Everyday Icon: Potter, Helen Christgau Levi

We became enamored with the gorgeous mugs and other dishware created by this New York-based artist, so we sat down with her to ask about her creative process, how she has grown her business and more.
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Barbara Sueko McGuire
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We became enamored with the gorgeous mugs and other dishware created by this New York-based artist, so we sat down with her to ask about her creative process, how she has grown her business and more.
Image Credit: Atisha Paulsen

Image Credit: Atisha Paulsen

The words "patient" and "New Yorker" are rarely found in the same sentence, but artist Helen Christgau Levi is definitely an exception to the rule. While she may have grown up on the busy streets of the East Village, the potter now spends her days mindfully crafting dishware and home goods that can each take several hours to complete.

"There are certain steps of the process that can't be rushed,” she explains. "So it takes a while for anything to be finished!" After she throws a piece on the wheel, for example, she actually has to let it dry a little before she can begin to work, or else she may squish the clay. Then, in order to avoid an explosion, she has to let the finished design completely dry before firing it in the kiln for a full 24 hours. And the process doesn't end there! Next, she glazes the item and puts it back in the kiln for another 36 hours.

Just a glance at her collection is proof enough that the benefits of her process far outweigh the time-consuming costs. There's just something about her creations that make you want to reach out and touch them. Perhaps it's because, if the feeling of home could be distilled into a ceramic piece, Helen has figured out the magic alchemy. One thing's for sure: if your coffee doesn't taste better when sipped out of one of her mugs, then you're not making it right.

What sparked your interest in pottery, and how did you learn the craft?

I've always done pottery as a hobby, as long as I can remember. I started taking after-school classes at a community center in elementary school, and I never stopped. It became a business almost four years ago.

How would you describe your pottery to someone who has never seen it?

I would say it's a mix of clean and earthy, very functional, everyday dishware. I like to use color but still keep a neutrality that I think will mix in with the dishes you already have.

When it comes to inspiration, where do you find yours?

Definitely I find inspiration in nature, landscape, being outside. I'm also inspired by the physical processes of ceramics. For example, I learned slipcasting because I had an idea about tinted blue clay, but it's really hard to make blue clay that you can throw on the wheel in any great quantity. It's much easier to tint liquid clay (slip). So I started playing around with blue slip, and eventually I landed on the Beach series. I didn't set out thinking, okay, I want to replicate the colors of the beach. I noticed that afterwards! I take my dog to the beach before work often, and I love going in all seasons. I think that seeped into my work.

What's your creative process like when you set out to start a new design?

Sometimes the design is dictated by the process, or sometimes just by the function of the piece. For example, when I design a mug, I have to think about, will it be comfortable to hold in your hand? Will it drink easily? Or with a vase, I have think, will it really hold the flowers upright? Those questions influence the shape. And then color usually comes in afterwards.

You're a one-woman show — how have you been able to grow your business to where it is today?

It has been very slow and steady! I've grown incrementally over time. I have a large studio all to myself now, but this is basically my fifth upgrade in almost four years of running my business. A year ago my studio was 200 square feet. I've been very aware of not biting off more than I can chew financially. I never had to take a loan to make a financial investment; I only spent a small amount at a time that I could handle. That meant working out of a tiny space in the beginning, always buying used equipment and keeping my expenses low.

What's it like when you have an open studio event and let people inside your creative space?

That's a very interesting question. I love meeting people and witnessing them pick out a piece. Seeing them pick up a mug and turn it around in their hand and consider it; that's a special moment for me. But it is a little nerve-wracking to let strangers into what is an incredibly intimate and special place to me.

You also teach pottery — what's that experience like, and what do you enjoy about it?

I only teach occasionally now, doing one-day workshops sometimes. I used to teach all ages, and I love how kids make art — it's so inspired! They're usually so unconcerned with what something is "supposed" to look like. If the kid holds out a lump of clay and says, "Look, I made a hairdryer!" you say, "You sure did! Cool!" I love their imagination and freedom.

How do you think being born and raised in New York City has affected you as a creative human?

I grew up in the East Village but my parents have a house in the Catskills. I definitely was raised to think that living in New York is great, only as long as you have an escape. I still feel that way, and I make a real effort to carve out alone time away from the other nine-million people who I share my home with. Whether that's going to the beach in the dead of winter, or getting out of town, I make sure to have the balance of city and solitude. And in doing so, I think I find inspiration in my landscape.

You did some extensive travel to learn more about pottery, which I think is amazing. Why did you set out on that adventure?

I had a really special opportunity to make a collection of work for an artisanal whisky company, Bruichladdich, who basically commissioned me to make pieces using foraged materials I collected on a road trip. I drove to New Mexico and back, visiting several of the manufacturers of my materials (clay, glaze, etc.) and also collecting different dirt from different locations, which I then incorporated into my pieces. After the trip and several months of work, I had a show at The Primary Essentials, a store which has been a great supporter of my work, showcasing the collection. 

You're one of many creatives who is taking action after the results of the presidential election. Can you tell us a little bit about what you're doing and how people can get involved?

I've organized "Empty Bowls" on three separate occasions, which is a well-established potter's tradition of hosting a meal with donated food and donated bowls, with all proceeds benefitting local hunger awareness. Each diner pays a suggested donation and gets to keep the bowl.

This time around, it's not quite a sanctioned Empty Bowls event, since it won't fight hunger — it will benefit the four groups I think are most at risk under the next presidential administration: women's rights (probably Planned Parenthood), minority rights (probably ACLU), the environment (probably Sierra Club) and gay rights (TBD). I'm still finalizing the exact charities as well as the date, but I'm planning it for around the inauguration. What's REALLY awesome is that the response has been so big that more chapters are joining in! So far there'll be one in Kansas City as well as Cleveland and Berkeley. I'm so moved by how much people want to join together.

As for getting involved, any potter can donate a bowl! They can email me to do so. And more importantly, people should come to the dinners! They can follow along by cruising the hashtag #pottersinprotest on Instagram.

p.s. Have you met this vintage shop owner with a soft spot for rescue pets?