Brian Rochefort: The man behind the craters

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All photos by Niko van Eimeren

[Words by Emily Venezky & Photos by Niko van Eimeren, KCRW Summer Marketing Interns]

This summer, Brian Rochefort’s Absorption by the Sun exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara provided the backdrop to two KCRW Summer Nights events. I visited MCASB the day before his opening to ask him how music influences his work and how he comes up with the zany craters he creates.

Rochefort is inspired by music made without “human fingerprints.” He told me that the artist Solar Fields, with no lyrics or obvious instruments, helps him transform his headspace. 

“It cancels out everything... like you’re being shipped through hyperspace,” he said.

His artwork catches people off-guard because it is not only expressive, but it doesn’t contain obvious “human fingerprints” as well. Rochefort says that “the whole point of making them is to take away the fingerprint and make it look like it came from outer space.” He listed Carl Sagan as an inspiration for the out-of-this-world nature of his artwork. 

Photos by Niko van Eimeren

Photo by Niko van Eimeren

Rochefort’s latest sculptures are inspired by craters in South America, East Africa, and the Galapagos islands. After a “life-changing” experience on Isabella Island and seeing the Sierra Negra crater, he started taking the recommendations of other travelers and traveled to over 26 countries in two years. 

His pieces are made with layers of glaze that he says will harden in the kiln in unpredictable ways. He spent about two years experimenting with different glazes, but even now he only has a “pretty good idea” of how the textures and colors of overlapped materials will change while being fired.

His past show was titled 2030: the deadline scientists have given us to cut-off emissions. Absorption by the Sun is more straightforward. As Rochefort said, “that’s when the planet is going to end.”

Photo by Niko van Eimeren

Interview:

“Absorption by the Sun” is part of your Craters series, which you’ve been working on for three years. How has this series developed and what makes it different from the rest of the series?

BR: The Crater series has been developing over the past 2 to 3 years. The pieces I was making a couple years ago, they differ because now I’m sculpting with glaze, instead of laying it onto a surface and painting it.

So it’s less using the glaze as a tool with layering and more building with it?

BR: Right, so some of the pieces I have in the show are six to seven inches of just glaze. Which is unique to my studio practice. This is something I’ve only been developing within the past three or four months. Sometimes the glazes that I’m using are actually thicker than the ceramic itself, which is pretty new. Even the color palette, ever so often changes, every two months or so I’ll add a new color. I do it slowly.

Do your pieces look like the places they are inspired by in texture or color?

BR: I mean, I go to these places and I take a lot of photographs and I absorb a lot of the information there. I don’t try to recreate the textures and colors, that would be a waste of time. It’s more like an abstract memory. Before I ship pieces out I look at the work and try to figure out what it reminds me of. Like a place in Belize or Guatemala, sometimes even a flower or a bird that I’ve seen. There’s no direct connection, I’m not there yet.

Photo by Niko van Eimeren

Photo by Niko van Eimeren

You’ve said you work in a meticulously clean and all-white studio, how does such an organized space help you create your work that is so chaotic and extremely colorful? Does that space help you make such expressive work?

BR: I mean, that’s just how I learned to work, really structured. But my work is extremely expressive. I mean it’s made up of chaotic ceramics that you can’t really find anywhere. My studio has to be pristine, it has to be that way because it makes me feel in control of my own work. When it gets dusty and glaze is all over the place, I clean it up right away. There are artists, especially working in ceramics that have stuff slapped everywhere all over their studio, but that’s really not necessary, you don’t really need to do that to be expressive. I kind of tailored my studio to my artwork, so it’s pretty minimal and modern, but everything is focused on the artwork.

So that helps you kind of tunnel vision in on what you’re doing?

BR: Yeah. Well, there is really no reason to have a messy studio, I mean, first of all there are health concerns. When I’m stomping all over my studio there is silicosis, those things really accumulate in your body. I don’t wanna die from silicosis, which is where silica builds up in your lungs. I don’t think it’s necessary, and I think I’ve proven that you don’t need to have a messy studio to be an expressive artist, it can be very structured. And that’s how I like my studio.

You’ve said that you are always adding to your pieces, re-firing them and adding new layers of glaze. What makes you look at a piece and decided that is definitely done and ready to be exhibited and sold?

BR: That’s a super classic question. Everybody asks that to painters, when is a piece done? You kind of just know, like your gut tells you. That’s through years of experience. When I started this body of work, the works were holistic and they didn’t have giant holes in the top. So I would build these sculptures and then I would break them in half with a hammer, it was a really violent process where I would just smash the hell out of them and slip and glaze, and pretty much rebirth them. But now, everything is way more structured. I have a technique I have honed in on. It was way more chaotic, but over the years I have developed glazes and a technique where instead of firing a piece six or seven times, or even eight to ten times, I’m now down to three or four.

Ok, so you’ve honed in on what you’re looking for.

BR: Exactly, I’ve done that with color, texture. Everything is super controlled. But a few years ago when I was just starting off experimenting with this technique, everything was experimental. Now it’s pretty much, very rigid. I mean, there is always an element of experimentation with ceramics, at all times. Even if you’re a production potter or doing tiles, there is always some element of surprise. But now I’m trying to remove that and be more straightforward. 

How many years do you feel like you were just experimenting?

BR: Well, I did a lot of this stuff in undergrad. But it was pretty fundamental. And now, I’d say, six months up to about two years that I started to layer glazes and see how materials reacted to each other by overlapping them. The process I’m using is pretty similar to how a painter would apply paint on a canvas, but the medium I’m using is a kiln, so materials melt on top of each other. So it creates a lot of variation and diversity. So there’s a lot to learn, every time I take two materials and overlap them weird stuff happens in the kiln. There’s always an element of surprise, but over the years I’ve tried to nail down certain techniques and formulas so I can foresee the results. So it’s less experimental.

You’ve said that you are always adding to your pieces. What makes you look at a piece and decide that is definitely done and ready to be exhibited and sold?

BR: That’s a super classic question. Everybody asks that to painters, when is a piece done? You kind of just know, like your gut tells you. That’s through years of experience. When I started this body of work, the works were holistic and they didn’t have giant holes in the top. So I would build these sculptures and then I would break them in half with a hammer, it was a really violent process where I would just smash the hell out of them and slip and glaze, and pretty much rebirth them. But now, I have a technique I have honed in on. It was way more chaotic, but over the years I have developed glazes and a technique where instead of firing a piece six or seven times, or even eight to ten times, I’m now down to three or four.

Photo by Niko van Eimeren

Photo by Niko van Eimeren

Did you start travelling to places like the Galapagos to inform your work? 

BR: Totally by chance. I work in studio full time, so I have a lot of time on my hands. So, I made a conscious decision to travel. The first place that was brought up to me was the Galapagos Islands. I went for a month and a half and it was definitely life-changing. But when I was on that trip I met some travelers that were like “oh, go to Belize” or Guatemala, go to all of these places. A lot of the places that I choose, I pick and go to because of suggestions I’ve heard from other travellers. There are certain things I’m looking for. The Sierra Negra crater on Isabella Island. The Galapagos archipelago. Belize has the crazy caves on the border of Guatemala and they also had the Blue Hole.

The KCRW summer nights event on your exhibit’s opening night is supposed to be inspired by your work. Do you think music every inspires any of your pieces? 

BR: That’s something I’ve been thinking about for awhile. Most of the music that I listen to doesn’t have a lot of lyrical basis to it. And I’m not sure if that influences how I work in studio and my technique. I think the only connection I really have between the music I listen to and the places that inspire me is that there is no singer and the places I go to are very remote. A lot of the music that I find breathtaking is instrumental.

How do you think your work can be translated into a dance party?

BR: Like very “end of the earth” party. That begs the question, is my work very optimistic or is it abysmal and bleak. It’s definitely a combination of both. It’s definitely celebratory. The colors, they are very child-like, but they are kind of like f***ed-up looking. They’re cracked and broken, but they are also very beautiful. It’s like, the transcendental feeling I had when finding a tiny flower in the Bolivian amazon or something and that moment that feels so amazing and beautiful, I try to capture that in each piece. I imagine, that if it was my funeral or if this is my ultimate show what kind of music would I play? Would it be totally enveloping and beautiful?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Photo by Niko van Eimeren

Photo by Niko van Eimeren