Connie Norman
Connie Norman

Lana Wilson – Artist Interview


I have been a fan of Lana Wilson’s work for years. I’m thrilled that she was willing to participate in an interview. Lana’s interview talks about her 40 year love of clay, her new series of functional work. She is so generous she shares with us colored slip recipes at the end of the interview.

Check out Lana’s website here.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I became an artist because being a teacher’s aid at Pasadena Art Museum for children’s classes was so much more exciting than student teaching in the public school. So I decided I would just become an art teacher instead of a regular teach-all-the-subjects elementary school teacher. Then the teacher I was working under (for free, of course) told me the shocking disconcerting news that I couldn’t teach children’s art on enthusiasm alone. She told me we would decide the following week what to do. So my senior year at Occidental College over a glass of lemonade, after I had cleaned all the children’s paint brushes she announced I had to go to art school if I wanted to be a children’s art teacher. I took her word as gospel. I only applied to one school: California College of Art (and Crafts, as it was then) in Oakland and took up residence in Berkeley in the 60′s. This was a good plan with far reaching great consequences.


How would you describe your style? One of the hardest things for artists to do is to stand apart from everyone else. How long did it take you to come up with your own style and signature look?

Right now I would describe my style as inspired by ethnic fabrics from India, South America, Africa and Bali. I finally figured out how to get some of the batik and other pattern technique effects using colored slips. How long did it take me to develop my style? Well, you can skip looking at anything I made for my first 10 years. I have had about 8 or so periods in my work. The first period would be described as hopeful wandering. The second was functional, cone 9 reduction in my beloved Alpine kiln. Then I did eggshells embedded in porcelain and saggar fired with kelp for vases (yep, nonfunctional) on pedestals, chairs, and boxes with drawers. Then I moved on after a few years as every period lasts two to eight years, to porcelain with metallic salts. I made vases and boxes with workable drawers and more vases during that period. Then we moved and I had to fire in an electric kiln so my lichen fascination started. Vases, teapots, more boxes with workable drawers appeared. Then came ritual boxes and dry glazes and an emphasis on bright colored layered very dry surface glazes. Then when my first grandchild was born I started doing functional again. I couldn't give them away. Even my daughters didn't want them. So it was like the hopeful wandering again. Then I hit upon black and white with slivers of color and now lotsa color. I didn't count the phases. The idea has always been to follow what fascinates me and slug through the six months to a year that it takes to figure it out. So that is eight phases in 40 years or an average of 5 years each. It has been so much fun but some of that hopeful wandering wasn't quite as fun.

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What is your inspiration for your pieces?

During this period of work my inspiration is process. I just am fascinated by what I notice while I am making things: process I paint the colored slips on and try new combinations of colors or thicknesses of slip together and dots of slip and spattering. Then when I drag a serrated edge across the soft leather hard clay, I notice skinny close together serrated teeth give me less white showing. Then when I roll it out with a rolling pin I see that it starts to look like some of my favorite cloth I have collected or seen in wearable artist’s work. So the excitement of continually watching what is happening and wanting to repeat some color combinations or inlays or colored slip applications and knowing I don’t want to repeat some things makes it a movable feast of involvement and fascination for me. 

lana wilson  

What keeps you motivated?

What keeps me motivated is the process of discovery and getting a tiny bit better at it as I move through six months or a year of work. I do so love making things. I lose track of time. But I am also grateful and motivated by having requests for work. I remember when I first started all this about 40 years ago when someone first wanted to buy my work I felt I should pay them.

What also keeps me motivated is opening the kiln and figuring out how I did the parts I like and how to avoid the parts that did not work and what new possibilities it all suggests.


Are you a full-time artist? How do you come up with your creations? Can you walk us through your creative process when dreaming up new pieces?

I am a full time artist but I would have to qualify that as I am old enough now that I have to take naps and I can’t work as hard as I used to. But I don’t go out for breakfast or lunch, I work almost every single day and it is such a huge and dominant part of my life.

I come up with what I make through process. I just make stuff and try stuff out. For the way my pieces are I can draw shapes and get ideas but it is when I am trying things out that it begins to gel more in my mind. What the clay does is like a chat, "I’ll do this and then what will you do to keep this conversation going??" I do so love the discovery process that this "chat" draws me back.

Sometimes seaweed or branches on a tree inspire me to new shapes or seeing rocks or shapes of fields from an airplane make me think of new shapes for surface decoration or for teapot possibilities. This kind of process means I make many pieces that are not at all successful but they lead, maybe, to something worth keeping. Sometimes I go back and try an old idea and think of a new way to do it. 


What was it that made you want to start creating? Did something specific trigger it?

I’ve been making things in clay for over 40 years. I was not a child who drew all the time. One of my sisters was considered the family artist. I realize I am not particularly talented but all of my mom’s six kids are workers so my enormous interest, healthy work ethic and childish but excessively handy enthusiasm have helped me through all the failures that have resulted from my experiments. Just plain working a lot is key.


What or who inspires you?

Nature inspires me. The way green leaves fade into red, orange and brown are colors I want in my work, the way seaweed collects and lets lines and colors intermingle. I like old stuff too. Today I looked at old lampposts that were peeling green paint off an undercoat of red paint and then rust was bursting through. I love folk art from Asia. I love the fiber arts of shibori and the patterns of ikat from an island near Bali. The actual process of working inspires me, seeing what happens and paying attention to an accidental discovery in form or surface design and then trying to repeat it and improve it. 


How do you maintain a healthy work and life balance?

I am not sure that I do! I try though. I see my kids and grandkids but not enough. I see friends for dinner and events. But I don’t go out for breakfast or lunch. Cuts into the studio time way too much. I talk to distant friends on the phone. I do love to make things in the studio, that actually balances my life.


You, like most people enjoy the process of making and crafting and didn’t get into it for the sake of "business". But eventually you found yourself having to make the transition from crafter to a businessperson. What have you learned so far and what advice can you give others in the same situation?

I found that I needed to pack with two boxes so nothing breaks when I ship it, I learned to pack and invoice, I learned to charge a little less than what people might expect so I could sell easily, I learned not to be out for the last dollar, I learned to ask and seek and be open to the great suggestions or critiques people have given me that have so helped improve my work now that I am back into functional after 20 plus years of doing non-functional work. I have found having different sources of income, teaching, workshops and making work and writing a book has helped. Another thing I have learned, share what you know, it will come back to you. People will share with you and we all need this clay tribe.


What advice can you give aspiring artists struggling to find their own voice and look?

Pay absolutely fierce attention to what interests you and work a lot. Try ten variations on an idea before deciding it might not be worth your time. Don’t expect everything to come out of the kiln the way you thought it would. Look at other work a lot: paintings, clay, historical ceramics, plants, machines, folk art, architecture, fiber arts, jewelry, etc. Read autobiographies and biographies of visual artists. Enjoy your life, appreciate working with your hands and forget being a materialist. Trade with other artists. Give away a piece once in a while: makes the person who admired it feel great and you feel good too. Relish you get to make things!!!!!!!!

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Lana Wilson’s Colored Slips (Thanks to Denise Smith)

For the body of my present work I use paper clay, P’Clay from Aardvark, Rosette Gault’s functional formula for cone 6. This clay has solved many cracking problems with the bowls, teapots, etc. that I make.

To make the colored slips I use bone dry Half and Half cone 5 by Laguna. Then I add the mason stains below. If it says chartreuse 50% I weigh out 100 grams of small pieces of bone dry clay and add 50 grams of 6236 chartreuse. It mixes up more smoothly if I let it sit for an hour or so. With this basic system you can use any white clay, cone 04 to cone 10 and mix it with the percentages of the colored slips below. Then use a clear glaze for your cone temperature.

On a soft slab of clay I paint one or two coats of black slip on and let it dry before carving patterns with a serrated rib. This will be the underside of a plate or the inside of a cup. I turn over the slab and paint black again and when it is dry enough I paint different colors on top, blending them, spattering them, painting stripes, etc. When that is dry enough, I paint another layer of colored slips. When this is dry I use different serrated edges to carve through these slips. I press soft and hard with the serrated edge when dragging it across the clay to get different effects. I also use loop tools to carve out scoops of clay and take the pieces carved out (I call them fossils), turn them upside-down and inlay them back into the clay. The final step is to put a piece of newspaper on top of the slab and with a rolling pin, roll over the whole slab to flatten the serrated lines and firmly inlay the fossils. I almost always relish the subtle changes this final step yields.

COLOR SLIPS (mostly Mason Stains, mixed to cream consistency or thinner)

6600 black 8%

6485 a tan orange 20%

6024 Orange 30%

6236 Chartreuse 50%

6027 Tangerine 15%

6211 Pea Green 50%

6339 Royal (blue) 5 – 10%

6288 Turquoise 50% or 6242 10%

6069 Dark Coral 30%

6304 Violet 50%

50779 Red 18% (from U.S. Pigments, or a good red stain)

KATE THE YOUNGER CLEAR (by Richard Burkett) cone 5 to 6 electric

to use over the colored slips. Shiny, resistant to crazing, cool slowly.

Ferro frit 3195 70.00

EPK 8.00

wollastonite 10.00

silica 12.00

bentonite 2

Fun pictures of Lana’s garden!!

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Lana thank you so much for your generosity and your interview.

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2 Responses to “Lana Wilson – Artist Interview”

  1. Linda Starr Says:

    Great interview; I love Lana’s work, have her book, she is an inspiraiton. I use slip techniques myself, but haven’t used the measuring recommendations she made. I just got a new batch of stains so I may try her recipes, thanks.

  2. carter gillies Says:

    Connie, thanks for this great series of interviews! I have loved reading what folks have to say in response to your questions. Quite often it is thought provoking and inspiring. This is great insight into the values and practices of our fellow clay artists and a great resource to have. I thought Lana’s considered responses were very illuminating and will bookmark this page to refer back to it. Thanks!