Having the right pot to pair with your perfect plant is probably one of the most gratifying experiences to have as a collector. While individual tastes differ, the options usually come down to natural earthen wares or gleaming glazes. For those of you who have a hard time deciding, Grog Clay Company marries natural textures and earthen tones with colorful tiles and glossy glaze to create a range of vessels fit for prize specimens and humble houseplants alike.
While we’ve showcased their work previously, but it’s time to get to know Brian and Ashley, the Los Angeles potters driving Grog Clay Company. Growing this business is more than just throwing clay on a wheel and it’s a little harder to part with your crafts than you might think.
What was the draw which got the both of you interested in pottery and ceramics?
We share a common interest in growing plants and making things – actually this is how we first formed a friendship which then became a relationship. We’re both artists so there was a draw for both of us in terms of the material process and the aesthetic reward of the finished object, especially when you make the perfect plant/pot combo which is a deeply satisfying endeavor.
Brian came to ceramics mostly as a way to make homes for his collection of plants and I had been experimenting with ceramics in my personal artwork. Brian had been running Grog Clay Co. for a while before we started to collaborate and we’re currently in the process of building a larger project together called Happy Hour encompassing not only the pottery but a myriad of other things we’ve been working on including flower vases, pipes, wind chimes, household wares, clothing and accessories, etc.
Did you work your way up to the potters wheel or was it something you dove right into?
We both had experience throwing and hand building through school courses although functional objects had not been our primary focus, so in this sense yes, we both dove in as beginners. We’re largely self-taught, so we watch a lot of videos and read about various processes.
How long before you felt a measure of proficiency where you were turning out pots to feel really good about?
This is an ongoing process. When you first sit down at the wheel anything that doesn’t end up as a shapeless lump of clay feels like a win. Sometimes the piece feels right when you finish throwing it, sometimes it feels right once it’s been glazed, and sometimes both things conspire against you. Proficiency is measured in small increments, but for what it’s worth I have more of a preternatural ability on the wheel. Brian has been throwing for a longer period of time, so simply by virtue of experience he tends to throw certain shapes more consistently. We fill in each others weaknesses and amplify each others strengths. It’s a good situation.
Who are some potters and ceramicists you look to as inspirations, individuals whose work you’d one day like to be on a level with?
We look at all kinds of things for inspiration, but in terms of ceramics Betty Woodman is an all time favorite for both of us. We also love Shio Kusaka, Takuro Kuwata, and Ron Nagle, to name just a few.
What was a particularly frustrating moment for each of you as you were learning to work the potters wheel?
There are plateaus all the time with clay and they can be frustrating to break through but the trick is to keep focused on all of the tiny movements and positions. we’re constantly problem solving and self-diagnosing our throwing techniques in order to get better.
Your pots display a balance of natural, earthen surfaces contrasted against bold swatches of color and pattern. Where did the inspiration come from?
We both use patterns and color extensively in our artwork whether it’s sculpture, painting, video, or installation, so combining those visual strategies into the ceramic work was seamless. It wasn’t something we had to force or think about, it just popped out of the equation naturally. We’re always experimenting and trying new things out in the studio and this is why we seldom repeat a pattern or shape. Some things work really well and we do tend to come back to those frequently, but we’re always thinking about new color/shape combos.
There are plateaus all the time with clay and they can be frustrating to break through but the trick is to keep focused on all of the tiny movements and positions.
Is there a particular project or job which stands out to you as having been particularly demanding?
There is no particular project or job that has been exceedingly demanding, rather the demanding part is continuing to work daily in the studio while balancing all of the other responsibilities of life. We both work at other jobs in addition to our personal artwork, so the tricky part really just comes down to proper time management. We end up working 70 to 80 hours a week so we have to make sure that we balance that with spending time with friends and family, and taking some time for ourselves to relax and enjoy life.
As your business has grown, what have been some of the high points that make it all worth it?
Every time we open the kiln after a glaze fire is a high point. We joke about this being the main motivation for all of the work; the satisfaction of the end product or when we experiment with something new and it turns out even more amazing then we could imagine. The challenge right now is keeping up with demand, which is a great challenge to have.
Have you ever potted something in a vessel intended for sale but it ended up looking so good you had to keep it for yourself?
Ha! This happens constantly, Ashley is always giving me shit for this. It’s really difficult for both of us to part with the plants, especially if we’ve stumbled on a killer plant/pot combo. To be honest, we keep almost all of them that we pot up, so the challenge is to keep from sticking plants in everything that comes out of the kiln. We think of the combos as a kind of display or example of how the pots can work together with the plants to make something really unique/bizarre/visually exciting. We really want to see what other people do with the pots and how they stage them so we’ve been focusing on selling just the pots and leaving the plant selection up to each individual collector.
What’s playing on your iTunes when you’re working or contemplating the next line of pots?
We both laughed when we read this question because our favorite guilty pleasure is putting on South Park episodes while we work in the studio. If there is a new episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race then that gets top priority (RuPaul is Ashley’s real ride-or-die). We do listen to podcasts and music, but we go with whatever the mood is and don’t have any specific audio agenda.
It’s really difficult for both of us to part with the plants, especially if we’ve stumbled on a killer plant/pot combo.
Describe the most interesting and / or bizarre succulent or cactus you’ve seen in habitat?
We haven’t yet had the opportunity to travel abroad to look at plants in habitat, but we’ve travelled throughout the Southwest looking at plants and rocks. Brian grew up in Las Vegas and has spent quite a bit of time hiking through the Mojave desert and until recently I was living in the western Mojave so we’re both really familiar with the growth habits of the plants endemic to the region.
We love the Ferocactus populations that creep through the microclimates in the Mojave as well as the way the Cylindropuntia and Yucca forests look when the sun is setting. We were recently walking through the Canyon of the Ancients National Park in Colorado and were shocked to find the clumps of Opuntia pheaecantha thriving in places where they most certainly spend four or five months a year buried in snow. We’re currently saving for a trip to South Africa next year so check back with us then and I’m sure we’ll have some amazing additions to the list.
The most heartbreaking plant loss you’ve dealt with?
Well, to love plants is to kill plants so every loss is both heartbreaking and a learning experience. Like everyone else, we’re always learning from our mistakes and trying to be better growers. That being said…
Ashley: The first time we really hung out was at a plant show – it turned out to be our unofficial first date. I bought a Stenocereus hollianus crest that was huge and beautifully grown. When I lost the plant it was heartbreaking because it was not only an amazing specimen but also had sentimental attachments. The good news is that nobody buys just one plant at a show, so we still have a really nice variegated Echinocereus crest from that sale. For what it’s worth I bought another S. hollianus crest and killed it, again…on number three now and going strong. Maybe I’ve finally figured it out, we shall see haha.
Brian: I purchased a super nice specimen sized Euphorbia stellata at one of the SGVCSS auctions a few years ago. The caudex was totally warping the pot and I couldn’t wait to see what it looked like. I moved during the winter of that year and it succumbed to the shock of the transition. The first and last time I got to see the caudex was when I threw it out. C’est la vie.
What are some wish list specimens you’d like to see added to your collection?
The list is long and never ending, but here’s a quick sketch of what we both have our eyes and hearts set on at the moment…
Ashley: I’ve been into to the small Madagascan geophytic Euphorbias lately, primulifolia, moratii, etc. (I’m particularly fond of the white veined primulifolia that you’ve got in stock there right now.)I’m really into crests as well as some of the epiphytic genera like Rhipsalis so I’m always on the hunt for new specimens to add to my collection. I also collect tropical plants and have steadily knocking things off my wish list in that arena. I recently acquired a Rhaphidophora tetrasperma which is my favorite for this week.
Brian: I’ve had my heart set on Euphorbia clavigera for a minute and have been searching for a large specimen with lots of character. I’m always looking for a nice example of Cintia knizei, Yavia cryptocarpa, and Puna clavarioides. I wouldn’t mind finding a reasonably priced Operculicarya pachypus, but alas…not sure such a thing exists.
We both try to keep tabs on what each other are looking for and try to find them whenever gift giving opportunities arise. Ashley got me a really amazing clumped out Ortegocactus macdougalii this year and I was able to locate a Cleistocactus winteri ssp. colademono for her.