VACI lecturer to discuss ancient porcelain processes

In the late 1980s, Bryan Hopkins was a mathematics major until he enrolled in a ceramics class to fulfill an art requirement. After that class, he switched majors and began a career in ceramics that he continues to this day.

“I got in, and it was this immediate reaction I had to the clay that just made me want to stick with it,” he said.

Hopkins will discuss his career and work in his lecture at 7 p.m. today in the Hultquist Center.

The artist spent three years working as a studio technician and building a portfolio before he started a master’s program at SUNY New Paltz, where he said his ceramics education really started.

“I didn’t have any critiques in undergrad in ceramics, and that was actually good in a lot of ways and bad in a lot of ways,” he said. “You need critiques to get better in anything and to grow, but it was actually kind of odd to come to graduate school and have my first critique at that level.”

In his lecture, he plans to discuss influences on his bodies of work.

“There’s like big sculptors, like Richard Serra, who’re really influential to my work, and some architects that are very influential,” he said. “My work is pretty architectural.”

Hopkins said that, of all the pieces he makes, cups are his favorite.

“It’s because they’re so sensory,” he said. “When you tap it down, there’s a sound. And there’s also a sound when it touches another object or a table.”

The function of cups also interests him.

“There’s not many things that people make other than forks and spoons that people actually touch to their mouths so it’s a very intimate device in that way,” he said.

Hopkins will also discuss his work with soft-paste porcelain, which he has spent the last 18 months researching.

The ceramist said that his work with soft-paste porcelain is a rediscovery of a very old process.

“When porcelain was first brought to Europe through the Silk Road it was something Europeans had never seen before,” he said.

Noble families had their alchemists stop working on turning lead into gold and begin working on how to make porcelain, he said.

“They were semi-successful in about 1575 in Italy, and then they were 100 percent successful by the 18th century,” he said. “So it did take almost 200 years of really trying to figure it out.”

The soft-paste porcelain lighting pieces he creates are fired at a very low temperature and look and feel a lot like milk glass, he said. Successfully firing these pieces is an arduous process.

“I opened up the kiln one day and they were just collapsed,” he said about one of his firing attempts.

Hopkins said his work is a mixture of more natural materials and of man-made, industrial materials; he makes molds of treads on staircases and of old cedar planks.

“It’s paying homage to those simple building materials, those 250-year-old barn planks,” he said.

Making molds of these planks and casting them in porcelain gives them an enduring quality that they do not naturally possess, he said.

“Doing them in porcelain gives them a permanence, too,” he said. “The wood’s not going to be around forever, but porcelain will — it won’t decay.”

Hopkins said he thinks that all artists have a desire to be completely satisfied by their work and it is this quest that keeps his work from becoming stagnant.

“Every artist I know, I’ve heard say this — or has at least acknowledged it’s true — and that’s that we are never fully satisfied with anything we make,” he said. “Because of that, that’s what drives you to do better.”