Ceramic artist JARRETT WEST celebrates both the strength and fragility of nature
ARTIST STUDIO BY ANYA SEBASTIAN
J arrett West is a child of the earth. His connections with the natural environment run deep, and they are clearly evident in his work as a ceramic artist specializing in monumental, abstract sculptures. Intended to be displayed outdoors, his works both reflect and complement the world around them, their meaning informed by the environment in which they are installed and the imagination of the viewer. “That collaboration is what completes the statement,” West says.
Born in Santa Fe and raised on his family’s cattle ranch on NM State Road 14, West grew up as a country boy, immersed in the natural world around him. He had little interest in, or exposure to, the arts in his early youth, preferring to involve himself with the rural outdoors—hiking, fishing, hunting, and deepening his connection with nature.
That relationship was further intensified during his teenage years, when the family moved to a cattle ranch in Wyoming and then to a farm in Idaho—a move that also set him on the road to becoming an artist. “It was as a high school student in Boise that I was first introduced to ceramics,” he recalls. “The school had really good facilities—kilns, metal shops, wood shops—and I had a great instructor. I took to it immediately. I was a natural, and I knew right away that was what I wanted to do.”
After graduating high school, West decided not to go on to college but to return to Santa Fe and connect with its thriving art community. Once there, he discovered the work of ceramic artists like Bobby Brodsky, Peter Dougan, and Priscilla Hoback. “I started to make a nuisance of myself,” he recalls, “knocking on doors and asking to be taken on as an apprentice.” He did end up doing several apprenticeships over a period of about nine years, with people who really took the time to help and educate him. “It was the 1980s, and I guess things were different then,” he notes. “The art community in Santa Fe was definitely my greatest artistic influence, and I will always be grateful for that.”
West’s mentors not only taught him the skills he needed in order to become a ceramic artist, but they also gave him advice on how to present and sell his work. He took that to heart, and come summer he would sit by the side of the road off NM 14 with a big sign promoting his wares. In those days he was making practical things like bowls, plates, and cups. People would stop to take a look and chat, and they would usually end up buying something. “It taught me a lot about interacting with the public,” West says, “which is essential for someone like me. I like to find out what they’re looking for, what they like and respond to. It’s about making a connection, rather than just making a sale.”
As time went on, his skillsets expanded to include more than just making practical objects. He learned how to build kilns, dig native clay, and master special glazing techniques, and he even ended up designing and building homes. He completed ten of them over the years, all in the area of NM 14, using a combination of adobe, frame, and a recycled foam-block system. The difference in scale between working on household objects and building homes made such an impact on him that it prompted a significant shift in his artistic evolution, as did his familiarity with the work of Japanese artist Jun Kaneko.
Kaneko, who came to prominence in the 1960s and ’70s, was famous for pushing the boundaries of ceramics in a way that had never been done before, producing monumental abstract sculptures well over six feet tall. “That was what inspired me to work on that scale,” West says. “Having had the experience of building with adobe, I knew that physically and structurally I could do it.”
His work is created in sections, which are then hoisted up and stacked on top of each other, either with the help of a ladder or specially constructed scaffolding. “It’s definitely demanding,” he admits, “but I like the challenge of joinery, the interlocking of the stacked components. Even so, I don’t feel the work is really complete until it’s installed outside, in the right environment.”
Now a fit, youthful-looking man in his 50s, West continues to explore these themes in the studio he built, along with his home, a few miles from the ranch where he spent his early childhood. Because his sculptures are designed to live outdoors, they are crafted specifically to weather the impact of snow, hail, wind, rain, ice, and UV rays from sunlight. He uses a locally blended stoneware clay and makes his glazes from crushed limestone, silica, and other natural elements.
His distinctive pieces, a selection of which can be seen at Tierra Mar Gallery on Canyon Road, are monumental in size, recalling ancient monoliths, with rounded edges and interconnected shapes that reflect not only his longtime interest in the architecture of the Southwest but also the harmony and symmetry of Mother Nature. Some are deeply textured, suggestive of rock, bark, or molten processes, and his colored glazes range from burnished to high shine. His works interact with the environment, their energy shifting to reflect the seasons, and even the time of day, since sunshine and shadows, light and dark create nuances that produce subtle differences in their shapes and surfaces.
An ardent environmentalist, West is alarmed at the myriad ways in which the balance of nature is currently being disturbed and undermined. “We are all part of the whole and we should be working together, not dominating the natural world around us,” he says, “and I think this is a good time for artists to step up and be responsible for stewardship of the land.”
West believes that people are increasingly recognizing that imbalance and are hungry for authenticity. “That realization came to me when I was designing and building adobe homes,” he says. “Their form, their personality, everything about them feels comfortable, with an energy we can relate to, especially as they don’t conflict with the environment, they collaborate with it. I wanted to create sculptures that generate that same feeling of harmony and balance.”
Rather than explain the meaning of his work, West prefers to leave their interpretation up to the viewer. “I think it’s important to let people’s imagination run free,” he explains, “just like with any abstract art. A Jackson Pollock can mean different things to different people, and I’m far more interested in hearing what people see in my work than in telling them what it means to me.”
As for the future, West does not foresee any major changes in his artistic journey. “My art is always evolving and I feel good about where I’m at right now, so changes are subtle.” The ongoing technical challenges presented by ceramics keep him busy refining his techniques, while he continues to explore various themes having to do with our connection to the natural world. He feels no need to experiment with new materials, or new glazes, having devoted years of research and gone through many periods of trial and error to reach the place where he finally feels comfortable.
“Working with something that is bigger than yourself—in my case, nature, the environment—is always challenging and always evolving and that feels really good,” he says. “I create works of art that are not intended to be fashionable or trendy. They are meant to last, to endure as part of the landscape and, hopefully, to start a conversation.”