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Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
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An Interview with Anni Barnard

By Danielle R.

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Anni Barnard is a full-time ceramics teacher at Moses Brown School, where she has spent the past twenty years instructing young minds. She received her Bachelors and Masters degrees from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and after working as a ceramics technician for a few years, obtained an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. Upon exiting graduate school, she sold her pots, arriving at the cusp of making a living off of ceramics. At this point, she made the decision to abandon pottery as a career, and instead began to teach both ceramics and yoga. Although she does not sell her pieces, Anni continues to make pots at her home. I met with her between classes at the Moses Brown ceramics studio. Unfortunately, as this is not her primary potting location, I was limited in the amount of her vessels that I was able to see. The topics of our delightful discussion are summarized below.

What type of vessels does she make?

Anni has gone through many stages, but is now focusing on bowls, as she loves their open and beautiful shapes. Food cannot really be eaten out of these, but they are still functional. For an upcoming home firing in her pit kiln, she is currently making many bowls.

What is this homemade pit kiln all about?

In her backyard in southern Rhode Island, Anni has built a pit kiln out of cement blocks, about 7 ft long and 3 ft high. Over Thanksgiving weekend, she will gather with other potters and they will fire their wares according to ancient techniques. To obtain interesting and unexpected surface treatments, the kiln will be filled with various random items. Sawdust will be layered on the ground, with the pots put on top. Cherry and pine branches, seaweed, and chips of iron, among other materials, will be added to contribute to the spontaneous surface treatments which will ensue. 

What materials does she use?

Anni mainly uses low-firing clay, like red-ware and white stoneware with lots of grog to strengthen the pots. For her classes at Moses Brown, she buys 1,000 lbs of clay at a time. While at RISD, she made clay herself, mixing it with water and temper, and wedging it by hand. She uses bought under- and over-glazes as well.

What building methods does she use?

Just as she does with forms, Anni goes through phases in the construction techniques she uses. She is always bouncing around, to “satisfy her ADD mind.” She alternates between throwing and using her hands, both in making pinch pots or using slabs. Anni also decorates thrown pots by hand with additional cut-out or sculpted designs.

What is her relationship with the wheel?

In the Moses Brown studio, there are eight electric wheels and four kick wheels. At Anni’s home she has one of each. She uses the electric wheel more for larger-scale production, and seems more attached to the kick wheel, where the entire body is involved in the process of making a pot. A few pictures of the Moses Brown ceramics studio can be seen below.

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How did she get into pottery?

In entering college, Anni was originally interested in the two-dimensional art forms of drawing, painting, and printmaking. Upon taking a ceramics course, she became attached to the community in the clay studio, feeling that the potters were “down-to-Earth kindred spirits.”

Does she consider herself an artist or a craftsperson?

Neither. Anni has never called herself an ‘artist,’ she just considers herself to be a ‘potter.’ When she was in school, this same debate over whether ceramics was an art or a craft was going on. She always felt that clay was just clay.

Clay is not an art or a craft. Clay is just clay.

What are her influences?

Anni is greatly influenced by the ancient pottery of the Greeks, specifically urns and mythology. Of her contemporary influences, most are men, as there were not many women in the field when she was at school. Between her degrees, she sought female tutelage, and so worked under Donna Nicholas, the head of ceramics at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.

When her pots are found by archaeologists in 1,000 years, what does she think they will reveal about her?

“Well, that depends on the decade!” This question launched Anni into a description of her pottery throughout each of the decades that she has been potting. Her 20s were characterized by angst. During her undergraduate degree, she made huge 3-4ft tall slab vessels, with truly crazy surface treatments. They were characterized by odd creatures, pop-culture, Greek mythology, and lots of experimentation. In her 30s, she worked as a ceramic technician, and was then in graduate school. Her first year at RISD was about experimentation. In the second year, she had to “hone in on a specific thumb print.” She began slip-casting, using a very fanciful style. In her 40s she still used the style she developed in graduate school, but throwing instead of slip-casting. Pots such as those in the “Eve’s Garden Series” were sold in galleries. Now in her 50s, she has finally “come full circle,” back to nature.

What is the “Eve’s Garden Series?”

This is a series of Anni’s which is comprised of pottery made in a certain style. These pots are whimsical and bizarre, combining vibrant colors with decorations of plants, creatures, and scenes of mythology. She developed “Eve’s Garden” in graduate school with slip-casted pots, and still makes thrown pots in the series. She uses the pieces to explore and “find her own femininity.” Although she is moving away from this to more simple forms, I was able to see a pot from this series. It was thrown on the wheel, and has mold cut-outs scored and pressed on. It has been painted with underglaze and fired once, but still needs to be coated in a clear glaze and fired one last time. Pictures of this pot can be seen below.

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What is her current ideology?

Anni makes simple and beautiful pots, allowing the forms to speak for themselves. She wants the viewer to be able to come in touch with the pot on a subtle and organic level. This is why she is returning to pit firing; using leftovers (sawdust, branches), and not damaging the environment. She is currently striving for simplification in her pieces, without manipulation from the mind. Clay is from the earth, and so must seem the pots. All four elements are needed in the process of making pottery: earth, air, fire, and water.

How is she attached to nature?

Anni lives organically on her garden-filled acre of land, on which she used to farm with a circle of women. In both of her disciplines, pottery and yoga, Anni channels an energy. Nature is infused with a certain energy. Healing the Earth is important to her, and contains certain meditative and soothing qualities. She senses locations which need healing energy, and places special little pots here.

“If you heal the Earth, you heal yourself.”

What are these little pots?

Anni makes very small figurines and pots which she leaves places in the environment while on nature walks. Very simple, animalistic, and only about 2 inches in diameter, these small pots further her connection with nature, and with other walkers. She puts little "treasures" inside of them, for example a piece of a robin's egg, a feather, or an acorn. Anni leaves these in the woods, and takes pictures of them in their different locations. She goes back as the seasons change to see them again. Some which have been incompletely fired have melted, but most have been found and taken by other nature-lovers. She doesn’t consider this an art or a craft, but a project. Pictures of Anni and these quaint simple vessels can be seen below.

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Why the career transition to teacher?

At the brink of becoming a full-time professional potter, Anni found herself in a position to make a decision. She was selling her pots in galleries in California and Pennsylvania, but became frustrated by orders to produce twenty of the same vessel, saying that it “got old really fast.” Anni didn’t connect with the “egos of the artistic community.” She had to “readdress what’s important in life,” and decided that this was changing young adults. She feels as if, somewhere around middle school, a shift occurs in which students lose the creativity so abundant in childhood. She strives to “nourish and rewater the seed.” Producing pieces to sell to customers was not an attractive life work for her, because:

“How many objects do we really need in this world?”