Artist Gina Desantis on Ceramics, Self-Editing, and the Drive to Never Stop Learning from Each Other

Cermics from Gina DeSantis.
Cermics from Gina DeSantis. Photo by Whitney Traylor

"You learn to get over your shit really quickly," says ceramicist Gina DeSantis. "You learn when to walk away, you learn to say when."

We are meeting over margaritas and discussing the learning process, being an educator and creating specific artworks for clients.

Editing is a key component in DeSantis' work and teaching ethos.

"There was an article I read once that stated that potters are really good with loss. When you're a student, everything you do is really precious," she says. "When they start to get good, you'll see students chuck the work into the bin and keep walking, and that's when you know you've done your work as an instructor; they begin that process."

She hearkens back to her thesis show at Kent State University. "When I was setting up my show in the main gallery, I had a set of trays lying out on the floor. Anderson Turner, who runs the gallery, asked what I was doing and I said that I was editing. Then he told me a story about a student a few years prior; she had 20 sculptures for her thesis show and she refused to edit. He stated that her show was very good, but if she had honed it down to fifteen sculptures her show would've been great."

To this day DeSantis will sit down and start to pull away what works from what doesn't. "You have to let it go and that's how you get better," she says.

Feb. 28 will mark DeSantis' 20th year as a professional in the medium. We talked about her decision to become a potter and why she started her business, Gina DeSantis Ceramics, which celebrates six years this March.

"In college, I had to choose between jewelry and clay, and jewelry didn't bend the way I wanted it to," she says. "As far as starting my own business, well, it is the love of teaching and not getting hired anywhere to teach and the frustration of that. The mugs for Uncommon Goods and the classroom have been a perfect storm and have kept me bound to Cleveland. With the nuances that brings and having it under control, I keep doing what I'm doing, but expanding at the same time. The best business advice I ever got was to grow slowly. Now I'm spotting articles where pottery is having a moment. It's sort of like a slow fashion thing where people would rather have less things of higher quality in their homes and shopping with a little more intent."

In that regard, DeSantis gets a lot of specialty requests from restaurants. "Based on my work, they'll see what I have and they are like, 'This is great, but we have this particular menu item and we need this thing that we can't find anywhere.'" We learn a lot in a few moments about the distinction between creating pieces for restaurants and what one might use in the home. "I have multiple lines. Restaurants, I've learned, like matte glazes because of how the colors bounce and how the lighting is set, so it makes sense with how they plate things."

There is Corktree Tavern in Amherst, where chef Robbie Lucas requested a specific piece for serving the Italian restaurant's meatball appetizer, and DeSantis designed, created and delivered a custom oval dish. There's Ushabu, where chef Matt Spinner "is very specific with his research, like an anthropological study of Japanese food."

"Toast (Bistro) was my first pop-up show in a restaurant," she says. "Thanks to Jill (Davis), who is a major supporter of local artists, for letting me create a bunch of plates and taking over the restaurant for a night. Their food was perfect, the decor was perfect and I wish more restaurants would consider it. I mean, you have a mosaic bar and the lighting is from Italy, but why farm out cheap plates? I would love to see a restaurant that pulls in six different artists to create their vision. I mean, everyone has these plates, not everyone can make this meal, so why is that where the budget splits? Again, I recognize what I do is more expensive, but plates are the vehicle for their artistry, so quality is important."

The interview brings us back to the studio/classroom. "I think bringing visiting artists in has been really great. It's an expensive and time consuming endeavor to bring in someone from out of state, obviously, so it's more for the enrichment of the students and the city. The bonus is that I get to meet fellow craftsmen. I can't always travel for workshops with my job, so to bring them to me I get to learn a lot more. And with ceramics, there's so much to learn, continually, and it constantly kicks your ass. It's nice to bring in artists who interact with the students, take them around town and share their craft. The ceramics world in general is a very sharing community.

"I try to bring in people who do things that we don't do in the studio. We have a pretty strong presence with our teachers but, that being said, there's so much to learn, so everyone who comes in as a visiting artist adds to what the existing teachers already bring. It would be great to get some more local artists, as well. We can all learn from each other."

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