Commune Design The Post Logo

In the Studio: Whitman Shenk

A chat with ceramicist Whitman Shenk


In the Studio: Whitman Shenk

Whitman, thanks so much for making the time to do this. My introduction to you was something along the lines of, “There’s this amazing ceramicist, he only fires once a year for his friends, it’s incredible, we have to get some of his pieces.” That’s not much of a question but does that ring true?

That’s not too far off, I juggle a full time job, father of two boys, coaching baseball each year and all the other activities that come with family life, so it’s not easy to find time for throwing pots. I typically get two to three firings in each year with about 100 pieces in each firing. I love my pots to be used by friends and family and it’s never a problem to get them into the hands of loved ones.

You are both an accomplished business professional, having built teams and managed large organizations, and an accomplished ceramicist. I imagine there must be a divide between the two for you, perhaps for the sake of preserving the personal sanctuary or maybe even the authorship that your ceramic work must provide? How do you reconcile these two outlets of yours? Do they inform one another?

I feel blessed to have ceramics in my life. It’s the perfect escape from the chaos of working in the tech industry. My “day job” is Vice President of Tech Partnerships at a major video game publisher. I have a great job, I work with awesome, intelligent people and the environment is fast paced and constantly evolving. It can be intense. Ceramics allows me to spend time in the right side of my brain and exercise my creativity. Actually, it feels like I’m able to “turn off” my brain when I am throwing and trimming pots, I find it very relaxing and therapeutic.

When did you first start working with clay? What was your introduction and your education like in this medium, academically or otherwise?

My first exposure to ceramics was at a young age. My mother had a wheel and was throwing pots in our house. I starting throwing pots myself in high school and never looked back. I received my Bachelor of Arts in ceramics at Lewis and Clark college in Portland, Oregon. After that I studied at the Oregon College of Arts and Crafts. I was blessed to spend two years as an Artist in Residence at the Mendocino Art Center where I was exposed to a wealth of different artists, styles and perspectives. My style is rooted in a love of East Asian Ceramics and the American craft potters that were directly influenced by Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada. I am a big fan of Warren Mac Kenzie who focused on making “everyday” pots.

I was fortunate to have access to multiple atmospheric kilns at the Mendocino Art Center. I was exposed to the interesting effects of Soda, Salt and Wood firings. The process of adding wood ash, soda and salt to the kiln creates a glazing effect which allows the clay to stand up on its own and speak for itself. I use less glaze and put more emphasis on using slips and the kiln atmosphere to create unique finishes on the exterior of the pots. Over the last decade I have narrowed my focus to strictly soda firing as it creates more of a bright and colorful finish on the pieces.

When did you first land on the scale and forms you are making now? Has your practice always centered around functional objects or is there a history of or a desire to produce art in a more traditional sense?

The majority of my pots are all made with the goal of them “fitting in your hands”. I want them to be picked up, held and become a part of daily ritual. The major exception being the large platters I create. There are significant technical challenges with firing platters in atmospheric kilns. The outside fences at my house are decorated with many cracked platters that didn’t survive the intensity of the high temperatures. But it’s worth the effort because the “winners” are extra special. I love the open canvases of the platters, they allow me to paint with slips, focusing on pattern and color on a larger scale.

Does the environment and community in and around Inverness inform your work? It’s such an incredible place that seems to be a magnet for alternative ways of being, of living, of working.

Seven years ago I inherited my kiln through the generosity of local artists that had spent decades making art in the community. There have been generations of artists in West Marin undoubtedly inspired by it’s natural beauty. I am so grateful to have been “passed the torch” with my kiln and I’m absolutely inspired by both the people and natural wonder of this special place.

And how long have you been there?

I grew up in Cleveland Oho, I know how lucky I am to be able to live on the edge of the Point Reyes National Seashore. We moved here full time 13 years ago, a wonderful community and environment to raise our two boys.

Are you a collector at all? Of other people’s work, of found objects, of experiences?

I have been fortunate to acquire some special pieces over my ceramic career. When I was an artist in residence at the Mendocino Art Center I was the assistant for workshops and the visiting artists would often reward me with one of their works. Sometimes I have people come into my kitchen and comment on how nice a piece is, thinking I made it, and they sometimes get red in the face when I agree and tell them “it’s not mine” but I’m always pleased when others appreciate these gems. Some of the pieces I’m the most grateful to have are from Warren MacKenzie, Toshiko Takaezu and Ted Adler.

I’d be remiss not to ask, what are your plans for the upcoming holidays? Do you have any special traditions or rituals to begin a new year?

I will have quiet holiday. Historically I’ve often been particularly prolific making pots this time of year. There is a lull in my “day job”, the weather usually keeps me inside and I use the peaceful time to create.

*Thanks so much for making the time, Whitman. *

Thank you, I’m so grateful to be a part of the Commune community. Happy New Year and best wishes for a happy and healthy 2024.

IMG 1186
IMG 1186