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In The Studio With Catherine Rex: Artwork Inspired by The Great Outdoors

This week, we swung by Catherine Rex’s studio space in Costa Mesa to check out her female-inspired ceramics and kitchenware line that pulls from her attachment to nature. Growing up in the mountains of Malibu, hiking on her father’s cattle ranch in Yosemite, and now living on the California coastline, Rex’s life and art are embedded in the beauty of the outdoors. After demonstrating how to create one of her beautiful marbled plates, Rex took us out on her sailboat to discuss chemistry, the different jobs she had before becoming a full-time artist, and the importance of slowing down.

Tell us a bit about your path as an artist and how you ended up on a sailboat.

I’ve always been creating art. My mother’s an abstract artist, and so as long as I can remember I’ve been playing with paint and clay. There are all these photos of me as a child, head to toe covered in paint. I grew up in a household of nude paintings and abstract sculptures. It might not have been the typical house for some people, but it seemed very typical to me. Art has been my focus forever.

Did you study art in school?

I went to school for psychology. My mother has her masters in Fine Art, and she advised against art school, she wanted me to do something more practical. I thought, maybe I’d do art on the side.

For a couple years, I ended up working as a therapist specializing with children who have autism. I was still painting on the side, and that’s when I moved onto the sailboat. It was a wonderful job and it was super fulfilling, but it’s not the same as working with clay every day. After working as a therapist, I moved on to a marketing job because I wanted something a little bit more creative. I was doing graphic design work from home so I had a lot more leeway to work in ceramics. Then a ceramics studio opened up 5 minutes away from the harbor, and that’s where my life started moving towards where I am today, doing it full-time. It was kind of a natural path.

What do you like about working with clay?

I’m much better at art than I am at words. I just love the way the clay feels in my hands. I’m just much more tactile, and it has a lot to do with muscle memory. There are a lot of times I have an idea, or I want to create a female form in some way that I’m not exactly sure how I would draw it, but for some reason, I can just feel it. It’s just always been a bit of a lack of words. It comes straight from my head and I know what it should feel like, otherwise, it just gets lost in translation.

Your work often celebrates the female figure – can you tell us a bit about the inspiration and process behind that?

In high school, I started working with the female form. We’re born naked; that’s how we’re made and that’s how we’re the most beautiful. I really want to create art that people enjoy, but that also promotes empowerment and acceptance regarding the body. I love drawing women of all different shapes and sizes. I do a few things with men, but I really focus on women because I think you can only make what you experience. I really want to be able to create work that is empowering but that is also a really fun piece you can have in your home that might start a conversation. First and foremost, my pieces are supposed to make you happy; I want conversations around female bodies and female health to start from a positive place because I think that’s how we can make more progress.

What kind of other work do you make?

I have a kitchen/homeware line that is inspired by colors from the California land and oceanscapes. I started creating these pieces because I wanted them for my own home. There is a coffee shop called “Neat”, which, unfortunately, is closed for a bit, but they’re opening back up in Costa Mesa. The owner had seen my marble pieces and asked me to come do a pop-up. It went unbelievably well and, that’s when I realized I could actually start a brand. I kind of really dove straight in. I figured, “Oh look, I made money once, hopefully, this will keep occurring.” I have the blessing of living on a sailboat, so our life is so much less expensive than it would be if I was living in a home or somewhere else. It’s been about a year and a half since I’ve been doing it full time.

You’ve often said that you pull colors from landscapes; specifically the California coastline, Death Valley, and from the forests and greenery up north. Do you find inspiration in other cultures and through travel as well?

I’m really lucky to live on the water and to see the beach and the coast every day. I also grew up just in the mountains in Malibu where you’re just surrounded by hiking trails. It’s really a magical area that I wish I could move back to. I also spent a lot of my childhood in Yosemite on a cattle ranch, where my father grew up. When I was little we’d always go for hikes and my mom would point out and name all the flowers that we saw, and then my dad would teach me all the names of the trees and the herbs. So nature has always been a really important part of my life. I think that’s where the inspiration for my marbled pieces came from; especially from the different rocks I’ve seen in mountains and all the colors you can see from the compression over time.

 I like to say that a lot of my work is just everyday life slowed down a bit. I’m definitely more of a “Type A” person, and I have a bit of trouble slowing down, so that’s when my practice really comes in handy.

For someone that doesn’t understand how to create ceramic art – what’s the most concise, basic understanding of the technical process of it? 

So for me, there are three different ways I can make a piece: slip casting, hand building, and throwing. Most people are either going to throw or hand-build. If you throw, that’s when you take clay and you put it on a wheel, and then you form the shape off of the wheel. When you hand-build, it’s when you take clay in its solid form, and with your hands and tools, use coils, slabs, and pinch pots in order to create a shape. That’s one of my favorite ways to make a piece because you can make anything in any shape or size.

And then what I do for the marbled pieces, is slipcasting. So I’ll either throw or hand-build the original piece, and then I create a plaster mold of that piece. Then once that’s dry, I marble liquid slip, which is liquid clay in the mold and plaster pulls the water out of the liquid clay forming the wall of clay, which you see as the finished piece. You can then you dump out the excess. Then you let it dry forever. So the first state of ceramics is greenware, that’s clay before it’s been fired at all; clay is essentially just dirt. Then it goes into a bisque firing where you heat it to a really high temperature and it vitrifies; it’s still pretty fragile at that point. Once it comes out of bisque firing, we glaze it.

Glaze is essentially liquid glass mixed with different metals. It’s a total chemistry experiment. Those metals create the colors. In glaze firing the piece reaches an even higher temperature to the point where the glaze melts, fuses to the clay body and creates a glass seal around the piece. It comes out and that’s normally the final piece.

Do you have any dream collaborations in mind? 

I do a bit of production for Norden, a candle company. I’m open to working with anyone, but I  think a really fun collab would be to work with someone out of my field; maybe a designer, chef, or architect. I’m always playing with ideas with my friends, but I don’t have one dream person in mind. Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to meet more creatives, and if a spark happens it would be amazing to work with them. Previously, I created fine art installations as well as some design, and textile work, and I’d love to play more in these fields or others. Any chance to learn something new, and collaborate with another artist or brand would be really exciting.

Last question – what was the most surprising thing about working in this field?

I think one of the really cool things about ceramics is that it involves a lot of chemistry. I remember kind of liking chemistry and science back in high school, and then I dabbled in Pre-Med in college, so I did quite a bit of chemistry, but it was never fun.

The chemistry behind ceramic is so much fun because it’s a lot of trial and error and a lot of problem-solving. Sometimes one of my pieces might break and then I have to figure out what caused that reaction. A lot of times, it’s because different clays are made with different metals and different dirt, and have different shrinkage rates when you’re firing them. Not all clay is compatible.

A lot of the chemistry is going to happen during your glaze scenario too. I love making volcanic glazes, which is when it’s essentially not made correctly, which causes a crazy chemical reaction that ends up kind of looking like a volcanic rock.

Images courtesy of Dakota Sage

Stay tuned to Milk for more artists on the rise.

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