Rebecca Potts is a teaching artist from Montana currently living in Los Angeles. Her work is inspired by the intersection between ecological concern and the female experience. She is represented by Stay Home Gallery. She is also a member of Spilt Milk Gallery and is listed in the curated directory All She Makes.
Potts received her MFA in Visual Arts from Washington University in St. Louis in 2009 and her BA in Studio Art and Geography from Middlebury College in Vermont in 2004. She also studied printmaking, wilderness issues, and Australian aboriginal art at the University of Tasmania Centre for the Arts. Her work has been exhibited throughout the U.S. and in Europe and Australia at spaces including The Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Zhou B. Art Center, New York Studio Gallery, and SoLA Contemporary. In 2010, her essay on art and climate change, “Creating a Fourth Culture,” was published in 20UNDER40: Re-Inventing the Arts and Arts Education for the 21st Century. Potts’ MFA Thesis in 2009 also addressed the role of art and artists in addressing climate change.
Rebecca has also worked as an arts administrator, community organizer, and school co-founder. She hosts Teaching Artist Podcast and coordinates Play + Inspire, a curatorial platform, in partnership with Maria Coit. In 2020, she began coordinating the Art Educator’s Lounge, a community support group for art educators, in collaboration with Victoria Fry. She participated in the Artist Residency in Motherhood from 2015-2019, which was the time it took to fully resume her art practice after becoming a mother.
Clay squishes and cracks as I work it into paintings of daily life. The cracks that I fill are reminiscent of the Japanese art of Kintsugi. These scars speak to healing what’s broken while embracing imperfections. My thighs squish like wobbly clay. My living room overflows like the clay pushing just outside its precise borders. The tactility of clay is therapy as I mush it in my hands, healing my past. I work with precision, using a blade and a sewing pin to position tiny bits of clay, yet the clay rebels, as do my students, as does my daughter, as do I. Allowing that rebellion, embracing it rather than fighting it, feels uneasy against the pressure to hold it all together, but grace brings ease.
Walking as in a dérive with a small child as my companion offers abundant moments captured as reference photos. Color sticks in my memory. The saturation is slightly exaggerated, while the precision of light and shadow highlights the everyday, the scenes we rush past, the colors and compositions we take for granted. My work encourages play, slowing down, closely looking, and taking time to squeeze clay in your hands and notice the particular grays of the sidewalk and road, the play of light on water, or how the shape of that building relates to the sky. My imagery is taken from my life, where a girl plays the lead. She is my daughter and she is me as I rewrite history. Much of my work has focused on water. During grad school over a decade ago, I collected rain water to freeze and melt, expressing emotions over the loss of glaciers and concern over this dwindling blue gold. Now, water’s meaning expands, as I watch my daughter go under the water, kick down, and come back up, gasping and laughing. I feel waves - waves of joy seeing her in these moments of fun, peace, and calm. Waves of anger and grief over my own childhood. Water has memory (or so Olaf tells us) and we’re made up of 60% water. So how do I overcome generational trauma? How do I stop from passing it down? The materials I use are intentional and meaningful. Play-Doh began as a wallpaper cleaner, a domestic tool for every housewife to remove chimney soot from the walls. As homes evolved, Play-Doh evolved into a play-thing for children. Polymer clay is a craft material, developed for sculpting dolls and miniatures and now often used for jewelry outside of the “fine art” world. By elevating these “low-brow” child’s materials into a conceptual reference for the work of mothers, I’m advocating for the importance and visibility of mothers and children, and the act of mothering. I see a connection between the way women, especially mothers, are treated by a society and the way the planet, Mother Earth, is treated.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background in the arts.
I grew up in the Rocky Mountains of western Montana, but have since lived in Vermont, Tasmania, Philadelphia, NYC, St. Louis, Prague, and now Los Angeles. All this moving around shaped me, like rolling a snowball around the world. As a child, I read voraciously and escaped into imaginary worlds, from the dragons of Pern to the idealized reality of the Babysitter’s Club. In college, I studied geography and art, and later sought an interdisciplinary MFA program to further develop a material practice conceptually rooted in science. While I’ve dabbled in sculpture, photography, and video, I often return to printmaking.
I’ve also been an educator for over 15 years, working both administratively and instructionally in art education. After college, I worked as a community organizer around water quality issues in Camden, New Jersey. Then I moved to NYC to help start a small public school before heading to St. Louis for my MFA. I then returned to NYC where I managed art education programs and taught for the Bronx River Art Center and then the Brooklyn Arts Council. In 2014, my husband and I decided to move to Prague, where I had my daughter the following year. After 3 tumultuous years in Prague, filled with gorgeous architecture, too many hospital visits, delicious Czech beer, exhaustion, and breastfeeding struggles, we came back to the states and ended up in Los Angeles.
After grad school, I was making work, but not showing much. The program at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis really pushed me to get more conceptual, which was great while art was my full-time pursuit, but really hard when the real world hit again. I struggled to find time for the deep thought, research, experimentation, creation, and revision while also working a day job that I was passionate about. Then a miscarriage, followed by a difficult pregnancy and struggles with early motherhood derailed me even more. It wasn’t until my daughter was 2 that I started making work again - and I eased in by playing with play-doh alongside my then-toddler. Her brave color mixing lit me up. I started experimenting with using play-doh sort of like paint. Using this child-friendly medium meant I could work alongside my daughter and squeeze in studio time in short bursts between teaching and mothering. Somewhere in those years of being wholly Mother and losing my Artist self, I regained my intuition and ability to just make. I learned how to do the deep thinking while creating.
What kind of work are you currently making?
I use polymer clay and play-doh to sculpt paintings that reflect on gender, motherhood, environmentalism, and trauma. My practice encompasses photography, video, and printmaking alongside the more experimental work with clays.
I’ve been a bit obsessed with water lately, which is actually revisiting a recurring theme. In grad school a decade ago, I collected rain water to freeze and melt, abstractly quantifying the loss of glaciers and concern over this dwindling blue gold. Now, water’s meaning expands as the pool becomes our refuge in this pandemic. I’ve had dreams with water crashing, swallowing me up. There’s so much there - it’s a place of calm and chaos, peace and danger, uplifting and pressing down. We are water. It encompasses the conflicting emotions of this time.
Even on the zillionth viewing of Frozen 2, the idea that water has memory gets me (and “Do the next right thing” brings tears every time!). If water has memory and we’re made up of 60% water, what does the body remember? Does my child’s body remember floating in the water in my womb? This is where my mind wanders while I watch her swim or meticulously piece together a clay painting.
I work in reverse, much like creating a printing plate. This reversing and puzzling together of images makes sense to me somehow. I recently learned that reverse painting on glass is called verre églomisé or Hinterglasmalerei and I think my process is somewhat similar to this. I lay clay down layer upon layer, starting with what’s closest to the viewer, the opposite of how I’d build up a painting. I work on glass and only when I’m finished do I flip it over to reveal the result. This also reminds me of printmaking with that element of surprise, the pulling a print, the magic of the press. I use a sewing pin and a clay tool to place tiny bits of clay. I mush and roll the clay with my hands, mixing colors and creating shapes. This process is also therapeutic for me in its tactility. It’s very time consuming, but somewhat meditative.
I take a lot of photos and videos that until recently I thought of as reference material. Now I’m starting to curate and edit some as works on their own. Alongside the time-intensive polymer clay paintings and the photos and videos, I’ve also been making faster, more abstracted play-doh paintings. Play-doh also speaks to me as a material embedded with meaning. It began as a wallpaper cleaner, a domestic tool made for housewives to remove chimney soot from walls. As homes evolved, play-doh evolved into a play-thing for children. I love how this material itself creates a sense of nostalgia, a nod to play and childhood as well as domestic labor.
What is a day like in the studio for you?
I don’t have really any full days in the studio! I work hard to fit in at least 2 nights per week of studio time and the occasional weekend morning. Pre-COVID, I was teaching 4 days per week at 2 elementary schools, so I tried to reserve Mondays while my daughter was at school for studio time, as well as some evening and weekend time. This year has been a juggling act while I teach remotely, help my 5 year old with online kindergarten, manage a few curatorial projects (I run Teaching Artist Podcast and co-direct Play + Inspire Gallery), keep up my studio practice, and take on some art education writing work. I share a studio/office/classroom space (which is also our 2nd bedroom) with my husband who is also working remotely, so we split uninterrupted time there and parenting duties. My space is so not glamorous as it serves so many functions. Most days, I work on email, admin stuff, writing, teaching video recording, and meetings from 7:30-10:00am, then move out to the kitchen table where I sometimes bring some clay to work on, sometimes keep at it with my laptop, and always bounce between whatever work I’m doing and kindergarten work/play with my daughter. Most afternoons, we go outside for a few hours, either to our building’s pool, which has become a big part of my studio practice, or to our courtyard to run around and play. I sometimes bring bits of clay or panels to sand or just my camera to grab a bit of studio time outside. After bedtime, around 8pm, I head back to the studio, where I spend a few hours catching up on work. Many days that means editing teaching videos, editing podcast audio, website updates, writing curricula, or other computer work, but as often as I can, I spend this time making art! I usually listen to podcasts (I Like Your Work is a favorite! Along with Artist Mother Podcast!) while I mix colors of clay, roll it and mush it, piecing together my clay paintings.
What are you looking at right now and/or reading?
There is so much art I’m loving right now! In relation to my water obsession, Calida Garcia Rawles creates magical work and I love Stephanie Barenz’s current daily practice. Stepping out of the blues, I can’t get enough of Carmen Mardónez’s and Anuradha Bhaumick’s embroidery work, Kaylan Buteyn’s color palettes, and Danielle Nilsen’s bright compositions. There are so many other fantastic artists I could list! I haven’t had a lot of time for reading, but I’m digging into Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree brown and slowly re-reading Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain by Zaretta L. Hammond. I also keep coming back to Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland and Your Art Will Save Your Life by Beth Pickens.
Where can we find more of your work?
You can check out my website: www.rebeccapotts.com or see the most recent work and peek into my life on Instagram: @pottsart
I’m represented this year by Stay Home Gallery @stayhomegallery which has been such an encouraging and supportive experience (@kaylanbuteyn and @pam.marlene.taylor are dream gallerists). I will have a show there with the other 7 incredible represented artists coming up this summer/fall. www.stayhomegallery.com/rebecca-potts
I currently have work in “Connections” at Roaring Artist Gallery, which is up for just a few more days until May 31st. My artist talk is available on their youtube channel. I also have a piece in "Art of Water V" at James May Gallery through July 31st.
Here in LA, I’ve been participating in SoLA Contemporary’s Creative Exchange program and will have a show there in the fall. www.solacontemporary.org
I also run an online gallery, www.playinspiregallery.com along with another artist/educator/mother, Maria Coit. I host and manage Teaching Artist Podcast www.teachingartistpodcast.com sharing artists who teach kids. We have monthly meetings of the Art Educators’ Lounge, which I co-facilitate with Victoria J. Fry of Visionary Art Collective. If you’re an artist who teaches, come join us!