Maker of the Month: VanHoy Pottery

Photography by Jeanie Stehr

Keeping things simple and enjoying the process are consistent themes in the style of Ryan VanHoy’s pottery. After growing up in Indiana and attending Indiana University Bloomington, VanHoy ventured West. After living in multiple mountainous states, he returned home to Indy in 2006. His background in philosophy, his love of mountains, and his work in California for a ceramic dinnerware company, Carter & Co, have helped shape his simplistic approach in making pottery. VanHoy is currently working in Gravesco Studio, throwing pots for Rebecca Graves, as well as his own line, commissions, and working with other small businesses. You can find his work on his website and on his Instagram.

What piqued your initial interest in designing your products?
I’m maybe a maker more than a designer of the “products” I create. Bowls, cups and plates have culturally defined shape, size and weight. My role is to create my own subtle version of that functional object. My initial interest was piqued by the process of throwing on the pottery wheel. I thought at first that ceramics, and then art, could be this tactical philosophy. I found that it’s really a way to be doing something physical and productive, and not getting caught up in my thoughts. My thoughts would sort themselves out as I’m making. That process motivates me to come back and make more.

What principles do you use when designing?
The first principle with pottery would be how it’s going to be used. Function is first and foremost. Form, function, line, weight, visual and physical balance are the principles I use. When I started getting more serious about making pots in college, I was really intrigued by mountainous landscapes and the idea of living in the mountains. This was probably because I’d grown up in Indiana. After finishing school in 2001, I lived in California, Colorado, Utah and Oregon before coming back to live in Indiana in 2006.

Who and/or what influences your design style? How would you describe your design aesthetics and values?
I’ve been working with a former teacher and still mentor Richard Carter who I initially met and studied with after moving to California in 2001. Richard opened Carter & Co in St. Helena, California last May. I think my time as a resident at Richard’s studio, and continued work collaborating on pieces for Carter & Co, have been quite influential on my aesthetic. I try to not make things too complicated and focus on use and simplicity. I also think about the pieces I make as not finished works in themselves, but elements that will be used in the larger composition of a home or restaurant. What extravagance I take in making it more than just a cup really has to be hard won.

What comes first for you, the design materials or the design concept?
I go back and forth. I can get caught up conceptualizing and that’s when it’s time to get back to the physical work. Both practices inform one another.

Could you describe the process of creating a piece – from conception to finish? The creative process as well as material selection and labor process, too?
I choose a clay based on color, texture, firing temperature and type of firing. I decide whether I’m going to make a particular piece on the wheel or by another process. Lately I’ve been hand building some trays and bowls. That’s been exciting. After the piece has been formed it usually needs to dry for a day or two before I trim or refine it further. Then it dries some more, maybe two to three days. Then it will be fired to 1860 degrees Fahrenheit, so it’s absorbent of glaze, but strong enough to apply the glaze without breaking. Then it gets fired again to between 2100 and 2300 Fahrenheit for the glaze firing.

What is your favorite tool, and why?
I like the wheel for its immediacy, but I’m getting pulled back into scraping with a thin metal rib and pinching with my fingers for the opposite reason. Sometimes slowing down is necessary and appreciated! I really like the seemingly magical aspect and the immediacy of seeing something go from a lump to a hollow form and the quickness of which it can change. A lot of the process of making pottery is slow. You have to wait for it to dry, and wait for it to fire, and wait for it to cool, so you don’t get that reward of seeing the finished piece. But when you’re throwing, you get to see it go from here to there very quickly and I like that.

Describe a piece you’ve created that you are most proud of. What was special about it?
I made these mugs recently where I cut facets on the handles with a fettling knife. I like the look of it and the use ergonomically. It also reminds me of wood carving which is interesting too.

Describe the commissioning process. What are the best and worst aspects about doing commissions?
I’ve been fortunate that I’ve received commissions from individuals who appreciate the work I already do. Creating a custom version of that is not too much of a challenge. I appreciate how even that amount of challenge might expand my concept of my work, or lead me in new directions. I’m also working toward having a line that is standard and not custom. I think it will be a good way to assert that this is my idea of an ideal plate, bowl, or cup. Then potential clients can decide if what they want me to do is better than that or worth the cost of further research and development.

What advice would you give to aspiring makers?
I’ve always been told to not think too much, but to get to work and let that guide me. I’m just now realizing the wisdom in that and taking that advice more and more! Trusting that the practice of doing it will continue to improve your work, and as your work improves people will notice that and be drawn to it. Do whatever you can to keep a good practice of continuing.

What is one thing that the creative/design community can do in Indianapolis to help grow an audience for custom or hand-crafted work?
I worked from 2013 until this past February out of Fountain Square Clay Center. During that time, I focused on collaborations with Chefs Neal Brown at Ukiyo and Dean Wirkerman, at that time the Executive Chef at Cardinal Spirits in Bloomington. Chris Deprez, who owns and runs FSCC, organized an annual event at the clay center “The Chefs and Potters Show.” It highlighted local potters and chefs, and how the two can come together. I think this is a good example of the creative design community growing an audience for custom crafted work by forging alliances between like minded but professionally separate mediums and disciplines.

Dream commission/client?
I’m pretty thankful that I’ve gotten the ones I’ve had so far. My goal is to do the best work for the clients and commissions I have and my hope is I’ll learn from that and do better for the next client or job, which may be more complex and rewarding.

What makes your work different from anyone else’s?
The fact that I made it. How I handle the material is specific to me and my unique experience with clay and pottery making from when I started at 16 years old in high school until now at nearly 43 years old. It’s always changing and growing and that makes it exciting and worth pursuing.

What’s your most rewarding memory in your business?
My daughter Ellie who is 11, but was 9 or 10 at the time, held up my little sauce dish in the air proudly while we were eating at Ukiyo and informed our server Brian, “My Dad made this!” It’s rewarding to see her proud of that, because I feel like I take it for granted sometimes.

Is there any maker you would recommend to be highlighted for this series?
Krista Bermeo @kristabermeostudio
Barb Zech @brbzch
Chris Deprez @chris.deprez
Jamie Pawlus @spacerays