Derek Weisberg on Greenwich House Pottery and Working in the Arts

(photo by Zach McCaffree)

A year ago Derek Weisberg (Ceramics 2005) moved to New York to take a full-time job at Greenwich House Pottery, where he is a studio technician and teacher. His art has been included in recent exhibitions at POW WOW Hawaii in Honolulu, the Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis, and Greenwich House Pottery.

Having recently returned from completing the Fountainhead Residency in Miami, he took a moment to give us the scoop on his current projects, life after graduation, and exactly how many jobs you should expect to work when you call yourself a full-time artist!

View Derek Weisberg's work on Flickr »

What is Greenwich House, and what exactly is your job there?

My job involves teaching a hand-building sculpture class and helping the ceramic studio function smoothly and properly. Greenwich House was founded in 1902 as a settlement house to help New York's immigrant population adjust to life in the U.S. Today they have various programs in social services, arts, and education that are open to the public.

What are you working on now in your personal work?

One current project is a group of canopic jars. The idea comes from ancient Egyptian burial practices and beliefs about the afterlife. I am taking this very old ritual and bringing it into the present by replacing the gods with portraits of rappers who have passed away. This series tests my "chops" as a sculptor, and deals with themes I am interested in such as life, death, the afterlife. It is also about a culture I have been involved in almost my whole life.

What other projects do you have going on?

A second ongoing body of work is a series of porcelain busts that are carved to create negative space. It is a combination of automatic drawing, obsessive mark making, and a subtractive process. The carvings become images and symbols in their own right as well as references to nature, anatomy, and emotions. The figures are carved to represent very delicate, sensitive, fragile states of being.

I am also doing a series of collaborations, mostly with tattoo artists, where I sculpt porcelain busts and then give them to the other artist to draw and/or paint on. And lastly, I am working on a group of figures that range in scale and composition that will eventually come together in a larger installation -- an arrangement of figures in a space that will function as a place for rest, contemplation, and reflection. Almost a sacred, spiritual place.

After graduating, what was your strategy for continuing to make art and surviving in the "real" world? What did you do to make sure your work got out there?

Even before graduating I opened a gallery called Boontling with another CCAC student, Michael Simpson (Illustration 2005). Boontling was a way to show our own work as well as engage with the community and build a network. Then after about a year we started Oakland Art Murmur to build that community further. At Boontling we showed artists from CCAC whom we admired, and artists from around the country and the world.

It was no easy task, though. We both had full-time jobs (I worked as a delivery driver for Leslie Ceramic Supply Company). We made art at night and opened the gallery on the weekends.

So what's your advice for art students about to graduate?

Hustle, hustle, hustle. You have to work extremely hard. Art making has to be a priority in your life! You have to go to the studio, and you have to go out into the world to network and build a community. Basically this means maintaining three full-time jobs:

1) a steady job that pays the bills,
2) a studio practice in which you make your art, and
3) some way of sharing your art with the world, getting yourself and the work out there.

In addition to working very, very hard, you have to make sacrifices. I have lived without a television for 10 years, in (shall we say) "compromised" residential situations. All of the money I make goes back into making art.

A lot of your sculptures embody intense personal feelings: grief, anguish, love. And your website prominently mentions the quote "Through thought, feelings become knowledge."

The main, overarching theme of my work is the depiction of human emotion. It is much more guttural than cerebral; I want the viewer to come away with deep, immediate, lasting reactions to it. I want the work to be accessible and speak to the commonality of being human, and universal feelings and emotions.

How has your worked changed since you graduated in 2005?

The work I was doing toward the end of school was far more stylized and exaggerated. Aesthetically it was much more specific to hip-hop culture: big, baggy pants that hung below the figures' butts, sneakers, T-shirts with logos, and so on. My figures are still stylized, but you might say they've become more realistic or natural. I am still very much interested in hip-hop and that aesthetic, but now it's more about the "swag," or the aura or overall feeling, rather than the fashion specifically.

How is making art in New York different than in your native California?

Art making in New York is different mostly in that the available space is smaller. I went from a 700-square-foot studio in Oakland to a 100-square-foot studio in Manhattan.

Also I am engaging in a broader art world. There are so many more museums and galleries here, and many more international connections. I am getting a better sense of where my art fits into the bigger picture. But all of the galleries and museums and parks and theaters can be distractions as well, so it is a bit of a double-edged sword, and you have to maintain discipline and balance.

Were there particular faculty members at CCA who were especially influential on you?

Oh, man, you are asking me to call people out! There were many amazing faculty. All of my ceramic instructors were hugely influential: Arthur Gonzalez, Hedi Ernst, John Toki, John De Fazio, Nathan Lynch. Outside of my department, I could listen to Howard Eige's lectures and rambles for hours! Jack Ford is one of the school's greatest resources. I learned a lot about drawing from Mark Eanes, Richard Gayton, and Vincent Perez. And Michael McClure and Ignacio Valero are great minds and sources of insightful, thoughtful, critical conversation.

(If you were an instructor of mine and I didn't mention you, please don’t be offended. I love you, too!)