Kabir Syed | Episode 633
Kabir Syed started his ceramics practice 23 years ago, studying with Kirk Mangus and Eva Kwong at Kent State University, following a year teaching English and living in Gwangju, S. Korea. Kabir started throwing while simultaneously training in Mental Health Counseling. Dealing with painful trauma and the darker side of the human spectrum compelled Kabir to engage in the meditative and therapeutic process of making wheel thrown functional ceramic pottery, simple forms for use on the table/in the home. Kabir was introduced to wood firing and clay making at the same time and the immersion into atmospheric firing and ceramic exploration was established.
In 2004 Kabir attended a month long International Wood Fire Residency in Goshogawara, Japan, working with artists from the USA, Canada, South Korea, Greece, Spain, and Japan. While Counseling full time and teaching part time, Kabir found time to complete 2 week-long intensive summer workshops every year and managed to sporadically make pots and wood fire at least 2-3 times a year.
In 2011 Kabir decided to pursue an MFA in ceramics, which he completed in 2014. Also that summer he participated in a workshop at Peters Valley firing the large anagama there under the direction of Simon Levin and Bruce Dehnert. As full time Associate Professor in Pan-African Studies, he currently maintains a studio practice at Ohio Ceramic Supply and fires a local wood kiln with a group of Ohio artists at least 4-5 times a year. In the years since getting his MFA, he has moved into mold-making and slip casting as well as electric firing. The experience of seeing the commercial end of the ceramic process is slowly, but surely, becoming an area of intrigue and wonder.
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What does your name, Kabir mean?
Kabir means Great One in Arabic. It is sort of a variation of the name of God, Allah. I was given the name Kabir after a 13th century poet who was born to a poor Muslim family that couldn’t afford to raise him so he was sent down the river in a raft and he was found by a group of Hindu monks who raised him. So he is revered by both the Muslims and Hindus. My Mom was a Hindu and my Dad was a Muslim and when they got married neither sets of parents were thrilled about them getting married. So my parents named me Kabir as a way to please both sets of parents and I think it worked.
With all the commitments that you do, how do you find the will to live an unbalanced life?
I think I find my balance through all the things that I do. The clay and throwing on the wheel is very balancing for me and it always has been. For me it is a very meditative process. But at the end of the process I find my peace and my centering. I find that all the different things that I do feeds my soul in a different way. That helps me to make it through the day.
How important is that clay community to you?
It is super important. It always has been. When I started in ceramics, I started in the wood firing. We were lucky enough to have an anagama kiln at the old studio at Kent. We would fire it at least once a semester- it was a five day firing so it took a big crew. I fell in love with that process right away. With that said, it can still be a struggle. Community development is not always easy and firing a wood kiln is not always easy. We have to find a way to deal with everyone’s personality. You really get to know people during a kiln firing and that can be difficult. But it can also be a rewarding process.
What was one of your biggest surprises when you showed up in a commercial studio as opposed to the academic setting?
I think probably the range of work. The biggest area of sales of the shop (I was in) is around molds. Initially I was sort of amazed about my feelings of it was that some of this stuff is really really good. I started to gain a lot of appreciation of the hobby potter and pottery that I didn’t really have before hand. I find myself being fascinated by the people that are walking through the door at the store and what they are interested in buying and making and their process, because I’ve learned so much from it.
Do you have a message or a story that you put behind your work?
I would say that my work is pretty minimalist in a lot of ways. I like very simple forms, I like work that is generally more on the spiritual end of the spectrum. And I like the work that is also intercultural. One of the things about ceramics that is so appealing to me is that it is the most intercultural medium that is out there.
Do you believe in representation for potters, like galleries? Has that run it’s course?
That’s a really tough question. I’ve had this discussion with a lot of potters over the years. I did a workshop with Simon Levin and he said, “Never have a florist carry your work.” And of course I had work with a florist. On the other end of the spectrum was another conversation with Adam Field and he said, “I used to sell my pots at the fea market and farmers market when I was living in Hawaii.” I think you ought to sell your work where it sells. Having good gallery representation is really import. Having said that, I don’t have any representation. I recognize the place for all the above just as long as they get the people.