Adena Griffith

Interview with Adena Griffith

Mayco: Hi Adena! Thank you so much for sharing some things about your work and process with us. Can you please take a minute to tell us about your background with clay? Education, inspiration, artistic heroes?

AG: My background in clay, well it found me. I was working at the Columbus Zoo and needed a degree to go further in my position. At 25 I decided to go back to school. I had no idea how fast classes fill up and missed my year sequence for a needed class.

My aunt, an art teacher and Otterbein graduate, mentioned there was a new professor named Jim Bowling.  She suggested I take his beginning ceramics class. I did. I then took all of the classes in the art department I could get my hands on.

My ancient art history class, which is still influencing my work today, gave art a deeper meaning for me. I then switched majors after realizing this was a passion woven into my being. I graduated from Otterbein with a degree in ceramics after many years. I took the long route – working at my degree part time. As it turned out this approach was the best thing for my work.

“During my time at Otterbein I was told over and over not to be afraid of my voice. Professor Bowling encouraged me on many occasion to not censor my art. To be true to my work was a difficult lesson.”

The Otterbein Ceramic Institute has been a constant inspiration. I had the opportunity to meet amazing clay artists every summer. There are of course the artists like Kiki Smith and Frida Kahlo who inspired me to speak with each piece. During this two-week class I had these fantastic artists – in the flesh – right in front of my eyes! This is where I also meet Janis Mars Wunderlich and Julie Byrne. They changed my life and the way I was thinking.

They gave me the courage I needed to work in clay while raising a family. You see during my time at college my husband and I had two children. This meant split shifts and late night or overnight working in the studio to be able to be home with my children during the day. It was hard but these women taught me the power of letting myself, as a mother, practice my art. They were my heroes because they showed me to think of my art as a job and not as a selfish act, to allow myself to work in clay without the dreaded “mommy guilt”, and they taught me it was okay to be in my studio working and raising small children. In times of question I still remember what they have taught me as “Clay Mamas”. That inspires me daily.

I love your work, as you know. As an artist who works in both sculpture and in pottery, please tell us how you divide your time between the two?

It is never a set thing in my studio. But I am always throwing. Unless I have a commission to fill or deadlines looming in the distance I really don’t set a schedule for what I am going to do that day. Sometimes I go into the studio to work on a sculpture and get an idea for a vessel and have to throw and vice versa. I never really think of my work as “this week ten hours throwing and ten hours building”. When I am between figures I tend to throw more to keep my hands working. I also get bored very easily and doing both gives me many options inside my studio. Plus while I am waiting for a figure to dry up a bit I can throw some pots.

But I will admit throwing is my therapy. It centers, please excuse the pun, my crazy always thinking brain. My thoughts and worries are silenced at times when I throw.

Your work in sculpture intrigues me on so many levels. Could you please share a little about them? Specifically; what drives you as far as subject matter and ideas are concerned? Plus, the process is elaborate on these. Please tell us a little bit about that.

I use the coil hand building technique for my figures with the exception of the “bunny girls”. I also have a slight obsession with underglaze which I layer. Speaking of obsessions, I am addicted to texture. This is funny to me because I spent many years early on trying to make them as smooth as possible.

My sculptures are stories of my life or, in a way, self portraits. There are many times in my life that has had an impact within my being. The birth of two healthy children has been an inspiration with the work I have created. The process which it takes to create life and the woman’s body as a vessel has been a starting point for much of my work. The fact it has inspired art from the beginning of time puts me in a state of awe. A woman’s fertility and the capability to create a child within inspire symbols which have been used since the days of cave paintings.

The symbolism of women in itself has driven my art. The piece “Birthing Malignant Growth” speaks of the time I was diagnosed with cancer four months after my first daughter was born and during the pregnancy of my second. This moment of joy and new life had this double meaning. Because of the extensive testing during my pregnancies they found it very quickly – thankfully. Yet I felt this death being born at the same time. In a way I was creating both life and death within my body.

I recently had the joy of being that vessel of another person for the third time. The pregnancy did not last nine months. I may not be like many women. Some can dismiss such an experience and move on. I felt the loss as if I had spent years being the mother of this child. But I find that this experience has lead my work into a direction which I have no control over. Maybe it is from the experience of being so alone in this depth of pain. Maybe it is the fact that women who have this experience are in a secret society and I forgot to get my membership card. Maybe in a way I am screaming to them “you are not alone”. Maybe it is all of these moments tied into one.

With these recent pieces, these “bunny girls”, I have taken the symbol of reproduction to manipulate my figures. They are all thrown forms that I alter, which goes back to the idea of a women’s body as a vessel. I have used the rabbit for the double meaning of fertility and trickster. The figure wears it like a suit. This misleading idea of her fertility is taken away. Yet she is stuck within its holds.

I have also used the spiral symbol which has been seen throughout history. It has been used as a symbol of birth, death, rebirth, and fertility. Each one is dealing with a part of the process of healing. What drives me? Well it is this thought I have that if I tell my story then others will not feel alone. It maybe crazy but I have found that because of speaking up about these moments of my life others share their stories. It opens up a conversation for healing.

That is the power of art. It enables a jumping off point for something bigger.