art / materials / people

Perfect Imperfection

When I first spotted Kay Franz’s  work in a Richmond gallery, I was instantly intrigued. They appeared otherworldly with an iridescent yet earthy surface quality and I wasn’t sure if it was some sort of prehistoric egg or fossil. It’s the kind of work that makes you stop and really appreciate what you are looking at.

Kay was kind enough to be interviewed for vaMODERN about the inspiration and her unique technique.

Interview with Richmond artist Kay Franz | by Josh McCullar

Q. Clay by its nature is of the earth and formed by the hand, so the nuances of how the artist works effect the form and shape most directly. Lao Tzu said “Molding clay into a vessel, we find the utility in its hollowness,” and so the absence of something – creating a void – is the reason for its being. Bowls, cups, and vases are always common in clay, but you have found a way to make spherical shapes for the expression of the piece itself rather than a vessel for utilitarian purposes. So how do you it and what inspires your forms?

A. It is very interesting that you referenced Lao-Tzu since I first read the Tao Te Ching when I started working in clay. Chapter 11 really resonated with me then and still does. (I still have my college copy but its binding and edges are taped holding it together.)

“Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;

It is the center hole that makes it useful.

Shape clay into a vessel;

It is the space within that makes it useful.

Cut doors and windows for a room;

It is the holes, which make it useful.

Therefore profit comes from what is there;

Usefulness from what is not there.”

Q. You have created a technique that imparts a primitive quality to the clay and makes it seem like an uncovered ancient artifact. I would imagine a lot of trial and error took place in the formative period with firing and glazes. How did your technique develop?

A. It was in college that I first handled clay taking my first class just as an elective. My intention was to major in sculpture or possibly commercial art. I never took a class in commercial art and only took one bronze casting class in sculpture. The very first coil pot I built captured something I wanted to express so it was instant love. From the start I was drawn to primitive pottery from the Americas and Asia. Shortly thereafter I was introduced to the Japanese tea bowl and the tea ceremony as well as its place in Zen Buddhism, which also impacted the direction of my work. 

The Japanese have an esthetic you are probably familiar with called wabi-sabi. Quoting from Wiki-pedia, “Wabi-sabi represents a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.” Wabi-sabi comes as close to anything that conveys what I feel I strive to achieve in my own work.

Early on I was a purist and felt I needed to adhere to all traditional techniques, no shortcuts allowed. Once out of college the cost to set up a studio seemed astronomical so I made compromises in order to keep working in clay. It was painfully apparent that hand building one of a kind non-functional pieces was not going to provide a living. My high-fired stoneware with ash glazes gave way to raku firing and then later to sawdust firing which is my current finishing technique. Having to work full time to support myself really pushed me to think of ways I could spend more time building pieces and less time in processes that were not time efficient. 

During college, I took all the glaze chemistry classes required for my major but as my work developed glazes seemed to take away from and not add to my surfaces. Eventually I gave glazing and started using slips and stains as colorants. Finally even those techniques were not giving me what I wanted so I pulled out the paint box and used acrylics. By this time I had totally abandoned anything resembling functional pottery so I did not need to feel limited by anything traditional. 

Q. Some of your pieces appear to have exploded open in the kiln. I would imagine as the air expands, this happens. Are these hopeful accidents, or planned into the final result?

Likewise with building pieces, I looked for time efficient ways of construction that still allowed for the unfolding process that takes place when I’m working. Wheel work was never appealing to me because it was too fast a process. I liked the time and thoughtful process that goes with hand building methods. I did not want to be a production artist anyway so I now use a variety of methods that include clay slabs slumped over forms plus coil and pinch construction. The container or vessel form is still there in my work but has surrendered its functionality. While my vessels don’t look so vessel-like anymore that’s what they really are. It’s the unending fascination with “the space within”. The cracks and surface ruptures you see are carved into the pieces. If the firing process enhances any of that it’s a wonderful addition to the work. I love archaeology, nature and the American southwest so my palettes and surfaces often try to capture the feel of ancient or alien surfaces. 

Q. What do you want to make next? Do you see your expression of form evolving beyond these shapes, or do you plan to continue perfecting your craft?

I once heard a quote from an artist who stated they had spent their entire career making the same thing over and over trying to get it right. I believe I’m doing something similar. There’s always evolution in my work and change and exploration is always part of that process but there is also a core that simply looks for the best way to express itself. I’m not at all conceptual in my approach, it is an intangible, non-verbal expression of the person inside.

Kay Franz

Handbuilt Pottery

Glen Allen, VA 23060

To learn more about Kay Franz and her process visit


One thought on “Perfect Imperfection

  1. Pingback: vaModern | clay and green tea

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