Dewey Arsee is a San Francisco–based artist who primarily creates high-fired ceramics. Unlike most artwork, Arsee's work is made to be utilitarian, not just in its look but also in its materials and design. Arsee encourages everyday use of his work for two reasons. First, he enjoys the more intimate relationship it establishes with the user. Although he still shows work in fine art venues, Arsee feels the most natural setting for his work is the domestic setting.
The other aspect of functional work Arsee finds intriguing is when different implications of a piece’s meaning become pronounced through its use. Pieces such as “Butt Plate,” “Cookout,” and “Flower Hole Vase” incorporate their various functions as serving plates and vases to a humorous (or uncomfortable) effect.
Obvious comparisons can be made with other functional art of both high and lowbrow culture from Greek vases to Wedgwood china to souvenir tchotchkes. Arsee’s work references sources that are equally diverse, and re-presents them in absurd, bawdy, and sometimes poignant vignettes.
The Advocate: Why are you an artist?
Dewey Arsee: I've always been driven to express myself by creating
images and objects. Although I love pleasing others with my work, I
make it primarily for my own expression and enjoyment. I initially gravitated toward sculpture because I liked the experience of touching the object. That's one reason I became interested in ceramics — it was a very inviting medium which had none of the pretense of preciousness. You really could touch it. You could even eat off of it.
Tell us about your process or techniques.
My work starts with hand-formed objects. I most often begin by throwing on the potter's wheel. Once the form is complete, I apply multiple layers of liquid clay (slip) — sometimes with added colorants — which are then left to harden. I carve through these layers to create line or textural patterns, or to carve the image into relief. After the first (bisque) firing the pieces are glazed and fired again.
How do you choose your subjects?
I’m a rabid consumer of images. My work is the presentation of an alternate universe which I create from this ever-growing stockpile. I generally use images I want to promote or subvert images that I find more problematic or distasteful. I get extreme pleasure from this control. Sometimes it feels like a political act and other times just a mischievous joke. In any case, I let my own enjoyment guide me as to what I focus on and the choices I make during the process.
What makes a good artwork to you?
Although I respect that all work does not need to express positivism or be attractive in order to be meaningful, I do think art should somehow present beauty as the artist sees it. Beauty, of course, should no more be boring than it should be repulsive, and when forced to choose between the two, I'm not sure I'd pick the former. However, I think in making work one should strive to represent all the important qualities in life. For me, that includes complexity, absurdity, humanity, and sensuality — to name a few.
What artists do you take inspiration from and why?
I reference a lot of media in my work, including fine art. Of course, this isn't the same thing as being inspired by it. While I love the work of many artists, I don't think I'm consciously inspired by their particular styles or subjects very often.
The inspiration I get from experiencing great art is the reinforcement that what is most beautiful must always be communicated through a unique voice. I think this is true even though the experience of beauty is shared universally. It’s that respect for the unique voice that inspires me to be true to my own when I create and to hone my voice through the practice of my craft.