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Local Artist Highlight: Jeff Ham Ceramics

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Avenue for the Arts investigates how the wheel spins with west Michigan potter Jeff Ham. Interview by Pamela MacDougal.

/Jeff Ham

Setting for Connection

Setting for Connection /Jeff Ham

Maximalist Pop in a Covered Jar

Maximalist Pop in a Covered Jar /Jeff Ham

Living every artist’s dream in a bright spacious studio set into a gorgeous farm landscape, Jeff Ham devotes all of his working hours to creating stunning ceramic art. He fashions custom pottery in small order batches for Stoffer Home, a local boutique home design store. His website offers one-of-a-kind items and made-to-order coffee mugs. Jeff also leaves time for making special items of his own fancy – fabulous covered jars – just so they can exist in the world. Find his work on Instagram @jeffhamceramics.

When asked what he hopes people will experience in his art, Jeff Ham says he loves ritual. He envisions the enjoyment of a beautifully crafted material object in connection with morning coffee – the intentional selection of the exact mug that will bring attention to that particular moment. Valuing the functional aspect of his work, Jeff hopes that people will find an enriching presence in the objects of their daily lives.

Working in a well-lit studio space built with high ceilings, ample windows and a large garage door raised for an open-air feel, Jeff creates his pieces from clay primarily on a potter’s wheel, but also using slab construction.

How did he get here?

Jeff had his start on a family produce farm in the Allendale area. After a stint in nonprofit management as a young adult, he discovered ceramics in 2015 with a pottery class at Grand Rapids Community College. He says he must have caught the zeitgeist, because public interest in pottery surged around that time. By 2017, he was a full-time potter. Having started as an employee at Grand Rapids Pottery, a community studio, Jeff describes that early time as an apprenticeship in which he learned a lot about making. After a couple of years, Jeff and his partner bought out the founder to become co-owners in 2019.

With Jeff as owner, Grand Rapids Pottery offered classes, creating a membership structure to keep class prices low. He appreciated being able to make the practice of pottery accessible to creators. Eventually, however, having learned what he needed to know, Jeff moved toward a full-time arts and craft practice in making his own work.

Returning to his roots and family farm, Jeff built a beautiful spacious studio and set up shop next door to his brother, overlooking field and garden. His income has shifted from art fairs to wholesale production for high end home design stores like Stoffer Home.

He says, “My Dad was self-employed. So that business type was modeled for me. I understood how someone could do that. I just love objects. Art objects, regular objects, they bring me joy. And making them does too.”

What do people like about pottery?

Describing the farm-to-table movement of the aughts and the craft revival movement in the ‘10s, Jeff speculates that having a connection to where your plates are made may be the next level development in that arc. He notes that craft has become increasingly important in the digital age. With social media, crafted items can be made present to a large population in a way that wasn’t possible before. He thinks it will be interesting to see what will happen in the next 10 years because there had been talk that art fairs were dying. However, it seems that post-pandemic, art fairs are doing very well again. Instagram might be dying, and online sales are struggling due to oversaturation. He notes it can be hard to sell work on Etsy unless you have hundreds of thousands of followers, whereas art fairs allow for direct tactile experience of the work. Nevertheless, Jeff does sell his own work on his website, offering colorful stenciled mugs with geometric patterns using glazes he developed himself.

Jeff shows me a group of wood kiln-fired pieces. He says he would like to buy a wood kiln in the future to put out in back of the studio. He currently uses mostly electric firing.  Twice a year, he takes groupings of work to have them wood-fired, producing atmospheric firing effects in the finished glazes. I see the surface variation, the flashing from flame, the wood ash speckles, the visual interest. He speaks of the historic tradition of wood-fired pottery, and I can see reverence in him for that connection to the past.

How do you want people to experience your pieces?

Jeff pauses for a moment. “I hope my work helps people notice what they are doing – that they can be more present in what they are doing. It’s asking people to bring their attention to the moments. I think the purpose of art is to direct and focus attention. Attention and self-reflection are closely linked. I like how the world opens up – when we pay attention to things. We are losing that ability to draw our attention to something. I can use dishes to make an experience better for people. I can choose particular dishes for people to enjoy a meal together. I also like things that have stories – we are closer to things we know more about. It's easier to know the story of a small batch brand than a commercially produced item.” I enjoy hearing a bit of philosophy in the experience of pottery.

What do you see in the future for your work?

When asked about future expansion, Jeff says scaling up his operation is not too interesting to him – he likes to make pottery and expanding unavoidably means management. Instead, he’d like to be known for excellent craftsmanship, and small batch production suits just fine. He wants to work on improving and evolving, and he’d like to make more time for experimentation. With racks and racks of beautiful work product behind him, he says modestly that he is still learning how to manipulate clay. He says “I love that people use my work. The functional aspect is very important. But I would also like to get more into sculpture.” 

What is your favorite piece in the studio?

Jeff points to a row of unique vibrantly colored covered jars with imaginative shapes. “My favorite thing in the shop is the covered jar. I like the idea of a maximalist pop. I make these things because I want them to exist.”  He is always testing new ideas. Jeff talks about how we’ve come to the idea of curating our lives, envisioning the items we surround ourselves with and finding them or making them. He says he’s building an audience for this new work and that’s in process.

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