Photos by Catie Miller and Hillary Ehlen
In Catie Miller’s kitchen cabinets are plate racks with wooden pegs, dividing one unique ceramic plate after the next. A creator of vibrant tableware herself, this collection of ceramics from independent makers from across the nation is reflective of her passion for the art.
Miller is a ceramic artist, specializing in ceramics decorated with graphic monoprint illustrations. Her illustrations are often simplified and colorful, featuring natural subjects such as florals, animals and insects. In her own words, she describes her style as, “Whimsical. Colorful. Playful. Eclectic.” She has a library of patterns and designs that she pulls from to mix and match, but a consistent color story ties together all her pieces.
Introduction to Ceramics
To trace back Miller’s interest in ceramics, you must go back to when she was in high school and worked at Clay Your Way. Working there, she saw the business side of ceramics as a career. While Clay Your Way is much more commercial that what she does now, it was a fun job for her and sparked the idea that she could have a ceramics-based career. “I think that got me interested in the idea that you could draw on clay. You could do more than the traditional pottery that you see that is formed and glazed,” she said. Here, she began seeing the flexibility of the medium. “I always liked drawing, I liked every art medium. Ceramics felt like this way to do it all. To do printmaking, drawing, painting and ceramics, all in one.”
Her skill and passion for different art mediums show in the execution of her graphic, patterned-based work. Often, her work is rooted in the surface design, and she notes that she would love to be a graphic designer and to branch out. “I think a lot of ceramic artists are branching out and doing more. Artists are realizing there’s a lot of ways to diversify their income,” said Miller. She herself has been diving into new mediums, having designed children’s graphic tees for the first time this last year. Going further out of her comfort zone, this year, she was selected to create the artwork that hangs on 12 panels on the sides of the new City Hall building in Fargo. She designed the pieces on a small scale and they were then translated to the large-scale steel panels.
From Education to Practice
Miller graduated from MSUM in 2013 with a B.F.A. in ceramics and a B.S. in Art Education. While at school, she intended on becoming an art teacher and had a desire to share her passion for art through education. However, a professor of hers convinced her that she was way too into being an artist to go into teaching rather than producing.
After finishing her program at MSUM, she moved to Kansas City to do an art residency program there. After her time in Missouri, she returned to Fargo and worked at the Plains Art Museum in their education department. After a year of working at the museum, she said she thought, “I can either pour my life into this job and this nonprofit, or I can be an artist.” She took the leap and left the position and has been a full-time artist for three years now. “I don’t know if I’d do it again, looking back. But it’s been a few years and things have grown and it’s definitely much more stable now than it was at the time,” she said.
By being a full-time artist and running her own business, she has grown the business substantially. Mother to two young sons, she has the flexibility needed to do art on her schedule. At home, she has a full studio in the garage (including her own kilns) and an office inside. While she used to show at craft fests and sell her work in-person, lately she has been focusing on wholesale and has found success in that area.
Building a Community
When Miller was in her artist’s residency program, she was surrounded by like-minded artists. “When you’re in residency, there are all these people doing the same thing you’re doing and you feel really connected,” said Miller. When she returned to Fargo, she wanted to replicate that same sense of community. To do this, she helped found Cone Pack, a collective of ceramic artists with a shared vision to create a contemporary clay community in the Fargo-Moorhead region. Other members of Cone Pack are Tara Fermoyle (Fermie Studios), Jen Nelson (Jenny Sue), Chris Boedigheimer, Chris Alveshere, Sam Norman, Adam Priebnow (Dakota Crystalline), Kelli Sinner and Brooke Stewart. At Cone Pack, these artists put on events (like Mug Market at the Red River Market) and have built a community together.
The process Miller uses to create her pieces is similar to a monoprint process. She draws the illustrations on newsprint and coats with underglaze and colored slips (thinned-out liquefied clay). She then transfers the newsprint design to whatever clay surface she is working with. “The fun part is the big reveal to see how they transfer,” she said. She particularly enjoys when designs don’t transfer perfectly, giving the pieces a worn and aged look, and also confirming their imperfect, handmade quality. Even though the designs may be the same, the hand-painted and hand-transferred process makes each piece unique.
Miller states that surface design is her favorite part of the whole process. However, since she is running her own business, she has found ways to enjoy the parts that are less exciting. “When you’re running your own business and you’re trying to be an artist, you have to figure out a way that you can enjoy the things that you don’t really like to do, like accounting or photography or packing and shipping,” she said. Since her work is mainly distributed via online sales, a large part of her business includes administrative work and marketing herself.
Miller produces a variety of different products, from ornamental to utilitarian. Some examples of popular pieces of hers are vases, various dishes, bowls, mugs, butter dishes, trinket dishes, platters and Christmas ornaments. “We host a lot and have a lot of parties, so I try and think about what we would want our food to be on,” she said. As she continues to diversify her product offerings, Catie Miller will proceed to produce joyful and whimsical goods for stylish homes.