Jonathan Castro is a local ceramics designer whom I met at a monthly salon coordinated by our mutual friend, Andrea Reyes. Ceramics are one of those things, like sweaters or iPhones, that we generally know little about the production of, despite their ubiquity. I wanted to know more about how a lump of clay becomes a household staple, so I met up with Jonathan and peppered him with questions about his process and his work.
Turns out, the business of ceramics can be quite local and sustainable. Jonathan sources his clay from the aptly named Ceramic Supply based out of New Jersey. Jonathan mentioned that he recycles dried clay and I sat in rapt attention listening to the process. Basically, he collects, soaks, and reworks the dried clay back into a dough consistency. It’s then processed through a machine called a “pug mill” to make it ready to use again. Jonathan explained, “The properties of clay allow it to be reused with little waste, which also saves on costs of ordering new clay over and over again.” A simple hand-mixed, non-toxic glaze is applied to his pre-fired pieces. I learned that glaze is basically glass, made from silica and various metal oxides like sodium or calcium, and sometimes mixed with colorants like iron oxide. Jonathan’s finished pieces are food safe, something that isn’t always true for older or even imported ceramic works.
The Chicago-raised current Harlem resident prefers the title “ceramic designer” when referring to the work he does at the Upper West Side studio Earth Works & Artisans. “I feel like some words used in the clay world give people the wrong idea about the seriousness of what I do,” he says. “In my experience, if I refer to myself as an artist, people don’t seem to realize it is how I make a living and it’s not a hobby. And honestly, for the style and type of ceramic work I create, it is design — whether functional, sculptural or a combination of the two.” That style was borne of roots in architecture studies interrupted by a switch to the ceramics program at Iowa State University after being inspired by a friend’s work. Jonathan recalls, “Since I was in a different program, it was a challenge to get in. But once I got in, I never looked back.”
What do you like most about being a ceramic designer?
I love being able to bring something to life. To be able to form a ball of clay into a beginning form in a matter of moments has always been fascinating to me. I have learned that I am also obsessed with the idea of steps taken and the process to get from beginning to end. Everything has a process, but for me, the number of steps between beginning and end are so grand. And the more techniques added from the basic steps, the longer the process becomes. Showing people my process is so important to me and I feel that such knowledge shared adds value to my work and to anyone's work for that matter.
What’s your routine like on a studio day?
Since I do this full time, I try to be as organized and efficient as possible throughout my studio days. I first make a list of priorities: custom work, store orders, best sellers (I make sure these are taken care of and note the dates that correspond with these). Next on the list would be new designs, experimental designs, seasonal items. And that's just the making part! I also have to make sure that I layer into my weekly schedule when clay will be made, kilns loaded and fired, and glaze made.
When making work in clay in the sort of production that I do, I make sure something is always in process — something being made, drying, being trimmed, dried out, fired, or glazed. And the juggling of all of this must be in the air at all times because if I don't have something in every one of these steps at the same time, that may create large gaps in production. It sounds insane to have so many things happening at once, but since each step takes so much time, this sort of schedule must be maintained, especially during high holiday season.
How have your designs evolved over the years?
The evolution of my work over the years has been and will always be developing. My main goal is to have a look and aesthetic and idea that is the same, but somehow ever-changing within itself. Take, for example, my Anomaly Series. I've been doing what I coined, "The Anomaly" look for eight years now. And I've taken that same technique and style and pushed it to the next level in a slightly different direction in form, but with that same look. To see these creations over the last eight years is exciting because I can see where my thought process was for each layer of the evolution.
Where do you find inspiration for your designs?
Some inspiration is found through pieces of the past. In the clay world we say, "Everything has already been made," but I take that as a challenge to try to at least have my own signature spin on something that has already "been made."
And for my more sculptural pieces, I tend to be highly inspired by underwater sea life and plant life. My Anomaly Series of work has been hugely influenced by sea urchins and underwater plant life. I feel like this aesthetic and technique really takes a traditional functional form and brings it to life by adding these sculptural elements.
What’s your favorite time period of ceramics?
The Momoyama Period, which was around 16th century, would be the period of ceramics that really made me fall in love. And it all had to do with tradition and ceremony. Tea Bowls, tea ceremony, food traditions were the things that fueled my passion. The respect and preciousness of the vessel through tradition is what inspired me. The discipline, knowledge, and continued respect of the process and "how to" make these vessels is fascinating to me. There was the master and the apprentice and this sort of behavior over something that most wouldn’t think twice about, a tea bowl, was spiritual in its creation. So naturally, one of my current products, the Get-a-Grip Cup, is my modern day version of a tea bowl. It is a current look and feel on a traditional idea.
Where would you like to travel?
I would loooove to travel to Japan. My top two places to travel to on my bucket list were Spain & Japan...and I recently checked off Spain!
What’s your favorite place in the city?
My favorite place in the city, although overly crowded, is the High Line, on the west side. The development of that once run-down space is inspiring to me. Creating a nature-like destination while celebrating city life was a brilliant idea.
Is there another artist you’d love to collaborate with?
I can’t think of another artist right off the top of my head, but what I do know is that I want to collaborate with someone who works in a different medium. I would love to see what it looks like to work on a collaboration with ceramic design and wood design, or metal or fiber or something I haven't even thought about. I feel like one direction I haven't gone in is more of a mixed media design. Instead of learning a completely different medium, I would love to connect with another designer who is an expert in their world.
Do you have any advice for beginning makers/entrepreneurs?
My main advice is find that perfect balance of art and business. You can’t just be a maker and you can't just be a business person, you have to be both. It's the huge take away that I got from my ceramic professor at Iowa State. Be realistic of your strengths and weaknesses. Shine the light on your strengths for all to see and learn to develop your weaknesses — and sometimes that is through asking people who have skills that you may not for help. And don't give up. If you are a maker, it goes without saying you know that you won't feel your best doing anything else.
You can buy Jonathan’s work online at www.jonathancastrodesigns.com (currently under redesign) or at Global Table (in SoHo), Lady J (in Brooklyn), Harlem Heirloom (in Harlem), NiLu (in Harlem), and pop up shops during November at West Elm (DUMBO, Chelsea, and UWS locations). You can also follow him on Instagram and Facebook.