“Jayzo” Strommen at The Chicago Ceramic Center
For Chicago artist Jay Strommen, life is all about transforming the conceptual into the material. Strommen, also known as “Jayzo”, is the founder of the Chicago Ceramic Center at the Bridgeport Art Center located just southwest of the home of the White Sox on Old Bubbly Creek. A lifelong accomplished ceramic artist, Strommen opened the center in October of 2015 with a beginning wheel throwing class for about 15 students. Just as Strommen’s clay pieces are sincere expressions of his artistic ideas, he sees the Ceramic Center as an evolving manifestation of a collection of his ideas about the usefulness of the human hand, the importance in mentoring, global politics, agriculture, and the petro-chemical industry.
Strommen tells his personal history with constant references to people, places, and experiences that helped to form and direct him. The son of a Minnesota bicycle shop owner, he learned early to use his hands. “Everything about my childhood,” he says, “was all about figuring out how to be useful, how to use your hands to make something useful. My dad always said good hands and developing presence of mind are important. My earliest introduction to clay was when my mother invited me to a pottery class she was taking in college. I was in 7th grade.” He took ceramic classes at Apollo High School in Saint Cloud, Minnesota before he and his family made a move to Florida after his father was badly injured in an automobile accident and required a milder climate.
Strommen attended college for a few semesters, but dropped out and opened two Subway sandwich shops. He talks about a sense of providence: “A friend and I were talking recently, as we both approached age 40, about the things that have brought us to this point. I feel like I’m living the dream now, but it all is connected. If I hadn’t met my first ceramic teacher in high school – Dennis Hummel – I wouldn’t be here now.” He goes on to tell of how the mother of one of his employees in the Subway shop owned the local newspaper and employed him to sell advertising. He tried to sell ad space to the local pottery studio, A Touch of Sanibel Pottery. He recalls, “They turned me down twice, so I asked them to hire me as an apprentice. Oddly, a high school classmate of mine from St. Cloud had been working there! Just walking in there, I got the bug again.” The owners took him on and he returned to college and earned a BFA from Tampa’s University of South Florida in 1996.
Strommen considered opening his own studio in Florida, but his mother, who is a university dean, suggested he apply for a graduate program. “She asked me where I might think of going and I just replied, the Art Institute of Chicago. She said I should, so I flew to Chicago with no preparation except some slides of my work. I didn’t have an appointment; I didn’t even realize that it is such a great program. I just went.” Fortuitously, a faculty member was in the studio when Strommen walked in. He looked at his slides, pulled out several and said, “We’ll see you in the fall.” He worked under the direction of Bill Farrell, who challenged his previous experience in functional pottery and abstracted vessels. Strommen says, “I had a technical and material edge in the program, but I was challenged to move from the functional vessel to conceptual pieces.” He describes his time there as an “unfolding, great experience” and goes on to say, “I learned how to make a concept into something concrete, and how I am an instrument in a great old tradition.” Strommen’s keen awareness of the interconnectedness of experiences continues to animate his artistic principle.
After earning his MFA in 2001, he traveled to Japan as Artist in Residency at the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park in Shiga Prefecture, a seminal experience in his artistic development. “When I returned,” he says, “I was super-charged. I saw that there is so much out there, so much that can influence both me and the world. I saw a piece there that made me say, ‘I will never be able to make something so original.’ The potter ate food that grew from the soil. He made the piece from the soil. He fired it with wood that grew from the soil. There is a sincerity in all these elements. In order to achieve that again, history would have to repeat itself, to recreate that degree of isolation.” Taking this inspiration, Strommen strives to achieve a similar degree of honesty in his work.
Back in the States, in the early 2000s, Strommen supported himself with various teaching and curating positions at local centers, schools, and galleries, including Gallery Parkwest, The World According to Mark Jaramillo Studios, University of Illinois, and Lillstreet. At about this time, the husband of Strommen’s friend and fellow Art Institute of Chicago graduate owned an old 1911 storage facility on the city’s South Side in the Bridgeport neighborhood, which he planned to convert into studios for artists. Thanks to a great tip from Strommen’s dealer and the director of Perimeter Gallery, Frank Paluch, he was among the first of several artists to take one of the spaces. At about this time, he envisioned opening a ceramic school, but also was conceiving what he calls the “Flower House Mansion,” a project that would create a center where young people can study flowers and clay in any way or form that they desire. He envisions expert instructors guiding the resident students, who would apply for the program with their own visions of how they can make their voices heard through clay, earth, and flowers.
The first step in the plan was to open a ceramic instructional program. After the economic downturn and subsequent recovery of 2007, Strommen was ready, in 2012, to bring his school concept into reality. He acquired a space on the fifth floor of the Bridgeport Art Center. He says, “I was originally offered the basement, but I recalled an old professor saying that the reason ceramics is always classified as a craft instead of an art is because we are always stuck in the basement, down in a rut, never getting up and looking out and up. I held out for the higher space!” His Chicago Ceramic Center has vaulted ceilings, good natural light, and 17,000 square feet of space for classrooms and a gallery. An existing elevator shaft has been converted to a kiln room, solving the problem of a lack of a chimney. Classrooms are outfitted with wheels and gas kilns, with new reduction kilns complete and operational. Over the years, The Bridgeport Art Center has evolved into a multi-disciplinary home for many artists in a variety of media, providing a rich environment for collaboration and sharing. It includes a fashion design center, wood working studios, and a public sculpture garden. Strommen’s student body has gradually increased. He offers evening classes for adults and young adults two nights a week. The space is utilized by twenty independent students throughout the month. In the afternoons, school students from the local area take beginning hand building in an outreach program. Strommen plans next to expand the outreach program and offer workshops and residencies by visiting national and international artists. He says, “I’m a macro, global thinker who wants to tame the planet down to a common understanding, to share, learn and show respect for other ways of being. In a way, Chicago is already open to this. If I can bring in a potter from, say, Syria or Somalia, I can share ten generations of hands and knowledge.” He envisions a dormitory-style hostel for visitors.
Strommen’s Flower House Mansion is still an uncreated concept, but the incubator is warm and ready. He has already established a not-for-profit corporation and plans to break ground on the building sometime after 2020. He tries to explain his vision: “I don’t use text or verbal concepts in my work – I haven’t figured out how to do that. I count on others to help realize what I’m thinking. The school provides many people to do this.” He speaks of a haven for young people, with nourishing food and ideas. “There are a couple million kids here who are never going to do anything with their hands or minds,” he laments, and talks of a future light manufacturing operation or apprenticeship program. “I have all these great tools and knowledge,” he says. “Now, I am building a school to help people make the best art they can make and have a fantastic time doing it.”
Strommen recently sold what he calls his “most honest recent piece.” He says, “I tend to keep things around that I like a lot – you know, live with them.” He tells of a person who came into his studio and spoke with him about the things that were going on in his life at the time. “I knew this person understood my piece, because of what he was experiencing, and I sold him the piece.” Both Strommen and the buyer succeeded in transforming the conceptual into the material in this transaction – Strommen’s goal. He concludes, “I have luckily landed in the right place!”
To learn more about Jay Strommen, visit www.jaystrommen.com.
To learn more about the Chicago Ceramic Center, visit www.chicagoceramiccenter.com.
To learn more about the Bridgeport Art Center, visit www.bridgeportart.com.