Thursday, July 13, 2017

Nikki Serra, Ceramicist, Tells Her Story

I grew up in Nebraska and spent a lot of time on my grandparent’s ranch a few miles from my home. There, I played in the barn with the kittens and in the yard with Grandpa’s Airedales, watched cattle, rode on the old tractor with my Grandpa and adored walking through my Grandma’s garden full of county fair prize-winning blooms.  

She also had a gorgeous vegetable garden where I would sit in the dirt, eating tomatoes like apples with a saltshaker readily in hand.  When I was older, I helped her can her sour cherries for the winter pies. I could sit for hours and marvel at the incredible insects on the farm and on some evenings, sitting on the back porch steps, watch little dust twisters on the horizon. I was the typical barefoot, grimy, scabby kneed, freckle-faced tomboy who lived to be outside, either at my childhood home playing with the other kids or at one of my grandparent’s or uncles’ ranches, roaming like a little savage. Whenever I was indoors, I was constantly drawing . . . on anything I could find. When I was very small, my Grandma gave me a set of colored pencils for my birthday and that set was my most cherished possession.

We now live in rural Pennsylvania and as an adult, I’ve observed the decline of some of the insect and plant life I took for granted, back in the old Nebraska days. The decline of weeds, plants, and insects also affects bird and bat populations, which we’ve seen disappearing in our own yard and gardens. 

My appreciation of nature and the lush atmospheric floral and vegetative images which appear on my pottery is ingrained from childhood and sustained in adulthood. My functional pottery explores the beauty, whimsy and genuine concern inspired by my “nature girl” childhood. The colorful coneflowers, tulips, poppies, sunflowers, milkweed, random leaves, vegetables, fruit, the spiders, snails, my protective garden goblins all find space on my pots. The themes, although planned, seem to have a life of their own once implemented and often sustain the wistful atmospheric quality of a long ago dewy day. 

When my husband and I left graduate school we moved to D.C. and no longer had a place to make pots. We got entry-level day jobs and eventually discovered Glen Echo Pottery, where we were lucky enough to teach classes and work on our own pots on weekends. After about 5 years, we left the gridlock of The City and moved to our farmhouse in Pennsylvania. But my access to a place to make pots disappeared. We taught at the local community college for awhile, but found the teaching load was too much on top of the necessary but dreaded “day jobs”, so we left teaching.

Bisqued Example of Gestural Slip Trailing - 5” W x 9 “ W

Eventually, after about 20 years, I found an old wheel and an even older kiln (both of which I still use!) and began working on pots whenever I could find a free weekend . . . like so many potters – sadly, with very limited time. Happily, I retired about 3 years ago and have thus enjoyed the luxury of having days upon days to focus on my “real work.”

And also, like so many potters, the transition from the academic gas fired kilns to the little garage electric kiln was stark. Eventually, I stopped trying to recreate the look of the reduction atmosphere and taught myself how to handle underglaze and brushes. Now my work is focused on one of the things oxidation does best: color and imagery.

Floral Series Coneflower Pilsner Mug -  7” H x 3” W

Almost everything I make is wheel thrown. Sometimes, after trimming, I’ll apply slip (made from my clay body) from a Clairol bottle, gesturally. After the pots have dried, I bisque them and subsequently do all the decorating on bisqued ware.  The underglaze images are painted by hand. I sketch a design on the pots with a pencil and then, painstakingly, add the underglaze with brushes and with slip trailers to create the floral imagery. Sometimes I fill in an underglaze background around the imagery.

Crab Apple Bowl - 6” H x 7” W

Rather than mixing underglazes to find the exact color I want, I layer the different colors on top of each other on the pot. So, there are many layers of underglaze for each developed color. When all the imagery has been completed, I usually add a border around rims, handles and the base, either in black or in one of the darker colors of the designs. 

Garden Series Assorted Tumblers and Mugs

The under-glazed pieces are re-bisqued to harden the underglaze, before the glaze is applied. I usually use a clear glaze for the first firing. There are usually more glaze firings to follow to develop color over the decorations. I like the initial clear glaze firing because I can see the design and it helps to figure out where to add the colored transparent glazes. I glaze each pot up to 4 times.  

Garden Series Plates - 3” H x 10” W

Frequently, a luster firing will be added at the end so potentially each of my pieces is fired up to 7 times. All work is food safe, however luster work should not be washed in a dishwasher and cannot be microwaved. The investment of time and resources is quite large, as it is for most potters, and along the way, unique for potters, is the lurking potential for a devastating failure. I think many potters never “count chicks!”

Garden Series Floral Pitchers - 11” H x 4” W

Like most makers, what I create constantly evolves and it’s a wonderful journey, seeing where the creative process goes. Making things has been a constant in my life for as long as I can remember, and making pottery is the one thing that never ceases to be fulfilling, challenging, and yes, frustrating. For me, pottery never disappoints and frequently delights. I hope my pots can bring smiles and hope to others, along the way. 

Garden Series Shadows Mug - 3.75” H x 3” W

This is Week 27 of 52 Artists in 52 Weeks. Thank you for reading and sharing Nikki’s story today. To connect with her and see more of her work, please visit the following links:


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