Friday, July 28, 2017

James Salaiz and Mark Welsh

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch


Ceramicist and sculptor James Salaiz and his partner Mark Welsh who makes  mixed-media collages, divide their time between an apartment in Manhattan and a rented house on Fire Island where there is a studio and a kiln for James. Both have day jobs—James is up at 5:30 six days a week to work as a landscape designer and Mark claims to be “the world’s longest contiguously serving copywriter”. They’re left with evenings and weekends for the next shift. An earlier series of James’ ceramic sculptures entitled “Bullets” caught the eye of Rei Kawakubo and were shown in her Trading Museums in Paris and Tokyo and both Mark and James are represented in New York by Cristina Grajales.

I didn’t know quite where to start with you two … how do you work as a foil for each other?

James: Mark is more task-oriented … 

Mark: Pragmatic.

James: Yes, pragmatic. He helps me focus.

Mark: When I met James ten years ago … where did you go to school?

James: Cornell.

Mark: Yes ... well he was also a painter ... he was also a drawer. He could do all of these different things and I was like, “Okay. What are you best at? You’re best at your ceramics. That’s all it was. I met him actually at Jonathan Adler’s.
The stripped down front door gives the entryway a slightly industrial look. The white "Giraffe" sculptures are by James and the découpage on the far wall is from John Derian.
Peeking into the living room from the front entryway. Screens from Hudson, New York create a divider between the two rooms.
What were you doing at Jonathan Adler’s?

Mark: I’m a friend of Jonathan’s and I had a meeting in the building and I wandered down to see the new offices and there James was with flip flops and socks on, which was highly erotic.

James: We didn’t speak did we? I think we made eye contact.

Mark: I [thought] I’d love to be in a relationship with a creative person, somebody who makes stuff and does stuff with their hands because up until that point, honestly, I didn’t know that I could [create]. I’d never made anything.

So you helped Mark along with that?

James: Well he had a different side to his creativity. He was a writer and he’s a great writer.

Mark: I grew up on a farm in New Zealand and creativity was held in very low esteem, like I remember I was reading a book one day and my dad walked in and said, “What are you doing?” and I said, “I’m reading a book.” And he said, “Well don’t you have anything to do?”
Reflections of the living room from a horn mirror, a gift from a friend.
Art by Annette Davidek and Pat de Groot hangs in a corner above a chair by Harry Bertoia for Knoll.
James added a touch of glamour to a somewhat nondescript Moroccan brass chandelier by re-gilding it in a green-gold leaf.
Yes, I grew up in a society a bit like that in what was then Rhodesia. But for you, James, it seemed very different—you were fascinated by clay when you were a child and I got the impression that you were very directed and so went to art school.

James: I did go to school and graduated with a degree in ceramics and then I travelled to San Francisco—I worked for a potter there and I worked for a potter in New York and did photography and you know … we ended up getting a little studio on Christie Street.

What do you think you have that caught Jonathan Adler’s eye?

James: Probably my experience on the wheel. I think we just maybe clicked.

Mark: Jonathan said to me that he’s incredibly talented—that’s why he hired him. But James’ mother told me that when he was a kid in front of the TV, he would just sit there with plasticine and clay and make things. He just couldn’t help it.
The apartment combines vintage pieces with found objects and art, much of it made by the artists themselves.
Three pieces from James' "Bullet" series made out of stoneware with a graphite glaze are arranged in front of the living room TV. The painting above the TV was found at Cafiero Select and the lamp is from Hudson.
A corner sofa is newly covered in a moss-colored velvet from Kravet. A mid-century Danish butterfly lamp hangs above a coffee table with a base by Warren Platner and a top from Tucker Robbins.
James and Mark adopted Spike, their Chihuahua, from a Pit Bull shelter in the Bronx. He makes himself comfy on a sheepskin rug from New Zealand, Mark's native country.
Throwing seems to me to be really difficult—is it one of those things you either have or you don’t?

James: Throwing is very hard. There is a lot of physical exertion—it’s exhausting—things like wedging the clay …

Mark: You get good biceps from it though. I was like, “Biceps … and that novelty shoe-sock? I’m in!”

Well how about you? Your work is very controlled. Your pieces are extraordinary.

Mark: Well thank you, thank you. Somebody said to me the other day, “It’s like you’re a Victorian housewife on laudanum.” Well I am using tweezers … I’m not a meticulous person. I don’t know where it came from. I’m not patient. I’m a tremendously impatient person. And yet those things take hours and days and weeks and I can never be happier than sitting there working.
More views of the living room seating area. Mark's mixed-media collage, "Space Mistress" (2013), hangs above the corner sofa.
A molded plywood chair by Charles Eames is positioned in front of an oversized stone fireplace.
But actually in the detail, going back to the Victorian housewife, there is something slightly creepy …
 
Mark: Yeah, yeah, I agree. They’re not meant to be pretty. This one here [A collage of a flamingo] is actually made out of drawings of musculature. I used up the pages of four copies of the same anatomy book. The muscles around the heart look just like feathers.

You’re obviously a very visual person—were you hiding your light under a bushel while you were working as a copywriter?

Well it was beaten out of me by my dad [laughs] … no, I’m being flippant about it. He tried to make me a farmer … I can’t do anything. I’m useless. They’d be shearing and I was like, “Shall I go and make some scones for the men, mum?” It was tough for my dad.
Mark's "Anatomy of an Audubon" (2016), is positioned behind a group of works from the "Bullet" series. The lion lamp was a prop used in a movie starring Warren Beatty and was purchased at the now-defunct East Village emporium, Love Saves The Day.
Looking from the living room into the sunny, plant-filled conservatory.
The recent collection of "Sculptural Landscapes" (2017) by James stands atop a vintage worktable from the now-defunct store, Billy's, on Houston Street.
A mix of books, found art and objects are arranged upon another worktable in the greenhouse. The ceramic sculpture by Edwin Vera is of Mark's dog, Sweetie.
And so you I guess you disappointed him by becoming a copywriter?

And my sister is one too! I’m the world’s longest contiguously serving copywriter. My day job is right here in that kitchen. Forty years I’ve been doing this! Copywriting has morphed a lot … I’m certainly not trying to make my talent sound lofty or anything but I’ve moved more into brand development.

How do you square, both of you, the basic realities of having to “brand” yourselves in terms of promoting yourselves, with actual artistic expression and trying to express yourselves?

Mark: Ooh … I don’t know … I’ve never really thought about that.

James: You know the whole idea of the “artist”, especially when I was going through school, it was very classic—there was no talk about brand or self-promotion. You had oral defenses where you had to stand in front of your professor and defend your work but that’s nothing compared to what you have to do [later]. Mark being from marketing and advertising and that whole world has really helped me define what I wanted to say as an artist.
A sand painting by J.M. Middleton hangs above a daybed from Tucker Robbins. The throw and pillows are from John Robshaw.
A corner bookcase is arranged with more work by James and Mark.
"Sculptural Landscapes" juxtaposed against a view of the New York Life building.
What do you want to say as an artist?

Mark: Uh oh! You’d better come up with something!

James: I feel that this latest collection, which is called “Sculptural Landscapes”, which is towers, it’s totems, it’s towering figures … it’s very much what is happening in the city … it’s overpowering. I see that’s how things are going in the world. Everything is very commanding … but there’s also community in it. They are powerful forms.

A lot of your forms do seem to have something to do with power, even violence.

James: Yeah. I think the early forms—originally when I was throwing the “Bullets”—it was really about form. Obviously there was meaning implied. But with the new collection it’s moving a little more into organic. It’s moving a little bit away from the hard, the powerful.
 
Mark: Given the world that we live in now, it was a conscious decision to move away from armaments and warheads.
Much-loved Chihuahuas, 3-year-old Spike and 13-year-old Agnes were both rescued from shelters.
Weren’t you wary of calling your earlier pieces “Bullets”?

James: No, because it’s America and I’m an American artist. There’s so many things that define guns and bullets and weapons and you can take a lot away from that. Cristina [Grajales—their dealer] first showed these in Europe and that’s where she had the most confrontational reaction.

Mark: In Switzerland she actually had people protesting—they were looking at it literally.

What informs your eye and your thinking?

James: Well for example when we went to New Zealand in February we went to the Auckland Museum and looked at the Maori work and the totems—that was a huge inspiration.

Mark: There was a whole huge Oceania section … things from all the Pacific islands. I was like, “I had no idea!”

James: And Gaudi is an inspiration obviously because he’s one of the icons of the ceramic movement.

Mark: Nature is a huge influence.
A view of James and Mark's bedroom.
Well, you make jokes about of your farm upbringing, but you do make pictures of animals … fairly strange ones.

Mark: My take on nature is a bit different … growing up on farm, it’s not Baa Baa Black Sheep … it’s [pretends to devour something] … we’re not sentimental and that’s where that’s coming from. To me nature is beautiful but it’s also menacing and cruel and dangerous and deathly. To me it must have informed [my work] because once James encouraged this, I knew exactly where it was going to go. I knew that they were going to be dark and that they were going to have a natural theme and that they weren’t going to be pretty, typically.

James: Yes, he knew immediately.

Mark: I think they must be coming from my farm life, which I didn’t much enjoy, to tell you the truth. But there are millions of creative people whose parents have said to them: “Oh no you can’t do that, that’s not going to make you any money.” But having it stifled all those years, it was a kind of a joy to learn about—especially the way that it happened, the two of us together. It’s really remarkable. I’m not as invested in the “artist” … what, the moniker, the mantle? James is trained as an artist.

Do you think you have to be obsessed to be an artist?

Mark: Perhaps I need to be more obsessed?
Mark's "Pachyderm Prey" (2012) and "Unnatural Curiosity Bird" (2012) hang above one of a pair of tables by Bottega Karim. The ceramic orb and owl fragment are both by James.
A piece from the "Sculptural Landscapes" collection glazed in graphite and chocolate stands below a painting found at Cafiero Select.
The bed quilt is crafted by B. Perrino, a quilting artist in Rhode Island.
Do you feel obsessed, James?

James: I think I’m obsessed. It’s just this intense drive, desire … continually producing.

Give us an idea of your typical weekend.

Mark: It’s work. We work.

James: We’re like project-oriented.

What do you mean project-oriented?

Mark: Well last Saturday I drove out to [Fire Island – where they rent a house] and I had these Japanese wooden benches and table that belong out on the terrace here and they are twenty years old so I sanded them with a palm sander and then I stained them and I’ll have to stain them again and James planted three trees.
Reflections of the bedroom from the mirrored-door of the closet.
The painting above the closet is by James' brother, David Salaiz. The two "Soldier Boys" are by Chris Rodgers.
This whimsical mirror made out of found items was a collaborative work by James and Mark.
A bath shelf displays an orb in a turquoise glaze, also made by James.
You both sound as if you grew up on farms …

[They laugh] James: After we’ve got stuff done, we relax.

Mark: We watch all the English shows on TV. With James’s mum being from Liverpool and me being from New Zealand, we actually have a lot of similar reference points … going all the way back to Benny Hill …

James: And we have family in the same town—in Auckland …

[Mark interrupts in order to lean over and peer at one of their Chihuahuas …] “What’s he doing?”

Me: “He’s dragging his bottom along the carpet.”

Mark: “Oh … dirty little bugger!”