While an artist’s life may look romantic to those looking in, as with most things, it comes with its own travails. The idea of the “suffering artist” has, after all, been a part of our lexicon for a lifetime and for many that struggle, a strong desire to use art becomes a catalyst for change.
An Artist’s Pursuit
Ceramics artist Abby Deneau can relate. “For me, being an artist has been kind of a stressful pursuit,” she said. “I never questioned it or how it fit into the wider world. It’s the only thing that I have ever wanted to be,” she says. “When I was little, I wrote down on a piece of paper that I wanted to either be a cartoon character or an artist.”
“Artist” won out, and she pursued a BFA from Michigan State University. There she learned much about herself and uncovered some unexpected conflict as well. As her program came to an end, the pressures surrounding art and capitalism and society’s ideas about perfectionism were weighing heavily on her, and she knew she wanted to make art that pushed some boundaries and some buttons.
The Maker’s Hand
Deneau’s first work, which eventually became her signature iconic piece, was one she’d envisioned for some time. “The Sculpture” was to serve as commentary about the juxtaposition between fine art and consumerism — the line between them. Eventually, after achieving a finishing technique that smoothed her work to perfection, she began to make molds, allowing for seamless reproduction.
“Removing the hand of the maker,” something she was criticized for, was very important to Deneau. “I was trying to make a statement about mechanized production, repetition and the illusion of perfection we strive for,” she said. “I actually became a little obsessed with it.”
Breaking the Mold
Years later, Deneau’s work is taking on new meaning. When she first entered the college environment, she says she felt pressured to create in a way that conformed to the “academic idea of fine art.” Of that time, she says she was clear on one thing.
“I wanted to be a fine artist; not a crafter.” Now she doesn’t care about those distinctions. “Back then, it seemed so important, and it messed with my head a little bit,” she said. “But I rejected that whole idea. I rejected it for me.”
Now, Deneau tries to take the pressure off herself, something she also teaches her students to do. “I try to get them to loosen up so that the process is the most important part,” said Abby. “I fight the urge to make my work perfect, and I think that’s the way I want it to go.” Finding the Zen Deneau’s most recent body of work brings “the hand back in.” She created a number of one-of-a-kind platters, hand building each one, and she found some new peace in that space. She’s gaining an understanding of Zen-like creativity, and she likes it. She still wants to make more art work about the pressures of capitalism, but she wants to take a process-focused approach.
“A lot of people want to do the things they love, and trying to make money too, puts a damper on it.”
Her life today involves caring for her family and running her ceramics studio, Sunset Clay. There she makes and teaches art, and has built a strong creative community that shares their thoughts and ideas. “There is a joyous, positive energy when people come together like that,” she said.
While Deneau has rejected creative labels, her life echoes those two words she wrote down as a girl, and she seems to have embraced them both. She is an artist and a cartoon character — a superhero of sorts—fighting perfectionism and consumerism in the arts and embracing artists in all their forms.
Buy and Learn
If you would like to purchase some of Deneau’s work or take a class at Sunset Clay Studio, visit her Facebook page, Abby Deneau Designs. Her Sunset Clay team works together to provide workshops for the clay curious of all ages.