We had the good fortune of connecting with Nan Howe and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Nan, why did you pursue a creative career?

Creativity is a mindset, a way of thinking and seeing the world; it is accessible to everyone, no matter their vocation. Living a creative life is my career and creativity has been my constant companion through challenges, choices and several professions.

Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
As a self-taught multi-disciplinary artist and maker, I have always worked with my hands; sewing, woodworking, sculpting, drawing, painting, creating collages and assemblages and most recently, ceramics. My ethos and aesthetic are aligned with the Japanese philosophy of wabi sabi imperfection: I find beauty in storied objects that are old, broken, weathered and worn. I am drawn to their uncommon elegance and grace. They wait for me patiently along urban alleys, windblown stretches of beach, in the garages of tinkerers or on far flung travels. I am a matchmaker of ephemeral objects, connected by destiny. I honor their union in my art. Together we create harmony, dissonance, meaning and joy. Living in a 450 sf studio/workshop, with tools and materials collected over a lifetime, has inspired me to embrace Jugaad, the Hindi word for frugal innovation; an improvisational, problem solving method driven by scarcity and resourcefulness. I thrive on the challenge of making art with materials at hand.
I have recently become a ceramicist, leaving behind my career as an early childhood educator. Clay found me later in life when I finally had the time to devote to such an intimate and demanding relationship. I have a daily practice at a community ceramics studio. Over the past four years, I have had many wonderful ceramics teachers, but the ancient alchemy of clay has taught me the most!

I make functional, ceramic objects, both hand built and wheel thrown, as well as sculptural pieces. I am drawn to simple forms and organic shapes. I work predominantly with light and dark stoneware clay and glaze my pieces with a natural, neutral palette, usually matte white, black, grey or brown.

Clay appeals to me on so many levels; its direct connection to nature, its primal link to our ancient past, its molecular processes rooted in chemistry and physics, its malleability and invitation to explore and its versatility with infinite possibilities for self-expression in the hands of the maker. Clay has its own language and speaks to me through my hands. It remembers where and how it has been touched and quietly commands respect. Clay keeps me honest and humble. It is a process that demands focus, encourages problem solving and supports persistence, resilience and acceptance; character values that have relevance to all aspects of life.

During the pandemic, when the studio was closed, I set up a makeshift, open-air hand building studio on an old picnic table in my backyard. It was a period of “fruitful isolation” as David Hockney said of his pandemic productivity, painting portraits. The body of work I created during the pandemic is directly related to research I did on the history and origins of clay and a discovery I made that gave me such profound respect for this seemingly humble material. Three billion years ago, in warm primordial pools, clay was the womb that protected the first living organisms! The Tools of Ancestry collection are functional ceramic objects that pay homage to our earliest beginnings and include rustic, timeless designs from geode salt pots and match strikers, to smudge bowls, ritual pedestal bowls and lava slab charcuterie trays.

My recent work can be seen on Instagram, @nanhoweceramics, and at Captain Oko Design in Point Reyes Station.

If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
There are so many great neighborhoods in San Francisco. I would devote an entire day to each of them! In the Mission District, I would start with breakfast at Tartine Manufactory (with a loaf of Tartine country bread to take home for toast!) and a quick visit next door to the Heath Newsstand and Heath Ceramics for browsing and inspiration. Walk along 24th St. to feel the real pulse of the old Mission District and detour over to Valencia St. to experience the new. Check out all the amazing murals along the way! The Ferry building has great views of the bay and plenty of options for eating. Boulettes Larder is a favorite for breakfast or lunch and Blue Bottle coffee is always worth the often wait! The waterfront walk along the Embarcadero is not to be missed! North Beach is nearby and is a great place for lunch or dinner. The Saloon, the oldest bar in San Francisco is located in North beach and has live blues most nights. You might just catch my son playing! And Chinatown is right across the street! The outer Sunset is a fun neighborhood by the beach. I would recommend a coffee outside at Trouble Coffee and a visit to General Store, Black Bird Bookstore, the little art supply store, Case for Making and Outerlands for lunch! San Francisco has several wonderful museums to choose from including The de Young, The Asian Art and SF MOMA and my favorite little gem of a gallery, Hugomento, in Dogpatch! We’ll swing back over to The Zuni Cafe for lunch or dinner, an old favorite, to round out a wonderful week!

Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I am forever grateful to my maverick thinking parents who modeled the courage to think differently, and emboldened me to follow my dreams, no matter where they might lead.

Instagram: @nanhoweceramics

Image Credits
Shubhie Panicker

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