It’s early morning in the Mt. SAC ceramics studio. A few students are setting up for open studio hours. Cj Jilek sets up on her preferred potter’s wheel in a corner next to the north facing windows, which stretch to the high ceiling, letting in lots of natural light.
After setting her tools at the wheel and filling a bucket with water, she begins to prepare several pieces of B-Mix clay, a very fine clay body similar to smooth, white porcelain. As she begins to throw—forming clay on a spinning wheel—Jilek said, “I started off in the arts quite young. My parents actually wanted me to be an artist.” Talking while throwing clay on a wheel or sculpting it into otherworldly shapes is second nature to Jilek, over years of teaching she has honed her skills as a multitasker. She started down the path of being an artist and maker as she grew up in Illinois, outside Chicago, where she spent her childhood sculpting forms with Play-Doh and experimenting with “every drawing material imaginable.”
She started studying art when she was 14 years old almost by accident. Laughing, Jilek said, “I was bored so I went to college.” When she accompanied her older brother to school, Jilek made her way into an art class because she wanted something to do. Jilek said, “I started off in two dimensional design at a junior college just like Mt. SAC.” She focused on two dimensional design until she was 18, but she realized making flat images was not for her.
When Jilek transferred to a four year university, she intended to major in art history. She said, “In my very first semester, I had to take a ceramics course as an elective, and that was it. Bit by the bug. I’ve been doing ceramics ever since.” That first ceramics class was a combination of wheel throwing and handbuilding. Jilek said, “I connected immediately with the sculptural aspect of handbuilding.”
Jilek’s ceramic art is a trip. She is particularly known for her farout, intricately detailed sculptural work. Regardless of size, a pendant or earring the size of a quarter or a sculpture the size of a kitchen appliance, the level of time consuming detail she puts into her work is astounding. Jilek is pushing the boundaries of ceramic art. Many of her biomorphic sculptures—work that appears to be plant or animal-like—do not even appear to be made of clay.
Jilek explained in her beginning Mt. SAC ceramics course, she assigns handbuilding projects in the 12 to 18 inch range. The first project she undertook, however, was a 4-foot-6-inch women, a remarkably large work for even for an advanced ceramicist. The work resides in her best friend’s garden.
Jilek said, “I finished up the bachelor’s with an emphasis in ceramics…and I thought I was going to go straight into graduate school. Then a friend gave me the advice to go get as much experience as I could in anything other than school.” Most of her experience to that point had been in a school environment. Heeding the advice, she went off and did a bunch of different things in the arts and ceramics, taking a 12 year break before returning to earn her Master of Fine Arts at Utah State University under the guidance of professor and mentor, John Neely and associate professor Dan Murphy. She said, “They are both great guys and world travellers. This is where the possibility of travel really opened up to me.”
Travel has played a central role in Jilek’s development as an artist and life in general. Jilek said, “I always wanted to travel and see the world…I made sure that I saw most of the United States. I think I have seven states to go.”
She made sure that her choice for graduate school included overseas studies, so while working on her M.F.A. she traveled to Australia, New Zealand, China and Korea. After graduate school, Jilek was invited to Poland to work in a traditional ceramics factory as part of an international symposium. “I love to travel. I love to get that experience of other cultures and other materials. You get so steadfast in the way that you work with your materials in your studio.” Jilek added, “You go to another country and they don’t have the same materials, and every material and clay particle connect differently.”
Travel would still be important to Jilek if she was not an artist, but Jilek said, “I do feel that I’m very lucky as an artist when I travel. My artwork is based off of botanical plants, so when I travel I have two things in my bag of tricks. I can always research plants.”
Jilek’s biomorphic plant inspired sculptures are strikingly unique in appearance, particularly for ceramic art. They do not really even appear to be made of clay. They are often flower-like, and while they do not obviously appear to be human, they seem to have an identifiable, relatable personality.
One of her recent works, entitled “Instinct 3” is composed of two large, multi-piece forms, and while they are static, unmoving works of clay, they seem to be stretching towards each other, reaching out in attraction and desire to touch. The larger form is seed-like and appears masculine. It looks like it’s under the spell of the smaller, flower-like form, which seems to share the other pieces desire to touch or connect. Many of her works explore these themes of attraction and sexuality with two complementary and contrasting pieces, which do not move, but create the illusion of moving towards each other in an erotic dance of desire and longing.
Jilek’s sculptures are imbued with life because she pays such close attention to detail, and she incorporates her detailed observations into the details of the piece. Heidi Kreitchet is director of the ceramic studio at the American Museum of Ceramic Art AMOCA, in Pomona, where Jilek used to serve as assistant director of the studio. Kreitchet, also an accomplished, well-traveled artist with a unique style, which is in extreme contrast to Jilek’s, said, “Cj has taught me to slow down to appreciate the details in life.” Kreitchet’s work, like Jilek’s is very organic, but it has an earthier, volcanic quality. Of Jilek’s influence, Kreitchet said, “In my art work—which is not detailed in form—I’ve paid more attention to the elements of the materials in the clay body. Creating work that oozes with textures from the clay body and wood-firing process.”
When Jilek teaches ceramics or supervises a studio, she is quick to smile and be patient but always commanding and in charge. Kreitchet said that just as Jilek’s work is highly detailed she is always aware of the details around her. She said, “In the studio, you need to be able to see the full picture, but also be able to see the finer points to making a studio run efficiently” and Jilek is extremely skilled in this regard.
While Jilek served as assistant director the ceramic studio at AMOCA, nearly all new students would receive the “Cj cleanup lecture” during the first class session. She would emphatically explain and demonstrate proper wet mop clean up to minimize dust. For those who only dip their toe into the world of ceramic art, a little dust may not matter. For people like Jilek, however, who spend a lifetime of study and practice, years of clay dust can be potentially life shortening. She would finish her demonstration with a stern warning that it’d be a one time only mistake if she caught anyone violating clean up protocol.
Jilek said she always wanted to be an educator, and she currently spends countless hours covering hundreds of miles a week to fulfill this goal. Besides teaching at Mt. SAC, she is currently teaching at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, and was recently picked up by Chapman University in Orange where she’ll begin teaching in the spring.
In digital age, Jilek says even though the ceramic arts are centuries old, there is still tremendous value to be found in the study ceramics. “The number one thing people in the job market say they’re looking for is people who think outside the box and have creative thinking,” said Jilek. “Ceramics is a fantastic way to learn creative problem solving. You’re not only learning to work within the parameters of the materials, but you have your concept. Students learn to multitask, to problem solve.” She went on to explain that the study of ceramics requires knowledge of many disciplines, including math and science. Jilek added, “I feel privileged to be teaching in the medium ceramics.”
Similarly, in such conflicted and divisive times Jilek said ceramics and the arts provide additional value to the individual. She said “I think [learning ceramics] can be helpful twofold…while you’re in a creative mode or process you’re very present. Ceramics allows you to be really in touch with material, to learn to work with your hands, to be a maker.” All things that are becoming more rare in our technologically focused culture. She added that ceramic arts teach conceptual thinking. “It’s an opportunity to articulate visually. Even with text on ceramics. Text and graphics are the hot trend in ceramics. It’s a moment to get your thought process out there, to get your point across, and explore some of your ideas,” Jilek said.
Jilek also appreciates the aspects of community and cooperation that come with ceramic art. Artists often share studio space, cooperate in loading and firing kilns. “Ceramic artists are some of the most welcoming that I’ve ever met,” Jilek said. So whenever she travels to an unfamiliar destination, she always seeks tips and suggestions from local ceramic artists and plans her exploration accordingly.
Over her career, a number of people have been especially influential for Jilek. She hoped to study with Brad Schwieger. She was coming off an award for her undergraduate work, and thought she’d carry that momentum into studying with Schwieger, but he turned her down. He told Jilek that she needed to get out of the academic arena and get some life experience first. Jilek said, “That’s what I did. That took me from the midwest, out to California where I wood-fired for years.”
She credits Schwieger for inspiring her to seek out as many experiences as possible. Jilek said, “I’ve held down a lot of types of jobs. As an artist, we’re always looking to make ends meet and find the next creative way to do it.” She added, “I’ve done everything from work in a seafood restaurant, to work for Ace Hardware, to being a professional art handler, to teaching children through adults in community centers, through public education, at the college level.”
“As an artist, it’s really important to say yes to everything,” Jilek said. “Everything’s going to give you life experience that will come back into play.” Because she helped run a construction company in Santa Barbara, for example, Jilek said, “That allowed me to learn how to speak with subcontractors working in all different fields, so now when I’m art handling and doing install work, I can communicate very easily with all the people on a job site.” It also enabled her to learn about running a business. The office and management work outside of the arts helped her build her curatorial skills as she finds it much easier to track all the details and communicate with all of the different people involved in organizing an art show.
Anyone who does ceramics will inevitably lose pieces to the process. Jilek said, “Because ceramics is really like three art forms in one, you’ve got the making process where you’re building the form. Then you have the glazing process where you’re working with color and surface, and then the third is the firing process. At all three stages anything can happen.” Things break for lots of reasons. Ceramics are fragile. The clay goes through shrinkage as it loses moisture. It expands and contracts through the firing process.
“Things happen, and it is a great life experience to learn to deal with that.” Jilek added, “I always felt that I wasn’t very good at two dimensional arts because I was such a perfectionist. When I got into ceramics, it really taught me that I had to learn to let go, and I had to learn to work with the medium. It just wasn’t all about my perfection in the end.”
Considering the level of detail, time effort that Jilek invests in her work, it would seem that the inevitable losses that occur in ceramics could be potentially devastating. However, Jilek explained that in sculptural work, there is the opportunity to continue work on the piece after firing.
Even if something is damaged, she can potentially adapt to or incorporate unforeseen circumstances, something that may not be possible with functional art. She added, “I don’t get very consumed by the fact that I might lose the piece. I have that idea that I may have to continue with another medium after a piece is fired.” She added, “I don’t dwell on the possibility that it might get lost. So that frees me up to always be thinking about the level of information that I’m giving to people. I view all that detail as the bonus for that person who takes the time to walk up to my piece,” Jilek said. In her art as in life, Jilek incorporates a rewards for the people who invest the time to observe detail that may go overlooked by many. Jilek added, ‘That is the prize. They get to experience the immense amount of detail that I put into the work.”
Kreitchet observed this gift of detail in Jilek’s work. She said, “Cj has taught me to slow down to appreciate the details in life. She literally stops and smells the roses. She has an appreciation to life’s little gifts that many of us overlook or do not see at first glance.” Kreitchet added, “Her attention to the surface of her work is so detailed oriented. She is very aware of how each mark, texture and the color of the glaze and flocking interact with each other in relation to the form of the piece.”
Jilek says the detail in her work is what she has become known for. It has provided opportunities and resulted in invitations to show her work as well as to teach. Craftsmanship and engineering enable the work to survive.
The comfort with loss is not something she was born with. Jilek said with a laugh, “Oh no no, you learn that one no matter what. Everyone’s got to learn that one the hard way.” She said she once had a four foot sculpture fall. It requires a lot of time to repair and salvage. “You have to learn to not get too attached,” Jilek said.
She presents and receives lessons of ceramics. She seeks to find balance in art and in life, a balance between the element of control and the elements that are not controllable. The acceptance of a lack of control is liberating, but sustaining life as an artist is also a lot of very hard work.
Jilek said, “A lot of people don’t understand what it takes to be an artist. Not only do I have to create my work and document my work along the way, I have to be my own business owner, my own marketing person and manager. The job goes on and on.” Jilek continually strives to be well rounded as an artist to continue to learn new technologies and develop skills and knowledge to be able to teach new techniques as they evolve. Jilek added, “It’s a long process and a lot of work, but in the end it’s a choice, and it’s my choice to direct my life in this direction.”