Updated: Jul 12, 2021
Casey Whittier received her BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute and MFA from
the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is deeply interested in the metaphorical and
philosophical power of visual art and the ways in which the ceramic and material creates
direct connections between the geology of the earth, basic human needs, and complex
Her research centers around understanding personal and cultural value systems
associated with historical and contemporary craft and labor. Repetitive processes and
systems of reliance are particularly captivating. She is equally passionate about issues of
sustainability and the environment. Whittier works with The Land Institute through their
Ecosphere Studies Program cohort and as a participant in their Silphium Civic Science
Community, where research into new perennial and sustainable food and oil seed
production is ongoing.
My work is often born from one of the following experiences: an indescribable feeling of
excitement; a nagging contradiction of desire; a need to share something that I cannot yet
explain; an obsession; a question or series of questions; a desire to respond to or reflect on a thought, feeling, or event; the recognition of something poignant or absurd; the experience
For as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to cast-off objects and quiet spaces — to
the things stuck in the corner, at the bottom of the pile. Objects aid us in our humanity: they
enhance our existing abilities, offer new opportunities, communicate values, serve as
cultural symbols. These inconspicuous objects — perpetrators of the mundane, of wonder,
of mystery — are my starting point.
I am interested in an object’s ability to catalyze a story, to conjure up associations: past,
present, future, real, fictional, or in-between. The objects in my work are culled from the
everyday. Ubiquitous, these are objects of utility and familiarity, made strange by material
qualities and formal execution. Through these shifts in material, presentation, and utility, I
make space for the metaphorical and imaginative possibilities to rise to the surface.
I see each sculpture and installation as a way to advocate for a direct and tactile relationship
with the world. An exploration of touch and intuitive making is deeply embedded in my
studio practice and in the community-based projects that I do. Simultaneously, I work to
honor my relationship to the earth by connecting my practice to a personal code of ethics as
an artist of the ecosphere.
I re-purpose as much as possible. Many of my pieces are made from the waste or reclaim of
other artists. I reduce my energy and material use by once-firing, firing in small and efficient
kilns, lowering and shortening firing temperatures through clay body formulation, and
utilizing systems of building where small components come together to make larger works.
My artistic research and teaching centers material qualities and systems of re-use. Most
pertinently, I acknowledge that my practice is not without impact, that my consumption
matters, and that my work as an artist and educator extends beyond the objects I produce.
Clay serves as palimpsest in my practice; I seek to exploit its inherent variations in surface
and texture, its ability to mimic, to be thick, thin, ephemeral or permanent. The physical
recordings that come through rolling, tearing, squishing, dipping, pushing, pinching and
scratching become representations of touch, of thought, of time spent. I consider life in the
Anthropocene to be relational: tenuous and thrilling, delicate and precarious, simple and
complicated, wry and serious. I ask my work to embody these qualities.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background in the arts.
I grew up in a small town in central Maine, in an old house that was passed down through the family. There weren’t close museums or places to see “Art” where I grew up, but craft was something I was exposed to. A desire to rearrange and reimagine materials and objects was always in me. My grandmother sewed, my mom would casually knit or crochet. She was always willing to put material in my hands, or put me outside when what I wanted was too much mess for the kitchen table.
I ended up transferring my way into a BFA in Ceramics from the Kansas City Art Institute, where I now teach. My MFA is from CU Boulder. I wanted to do a million other things: environmental science, community or social work, run an art center etc. I realized that making was the only thing I knew I would do and could do for the rest of my life. So I devoted myself to making a life of it. I love working with my hands to this day, and my reverence for and desire to re-imagine traditional craft practices and materials is stronger now than it has ever been.
What kind of work are you currently making?
I’m primarily working with handmade ceramic beads right now. I’m in the finishing steps of making a beaded bath towel (over 22,000 beads in this one). I’ve been working on it for many months now, but am thinking of it in conversation with other yet-to-be works. I will show this body of work at Craft Alliance in St. Louis in 2022. Dreaming up pairings, groups, or entire exhibitions at once instead of thinking one work at a time is not unusual for me. It seems to be my process to imagine a whole world around a work before I begin. I will test install this work solo, but won’t see the full vision for another year. The layers of delayed gratification in my practice are nauseating and revealing.
I’m testing small batch clays (and clay from my yard) and making beads for a large multi-component wall piece that reflects some of my deep fears and concerns for our ecosphere. This work is particularly focused on the steep global population decline of critical pollinators and the native habitats that they need to survive. I have a pollinator garden, so I wanted to work on this during the summer. My studio ethos and working in small, quickly fired components comes from a personal commitment to try to reduce waste and conserve resources while raising awareness. I have a fantastic intern, Susan Flower, who is helping me out with this project. Our interests align in this work, so it goes beyond an extra set of hands; I really enjoy talking through ideas and sharing research with her.
What is a day like in the studio for you?
Honestly, I rarely have a full day in the studio, especially during the semester. Between teaching, working for Artaxis.org, and my garden, I feel like I’m always pulled in a million directions. I commit to doing something for the studio or in the studio every day - it helps keep me hopeful and dreaming.
My ideal studio day is one where I have sustained blocks of time throughout the day; 2-3 studio sessions is luxurious! There is so much labor in my practice that I never have just one project going on. I am often making the ceramic parts and pieces for one piece while building another. I have plenty of time to scheme up new projects while I am realizing other works, so it is not uncommon for me to have an idea in my head for six months, a year, or two years before I even sit down to make it.
My wet clay studio is downstairs and has good morning light; I prefer to make beads in the morning. I do the finishing work of weaving upstairs, and I prefer that space in the evening. No matter what part of the process I’m doing, I have to stay focused and in one spot for long periods of time. Remembering to get up and move is critical. It’s amazing how tension builds in the body. I run and do yoga and walk with friends to counteract this. Also, coffee. Coffee is my bribe and reset between activities.
What are you looking at right now and/or reading?
I’m reading The Shape of Craft by Ezra Shales as well as A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety by Sarah Jaquette Ray. I listen to a lot of podcasts and some audio books while I work as well.
Since spring has sprung here in Kansas City, I am also looking at the native plants that are popping back through the soil after a long winter. It never ceases to amaze me how much work plants do beneath the surface in those cold winter months. It feels like an apropos reminder about the power of what is unseen or unheralded. Sometimes the most important work is slow and seemingly invisible. Native perennial plants are in it for the long haul. I have an ecotype isolation research plot of silphium plants through a civic science project with The Land Institute, so I do weekly observations of their growth/health etc. It’s really interesting and rewarding to be involved in these types of projects.
Where can we find more of your work?
@caseywhittier on Instagram - I’m better about posting stories of WIP than posting in my feed!
Materials Hard + Soft: Greater Denton Arts Council - closes May 8th
Small Gestures of Repair at the Salina Art Center in Salina, KS - closes May 30th
August- September 2021 - Salina Art Center, Salina, KS. Debut of a collaborative ceramic quilt made with community members.
August - September 2021- Leedy Voulkos Art Center in Kansas City, MO. Duo show with Emily Nickel
February - June of 2022 - Belger Art Center Kansas City, MO. Contemporary Textile Exhibition.
April, 2022 - Other Ways of Knowing, Craft Alliance in St. Louis, MO. Solo Exhibition.