Dustin Yager, a Brooklyn-based ceramic artist, designs and produces a line of functional pottery that challenges the traditional notions and aesthetics of porcelain and how it is decorated. As a wheel potter, he works exclusively with porcelain, decorating each piece by hand with big, broad swaths of color and drawing on phrases like “What the Actual Fuck”, “Tough Shit” and “Die Mad About It” using sgraffito and Mishima techniques. The tagline for his company, Ceramics + Theory, is “Pottery and Fine Bullshit”, an apt description of his inextricably entwined work and personality.
We sat down with Yager to talk about ceramics. The discussion ranged from theory and identity to lifestyle and material culture. “I have a deep-seated inner rage, so that really helps,” he says with a laugh when asked how he got into ceramics. A smart, queer kid from a tiny town in Wyoming, he was the first in his family to go to college. “What would be unthinkable from my family of farmers would be to go to a really good liberal arts school,” he said. So he went Carleton College and met ceramics professor Kelly Connole, a queer woman also from the Mountain West. She quickly became a mentor at a time when he was figuring out his own identity. “I was her studio assistant, so we’d just sit in the ceramic studio and work and listen to Eminem and talk about drag queens, and I got to know this queer person who was a successful adult who understood.”
Photo Credit: Hollis Johnson
After college Yager moved to Chicago, where he landed an internship at the Art Institute of Chicago. “When I moved to Chicago I had this culture shock moment going from a small liberal arts school to this community art center where everyone is making midwestern Japanese-inspired pottery. What is it about this thing that is meaningful to students? To people? What are you all looking at that you are choosing to make brown bowls? What makes this Asian-inspired tea bowl meaningful?” Wanting to delve further into questions of material culture he enrolled in the graduate program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and received an MA in Visual & Critical Studies.
Living in Chicago, working four jobs and volunteering at an art center before going to graduate school meant limited studio time which forced him to become more focused and disciplined, to make things that counted and that meant something to him. This led to working with porcelain, a smooth, paper-like clay body that's well-suited for drawing. A pivotal moment came when a good friend who was opening a store said to Yager, “Stop making all of these different! I need a dozen ‘Fuck This’ and a dozen ‘Fuck That’”, referring to the drawn phrases on his mugs and tumblers. He needed a product he could repeat and sell. “Working with her when she was a baby shopkeeper and I was a baby artist trying to figure out what my work could be helped me develop a product line with a strong identity. It was never my experience to make the same thing over and over and over, but that’s how you sell it!”
Photo Credit Above & Below: Cedric Yon
In discussing the theory behind his work, Yager says, “I’m really interested in propriety. In what you can use, what you can show in your home, and what these objects say about your identity and your class status.” His work explores these themes in layers—first with porcelain, an expensive, delicate clay-body; then with modernist forms; and finally with bold decoration and dirty words. The end product is a vast departure from what we think “fine china” should be.
“I became interested in ‘How rough can I make this porcelain form?’ There’s a little bit of subversion to this fine craft object, this porcelain material that’s supposed to be very elite being kind of bullied and roughed up and then having explicit phrases written on it.” What does it say about someone who puts flowers in a “Tough Shit” vase or drinks coffee from a “Fuck This” mug? Are they subversive? Are they asserting their own inner rage? Perhaps Pottery and Fine Bullshit is exactly what we all need right now.