Meet the Maker: Philly Ceramicist Kenni Field

Thu Dec 10, 2020

Thank goodness for Instagram wormholes — it was way down in the depths of one that we discovered the handmade half-moon-shaped Demi Pipes of Kenni Field, a brilliantly self-taught Philadelphia ceramicist and a relative newcomer to the smoking objects game. Field specializes in versions that have a psychedelic marbled pattern on the top, but with little time before holiday and a determination to get their work onto Tetra's shelves in time for gifting season, we commissioned two solid-color classics with the hope of future collaborations to come.

To mark the launch of Field's Demi Pipes on Tetra, we asked them to tell us more about their background, their studio(s), and what makes working with ceramics so hard — but so gratifying.

When did you know you wanted to do something creative, and how did you get started in your current practice?

I think I just never stopped knowing. I remember being 5 years old and visiting my aunt Marie, who is a painter, when we both lived on the island of Roatan. She had this amazing apartment on the beach with big banana trees planted all around her yard. That day she set up watercolors for us to paint, and it started to rain really heavily—like the thick tropical rains we associate with hurricanes. We had set up in a courtyard under a little shelter, and I vividly remember us all giggling and trying to wet our paints in the rain, and just feeling so alive and exhilarated by the downpour.

I choose this memory as a sort of beginning of the story of myself as an artist because I like to think of stories as containing instructions or recommendations on how we can move through the world. Also, because it was another aunt, Anita, who reminded me that I needed to be practicing art-making. After dinner one visit she took my hand and led me down to her basement which she had converted into a ceramic studio. She encouraged and praised everything I made from the very beginning, and she gave me the confidence to save up for a wheel and take a gap year during college to hone my craft.

How would you summarize your approach to your work and your materials?

My approach is a mix of intuitive and observational play, and is rarely as methodical as it should be. I’m not patient enough to measure accurately and keep reliable notes when I’m developing surfaces, which has been pretty much my whole career as a maker. Ceramics pushes some people to be really regimented and precise — calculating for specific results, which can be great — but I’m one of those people who’s kind of just playing in the dark.

What’s the hardest thing about working with your hands, and what’s the most gratifying?

It hurts a lot! Ceramics isn’t just a dirty job, it’s also a lot of heavy lifting and repetitive motion, and that takes its toll on the hands and back. I’m lucky to only have creaky knuckles that crack constantly, but I have to always be mindful to stretch so I don’t injure joints or ligaments. But this also gives me a weird sort of aliveness that I feel when I’m lugging around 50-pound boxes of clay, sweating and out of breath.

Cleaning the studio, prepping clay, or sitting at my wheel brings about a magical physical self-awareness that’s deeply centering. I always feel like a totally integrated human when my eyes, mind, and hands are focused on a single piece or task at once.

Did you ever have an epic fail, and what did you learn from it?

So, so many! The ones I’m embarrassed by repeatedly teach me to slow down and pay attention. My lessons from clay include always keeping an open mind, and never getting too attached to any piece or idea because you can’t control everything, and sometimes shit happens. Porcelain also teaches me when to let go. It has a stubborn and active nature, twisting and warping if it’s manipulated. In ceramics we call it “memory.” The clay remembers everything that was done to it and even if you try to mask it, the clay will always react to reveal it. This partly means learning when to correct and when to abandon a piece to the recycling bin, to *hopefully* be reborn anew.

What’s been inspiring you lately?

I’m really into psychedelia lately. It’s not so much kitschy posters and tapestries that I’m drawn to, but psychedelic art as a prompt for gazing, imagining, and inventing. There are a lot of aesthetic resonances between psychedelic art and my love of saturated colors, intricacy, and fluorescence. I’m also mindful of certain cultural aspects of psychedelic art, it’s association with psychoactive experiences, and it’s otherworldliness.

I don’t really know anything about color, besides that I’m obsessed with it. I grew up on an island, and later in a state, saturated with vivid colors, and so I am eternally inspired by deep sea life and construction sites. You can find the same neon yellow on the back of a sea slug as you can at a road site. They are one and the same to me, in the sense that we and all of our things are part of the same world. The natural world is as much the giant Pepto-pink crane two blocks from my office as it is gleaming from a hibiscus petal.

What’s a typical day like in your studio?

I actually have two studios, one at Black Hound Clay Studio in West Philadelphia, plus a small home studio set up in my bedroom. While a typical day depends on where I’m making, it always starts after 5 p.m. when I leave my admin job at a local university. I make larger work at Black Hound, which has great facilities and lots of space, but I save throwing pipes for my wheel at home.

In ceramics the making process is very drawn out and there's a lot of waiting for the clay to dry, so I have this tendency to beeline to my room when I get home, to check on drying pieces before even taking off my bag and helmet. I check to see who’s ready for what stage of the process, and decide to assemble them or throw new forms.

Working full time and managing other commitments has taught me to really respect my limits, physically and mentally. For me it means that throwing usually starts spontaneously, and when it feels good. I weigh out 5-10 balls of clay, which become the body of the pipe, and then pick colors for creating the swirls on top of the pieces. Just before I settle in to throw, I usually remember to put on some music or an audiobook. I’ve been loving listening to Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

What’s your studio like itself? And what are your favorite objects in the studio?

My home studio consists of my Shimpo VL Lite, a great wall-mounted shelf system that my roommate and I installed, which displays some of the one-off pieces I’ve made, and a giant work table we salvaged one trash day. The best thing about my studio, other than the convenience and intimacy of it, is the set of west-facing bay windows which let in a dreamy afternoon glow.

What’s your smoking ritual?

My smoking ritual mostly exists on the living room couch or on my bed. When I want to decompress after work, I’ll settle down with something relaxing to watch or listen to. I enjoy smoking herbal blends, and sometimes add mullein, lavender, or calendula to my mix. I enjoy smoking socially, so it’s usually a time for catching up and connecting with my roommates and close friends.

Tell us what you love about the piece you’ve made for Tetra.

Tetra is such a special site, and one that I’ve wanted to work with since I first started making pipes and researching retailers. One of the pieces I’m making for Tetra is a black porcelain pipe, which is simple and elegant. The body is unglazed and has a smooth matte surface, while the packing bowl and inside are glazed for ease of cleaning. The black is classic and sleek, and it’s a favorite for so many different folks, no matter their aesthetic preferences. The simplicity of the surface highlights the form, while the neutral black is a unique color in ceramics.