BY ALINA NGUYEN | Photography by Nathanael Turner
When Josh Zucker left a decade-long career in videography and photography to become a ceramicist, the decision came to him like a force of nature. He couldn't explain it, but he knew making ceramics energized him in an unfamiliar way—and he trusted the impulse. "It was something I couldn't ignore," he said. He had begun to literally dream about pottery, with his girlfriend reporting that nights before, she discovered him talking in his sleep about "putting clay in the molds."
The universe seemed to be signaling him with synchronistic messages. The owner of the ceramic studio he was spending his free time at had simultaneously announced that she was leaving pottery to become a video editor, sharing that her passions had suddenly and decidedly changed. Both Zucker and the ceramic studio owner were experiencing an indescribable urge to reinvent themselves—to seek a different, more invigorating path to devote their energy to.
Today, Zucker's ceramics brand Big Bell Ceramics is stocked in over 20 shops nationwide and in Canada, with collaborations from Mister Green to upcoming partnerships with Urban Outfitters and cannabis retailer SKYMINT. Every functional art piece from Big Bell Ceramics is hand-made by Zucker at his pottery studio and home studio, from their signature coffee cup pipes to their beautifully marbled Kush Capsules, which he created as a sustainable alternative to single-use plastic pre-roll joint tubes he saw littered across Los Angeles. The Kush Capsules, process-wise, require marbling stained clays together to create distinctly one-of-a-kind patterns that rely heavily on color ratios—making each one "totally unique" with a personal touch (he calls them "endless happy accidents"). The interior of the Capsules are even glazed for durability and easy cleaning.
Big Bell Ceramics' motto of sorts is "high purpose, slow process." And the process of making ceramics is notoriously challenging and arduous for even the most skilled and seasoned of artists, rife with trial and error; ceramicists must often develop their own methods with "no right way" forward. According to Artsy, due to the "volatile nature of the medium, and the myriad mishaps that can occur during its processes," ceramic artists require "a wealth of knowledge, patience, and painstaking skills, but also the ability to cope with failure—using it to grow as artists." It's no wonder Zucker learned that many island-based potters in the '70s were also surfers, catching waves in the early dawn while their pots would dry; it's very much a you versus yourself and the elements type of work. Zucker compares it to skateboarding and learning new tricks: "Over time, you have a library of molds you've made, like a catalog of tricks you can do, and every day is different."
For instance, the first design idea he created for Big Bell was a bell pepper-shaped pipe—which "turned out to be a disaster" since it was his first time using plaster. He almost quit entirely, until many more rounds of trial and error led him to creating Big Bell's now-signature pipes that ingeniously resemble a to-go coffee cup; to his surprise, the first line sold out at a Joshua Tree holiday pop-up. The resoundingly positive reception gave him the confidence he needed to invest more time into improving his existing pieces. He's most inspired by German Bauhaus-trained potter Marguerite Wildenhain, whose personal method and motto was that technique itself is irrelevant—it's what you have to say that matters.
After over a year in quarantine, many of us are finding ourselves questioning if we're actually doing what we really want to be doing. It's a lifelong dilemma—one of life's toughest questions—and it's been notably amplified by our year plus in isolation as we witness major shifts in the job market and fundamental changes to the way we all work. In fact, 4.4 million Americans left their jobs in September of this year, citing the importance of mental health and well-being, collectively dissatisfied with the status quo, demanding more—and more than ready to take new leaps of faith. Zucker's career shift may have seemed unusual pre-quarantine, but his story and career pivot serve as a welcome inspiration during a tidal wave of change where many Americans are shedding our shells and seeking what new path might just stir up more joy in our life's work.
Zucker found a home in the visual arts ever since he was a kid, sketching, drawing, and making portraits for as long as he can remember. After video editing for skateboard companies like Flip and Vans, he launched a promising career in photography and had "an epiphany one day after months of drawing plants in pots." He had discovered Picasso's lesser-known ceramic work, walked to his neighborhood pottery studio, and signed up immediately. He said, "It instantly became an obsession," and just one year after signing up, he undoubtedly knew it was a worthy challenge to fully dedicate his time to. With Big Bell Ceramics, he said, the work finally feels "freeing." We caught up with Zucker recently to learn all about Big Bell Ceramics and what he's learned from his little leap of faith thus far.
EMBER: After developing such a strong career in photography, what inspired you to do a 180 and decide to work on Big Bell Ceramics full time?
JOSH ZUCKER: It was a change of heart that happened very suddenly. Initially, there was no plan for ceramics to take over my life, but eventually the decision felt out of my control. I realized that I only have so much energy, and this medium was going to use up all of it.
What was that pivotal moment like emotionally? Planning-wise, what did you have to do to get things in order to support this career shift?
Once I started, it felt like I could not find information fast enough. My local studio had been around since the '60s, which was a convenient way to meet other potters. I was able to listen to generations of ceramicists share their invaluable advice. Outside of the studio, I was constantly searching for books, materials, and finding new tools. Tutorials like "How to Make a Plaster Mold" [on Youtube] were always on my recently viewed for that first year. I am now finally getting to a point where the work that is being produced is up to par with my ambitions.
Can you walk us through your journey with photography from skate videography? When did you realize you had an eye for it?
When I was a child, I’d bring a video camera on family vacations to basically film B-roll. By the time I was a teenager, I was obsessed with editing all types of videos. Every summer, I worked at a skateboard camp as their head video editor. After high school ended, I drove across the country to Los Angeles, where I made video content for a few skateboard companies. To clear my mind from video editing, I would often bring a still camera with me in public. Taking photos was a refreshing break from the hours scrutinizing video projects.
What process notes or aesthetic cues have you taken from your former work in photography and video into ceramics?
Surprisingly, I find there are more similarities between digital media and ceramics than originally anticipated. It seems like there is a real connection, even if it’s just the relationship to color or physical act of making. Photography obviously plays a large part in this generation's wave of artists. It's helpful to have experience in visual arts because documenting your work is more crucial than ever, thanks to social media.
How did you discover your love for ceramics again?
One summer I was assisting an oil painter in Los Angeles. He would exchange drawing lessons for my help. I kept a sketchbook for a period of time where I drew people and objects. As time passed, I was drawing more and more plants. One day, I had an epiphany while drawing a potted plant and signed up for a class that afternoon.
Tell us more about your current work with Big Bell Ceramics. What's your day-to-day like with your work in the ceramic studio and your own at-home studio? What inspired the name Big Bell Ceramics?
For the past two years I rented a studio in Glendale, California. I shared the space alongside another ceramic artist, named Rami Kim. She introduced a lot of information related to running a business as a ceramicist. Recently, I moved that workspace to my home, which has its pros and cons. However, so far I'm thrilled to fire with my personal kiln.
The name Big Bell Ceramics was chosen a couple months after I started making pieces. My grandmother’s maiden name was Bell and my grandfather passed away before I was born. Throughout childhood, I'd frequently hear stories about my grandmother’s father who built houses. I'd like to think he would have enjoyed the humor in my ceramics and appreciate the way I've inserted his last name into daily life.
How has it been so far running your own company and working to fulfill stockist orders as the sole owner and operator of Big Bell?
Working as a ceramic artist is a grind. Although I’ve heard this is the best time in history to be a ceramicist, there are still relentless days that are just the reality of the craft. However, when things do work out, it’s the most rewarding feeling that makes up for the misery from previous failures. Recently, I worked on a batch of collaborative kush capsules for a shop in Vancouver called Studio A-OK. I’m a fan of their art direction, and it’s always a joy to see my pieces on their shelves!
What inspired your iconic coffee cup pipes and your marbled Kush Capsules?
Originally, I wanted to make reusable straws. Although my first attempts failed, I noticed that the cannabis packaging industry has a massive plastic issue as well. Whenever I’d walk to my studio, I saw dozens of cheap, single use joint containers littered across the ground. The first test molds were made from those pieces of trash. I decided to make a higher end version of the wasteful plastic tubes; a sustainable version that would be cherished rather than thrown away.
The cup pipes were actually my first design that was based on the idea of separating weed accessories from their tacky, notorious aesthetic and moving them closer into the realm of home goods. I’d love to think that in the future, a homeowner would have a bar cart alongside handmade smoking objects. I also really enjoy seeing customers' reactions when they realize that they’re holding a pipe instead of a coffee cup.
"In both skateboarding and pottery, the best way to progress is repetition and to just continue pushing."
What’s the most illuminating thing you’ve learned around the process of working with clay, especially around trial and error? You've compared the process of working with clay to skateboarding and learning tricks.
In both skateboarding and pottery, the best way to progress is repetition and to just continue pushing. I met an experienced artist that could sit down and make a dozen pieces one day, and the next day couldn’t make anything. That is a familiar trait for skateboarders who learn new tricks. It’s better if you don’t get overly upset when something goes wrong. Attachment is actually a terrible quality to have when working as a potter.
Additionally, I value what can be achieved through trial and error in skateboarding as well as ceramics. As time passes, it's rewarding to see a person's comfortability grow on a skateboard. In pottery, I hope to build onto my existing library of plaster molds. As this selection of my studio develops, I will be able to ramp up my current production speed and increase quantity. It's a great feeling to look back and take note when you reach the point where you can produce a level of work that was not attainable before.
What is the pottery/ceramicist community like? What have you learned first-hand being a part of this community?
The ceramics community in my eyes is a very inviting group of people. They are eager to educate new students and have diverse backgrounds. I remember seeing college students throwing on electric wheels when I was a child and was floored by how impressive it looked. The amount of dedication and endless creativity that goes into pottery is something that I've always admired.
In ceramic work, you mentioned that everyone has their own technique, and there’s “no right way” to do what you do. Can you tell us more? How does this approach fit into your process?
A conversation that I had today was based on this topic. While there is a more calculated approach, what draws me to ceramics is that there are no set rules on how to make a vessel. Although there are traditional techniques that every student should be taught, I love how freeing the creative process can be. I find a great deal of comfort in being able to hash out my own workflow through trial and error. Over the years I force myself to figure out what works and doesn’t. I’m also frequently adjusting my production process to hopefully improve it as I gain more experience.
Who else in the ceramics world inspires you and why?
I was excited to learn about a number of West Coast artists that were part of a massive ceramics movement here in California. Potters like Marguerite Wildenhain, who was a Bauhaus-trained artist that fled Germany in the '40s to spend the rest of her life in Northern California. She converted a farm into a large studio where she worked and started a school. Her motto was that technique is irrelevant. She brought this mentality from her time at the Bauhaus. Marguerite believed that you must focus on your own personal aesthetic and most importantly she wished to inspire a passion in her students that would last a lifetime.
"The amount of dedication and endless creativity that goes into pottery is something that I've always admired.... What draws me to ceramics is that there are no set rules on how to make a vessel."
What's the most valuable thing you've learned so far with this work?
The most important thing that I’ve learned so far is to not rush. A lot of the time, it’s easy to skip a step, but ceramics is naturally a slow process and any short cut can lead to an enormous problem later on. While it can be the perfect antidote to an instant world, I struggle with impatience. There are many hard lessons that often remind me to slow down.
What's next for Big Bell? Are there any new pieces you're working on that we can look forward to?
I am excited for the future and currently have a few new designs that are in the development phase. I love being happily surprised by a new series as I make the initial tests. Other times it’s best to know when to retire an idea before more hours are invested into a concept. As far as immediate plans go, I am now working on new kush capsules with different color stains, and will soon restock the cup pipes in my web shop.
Check out Big Bell Ceramics at bigbellceramics.com
Alina Nguyen is a writer, editor, and brand strategist living in Los Angeles.