A piece of pottery is a mantle for the richness of meaning and history that lies within it. The pristine flowing forms of potter Elise Birnbaum’s sculptural pieces reveal the vision, hope, and personal journey of this young Pittsburgh artist. Taking advantage of Pittsburgh’s many arts organizations, Birnbaum discovered and perfected her love of clay over after moving here a decade ago. She is now owner of the Homewood pottery studio called Oatmeal.
Birnbaum earned an art degree at Virginia Tech and arrived in Pittsburgh for an internship at a local arts non-profit. She found a permanent position at Artists Image Resource (AIR), a print and imaging laboratory established serving artists, educators and the community. Although she was working in the arts, she felt that something was missing. “It was just a job, and I really needed to figure out what I wanted to do with my life,” she recalls. “I had always been a maker,” she says, “even as a child growing up in Orlando.” Her college experience was in mostly two-dimensional art, with a little bit of sculpture. She had minimal experience with clay.
Birnbaum started taking classes as a way to search for answers to her life dilemma. She tried metal arts and wood working. She enrolled in a ceramic class at The Union Project in Pittsburgh’s east end. “It clicked,” she says. She was drawn to the medium with a clarity that had been missing and embarked on an education during her off-work hours. Eventually she began to purchase equipment – a kiln, a slab roller – and set up a home studio.
Like all artists, Birnbaum faced the dilemma of how to display, market, and sell her work. “I was making a lot of things and becoming part of a widening community of artists,” she explains. Through her Instagram page, she built a group of followers and began to sell smaller, wearable pieces. But the impact was limited, and she realized she need to establish a web-based business. “I received so much good advice from my friends and acquaintances,” she says. “There is wonderful word of mouth in this city.” During this time, she and a fellow artist friend would meet regularly for breakfast – always oatmeal – and talk about their work and lives. “We’d dream about quitting our day jobs and taking the plunge into full-time art. We came to refer to our meetings as ‘oatmeal talks.’ When I needed a name for my business, Oatmeal seemed the perfect answer,” she recalls.
Birnbaum’s business grew, with online sales and new relationships with markets that support local artists. She continued her day job and married in 2018. She and her new husband honeymooned in Japan, a trip that would gather the many pieces of her artistic life into a clear vision. She was struck by the degree of intention with which the Japanese culture approaches all aspects of life. “Everything is done with such thoughtfulness and simplicity,” she remarks, “from wrapping a store purchase, to the tea ceremony, to art.” She returned to the US, determined to get back to Japan to study. In the summer of 2019, she was in residence in the Japanese countryside, reinforcing, learning, and relearning her technique. She says, “I was doubling down on being an artist, really feeling like that is what I am.” It was a moment of clarity that brought her home with a new determination.
Birnbaum and another fellow potter, Chelsea Erdner, had been talking about looking for a space for over a year. “My home studio was a disaster,” she jokes. “The only sink in my house that could take a clay trap was nowhere near my workstation, so I’d be dripping clay all over the place on the way to the sink. It was messy and overwhelming.” Both artists describe themselves as risk-adverse and were reluctant to take on a rent obligation. They started a long, careful search and eventually found space in a converted factory/warehouse in Homewood. The space was developed by Bridgeway Capital, a business that is active in building assets in the community through partnering with local organizations like Operation Better Block. The building holds a trades training program, individual studios for artists, and a larger, shared area. Birnbaum and Erdner have been in the space for about a year and are making a successful go as full-time artists.
Birnbaum’s current work is influenced by her experience in Japan. Her pieces are sculptural forms and vessels made from Standard’s 420 stoneware clay body. “I take my inspiration from the Japanese garden with its sculpted trees. I aim to make bio-morphic forms that emphasize the clay surface. I use glazes as almost just a wash, letting the form speak for itself,” she says. The Japanese culture informs the process of not only her work, but her life. After many years of searching, she finds herself in a more integrated place. “If we all were to be more thoughtful in everything we do,” she entreats, “the world would be better.” Thankfully, we have Elise Birnbaum’s pieces to reveal this truth and hopefully make a small change to the world.
For more information about Elise Birnbaum and Oatmeal, visit http://www.oatmeal-shop.com