The importance of community, open space, and the connection to earthly landscapes are just a few of the highlights from our chat with Ceramicist, Signe Yberg. Her work evokes a sense of modern history, coupled with the colors and textures of a warm skyline. On a sunny morning, in the light-filled industrial, Clay Space; we sat down to chat about inspiration, good eats, and the power of pushing through your limits.... Read on!
Nativen: Where are you from, originally?
Signe Yberg: Long Island. I grew up on Long Island, and moved to New York City in 1990 to go to NYU to study Art History. I had thought that I wanted to be a photographer when I was in high school. I was that girl who takes all of the photography electives.
My teacher had to invent more because I had taken all of them, and I still had another year before I would graduate. I had a dark room in my basement, and it was my favorite place. Every night, I was in it way past my bedtime.
I wanted to move to the city as soon as possible, and wanted to live Downtown. I applied to NYU. It was pretty much the only school I applied to.
I've always really loved having projects making things, but I didn't actually get into ceramics until five years ago. I have been a fashion stylist/wardrobe stylist for 15 years.
I missed being creative, just for the sake of creativity, I missed an outlet. I really wanted to do something with my hands. I had taken jewelry classes years ago and really liked that, but there was something not as satisfying about it because I couldn't do the whole thing myself as quickly.
There needed to be another person involved, or equipment I didn't have, or whatever. Anyway, I've always loved ceramics. I love objects. I grew up surrounded by ceramics in my home and also going to museums.
I live in Williamsburg. I was walking down Grand Street one day and I passed Choplet. Nadeige, the owner, was on the sidewalk and she was dragging out a sign that said "Ceramics Classes," and I thought, "Oh, that's what I'll do."
Nativen: It's like literally being hit over the head with the sign.
Signe: Exactly. It was so funny because I was just thinking, "Oh, I want to do something creative," and there's Nadeige pulling this sign out.
I said, "Oh, you teach classes?" She said, "Yes, I do. The session is about to start," so I signed up. That was five years ago.
I reconnected with my friend, Jennifer Fiore. We grew up together. We've known each other since we were 11 years old. She had seen my pictures of my ceramics class, and she said, "Oh, I miss having a studio, I miss the creative process." I said, "Why don't you join?" So she did, and that was really great to reconnect with her.
Then, we met Nina Lalli in our Monday night class. The three of us had Monday nights… [They] were sacred. That was our ceramics night. After being in class together for a year, we thought, "Why don't we do our own thing and start a company?" We called it "Mondays."
The dream was to live off of it. [laughter] Little did we know. Anyway, we found Clay Space which is where we are right now in Greenpoint. I absolutely love it here. It's a communal studio. I'm surrounded by incredibly talented people. We're always inspiring each other. I really like being in a communal studio. I learn something from every single person in here. Even if I don't know it at the time, I'm a little bit shy about my technique because I don't really feel I have one. I'm more of a do‑my‑own‑thing kind of person. I didn't really start throwing until I was here because I have 24‑hour access. I had the privacy to make mistakes and not feel embarrassed about it. When I joined the studio, I would come in late at night and make a mess, make mistakes, make things that were structurally wack.
I just learned really quickly just from doing it, from watching YouTube videos, and really just from having my hands in the clay. Now, I'm pretty much exclusively on the wheel. I love it so much. It's one of those things...however I'm feeling inside comes out in the clay on the wheel. It's really there.
Nativen: It's a manifestor of your experience.
Signe: Yeah. I have to focus. I have to be present. If I'm stressed out and I'm rushing through something or I'm not patient, the clay is not centered.
Nativen: It's interesting that you say that, too, because I was thinking about that when you were talking about exploring jewelry design versus pottery. Feeling you get more of the creative process through pottery.
There are very few people who actually do their entire creative process start to finish by themselves. Clay is such a simple way of doing of that. It's one of those things that you start out with just a lump of nothing, of earth. It's amazing.
Signe: Exactly. I don't make my own glazes and that is my goal for 2015, is to start mixing my own glazes and starting to come up with my own colors. Color is really important to me, and also the finish of the glaze. I haven't made that leap yet.
Nativen: So… Brooklyn, it's an awesome place. We know that we both live here. What do you love most about living in Brooklyn? How do you think that's integral to the work that you're doing?
Signe: What I love most about Brooklyn is more space per person, more personal space per person.
I need more open space, literally, and also figuratively, creatively. I love Brooklyn because it's just a few notches down from Manhattan, as far as intensity. I love being surrounded by people who also value that.
I grew up on Long Island, and I need to see water. In the summer, I ride my bike to Fort Tilden several times a week. I need to have my feet on the sand. I need to feel the salt water. I need to see the waves. I'm just very much connected to New York State beaches.
Living in Brooklyn means I'm that much closer to the beach. Not as many tall buildings and skyline...
Nativen: Actual skyline and not building skylines.
Do you have a favorite restaurant in Brooklyn?
Signe: Across the street, there's a place called Ashbox. I wouldn't say it's my favorite restaurant because it's more of a snack place for me to go to. I love their seaweed avocado wraps and their rice balls.
There's a new restaurant downstairs called Glasserie.
Nativen: Glasserie is amazing. Do you have a favorite home good store in Brooklyn?
Signe: Joinery.... I want everything in that store. Their aesthetic is really beautiful and special. They're also very supportive of me.
Nativen: How about a favorite clothing store?
Signe: I wear a lot of vintage and a lot of men's workwear. I really like Stella Dallas. It's a vintage store, and I get all of my overalls and coveralls at Zoe's Work Wear across the street. It's a little shop, neighborhoody.
Nativen: Favorite park or outdoor space?
Signe: Prospect Park without a question or hesitation, and especially Brooklyn Botanic Garden (the greenhouse). Also, Ft. Tilden, in Queens.
Nativen: Is there a hidden gem in Brooklyn that's of value to you or that maybe other people don't really know about it?
Signe: Clay Space. This place definitely. Also, there’s a place called De Hot Pot. D‑E Hot Pot. I have one word for you, Doubles. I like the tamarind one.
Nativen: What do you think is the greatest resource to your work in Brooklyn?
Signe: Oh, creative people around me without a doubt.
Nativen: Is there a piece that you've made thus far that's your favorite piece or maybe it was the most prolific piece or something like that for you?
Signe: Yeah. I really like this one.
Nativen: It's beautiful… It has a skyline kind of feel to it.
Signe: Exactly. I like very simple forms obviously. I think probably most ceramicists do. [laughs] This one is really special to me because the way the crawl glaze cracked. It crackles differently each time. This one, to me, crackled perfectly, so it looks like a dried riverbed.
I'm inspired by landscapes, so I think they're the two running themes in my work... I like bright color but then I like kind of landscapy neutrals earthy colors, anything from cream to brown and all the shades in there.
If I'm not doing the kind of bright, colorful, very Scandinavian midcentury things, then I like just things that look like they came out of the earth.
Nativen: Like an artifact almost, in a way?
Signe: Or that remind me of a place where I want to be. This is kind of a desert to me.
Nativen: What part of the process brings you the most joy?
Signe: That's a hard question. I think that the most joy comes from being on the wheel after I've thrown the clay down, I've centered it, I've opened it up, I've done a basic shape. That's kind of like the first... The set of hurdles, the foundation. If I like that basic shape and then I can manipulate it more to be fuller in one area, have a little narrow neck, that part of it, that kind of like sweet spot of I've laid the foundation and then I can really get in there and have fun with it.
Nativen: Take it to the next level. [laughs]
Signe: Yeah. I like the making. Also, opening the kiln after a glaze firing. If it works out, it's magic. Sometimes I have a hard time sleeping the night before I'm going to unload it. My heart is pounding when I'm coming to the studio and I crack that kiln open, and it's the way Christmas morning was when I was a kid.
Nativen: That's great. [laughs] That's a good analogy.
What part of the process do you think is the greatest struggle for you?
Signe: Rather than struggle, I want to say challenging… All of the above. Everything that brings me the joy is also challenging. Getting bigger and taller, wider pieces, difficult forms, really pushing myself. It's challenging. Also getting stuck doing the same thing over and over again is challenging, but in a different way.
Nativen: What a beautiful balance though that you look at it that way, because it gives you the opportunity in any step to be able to change your perspective knowing that you find both joy and challenge in each part of the process.
Signe: Absolutely. I love it. It challenges me constantly. Essentially I'm a hack.
Signe: I took classes, and my teacher was great, but I didn't really pay attention, so that's on me, but I don't even know if I'd want to know how to throw a perfect form, because if they were perfect you couldn't see my hand in it, and I like to see my hand in it. I like the slight variations.
Nativen: It's an organic process for sure. What's one thing you've always wanted to do, but haven't done yet?
Signe: There are so many things. I have never been to Asia, which I know is like a huge statement. Asia there's a lot of places, but I want to go to Japan. I want to go to India. I've never been to Africa. I would say more travel. I like feeling small in an environment.
I went to Iceland for my birthday a couple of years ago. I went camping for two weeks with a friend, and we camped every night. It completely changed my life. Everyone says, "Oh, it's beautiful. It's the most beautiful place on Earth. It's magical." It is, but it's so much more beautiful and magical than you can even imagine. When I came back from the trip, people said to me, "Oh, well, what places do you recommend?" I keep saying to them, "Just go, you can't go wrong." You literally cannot go wrong.
Every step of the way...I've never seen green that color. I've never seen moss like that. I've never seen sunsets like that. I've never seen steam coming out of the Earth like that. I've never seen, just even the color of the Earth, it's incredible.
The rocks, the rocks are fantastic there, because they are younger, and they haven't been I guess compacted.
Nativen: If you could go anywhere tomorrow, where would you go?
Signe: Japan. [laughs]
Nativen: Lots of inspiration for ceramics in Japan, too, for sure.
I don't know if you listen to music a lot when you work, but is there a song, or anything that you like to have on?
Signe: I can’t listen to anything I want to dance to. If I listen to some music I move my body too much, but I can listen to things that are more repetitive like Philip Glass… Actually, an ex‑boyfriend got me into listening to Ayahuasca chants. They are medicine chants. I like listening to that, because I find it really calming, and it's repetitive, and it's healing.
Because they are very special, I don't overplay them. I do however overplay other things... we found a box of old cassettes in our studio and at least one entire kiln load of my work was "brought to you" by Roxy Music Greatest Hits.
Jazz, I can listen to Jazz…'50s and '60s Jazz. It also reminds me of my father.
He was a huge music fan, and especially a huge Jazz fan, so I find it really comforting and soothing to listen to Jazz. Music was our connection. Our whole life.
Nativen: What a fantastic thing to be able to carry with you as a memory. That's really nice, because it's so simple.
Signe: Simple and I can take it anywhere.
Nativen: Absolutely. What are three words that sum up your work?
Signe: Color, Earth... Some of my studio mates when they see my work, they say that I like things that go Up, because it's maybe uplifting.
Nativen: What's the most helpful advice you've received, or what's the advice that you would give to someone who's looking to start their own creative business or endeavor?
Signe: A friend when I was first starting to throw, and I was frustrated constantly, she said to me that I don't know if you can print, but I'm going to say it anyway. She said, "You've got make that clay your b*tch."
She said, "Make that clay your b*tch." It's controlling you right now, and you want to control the clay.
Once she said that it changed everything for me, because you don't know how far you can push it until you do.
You need to learn the limitations. You need to figure out how far is too far, so next time you stop just short of that, so you can get the piece taller, and thinner, and lighter, and more spherical. Whatever the thing you want, you just have to push it. If you are not going to push it, it's going to push you.
Nativen: That's a good metaphor for any number of situations in life.
Signe: Exactly. Confidence.
Nativen: Yes. Do you have a hero, or someone who maybe has helped influence your work?
Signe: My dadis my hero for sure, always will be. Ever since I was born, he thought everything I did was cool. He always indulged my questions, was patient with me. He always believed in me, and he never...I'm not afraid to try anything, because my parents gave me the freedom to try things, and they were very supportive.
My mother also is, she's an interior designer and she and my father exposed my brother and me to arts and crafts when we were toddlers. The first museum shows that made a huge impression on "little" me in the 70s were Calder and Picasso. I definitely get my sense of color, pattern, and texture from my mom. One of our "cheap thrills" is looking at ceramics at thrift stores... it's like a treasure hunt...
As far as creatively, Janine, the owner of my studio, she is so supportive. All of the artists who are in here, I'm inspired by all of them. Then, as far as out there in the world, she's no longer alive, but Lucie Rie. Her work is beautiful.
Nativen: What are five objects you can't live without?
Signe: Coconut oil.
Nativen: That's a good one. [laughs]
Signe: I put it on everything, and I cook with it. I put it on my hair...on my skin. It's magical.
Water, but I don't mean like drinking water although that's obvious. I could never be land locked. I need to be around water.
I won't even say clay. I'm tempted to say clay, because it's what I do, it's what we are talking about, and I can't imagine not working with it, but if I ever stopped working with it, there would be something else I worked with. Right now it's clay.
Nativen: I think it's interesting to hear you say that, because even though you obviously clearly have a connection with clay. It's good to know for yourself, within yourself, that even if you found that you were never able to work with clay again. You have the type of personality that could...
Signe: It would be something else.
Nativen: ...find another undertaking, exactly.
Signe: I don't know. I've lost one of the most important people to me, my father, so I can live without any object honestly. As long as I have my health, and people who love me and whom I love, and coconut oil and some water.
I think I'm good.
Check out more of Signe's work here.
Interview and Photos By: Lily Hetzler
This interview has been condensed & edited
all images copywright of Nativen