We love being able to see our favorite artwork up close—even better when we get to meet the incredible artists who create it! So when we had an opportunity to visit ceramic artist Kelly Jean Ohl in her home studio near our Madison, WI office, we were thrilled.
Ohl has been selling her work through Artful Home for about five years, and she is truly an Artful Home success story. Before selling with us, she drove to art fairs almost every weekend—a grueling cycle that many artists know well. Since working with Artful Home, she has become “art fair free,” able to make a steady income while spending more time in her studio rather than on the road.
When we arrived at Ohl’s house, we immediately knew we were at the right place: a variety of her small “specimen” sculptures were scattered throughout her garden and nestled on her front porch like found treasures.
After greeting us with genuine enthusiasm, Kelly Jean led us into her spacious yet cozy basement studio, an inviting space with lots of sunlight. A table with coffee and cookies was waiting for us, complete with an improvised trivet made of her sculptural “stick” forms.
Once we had served ourselves some treats, Kelly Jean took us on a tour of her studio and began telling us about her background, techniques, and inspiration.
It all started in college. While a theater student at Minnesota State University, she decided to pursue art in addition to acting, thinking, “If I can’t be an actress, I want to be an artist.” She took ceramic classes in the art department while also working in the theater costume shop, where she fell in love with textiles and fabrics.
She then attended grad school for art, first receiving an MA from Minnesota State University, and then an MFA from the University of Michigan. She also happened to be a new mom, but readily dove into the challenges of juggling motherhood, school, and a teaching assistantship at the same time, learning a lot from the experience.
At the University of Michigan, she had to move her studio five times in two years—an exhausting process for a ceramic artist. She had been making large, organic sculptures like the one below, but after so many moves, she decided to try something different. She started creating an abundance of small, individual components that could be used to fill space, whether a wall, floor, or table. This shift proved to be quite fruitful, leading to the “specimen” pieces that she continues to make today.
While in grad school, her grandmother passed away. Among the things her family inherited were her grandmother’s supplies for making lefse, a traditional Norwegian flatbread, including a lefse rolling pin.
Kelly Jean really needed a rolling pin in her studio, and since money was tight, she figured she could just put the grooved lefse pin on the lathe in the school’s woodshop to remove the texture. But then, she wondered: what would that texture do to clay? Curious, she brought the rolling pin to the studio, and discovered that its grooved surface created a beautiful ridged texture. The rolling pin was saved, and Kelly Jean’s interest in texture continued to grow.
After this discovery, she started to wonder what else she could use to create texture. She looked through other items that had belonged to her grandmother and experimented with them in the studio: a garlic press, a meat tenderizer, tatted lace, crochet work, even the cheesecloth her grandmother used for making jelly.
Today, Ohl continues to explore texture in clay using her extensive collection of vintage textiles, rolling pins, and other intriguing objects.
Ohl puts an incredible amount of detail and care into each piece she creates. After building the forms in clay and impressing them with the desired texture, she uses dental tools to further carve and define the design. This kind of intricate (Ohl calls it “obsessive”) carving isn’t for everyone; in fact, she’s had studio assistants try it once, then tell her they never want to do it again! But she absolutely loves it.
After carving the details, she burnishes the surface by hand and later sands each piece for a smooth finish. Each piece is bisque fired in the kiln, then brushed with colorants called oxides before undergoing a second firing at a high temperature.
After the second firing, the work is fully vitrified, which happens to make it food and dishwasher safe—good to know if one of Ohl’s plates is your child’s favorite dish for eating macaroni and cheese (true story).
Ohl is well-known for her large wall installations, which are comprised of dozens of hand-built and -carved forms. One of the things that makes these sculptures unique is that the components are not physically connected to one another. They are intended to be hung individually on the wall in a specific composition, covering the wall with rhythm and texture.
Ohl keeps a ready supply of different components on hand so she has plenty to choose from when an order comes through. This allows her to mix and match in nearly endless combinations, ensuring that her sculptures are both unique and visually cohesive.
Because of her creative process, individual components in any given installation may have been made on completely different days, from completely different types of clay. She uses six different stoneware and porcelain clay bodies for the varied colors and effects they can achieve. She’ll spend one week working exclusively in one clay body, then, after thoroughly cleaning the entire studio (accidentally mixing clay bodies can cause kiln disasters), she moves on to the next. A single wall piece may include components made of all six clay bodies.
The rich, earthy colors of her work are created with naturally occurring oxides rather than glazes. An oxide is like a single, concentrated baking ingredient—say, cocoa powder or vanilla extract—while glazes are more like cake mixes, containing a variety of ingredients. Using one over the other is primarily a matter of aesthetics, and Ohl’s choice of oxides serves her work beautifully, heightening its textural contrast and organic character.
We’re so grateful to Kelly Jean Ohl for inviting us into her studio and giving us a firsthand glimpse of her creative process. I think that all of us left with an even greater appreciation for her beautiful, tactile ceramic artwork than we had before—I know that I certainly did.