Past is Prologue
Kristin McKirdy traces the path that led her to become one of the most collectible ceramic artists today
Looking across the impressive body of work that’s come out of the Paris studio of ceramic artist Kristin McKirdy, it’s not so surprising to learn that she studied archeology before pursuing her passion for clay. Over the last few decades, she has produced a range of sculptural ceramic objects that recall ancient typologies through which she excavates and analyzes the history of ceramics itself to unearth something eternal. In her hands, vessels, anthropomorphic figures, and still lifes are abstracted to their most essential, perfected, archetypal forms.
McKirdy’s latest collection is on view now at Brussels gallery Pierre Marie Giraud, which has represented her for 20 years. The exhibition affirms that her sensitivity to her chosen medium is stronger than ever. To mark the occasion, we reached out to McKirdy to learn more about the journey that led her to create some of the most collectible ceramics on the market today.
How did your interest in ceramics develop? When did you know this would be your vocation?
I began ceramics in high school as an elective, and it became an immediate passion. I stayed after school, bought a wheel, and have never stopped—although I never imagined that ceramics would become my profession. I went on to study art history and archeology and thought I would be a curator or a researcher.
It wasn’t until I was working on a Master’s degree at the Sorbonne in the field of Modern Archeology that I realized that I was much happier in the pottery studio at nights than in the library during the day. I took a six-month hiatus to concentrate on ceramics at Parsons School of Design in New York, then returned to the Sorbonne and changed my subject to the History of Modern French Ceramics.
Once I obtained my degree, I worked full time in clay for a number of years before deciding to expand my horizons. I left Paris and went to the Banff Center of Art for a year, then to UCLA to get an MFA in ceramics, which I received in 1990. Since that date, I have been working professionally as an artist.
You were born in Toronto and studied in California. How did you land in Paris?
I was born in Toronto to American parents. My father was working in the international division of an American company. When I was five, we were transferred to England, then Belgium and France. I graduated from high school in Paris. It is the place that feels most like home.
I first went to California to do undergraduate studies at UC Santa Cruz. I spent two years there, only to return to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. I later moved back to California to do an MFA at UCLA, where I lived for four years before returning to Europe.
How has your approach to ceramics evolved over the years? How would you characterize your approach today?
When I began in the 1970s, I was influenced by Japanese pottery and the teachings of Bernard Leach, which focused on fine craftsmanship and beautiful everyday objects. After a number of years making traditional pottery, I spent a year in residency at the Banff Center in Alberta. There I allowed myself to explore sculptural forms influenced by neolithic and early Mediterranean art.
It was a slow, painful process to break away from utilitarian ceramics, but it opened up a world of possibilities. Eventually, I developed a body of work in stoneware and porcelain that was sculptural and anthropomorphic. After a number of years, I transitioned to earthenware and became more interested in organic forms. In this last show, I have once again created some anthropomorphic pieces. But regardless of whether the reference is obvious, my sculptures often allude to a human presence and explore states of mind and relationships—individuals, couples, crowds.
I am a sculptor, but I identify as a ceramic artist because I draw on the ceramic tradition and the language of traditional pots to inform my work and influence perception. The vessel form has forever been closely linked to human activity and been symbolic of human form, therefore these very simple forms can be highly evocative.
I was lucky enough to briefly meet the legendary Pierre Staudenmeyer in the early days of Design Miami/ Basel. I understand you showed with his gallery Mouvements Modernes. What was it like to work with him?
Pierre Staudenmeyer was passionate about ceramics, and he loved my work. Because of this, our relationship was effortless. He would come to any show of mine, arriving before the opening and would buy many pieces. He would then invite me over to his house, where he would love to sit and discuss ceramics. He made no secret of the fact that he was picking my brain, to compare it with his own perception of things. I admired him and so it was a very pleasant relationship.
I eventually started working with him at Movements Modernes, and he presented me at the FIAC and gave me a solo show. He was extremely enthusiastic about our collaboration. I am forever grateful to him for his dedication to my work.
Tell us about your current exhibition with Pierre Marie Giraud.
This exhibition was created largely in confinement. It is an introspective and quiet show that presents several different types of works: There are vase-like pieces that are formal explorations of the container. There are organic, seed-like forms that are an exaltation of our precious and vulnerable nature. There are pairs of frontal figures, which have a spiritual presence and are in some way my response to the world outside; minimal forms that express both vulnerability and hope. There are also head-like forms presented in groups of three, or in split pairs; they speak of community, relationships, and family. There are my still lifes; beyond the inherent historical interpretation of the genre, these installations are a personal reflection on our basic need for comfort, and how that is achieved through the simplest of means. Lastly, there are two wall pieces, Casper and Twister, which are colorful and playful.
What are you working on next?
My next project will develop the porcelain wall installations I started in China in 2019. I will also be working on new ideas for larger architectural sculptures.
Thank you Kristin! ◆
Be sure to check out Design Miami’s Instagram Live with Kristin McKirdy at 11am EST on June 18th.