Above: Copper plumbing pipe and fittings, approximately 200 pieces of American pottery
Beautifully crafted, using a mind-boggling assortment of techniques that include plumbing, glazing, and sewing, Otterson's work addresses culture and class distinctions with muscle and wit.
The Advocate: I see you at the swap meets. Does seeing an interesting object trigger the idea for a sculpture? Or does the concept come first, then you start investigating materials?
Joel Otterson: This is the “the chicken or the egg?” question. I look for ideas everywhere; the smallest thing might inspire a work. It can be as simple as a blade of grass against the sunset that gives me an idea. Nature is a big inspiration. Words play an equal role. I am not only looking but also listening for ideas all the time. I work with ideas and they are what come to me first. Sometimes an object will inspire an idea, but equally a conversation with a friend or stranger can influence my art making. Generally, I get an idea or concept and then make a shopping list of the needed materials/objects to complete that idea.
Tell us some of your influences. We see Robert Rauschenberg, Rube Goldberg, steampunk. We could go on.
Brancusi would be one of my favorite artists and influences. He made everything himself and it was all by hand. I don’t send things out — I make everything myself. I also love decorative arts, furniture, dinnerware, and architecture, because it’s all about living. I was thinking the other day there isn’t a period in history I don’t enjoy: Modernism, Arts and Crafts, Victoriana, Baroque, and Rococo — I love them all, even ancient Rome and Hellenistic Greece. For many years 18th-century Europe and America were huge for me; Thomas Chippendale is like a god. Daniel Marot, architect and designer for the French and Dutch courts, is an inspiring figure for me. My Disco’s Bed was modeled after a bed by Marot at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. More recently, in the last 10 years, I am fascinated with everything Japanese, especially the Momoyama Period (1573-1615). The attitude is really different than our Western ideals; instead of stone and bronze it’s rice paper printed with mica and the image only appears when in certain light. My influences are eclectic, and for me it speaks about our “postmodern” world and especially about being American. We are all these things; all the time here in America it’s the blending of all this into something new.