For our latest podcast episode, we interviewed ceramicist Jackie Gow. Jackie makes narrative, symbolic ceramic art as well as laser-etched tableware and planters. She’s a student of International Migration and Public Policy at The London School of Economics and Political Science and previously worked on the Family Reunification Program for the International Rescue Committee, where she represented and advocated for her clients’ human rights.
We visited Jackie at her art studio in what used to be the immigration building of Seattle. Jackie’s art is quite relevant to discussions of the future as we grapple with a federal government shutdown while divisive rhetoric around the potential construction of a southern border wall rages on. We can’t have sensible discussions around options for our future without looking, at least in part, through the lens of the past, and ceramics are one of humanity’s oldest art forms. Jackie spoke about her art practice, the American dream, sustainability in ceramics, and her favorite form of tableware, a hybrid of a bowl and a plate that helps reduce food waste and is suitable for meals from many different cultures and cuisines.
Given her passion for human rights and migration policy, we released her interview on the 74th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. After the interview, in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we share a few fundamentals of universal human rights.
Hear the whole episode here.
See more of Jackie's work here.
Here's an edited transcript of Jackie's interview! We are going to try to share full transcripts of all of our episodes eventually; right now it is cost prohibitive, but we are looking into grant funding options.
“I like using my hands. I'm a visual person, a visual learner. I like that I can move my hands and manipulate clay into any form I want, that I can lift the 25 pound bag of clay, that I can use my body and see its strength, help move things. Ceramics have a strong structure. I think it teaches patience. It's an often long process from beginning to the end. Being in such a computer-driven world, it's nice to be able to produce something you can see and that has function. Most of my work is tableware that you can use. To have your work in other people’s homes, one that they touch either with a fork, or their hands, or their mouth (with a mug), it's an intimate space. You get to be in people's worlds. When people say, ‘Hey, I use your mug every morning,’ it's interesting to be a part of their world in that way.
Different cultures have very different styles of tableware they use, so a plate might not serve a function for the food someone is eating. I love the bowl/plate, which is a bowl-like plate! It's a form to avoid the—you're trying to get the last of your meal off your plate, and then it just goes over the small lip you have, right onto the table. The bowl/plate has a place for your fork to get in touch so you can eat more of the food on your plate. That's my favorite form. It's easy to wash, it's easy to clean. You can eat many different foods off that.
I think a lot about the past with ceramics. I mean, it's 10,000 years old. It's a slow art form as well. It takes a long time to process, and the firing schedule takes a while. I think about how people have done this for a long time and what materials they were using. They were very much using the materials they had around them, and so that's why there’s black in Oaxaca, and that’s why there is really pure white porcelain out of China. Those are the materials they have around. Now we have access to a lot of materials from wherever. Thanks to globalization, we can really get any of those materials, even though they're not made where we are, so I think a lot about acquiring materials to make the glazes and to make the clay. Ceramic is very permanent; it's a very permanent thing. Once you fire it, you can’t recycle it at that point. In terms of the future, I think about environmental impacts of firing. It uses materials; it uses raw material from the ground that are mined that we can or may run out of at some point. It uses natural gas, electricity, etc. However, there is so much recycling in the process. Any clay you haven’t fired yet, you can reuse. If you catch any sort of mistake or you don't like that form, you can recycle it so quickly. That's really beautiful, but I think about how we can make ceramics greener.
We’re here at my ceramic studio. We're in the International District in Seattle in the previous immigration building. This used to be the old immigration building where people became citizens and also where people were detained. My parents received their citizenship here in this building on the main floor many years ago. I remember the day they came home, because I was born in the United States. I'm the only member of my family who was born in the United States, so I'm automatically a citizen, but the rest of my family are not. I remember that being a definitive day — that before, they were these “other people”. They used the word “alien” back then, too, when you weren't actually citizens. Then that day they were Americans.
In early 2016, I was trying to find a way to contribute my energy into something beyond my ceramics, and I applied to be a volunteer at the International Rescue Committee at their office in Seattle. At that point, they had an eight-month waitlist to even go to a volunteer orientation. This before election of 2016; they had lots of interest. I applied in January. I put my name down on the list in January in 2016, and then in August, I went to orientation to be a volunteer. At that point, I thought I would start as a front desk volunteer; they need people to greet people. I had worked as a receptionist a long time ago, and I said, “Okay, I'll do this.” Then my first day at the IRC was the Tuesday after the election of 2016. I was in shock and didn't know how much that was going to change my life, showing up at the IRC and having the response of the presidential election of President Trump and his policies be such a big part of the people's lives I was working with. I became the volunteer in charge of one of the family reunification programs called the Affidavit of Relationship. That program meant that every Tuesday I worked with refugees and helped them apply for their family membership (to join them in the United States).
The International Rescue Committee is an organization founded, in part, by Albert Einstein and some of the other refugees out of Germany during World War II. It's an organization that provides aid to refugees and immigrants population all over the world. It's in 40 different countries. What’s fascinating about the IRC is that they have employees at all parts of the refugee process. They have people in the war countries where people are fleeing, they have people at refugee camps in the bordering countries to those countries in turmoil, and then they have people along the way on the pathway for flights to get people to the United States. They have people in the home countries of where the refugees are arriving. They have people at all levels offering insights into potential solutions to make the process better.
Refugee policy has been bipartisan for years and years and years. Actually, the most refugees that arrived in the United States came under Ronald Reagan, and then secondarily, George W. Bush. Refugee policy is not something that is related to Republicans or Democrats. It's inspired me to try to get back to that place. This issue is about human rights; it’s about people having a place to go.
My partner and I were looking at buying a house, and I just never associated myself with ownership. I was resistant, very reluctant to [engage with] the process. I was questioning the ideas of property. I’d studied indigenous history. Why do we say that this small plot is ours? How do we own this thing that’s part of Mother Nature? I was going through thoughts about that, thinking about fencing, property lines, and the American Dream.
One association of the American Dream is the white picket fence. I went through online photos and Instagram, and there were people using the white picket fence in hashtags ironically and some people who were not — they really wanted the white picket fence. I made a one-quarter replica of a white picket fence, similar to what you could buy at Home Depot in white porcelain slip, which is a liquid clay. I have one that is a complete and intact white picket fence, and then I have one that's broken. For me, it was one of my non-functional works that I really enjoyed, and one that has been shown in a couple of different exhibitions around the United States. I think people see it and know the reference one way or the other, whether it's ironic, or not, or complicated. Some people love the white picket fence, and they’re like, “I love white picket fences!” That's beautiful. There were lots of people at the studio when I was making it. They started taking pictures of white picket fences and showing me the pictures when they went for their walks. People were responding to my art and then taking photos of the real picket fences and then coming back to show me, to have a conversation, which was really fascinating to me.
I submitted one broken and one not broken white picket fence to an art show. The juries only selected the one that was intact, the one that wasn't broken. I was like, 'I think you're missing part of the message...'
Clay doesn't really like to just be flat, especially porcelain. The point of it is the fragility of the material and of the image of the American Dream.
Ceramic is a great outlet for me to continue to make and create and send some of that energy, negative or otherwise, into something, into a material and use my creative process as an outlet. At the pottery studio where I learned and where I’m on the board, Pottery Northwest, they had a “Clay in Politics” exhibition, and it was amazing. [They hosted] discussions around the work, really inspiring. One artist, George Rodriguez, he’s from Texas and some of his family is from Mexico. He built a clay wall with some of his designs. He had the ability for the public to write how they were feeling on this wall. I think it helped people. It was an outlet for them. My interest will continue to grow as those two come together a little bit more, my ceramic and my interest in politics and migration."