As a designer, I am exposed to so much product. I travel. I attend trade shows. I peruse Instagram. So I always appreciate those creatives who submerse themselves in the idea of simplicity. Ceramicist Katy Flynn is one example of that type of person. She lives in Des Moines, too, and when she’s not managing her family that includes her husband and four children who range in age from 8 to 14, she’s at her potter’s wheel, spinning clay into functional wares that are simple, beautiful, and timeless.
Katy has lived abroad, and she’s lived in rural America. Both experiences have led her to the functional sculptures that she delivers.
I know you once worked in the luxury arena. How did that transform into your artistry as a potter?
After my husband and I married, his job took us to Geneva. When I got there, I landed a position at a company managing luxury brands from Bulgari to Swarovski and getting product placements for their goods in entertainment. It felt creative, and it reminded me how much I valued that world. Before that job, I fumbled through a few jobs that I didn’t love.
I minored in ceramics in college, but the practical side of me didn’t plan on pursuing it as an actual career. When I was pregnant with my first child, my husband and I moved to Des Moines, where he is from. I am a proud stay-at-home mom of four children but eventually wanted to take a class and do something for myself. I chose ceramics and instantly found myself in my 14-year-old self again. I was itching to wrap my hands around that clay so I took more classes, found a wheel and kiln on Craigslist, transformed my laundry room into a studio, and started amassing pieces.
So you discovered your creativity early?
Yes. I’m from a small rural town in northern Illinois. As a child, I was an introvert. I still am. It was quiet where I grew up, and I was always in my head creating different worlds—drawing, doodling, making birthday cards for my parents from paper and dried cereal. I’ve always valued the idea of making something, and I love getting lost in the process. It’s innate in me.
People get stuck on definitions of words or what they perceive to be the definitions of words. “Creativity” is one of those words. Why do so many people put themselves in the camp of “I’m not creative?”
People tend to associate creativity with fine art. But it grows from so many forms of life’s activity such as cooking, dancing, or singing. Especially now as people have added time on the calendar because of COVID cancellations, they realize that they can pursue this innate part of human existence that comes from their soul. We were born with creativity. God gave us creativity because it produces joy and gives us the opportunity to make something beautiful. It’s about fun and the release of stress. Creativity allows us to lose ourselves in something, and that thing doesn’t have to include art supplies. Dogs get to frolic in the lake, and cats bask in the sun because those things feel good. Creativity should be looked at in the same manner.
Did living in Europe influence the aesthetic of your pottery in any way?
It sure did! I didn’t realize that I loved Scandinavian design, but it certainly informs my work. I like a straight line, a streamlined silhouette, simple but functional. I tend to be practical to a fault and don’t consider myself a fan of fancy detail. I can appreciate the artistry of those frills but regularly edit and refine so I don’t over-decorate with detail. Pottery is intended to be useful. The simplicity of Scandinavian design attracts me. And that comes not only from the forms, but the color, too. I like black, and I like white because everything looks good on it.
When I first started, my husband was helping me select glazes, and he chose one called Fiesta Blue. It was bright and vibrant. I tried to love it, but it just never spoke to me. That’s when I decided to stick with what I really love—black and white.
What are your thoughts on consumerism? There’s a trend to “get rid of things and live with what you have,” but it’s difficult to completely avoid beautiful objects.
I am not a consumer, so it’s ironic that I make “stuff” that I want other people to buy. I’m frugal. I don’t shop for myself. Because we had a European experience, I look through their lens. The rest of the world has a much different philosophy about consumption. Here, we are not trained to think about the entire life of what we buy. We have the attitude that if we don’t like something, we can get rid of it. Oftentimes, the end user is a landfill. I don’t want to contribute to that.
When people buy the pieces that I make, I want it to be about the story behind the piece. I want to know my customers, and I want them to know me. People love the background story behind what they buy, and appreciate something that is handmade, touched by a real person. In my case, they can imagine the process from the raw clay to the wheel to the moment when the sales transaction happens. My hope is that my pieces continue to bring pleasure for a long time. There’s a joyful anticipation in using something that you really love. My hope is that there is a ritual that accompanies one of my mugs, or flowers picked from a personal garden go into a vase that I’ve made.
Is there a time when you bought a piece from an artist that really resonated with you?
It happened recently, in fact, during a trip to Sedona. I bought a dream catcher by a Native American woman. When she looked into my eyes as she was talking, it was like she was looking into my soul. I met her at an artists’ co-op. A bunch of artists shared the space, and this woman happened to be working the day I was there. Her dream catchers were stunning and spoke to me.
Travel delivers such impact to those who have the bug to see other places and other cultures. How has travel affected you?
I’m not a consumer of “things,” but I am a consumer of travel. Visiting other destinations opens your mind to perspectives that you would never be able to learn from a book because of it’s a sensory effect. It’s the snow outside of a Parisian subway. The tastes and texture of a fresh baguette. The sight of architecture. The sound of a different language. The breeze that moves laundry while it’s drying outside an apartment window. It’s a woman dressed in a beautiful heel as she strolls down a cobblestone path. You are fully emerged in someone else’s life even though you are not living it, whether you are conscious of it or not. You see that the way they live makes them happy. Although the world is big, it’s also really small. We all live the same things. We all get dressed in the morning, eat a few meals during the day, look forward to seeing a new lover.
When did you first start traveling?
Travel is gift that my parents gave to me at an early age. I was 11 when I flew to Greece. I thought it was weird and dirty and then we went to Egypt. The market was noisy, and nobody looked like me from the rural Midwest. I was so glad to come home. But that trip shifted my entire life. I studied abroad twice—in Austria and Poland. I read international news when we lived there, which is so different than living in the United States. We are so isolated here, but I appreciate America more than any place. This is my home.
You see other people live as minimalists while in this country we are managing all of these “extras.” Other cultures are more survival-driven with a few extra added layers of complexity. That’s why I’m drawn to paring everything down. It seems like we are always spinning 18 plates nonstop while we are sleeping. It’s so different in other places where they are only spinning one plate—to work, to take kids to school, to come home and eat, and then start the routine over again. The more privilege you have the more responsibility you have, and it’s not always joyful. That’s why I put value in paring down and removing distractions. With that said, I have four kids who are super busy, and I love that.
There’s something so sexy and glamorous about being an artist. What is the reality?
The reality is self-doubt. I oftentimes feel like I am stumbling my way through what I do. I second-guess a lot but find moments of success too, and that is so rewarding. People fantasize about being a writer like Carrie on Sex and the City. They envision living in a fancy New York apartment like she did. Or they think that writers live in an idyllic setting out in the woods. But it’s not all about that. For me pottery is a slow art that grounds me and slows me, and I need that. I’m organized, efficient, manage my time well, a type-A personality. Pottery forces me to concentrate. It’s meditative and therapeutic.
Take a meditative moment to engage with the black-and-white artistry of Katy Flynn’s pottery.