Spotlight on Ceramic Artist Julia Ballenger

I can usually remember when I find artists I would like to interview and unfortunately,  I don't remember when I stumbled upon ceramicist Julia Ballenger. However, I do remember how I felt when I first saw her work. I felt a happiness in my heart and the more I scrolled through her Instagram feed, the happier I became. Her little women put a smile on my face because of their state of serenity they appeared to be in. My favorite aspect of her little women is that they come in all shapes, colors, and sizes.  In our society, having a variety of objects like this is rare so it was very refreshing to see a true abstraction of the variety of women that exist. After learning more about Ballenger through the interview the respect I have for her is through the roof. Ballenger is an artist that is truly connected to her work and you can tell by the way she speaks about her work. I am very excited to share this interview with and hope everyone who reads this feels inspired. 

What sparked your interest in ceramics?

When I was in high school I had pretty debilitating migraines that often affected my sight. I took ceramics as an elective and learned that I could work with clay even when I had trouble seeing from a migraine. It became a sort of therapy for me, and even to this day, I will close my eyes when I’m throwing! It really allows you to listen to the clay. It also felt like a beautiful merging of everything I loved, painting, sculpting, and drawing. It was like all in one.

Who or what inspires you?

I am incredibly inspired by a lot of the fierce women I know who are forging their own careers in the arts. I think their effort and devotion to making their lives work around their craft is very inspiring and keeps me motivated to push myself harder. My ceramic role model is Akio Takamori. I first saw one of his pieces when I was 12, and I will never forget how much it resonated with me. His work is a gorgeous merging of skill and narrative. Looking at his work makes you feel as though you are looking at something so personal and secret that chose you as its witness.

What is your artistic process?

I don’t see my artistic process as having necessarily a stop or a start. I am always formulating ideas and carry a sketchbook around with me to write ideas down or to draw. A lot of my work is very related to my own emotions and fears and my work is a way for me to express emotions or insecurities that I have difficulty expressing with words. I usually start with an emotion and structure my work around that.

Has your style evolved over time?

My ideas are constantly changing and developing, although certain projects or forms will stick with me longer. I think it took a lot of time and exploration for me to find my voice, and I surely hope that the more I explore and play it will only adapt and change because the things that are relevant to me now may not be when I’m 50. I think my work will probably look and feel very different as I age. At least I hope it would! My work is so interconnected with my experience living as a young woman that I can only imagine it will reflect my changing paradigm.

There is a focus on the female physique in your work, how did you develop this theme?

My work really started with my own journey to loving my own body. We are so infiltrated with imagery that tells us to do otherwise; that we are not good enough, skinny enough or pretty enough, I saw imagery that countered that norm as a sort of rebellion and I loved it. As someone who is putting out images of women in the world, I feel like it is my responsibility to create images of women existing happily in their bodies as a sort of rebellion to the destructive ways that women are portrayed. I think a woman being comfortable and confident existing in her own body no matter their shape or size or color is one of the most powerful rebellion we can have. 

I think this is also shown in the mundane acts of self-care, for example, a woman bathing, shaving or sleeping, because it is a fleeting moment of unconscious acceptance and love for ourselves. And I think that those moments deserve to be viewed!

What is the most challenging part of being an artist?

This is a hard question. I think the hardest part for me is balancing making and selling enough work to make a living, but also staying true to intent and purpose. It’s easy to look into trends and know you could easily make what people are currently buying. But when I start thinking like that, my creativity and joy in what I do fades. Being an artist is a huge balancing act, but at the end of the day what really matters is that you can go to sleep at night proud of what you put out into the world.

When did you decide to start teaching and sharing your process with others? Do you feel it strengthened your skills and confidence as an artist?

I had a ceramics professor in college who changed my life. He didn’t only expand my understanding of the craft, he also opened my mind to ceramics as a way of thinking. Working with clay takes patience. It takes time, effort and perseverance just like learning any instrument. Clay also is incredibly intuitive, when you are stressed and sit down to the potters wheel the clay will often reflect back your emotion. You have to feel centered and grounded to work with it. I try to carry as much of this same insight into the classes I teach because I feel that ceramics can be used as a form of meditation, which is really beneficial for everyone. Teaching has enhanced my respect for the craft, and has also definitely deepened my understanding of working with it. I get asked all sorts of brilliant questions that I would never have asked myself. Like, “why does clay do that?” it has challenged me to confront my own ignorance’s and to keep learning and asking why.

Do you feel a deeper connection to your craft when you teach?

Completely. More that anything I have grown to really appreciate the therapy that working with clay brings to everyone, of all demographics. It's silly, messy, creative, physical but also if you want it to be, very spiritual.

What do you feel are the ups and downs of running an independent business?

The ups are definitely huge—working for yourself, setting your own hours, feeling that your work is completely true to your own visions. The downs are that the work is never done! There is always more you could do. Striking a balance is key, but I don’t think I have quite found the perfect equilibrium yet. I also approached my work as an artist, not as a business person. The learning curve has been huge on the business front, sort of trouble-shooting and learning as you go. But the rewards are so huge.

Do you ever experience a creative rut?

Definitely! And sometimes it lasts a long time. But I try to see these times as opportunities. My dad, who is a writer, said that the true artists were the ones who made things on days they didn’t feel like it or had no inspiration. They just made. He would always free write. I think I practice art like that too. I keep a sketchbook and draw something every single day, even if I'm tired or not in the mood. The same is true for working with clay. The more I explore without the confines of thinking, ‘is this going to be any good?’ the more I can free myself up from judgment and just make. It’s often in these times that I will come up with my favorite images or ideas.

What has been your favorite project or creation so far?

That’s hard! I am very fond of my bathing ladies, I think because I so often try to toe the line between fine art and design which is not always successful. They often will fall on one side of the spectrum of function and form. The bathing lady started when I was in quite a tumultuous time and I was trying to find better ways to care for myself. I found taking baths was a very sweet mercy I could spare myself every day. I also did a lot of my thinking and brainstorming there. My first bather was a self-portrait of myself in the tub, which I felt encapsulated my experience during that time. I kept that sculpture in my house as a little reminder to be kinder to myself. I later realized I needed a salt cellar for my kitchen and it hit me that I could put salt in her bath and make it a little bubble bath. And it sort of felt like a light bulb went off and that the design was complete! I really love how functional objects are more accessible to everyone. Not everyone collects fine art sculpture, but most everyone cooks and has a need for functional objects in their home. And if the objects that we interact with on a daily basis make us smile or remember to be a little kinder to ourselves, I think that is very important!

What is your ultimate goal with your art?

There is an amazing older French woman in my ceramics studio named Mia. She told me that we have the responsibility to make things with care and with intent. We are creating things that will then exist in the world, and with that gift is also a huge responsibility. Her words resonated with me. I want my work to contribute to making a better, kinder world where women feel even the tiniest bit less alone. I hope to echo the loving voice that we all have inside us that begs us to be kinder to ourselves.