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How Nicole McLaughlin Turns To Two Cultures To Make Beautiful Ceramics

How Nicole McLaughlin Turns To Two Cultures To Make Beautiful Ceramics

Living between two cultures can be as wonderful as it is challenging and confusing. But, for artist Nicole McLaughlin, her Mexican-American heritage is what drives her creative practice and underpins her making processes. Shaping clay in her hands and threading fiber between pieces, Nicole embraces what she calls a “collision of cultures.” More than that, though, her pieces show how powerful disparate materials can be together when each is allowed to express its intrinsic nature. 

Embodying the memories and traditions of the generations that came before her, and honoring her own independent spirit, Nicole’s work is the kind of collision we’re here for.

In preparation for this interview, Kinship + Craft spoke with Nicole McLaughlin over video call; however, the interview itself was conducted via email. We edited the final version below for clarity in collaboration with Nicole.

Photograph courtesy of Nicole McLaughlin.

Dual experiences and identities

K+C — Hi, Nicole! Thank you so much for sharing your work and process with us. I’d like to start by asking how you would describe yourself and the work you do?

I often find this question quite difficult. When thinking about how I would describe myself and the work I do, I would largely describe it as the same. I began making this work because I had many unanswered questions about myself, my identity, and my role as a woman within the two cultures I was raised. The work has really served as a way to self-discovery, a reflection of what values are important to me, and the traditions I hope to continue in my life. For that reason, I would describe myself and my work in the same way — as a collision of two cultures. 

K+C — What have been some of the biggest influences in your life, both personally and in your creative practice? 

Personally, my largest influences have to be the women in my family. I am so grateful for the efforts they made so that I could experience my Mexican heritage. Their lives and the differences between our generations continue to be a source of inspiration for my work. 

The largest influences in my creative practice are certainly linked to the experiences I had in Mexico as a child. All of the handmade pottery and textiles I wore, ate off of, and saw left a lasting impression on me. The importance of traditional materials, processes, and patterns from these traditions are present in every aspect of my work.

Embroidered bowl with tassels, 2020. Part of the Bordados series, Nicole found inspiration in “the hand-made peasant and huipil dresses of Mexico” for these works. In her words: “These dresses and their imagery have become symbolic of my own femininity and pay tribute to the traditions of womanhood in the Mexican culture.” | Photograph courtesy of Nicole McLaughlin.
Bordado, 2020. | Photograph courtesy of Nicole McLaughlin.

The natural integration of pottery and fiber

K+C — Several traditional Mexican pottery styles have played a role in the creation of your work, including Capula, and Talavera (also known as Majolica outside of Mexico). On a similar note, you have referenced Mexican bordados (embroideries) in some of your pieces, as well. What led you to employ these in particular?

It was really important to me that the materials and processes I was using held as much conceptual weight as the final product did. As a ceramic artist working with the vessel, I started to think back to my experiences of eating in Mexico. I had powerful associations with these styles of pottery from eating off them in restaurants and mercados (markets). Doing more research into the styles, I gained an understanding of the story they tell of Mexico’s history. Whether it related to class and cultures, the collision of Spanish and Indigenous peoples, or the presence of that within my own family history.

The same applies to the use of embroidery and fiber in my work. It was a natural integration as I began reflecting on my own femininity and the idea of womanhood. 

I watched as women in the mercados made these dresses. My grandmother wore them around the house and I remember wearing them as a little girl. From these experiences, they spoke to me as a woman within the culture and became ingrained in my mind as important parts of my childhood.

These dresses, filled with intricate designs of flora and fauna, are embroidered for women by women. They are tangible examples of the traditions of womanhood being passed from mother to child for generations. All of these things, the ceramics, and textiles, came together to transcend the vessels I was making into something symbolic and greater than myself. Each vessel became layered with identity, history, and legacy and demonstrated the change of traditions through generations. This kind of layered intentionality made me feel as though I was breathing life into the work.

K+C — It must be an incredibly empowering experience to have those thoughts in mind while you’re making each piece. Do you also connect those styles with any childhood memories spent in Mexico?

Yes, definitely, when eating in Mexico. When I think back to those experiences, now knowing what I know, it is so clear to me that the kinds of plates tell a story. One of my favorite places in Mexico is a town called Tepoztlán. We would travel there, specifically to eat in the mercado. There we ate meals from Capula style pottery and would see it stacked up for sale in the markets. It is one of my favorite places in the world and the town is full of artisan-made goods. 

In contrast, when we would go to “nicer” restaurants, we would have food on Talavera pottery, or a combination of the two styles stacked together. Now looking back to it, there is such a clear division. These memories and experiences surrounding food definitely lead me to integrate elements of these two styles in my work. 

Mug with Orange and Periwinkle Flowers. Terra cotta mug with hand-painted glaze pattern. Approximate dimensions: 3.5 x 3 inches. | Photograph courtesy of Nicole McLaughlin.

I began making this work because I had many unanswered questions about myself, my identity, and my role as a woman within the two cultures I was raised.

Stacking cup sets. | Photograph courtesy of Nicole McLaughlin.
K+C — You create pieces meant for food and drink, and those meant to hang on the wall as artwork. In some ways, these two functions represent the traditional ways women are seen in society, as nurturing homemakers and objectified bodies. However, I see the practical side, in that you can provide multiple kinds of work to an audience, as well. What do these two types of ceramic work provide you or allow you to explore?

At the end of the day, I want to make my work accessible to everyone. However, there is a variety between the works that hang on the wall and the functional pieces that people experience intimately. And, through this variety, I can explore similar concepts and ideas on different scales. 

The works that hang on the wall are louder, more complex, and express a certain ambiguity for the things I am exploring. The functional works allow me to zero in on ideas, including womanhood in relation to food, the idea of women’s work, the development and research into complex patterns, layering glazes, and elevating experiences in someone’s daily life. 

K+C — Okay, I understand.
One of Nicole’s wood-fired pieces: Nacida de Fuego, 2020. | Photograph courtesy of Nicole McLaughlin.
From the Indigo series, La Marea que me Envuelve, 2021. | Photograph courtesy of Nicole McLaughlin.

Besides their association with the feminine and food, I also believe that vessels have the ability to capture the experiences and memories of life.

A commissioned piece that Nicole completed in 2021. | Photograph courtesy of Nicole McLaughlin.
Las Pequeñas, 2021. | Photograph courtesy of Nicole McLaughlin.

Gender role expectations

K+C — With those memories in mind, I’d also like to ask more about the forms and processes behind your work. The female form is one that you have mentioned as being a substantial inspiration behind some of your pieces. For example, vessels including Las Pequeñas (above), Herencia and Raíz Eterna (images near bottom) suggest female breasts and the role the female form can play in providing nourishment to a young child. However, you have also utilized other shapes including wall sconces, bowls, or even chandelier-like forms. What draws you to these forms in particular?

The vessel holds huge symbolic weight for me. Besides their association with the feminine and food, I also believe that vessels have the ability to capture the experiences and memories of life. The vessels in my work are not meant as objects of utility. Instead, they serve as vehicles for fiber. Similarly a woman, as a vessel, has the incredible power to serve as a vehicle for life. I think that is why the ceramic components in my work take on or reference feminine forms and the feminine life force.  

However, this reference did not come right away. It was actually born from a piece titled La Reflejo, which utilized wall sconces. (Images below.) The orientation and manipulation of these traditional forms referenced a physical birth with a threaded connection like an umbilical cord. It became a visual representation of the generational shift I was experiencing in my own life and trying to capture with my work. I began discovering that fiber had the ability to evoke a feeling the ceramic could not do alone.

That was the pinnacle for me. I gained an understanding that the vessels needed to let the fiber speak. 

K+C — Okay, I see. And, how did the chandelier forms come into play?

The chandelier forms are unique because they are really much more about the fiber and the power of indigo. It was the first time I was able to explore the traditions of natural dye and the history of indigo in Mexican culture.

The Mayan people combined indigo with clay and incense to create a pigment known as “Maya blue.” The pigment was said to hold the healing power of water in the agricultural community. Created by combining medicinal materials, Maya blue was used for ceremonial purposes in the Mayan Culture. Therefore, the work was really an examination of the pigment’s power, the continuity of life and death, and the life force of water. It aimed to pay tribute to the rich history of the materials and to our ancestors who came before us and the sacrifices they made to provide us with life.

La Reflejo, 2019. | Photograph courtesy of Nicole McLaughlin.
Detail of La Reflejo, 2019. | Photograph courtesy of Nicole McLaughlin.
K+C — Embroidery can be a quieter, physical activity, whereas, working with clay requires the body to be more active. Could you tell us how the two materials differ for you, both in the process of using them and in terms of symbolism?

There is certainly a stark difference between clay and fiber when it comes to working with the body. In 2019, when I visited Puebla, the epicenter of Talavera pottery in Mexico, I noticed that only the men worked on the wheel to form vessels. This was yet another gendered expectation I noticed within traditional systems.

I often think about the “female” expectation when I am working. The ability and skill to throw large forms break with what I see as a gendered expectation of what women can and cannot do. I think this is where the American influence on my life kicks in. I don’t do well when someone tells me I can’t or shouldn’t do things. I can be kind of a force when I want to accomplish something.

In contrast, working with fiber is closely tied to femininity. It is slow, requires patience and attention to detail. While doing it, I embrace the idea of women’s work and pay tribute to those who have passed on these traditions for generations. The juxtaposition of hard and soft, which is evident in my final works, is something that I experience throughout the entire process. 

Clay lends itself to be manipulated at a relatively fast pace compared to the nature of fiber. Fiber is slow and takes time to build up. I always compare this difference by highlighting that six pounds of thread are much more than six pounds of clay. 

K+C — That’s amazing, and do you like to share the moments you spend with fiber?

I don’t often share these points in my practice because it makes for boring content. As ceramic and fiber come together in the final stages, there is a quiet and slowness that comes over the work. After dyeing and threading the fiber into the ceramic components, it often becomes quite tangled. I get to spend hours with each work. From combing through it, detangling it, and trimming it, a lot happens for the work to be fully finished and ready to enter the world.

This process always reminds me of when my mom or Abuelita (grandmother) would do my hair. I think a lot of females can relate to these moments of silence, tugging of hair, and beautification. 

K+C — Absolutely! The mention of those moments brings up very specific memories. However, it would also be wonderful to see the quieter side of your practice every so often, as well.  They’re not as action-oriented, as you said, but stillness can also be powerful.
Raíz Eterna installation, 2019. | Photograph courtesy of Nicole McLaughlin.
Detail of Raíz Eterna, 2019. | Photograph courtesy of Nicole McLaughlin.

The only constant is change

K+C — Now, for those reading who are not aware, you are currently a teaching fellow at Tabor Academy in Marion, Massachusetts, where you also attended high school. You began your fellowship shortly after graduating from art school and had started in the midst of the pandemic. So, what has it been like transitioning to a teaching position? Has it had an impact on your creative practice in surprising ways?

My transition from art school into a teaching position was unique. Leaving my undergraduate program feeling unfinished due to Covid-19 was very beneficial in some ways. I had such a drive to continue making work because of the loss I felt after school. Meanwhile, the world had so much uncertainty when it came to teaching. I started my job virtually over Zoom almost immediately after graduating, trying to figure out how we could teach in such conditions. 

So, teaching has definitely impacted my creative practice, especially in a boarding school community where your responsibilities extend out of the classroom and into dorm and community life. I’m not sure how I fit it all in at times, but somehow, it works. I am doing my best to use the beautiful studio and materials provided to me as a part of the fellowship. 

The fellowship is not only an excellent opportunity to gain teaching experience; it is a time to develop your work and expose students to what it means to be a working artist. The really cool part of this job is being able to share the things I do outside of the classroom with the community.

I think anyone who balances teaching and a studio practice knows the feeling of entering the studio after a long day of teaching or trying to stay active with their work on the weekends. That said, sometimes having a finite amount of time in the studio forces you to focus. However, I am really looking forward to my studio practice taking center stage in my life.

K+C — Yes, you have another big transition coming! When will the fellowship end and what do you have planned for the future?

The fellowship ends in June. I am sad to be leaving the place that sparked my love for ceramics as a student and the place where I have experienced immense growth as an artist and educator in the last two years. However, I am excited to transition into the next stage of my life, personally and as an artist. This year, I look forward to many things, including getting married, moving into our home, and finishing my studio. I’m not exactly sure what my professional future looks like, but I am making my studio practice the primary focus for now. 

K+C — That’s wonderful! Congratulations on all that’s coming and we look forward to seeing what the future holds for you, as well. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk about your work, Nicole!
Fuentes de Vida; Generaciones, 2021. | Photograph courtesy of Nicole McLaughlin.

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