ceramics artist 

Lisa Taranto

Birthplace: Ridgewood, N.J., 1966.
Education: Bachelor of Arts, architecture, Virginia Tech, 1991.
Artistic Medium: Ceramic tiles and functional ceramic objects.
Where you can find her work: Available by commission and at Astra Design in Carytown.

How she became interested in pottery: Taranto took time off from studying architecture at Virginia Tech to live and work at Arcosanti, an experimental town in the high desert of Arizona, designed according to the concept of arcology (architecture plus ecology) by Italian architect Paolo Soleri.

For a year and a half, Taranto worked in Arcosanti's tile-production factory where she learned firsthand about every aspect of ceramics — from mining clay, to forming, glazing and firing the tiles. She was captivated by clay.

"People see [pottery] as a down-home crafty thing, but it is so technically challenging," she says. "There are a billion different options."

When she returned to school to finish her architecture degree, she continued taking pottery classes and, she says, "had a dream I would go make pots and sell them." After graduation, Taranto moved to Richmond with some friends and proceeded to work toward achieving that dream.

What she makes: Until about two years ago, Taranto had a wholesale pottery business, selling pinch pots, vases and other functional ceramic objects to craft and gift shops, art galleries and craft shows. But after years of making the same things, she began to feel trapped.

I decided I couldn't do that anymore," she explains, "because you get into this one thing, and people expect to see that and you can't change. I lost the sense of being able to be creative with the material and to explore new things. … I wanted to focus on smaller, more special things rather than just cranking them out"

Now, Taranto makes tiles mostly, creating one-of-a-kind commissions for clients' homes. She has designed everything from fireplace surrounds and hearths, to floor medallions and bathrooms. These projects allow her to combine her interests in ceramics and architecture.

How she makes her art: Taranto starts with a sketch or drawing of the object before she creates it in clay. Rather than use a pottery wheel, Taranto builds each piece by hand. She uses one of three hand-building techniques — slab, coil or pinching — to create the form she desires.

She began hand building while she lived in New York for a few years at the start of her professional art career. Her studio and kiln were so tiny, she says, that she really didn't have space for a pottery wheel or for large pieces of work. "I believe your hands are your most powerful tools," she says.

After sculpting a form and allowing it to dry, Taranto glazes it. Her distinctive palette of luminous colors is a result of mixing the glazes herself. Many of her glazes are barium- or lithium-based, and she must protect herself with a respirator when working with these substances.

"I've spent about 10 years teaching myself to glaze things and to understand what each different element [in a glaze] does," she says. "It is almost like mixing ingredients together and baking a cake." She tests a glaze before committing it to a piece of work.

After glazing, each ceramics piece is fired twice, for eight to 12 hours, to a temperature of about 2,300 degrees.

What she likes about pottery: "Compared to architecture, it is instant gratification," she says with a laugh. "You can really make anything out of clay; you can work on any scale and with any form. … There is sort of an endless possibility and exploration within the material."

What inspires her: "Coming from an architecture and design standpoint, I love math and geometry," she says, citing the Fibonacci series, a mathematical sequence that describes a spiral form, as a big inspiration for her work. "I don't come from a traditional craft background and I think that's why my work has been so successful. I don't fit into a niche"

She says "the amazing power of the natural form" also inspires many of her forms. "I like subtle strength rather than things that are highly decorative. It is important for me that the work be functional, that it is very user-friendly."

And, of course, "I am still really influenced by architecture, especially modernist architecture."

What she says about being an artist: Although Taranto is currently working part time for a local architecture firm, she says she has realized that she is truly an artist at heart. She is currently looking into M.F.A. programs in sculpture and is ready to pursue her art "to the next level."

"One of the things about being an artist that is sometimes difficult is that you assign yourself that title," she says."…When I was younger I was almost meek about it. I thought there was almost something arrogant about it … but it is my profession."

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