoundly experiential.

I would say at this point, within my peaceful, basically solitary work environment… my inspiration can be drawn from deep within me from my wealth of experiences, my process, or from something as simple as an observation on the subway, leaves or the pavement in a park, music, my students, or politics. I really am an open vessel.

Your work includes not just ceramics, but also painting and sculpture. How are you different in each discipline?

I have actually thought about this quite a bit, because I do find the energy expended on painting is quite different than that for doing ceramic work. Two-dimensional work is a very abstracted expression, somewhat detached from the physical; where as working in clay is more an expression of the objective world. The difference in standing in front of a canvas and sitting at a potter’s wheel is kind of like the difference in ‘thinking’ and ‘making’. Although there is a ‘making’ component in painting and drawing, and a ‘thinking’ component in ceramics, for me at the moment, there is nothing more grounding and energetically charged than throwing on the wheel or handling clay in almost any way.

Having said this, and in as much as I can step back and observe my work and my process, I do sense the bridge between the two expressions is becoming more easily traveled. The two disciplines are feeding each other, and the processes are becoming more fluid and less polarized.

You recently participated in GO Brooklyn and the Gowanus Open Studio Weekend. What do you like about opening the doors to your studio?

There’s so much I like about opening my studio doors to the public, starting with the simplest, which is the forced opportunity to clean, reorganize and asses what I can get rid of in an attempt to make my work environment more and more of a creative haven. I think of each opening as a one-person show, where unlike a gallery setting, I can really offer a true look into my process as well as my completed pieces. After years of involvement in the ‘art world’, it has become crystal clear to me that, although each work of art should be able to stand on its own, real appreciation and understanding of art comes from looking at a body of work, and/or learning about the process and life of the artist.

Also, the economy of being able to sell work directly out of my studio, eliminating a middle person or the huge costs of shipping, is a political issue that I am committed to. I am able to charge a bit less when I sell out of the studio, making handmade objects more accessible to more income brackets. This a great advantage, as I know that using handmade objects or hanging original drawings or paintings greatly enhances quality of life, and not in a ‘keeping up with the Jones way’… but in a spiritual way. Unlike factory-made objects, each handmade piece provides an opportunity to pause and self-reflect.

It’s that time of the year when it’s allowed to eat pie every day (at least in my house). As a southern girl, you must know your pie. What’s your favorite?

So glad you ask about pies… [I'm] the ‘queen’ of baked goods. I have been making pies since I was in my late 20’s I guess. The key to a great pie is a flakey crust, and I find the key to that is cold ingredients and quick and sure handling of them. I love lots of different kinds of pies, but I think peaches are the best fruit for making the filling… with apples coming in a very close second. Incidentally, in the last couple of years, I have begun making pie-baking dishes. I can’t think of anything more lovely than a perfectly baked pie in a handmade ceramic pie dish.

Your studio is in the ‘Park Slope meets Gowanus’ area, which has been changing so quickly. What are some of your favorite local spots?

I have to say that I don’t venture out all that much once I’m in the studio and working… honestly, that’s my favorite spot. However, there is a wonderful Swedish coffee shop up the block on 5th Ave called Konditori… fantastic Swedish blends and such a friendly inviting place. I love The Textile Art Center, and took a great weekend screen-printing workshop there when I first moved to my Brooklyn studio. Also, I think Brooklyn Art Space is a fabulous resource for artists, for studio space, exhibition space, workshops, and classes. Finally, there’s the wonderful shop/gallery space at 261 Smith Street, called By Brooklyn. The owner, Gaia DiLoreto has got a great eye, and is a delight to work with. I know there is so much more to see locally, and I look forward in the coming years to discovering other favorite places.

Beth will open her studio doors again on December 15 & 16 (689 Sacket Street, between 4th & 5th Ave). The studio is also open by appointment. You can see more pieces available on her website, BethBolgla.com. At By Brooklyn in Cobble Hill you can find an exclusive ‘Brooklyn’ edition of her dot collection.

  • Millie Hayes

    Thank you for sharing the work (and life) of my wonderful daughter-in-law. Beth’s work is so wonderful and I especially love her mugs, so much so that I am looking forward to Christmas(hint, hint). Just kidding Beth!! <3

  • Anna El Gammal

    Beth, love seeing your icing on the cake mugs, so like Christmas. The black pieces are stunning also. I use my bowl you made in the early 80’s all the time. Is Issy still making her pots? I told my friend Robin to take a look also. You and Jack saw her last year I think Jack’s brother lived next door in Arizona. She is anxious to get back to her pottery. Hope you all are well and were not without power during the recent storm. We hope to get to NY one day soon.

  • Dani Locastro

    Beth, it has been a pleasure to have you as my teacher on my cherished Monday classes at the GAC. You are such an inspiration in the ” making” of my pottery ,the “thinking ” of my artwork and the” processing” of life. thank you! Dani

  • Mark

    I’m honored and proud to have you creating in my studio, Beth. Thanks for sharing your talents with the world!