Molly Bernstein grew up in West Cape May, NJ amongst the chickens and turkeys that freely roam the magical street of Stimpson Lane. She graduated from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia in 2013 with a BFA in ceramics. Her work has been featured in galleries as far reaching as Japan and Romania. Themes commonly expressed within her work include the disenchantment of adulthood and the idea of non-linear time. Her influences range from 90s Nickelodeon cartoons to her time spent studying pottery in Japan. She currently works in clay and makes illustrations out of Groceries, a co-op studio in South Philadelphia and, occasionally, her parent’s basement in West Cape May. We at Makers Making are proud to support and to sell Molly’s beautiful tableware.
Interview by Christian Hartman
MM: I heard you have a twin, is this accurate?
MB: Yes, we are very similar. She went to school for ceramics as well. Actually, we went to the same school.
MM: What was it like for you growing up with a twin?
MB: It was a blast. It’s like having a sibling but better. I can use her driver’s license. I can impersonate her. I’m about to go to the bank to deposit money into her account and I get to pretend I’m her. Small perks.
MM: Does having a twin come with any special powers, like shared telepathic thought?
MB: Not yet but I feel like later in life that will come. We are still growing into those mystical twin powers.
MM: Do you feel your sister was influential in your artistic endeavors?
MB: Oh yeah, we give each other ideas all the time. We steal stuff off each other too. She can be motivating at times. I can ask her what she thinks of my work and she will tell me something is terrible when no one else will. We shared studios in Philly. Yeah, I can’t even go shopping without her.
MM: So she is someone you trust and feel comfortable working side by side with?
MB: Yeah, it’s really easy when you always have someone to work next to. I don’t like working by myself, that’s the worst part, being alone all the time in the studio, so it’s nice to have her.
MM: Can you explain to me a little about what you do?
MB: Right now, ceramic tableware, drawing on different scales and sometimes even making paper walls to draw all over because I secretly want to make a mural. Sometimes I combine my ceramics and drawings using a Japanese inlay technique called Mishima. My preferred medium is porcelain because of the way it feels in your hands and how it acts as a blank canvas for the colors I’m into. I feel like they pop better on a white surface versus using a red clay like Terracotta. Lately I’ve really been into patterns and mark making too. I use Gosu Slip, which is like a dark blue/black ceramic-like ink from Japan, I love the way it looks. I used to hate admitting this because I felt like someone would kick me out of the ceramic world but, I absolutely hate throwing. I felt like such a fraud for making pots and not throwing them on a wheel but I could never figure out how to make them distinctly my own when everything comes out so perfectly round. I coil pinch everything and I love it.
MM: What made you want to go to school for ceramics?
MB: I went to Uarts in Philly and I loved every second of it. I didn’t get out of high school thinking that I was going to go school for art. I had no idea what I wanted to do and tried to avoid college alltogether. I just kind of fell into ceramics. I feel like a lot of people just fall into clay this way. It has an addicting nature to it. I think if you are one of those people who learn things by doing or making, it can be very inviting because it’s so direct.
MM: What experiences have you had trying to progress your pottery?
MB: I think going to Japan was the largest influence on what I am doing now, how I approach ceramics and a lifestyle in general. When I was in school I didn’t make any functional work, I just made sculpture for the most part. They used functional ceramics everyday, it was just part of the culture there. It was very eye opening.
MM: In what specific ways did it open your eyes?
MB: They embrace childlike naivete. They embrace the flaws in everything. That’s what the wabi-sabi culture is, the aesthetic, the whole tea bowl ceremony and everything. They just kind of have the opposite approach of Americans. They leave their fingerprints in the glaze, they don’t cover them up, they just leave them there. I just love that and I was always afraid of intention in my work and how intention equates with my ability. I was always worried that it would come across like I wasn't capable of something if the intention looked childlike. Does that make sense?
MM: So, you’re trying to say that you wanted your work to be pristine so people would view you as a serious artist?
MB: Not even serious but just like I knew what I was doing, that I was competent. When I got back from Japan my whole body of work changed. I started thinking about bowls and cups and plates as sculptures. I started using color palettes from old 90’s Nick cartoons like Ren & Stimpy and Aaahh!!! Real Monsters. They have weird saturations and strange muted pastels. The line qualities too, I was definitely influenced by that. I stopped holding my breath, I didn’t worry about how I would come across, I didn’t want to know what I was doing in a way.
MM: Are there any major themes in your work?
MB: There are multiple and they’re tangled, they started by being influenced by Japan. I just wanted to do something for fun. With my drawings, I started them with the idea of a disenchantment of adulthood, like getting out of school and being like, is this it? This sucks! So they are kind of a reaction to having Peter Pan Syndrome mixed with personal stories. I’ll use objects in the drawings as symbols for people in my own life, that’s really fun for me, knowing people are taking these things home with them, living with my little stories, sometimes the stories aren’t so light. Also some of my compositions toy with the idea of non-linear time. I don’t know, I’m into science things. Science things? Does that sound dumb? Do I sound dumb?
MM: Science things, it’s smart. You sound really, really good. Real Smart.
MB: Real, real smart. Make me sound good, real good. You can edit that out right?
MM: I don’t know if I can do that, journalistic integrity and all.
MB: Right. Well, I’m into reading about physics and neurons and stuff that’s so foreign to me. Like, there’s this theory that there’s this receptor in our brains that makes us forget and it makes it so we don’t explode from information overload from all the sounds and noises and visual stimuli that we take in. So right now I’m working on this one drawing where I filled in all the negative space with patters, with that in mind. It’s kind of hard to look at now, it’s kind of nauseating, so it’s close to being finished.
MM: How important is the creative process to your life?
MB: It’s definitely the key to my sanity. Obviously it’s super cathartic. It’s just something I can’t not do. Right now I’m exploring if it’s something I want to do to support my lifestyle. I’m not sure it’s something I want to live off in a manufacturing sense or if I want to just make small batches of stuff and never make them again. If something sells and becomes popular and you want to live off of it then you have to reproduce it over and over again, that’s something that worries me. I don’t want to make the same things for the rest of my life.
MM: And that goes against the way you want to live your life?
MB: Yeah, there is no growth, it’s just kind of stagnant.
MM: What have been your biggest challenges so far, primarily, in regards to this business of yourself and selling your work in stores?
MB: My commitment issues. Setting up a studio with a kiln has been difficult because I somehow manage to move every 3 months for the last couple of years, so that’s been a little tricky. Also, being in academia, you get this sense in your head that you are going to go to grad school eventually and that’s not something that I filtered out yet. It’s not something that I decided I’m definitely going to do yet but it’s a question I’m always toying with. That’s what I’m dealing with right now and that has hindered me in expanding.
MM: So it’s a lot of stuff stemming from you being non-committal?
MB: It’s a lot of back and forth bullshit, like what the fuck am I doing?
MM: Who is Mary Anne?
MB: Oh my God, I hate you! Mary Anne is Nobody. She is this, like, I don’t want to say persona but like a character. I feel like this is very not me either, normally I wouldn’t do something like this. It’s definitely something I ripped off of somebody else, someone I heard on a podcast. I thought, I am going to do this, I’m going to steal this idea.
MM: So what is it you actually do?
MB: It’s a character I made up and her name is Mary Anne. Of course her name would be Mary Anne. I feel like that’s the perfect name for her. I hate public speaking and I feel like that’s something you have do in this line of work. I’m getting better at it but Mary Anne is someone I pretend to be while I’m public speaking. I can be her instead of myself.
MM: So she is someone you channel to get through the parts of artistic life you don’t like?
MB: Mary Anne is like the business side. Mary Anne does not get parking tickets. Mary Anne pays her bills on time. Mary Anne has a perfect credit score.
MM: Mary Anne wears pant suits.
MB: Yeah, she is the type to wear a lot of beige. I don’t want to be her but sometimes, I have to be her. For all these situations I don’t want to be in or do, I call Mary Anne. I feel like it’s not just public speaking but going to the courthouse to get my business registration, that’s a job for Mary Anne. I just hope people don’t start to think I have a split personality.
Part 2 of Molly Bernstein's interview coming soon...
JOIN US SUNDAY, MAY 29TH @7PM FOR A POP UP SHOW FEATURING MOLLY BERNSTEIN & COLIN PEZZANO
Find Molly's work June 3rd, 7-10pm, at Space 1026 in Philadelphia as part of the "Philadelphia 2076" Group Show