Get to know the artist and discover the ideas inspiring her today.
I’ve known Connee Mayeron Cowles for over 30 years. When we’re not taking an art class together, we’re strolling the MET or designing one of her signature shell-covered mirrors that decorate my home in Antigua. Connee is one of those people who find inspiration at every turn and her work has certainly inspired me over the years. I couldn’t wait to sit down with her to explore her process, how she approaches her art, and what she’s up to next.
Ala: I’ve known you for a long time and you’ve provided so much inspiration over the years. I want to find out how Connee started. The evolution...
Connee: My upbringing did not include the conversation of art. My father was an engineer. Art was not part of any conversations. In the early ‘70s, I was living in the mountains and baking bread all of the time. A friend said to me, you're always doing that-you always have your hands in dough. He then brought me to a potter’s house. So really it was the tactile element of clay and not the conversation of art that got me into the door.
Ala: Your art is very physical and sensual. You just want to touch it.
Connee: I intentionally manipulate the form once it is thrown on the wheel to invite the observer's touch.
Ala: You live in this vast expanse. You used to make these installations with your husband, Fuller. The first time I saw them, I thought, they’re so big. I couldn’t understand the bigness of your shapes. Your cappuccino cups were the biggest cups ever. Then, seeing you in Minnesota and seeing the vastness, I could understand scale. It’s so wide open.
Connee: I live on a farm with 25-foot ceilings in our house and studio. I love the volume and its effects. For me it’s about having implied oxygen. You can’t work outside in Minnesota because we have mosquitos and things flying around. But my studio has garage doors with screens so tons of fresh air and light can enter my studio, as well as my pack of dogs.
Ala: You have this big following in ceramics. You do two shows a year. Your biggest show is coming up. Where do you find inspiration?
Connee: Everyday of our life and every year we experience different things. I think my work is a conduit of what I experience or how I feel. Clay, paintings, anything I’m making is a non-verbal conversation on how my world is being internalized. It’s really conscious thought. People ask, what will you make next? That’s like asking, what will happen to you next year? I have no idea. But going for a walk, going to Paris, going by turquoise waters in the Caribbean - it all seeps in.
Ala: Sometimes I think your work is influenced by the Japanese. Is there an Eastern influence to your brush stroke and how you paint?
Connee: That is very commonly said to me. But no, absolutely not. I’ve never been there. Japan is a huge influence in the potters world, but the pots are modest and quiet. Mine are not either. I do have handmade brushes that give me free strokes and again, I think about what I want to make but the actual making is within seconds, and either it works or it doesn’t. What I want to make is considered for a long time but the actual making is immediate. So the gesture is what I’m looking for. If a dancer leaps into the air, it’s the gesture. It’s the same thing with brushstroke.
When I took Ophrah’s [Shemesh] painting class. She said something to me that had quite an impact. She said, ‘When you look at things, touch them with your eyes, and translate that into your work.’ And wow, it’s so true.
Ala: So then you started dabbling in shell work and then you got serious about it. You make these incredible mirrors with shells found and purchased. They’re not quiet shellwork pieces, but exuberant and free forms.
Connee: My son Wiley went to art school and he said, ‘Mom your generation married a material and it’s really about ideas. Why do you only do clay?’ Which got me to go to figurative drawing school and working in shells and doing public art with granite mosaics. Clay seemed too complicated to have a studio in Antigua so shells seemed like a natural medium.
Ala: What will you do next? You’ve done mirrors in shell as well as tables. Are there new forms you’re thinking about?
Connee: I like that my things are functional. With shell work, the mirrors and tables and lights are beautiful objects that people interact with in one way or another. I think what I love about being a potter is when I make a functional object and someone wants it in their home and in their hand there is a connection between that person and me- I love that connection.
Ala: How did Covid-19 impact your work?
Connee: Covid was the way we live on steroids. There were no social engagements, no interruptions and no travel. I had uninterrupted time in the studio all of the time. It was amazing. On the other hand, were so many horrific things happening. Not just Covid, but civil rights issues here in Minnesota and everywhere. They were crashing into each other. Contrary to that the peacefulness of being in the country and having the ability to express how I was feeling was a dream.
Connee: How does age affect your work?
Age is great if you don’t look in the mirror. You continue to know who you are and you feel better in those steps. My sense of appreciation is so heightened. What I see, what I absorb. I never thought I’d stare at a bug or drop of rain. It all really comes in. I’m also not trying to kill myself working 12 hour days, six days a week anymore. Being an artist or maker is a blessing and a curse. I always have an opportunity to reflect and to have self expression but the idea of retiring will never happen. My self discipline is not going to the studio, it's leaving the studio.
Ala: What ideas are inspiring you right now?
Connee: I was recently commissioned by architect Peter Marino’s firm to be a part of the new Cheval Blanc hotel in Paris. They commissioned me to make these very tall vases and I love that scale. I tend to work large anyway, but then it evolved into these huge voluminous pots and they are knocking me out. When I make something kind of new, I have 50 million ideas on how to make it and it erupts into a different thing. Then I play with that. That’s what makes it exciting. I don’t have control.
Ala: The process of making clothes and drawing the prints is similar. The print is a bit different from the way I intended but it’s all part of the process. I have no problem with it. It’s an evolving thing.
Connee: One of things you address in your clothes is how the pieces feel and how you want people to feel. If you’re feeling elegant and free or smart, then that affects your demeanor and how you walk into a room. That’s so important with clothing. Are the fabrics sensual? Do they move in the wind? I consider all of it with clay, but in a different way.
Ala: Doing work where you’re asking people to engage their senses, it’s a nice way to approach life.