Hawks to Watch: Richard W. James, ceramicist + sculptor

Richard W. James
M.F.A. ceramics (2016)

Why Richard’s a Hawk to Watch:

Some professionals prefer not to mix their work and personal lives. For Richard W. James, the two are inextricably linked. Through his ceramic creations, the visual artist has made a career building a world that’s at once of his own making and also a reflection of the myriad external forces each of us grapples with. And using familiar objects — dolls, antiques, cloth, religious icons — to excavate his own rural upbringing and question the limits of human understanding.

As a grad student, the cross-disciplinary focus of KU’s Ceramics program opened Richard’s eyes to the possibilities of his field, prompting him to reexamine his creative approach and output. Now as an assistant professor of art at Texas A&M University—Corpus Christy, he’s sharing his love for the craft with a new generation of artists, in addition to showing his work in exhibits across the U.S. and internationally.

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing and accolades. Along his way to earning major awards and prestigious artist-in-residence positions, Richard encountered his fair share of roadblocks, rejections, and flat-out failures. Faced with setbacks, he countered his professional challenges with the most effective weapon of all — perseverance. “I like to push against things,” he says. “And failure — in the studio, in my career, etc.— is one of the best things to push against. It gives me fuel.”

We caught up with Richard to find out more about what he’s been up to since graduating in 2016, and what advice he has for young creatives at KU. See what he had to say about pressing on despite obstacles, the value of professional development, why you shouldn’t skimp on hiring a good photographer, and his go-to home loungewear.

Tell us in a sentence or two what you do for a living:

I am currently an assistant professor of art at Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi. I teach classes in both ceramics and sculpture each semester and continue to make my own work for exhibitions.

“The Seeders,” 2016.

How did you end up doing what you do? Was there a certain moment when things came together? Or was it a longer journey?

Both really. Looking back now I can see the slow buildup of the “longer journey,” but it’s hard not to feel one bad break away from everything collapsing during the process of getting to where I am now. I’d say the moment when I felt “I had made it” was my acceptance to the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts. I will say that I have felt extremely fortunate at every step of the way. Each step was meaningful for me and not easy to come by – my time at KU, my acceptance to Arrowmont and then the Bray, and my opportunity to teach at a research university.

What themes or ideas do you explore through your work?

That’s a tough one to whittle down to a paragraph. In one sentence – It’s about the limitation of knowing. All history, all perceived actions, all understanding of the basic building blocks of communication are filtered through the lenses in which we look; The “Doors of Perception” as William Blake, Aldous Huxley, and Thomas Milton have all written about. During my graduate work at KU, I started to think about the adage “Not all personal work is good, but all good work is personal.” I chose to start the reexamination process with my own background to think about the human limits of understanding.

During my graduate work at KU, I started to think about the adage “Not all personal work is good, but all good work is personal.”

I grew up in a very rural, religious environment in Tennessee. My work uses the imaginary of dolls, antiques, quilts, and religious icons to question how those early influences still affect how I see the world now, even though I no longer identify with those cultural signifiers. My work also heavily critiques the influence of religion on society. Let’s just say I’m not a fan. I reference psychological studies, recent events, and ancient myths throughout my body of work. I’m always looking for that loose thread to pull on that will lead to a peek behind the curtain of human motivation. I find my work most successful when it carries multiple conversations at once. I usually want at least three avenues into the work, three different lines of questioning that lead to the center. I think about it like a Venn diagram with three narrowly overlapping hazy circles. You don’t need to see it all to “get it”, but the presence of the other narratives is felt, like someone staring at the back of your head. My desire is for my work to feel like there is always something else to discover in the piece. 

What do you feel is your biggest achievement so far?

I don’t know if I have a single “biggest” professional achievement. Receiving my MFA from KU, my acceptance into the artist-in-residence programs of Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts and Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramics Arts, becoming a published writer for magazines, and my tenure track position at a research university are all huge for me. A few awards are up there as well – 2016 Outstanding Student Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture from Sculpture Magazine and the International Sculpture Center, 2018 Ceramic Monthly Emerging Artist, and as the 2019 Chrysalis Award for Emerging Artist in the field of Contemporary Craft from the James Renwick Alliance.

My biggest achievement overall is, without a doubt, being married for 16 years throughout my career. Everything I have accomplished has only been possible because of my wife. I cannot overstate the impact she has had on my career. She is a role model, patron, editor, coach, critic, educator, emotional pacifier and when needed, drill Sargent, to me. Her presence and effect is woven into all of my work. She is a psychologist, so you can imagine how she might influence/push me and my work.

What’s your lowest career moment and how did you pick yourself up and move on?

That is an uncomfortable question for me to answer. I could tell you sad stories of years of rejections, all the pressure put on my wife to financially support me while I was failing and while she was building her own career, all the risks and cross country moves my poor child had to make in the process of getting to now. But that seems silly. It worked out for us and those experiences were also very rewarding and intimacy-creating. We had a situation in which we could make those tough choices. I have been privileged and quite frankly, lucky, at several points in my career. Early on in my relationship with my wife she told me that I like to be angry, that I am happiest when I am trying to prove myself. So you might say that I am actually addicted to “picking myself up and moving on.” I like to push against things and failure–in the studio, in my career, etc.– is one of the best things to push against. It gives me fuel.

Where do you hope to be in 10 years?

Drinking in an English countryside pub with my wife.

Keep applying, keep going, keep making. Take every workshop you can, you don’t know what you don’t know...

What do you know now that you wish you could tell your 18-year-old self?

I would probably give my former self a good punch to the face and tell him to start to appreciate education. I didn’t really learn to relish the act of learning and reading until I had already finished undergraduate. I was honestly a pretty terrible student. It wasn’t until after I graduated that I realized how much information and opportunity I had missed during that time.

“Peter to Pay Paul,” 2015.

What’s your best career pro-tip for students and young artists?

Keep applying, keep going, keep making. Take every workshop you can, you don’t know what you don’t know and I think listening to artists speak candidly while working is the most beneficial activity I have done for my career outside of school. Hire a professional to take pictures of your work, even when you can’t afford it. The images you have of your work are the currency in the art world; it is how you traverse from opportunity to opportunity. Don’t skimp on it. Everyone would love to see work in person, but that’s just not the world we live in. Having professional images is your way into shows, residencies, schools, etc. A good photographer is to an artist what a good producer is to a band.

How did your KU degree prepare you for your current job?

It prepared me for the art world on multiple levels. Both the facilities and faculty are very good, the best I had worked with. It also expanded my horizon of what is possible in the field. KU brought in successful visiting artists, provided support for my summer in China (KU has a strong relationship with organizations in Jingdezhen), allowed me to teach as a grad student, hosted a wood fire conference, and exposed me to a very cross-disciplinary approach to critiquing artwork. Marshall Maude (ceramics) and Tanya Hartman (painting and chair) are fantastic professors with whom I still maintain close relationships. Seeing their example of how to navigate teaching, academia and students while still continuing to create was perhaps more valuable than any class I could have taken.

KU brought in successful visiting artists.. and exposed me to a very cross-disciplinary approach to critiquing artwork.

What do you do after you’ve clocked out?

 Watch an episode of Poirot on BBC with my wife.

What is a fun fact about you that surprises people?

I wear a wrap skirt when I’m relaxing at home. I have been for about 16 years now, it’s the best. My 14-year old son is starting to do it. He gets it.

Meet more of our Hawks to Watch. For more information, visit the Department of Visual Art at the University of Kansas. Explore more of Richard’s work here.

Hawks to Watch are disrupters. They’re poised for greatness, inspiring their colleagues and excelling in their professions. Basically, they’re killing it. Having recently graduated, they are just starting to leave their mark and we can’t wait to see how their story unfolds. These Jayhawks span all industries including business, non-profits, tech, healthcare, media, law and the arts.