Making Tech Material: Lise Prown

August 31, 2018 by


A squat ceramic jar sits in the sunlight, tranquil and smooth. Its surface is the color of cowhide. Its wide lip supports an astonishing domed lid, architectural in its striated surface. The knob sits triumphantly above. The lid is a bright red, and it’s made of plastic.

The form vibrates with the tension between its dissonant materials. It can’t quite unify, though the shapes fit beautifully. Innovation needs moments of imperfection to move ahead. And it is this tense place, the meeting of technology’s starchy newness with the earthiness of clay, that Lise Prown’s current work explores.

Prown joined Women’s Studio Workshop in late 2017 to “get crankin’” without the distractions of daily life. She took that seriously. Prown created twice as many bowls as asked for during her Chili Bowl Workspace Residency and donated them all.

Digitally cut diamond patterns adorn her brightly colored bowls. Technology has long been a part of Prown’s practice and lifestyle; she worked as the Technology Manager at Westchester Community College for twenty years. She found that though working with tech is rewarding and capacity building, it can be challenging to work constantly through a screen: “If you work in technology, the lack of materiality is frustrating. I ran the gallery at Westchester, and I always liked the way artists could make technology material and loop it back into the real world.” How can artists utilize the capabilities of the tech industry without losing the satisfaction of making something with your own two hands? How can an artist bring tech into her practice without losing herself in the digital world?

There has been a lot of research into the effect and effectiveness of digital readers versus paper books on reading attention and comprehension. An exciting point from The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper Versus Screens, calls to attention that by limiting the ways that a reader can interact with an e-text, they might limit comprehension of the information. For example, you cannot flip forward or backward more than one page at a time on most e-readers or easily write words in the margin. This calls to question the ways that an artist is limited by working within a tech context. A digital 3D chili bowl inside of a modeling program might hold similar limitations as an e-reader. Including the ways to modify the shape, pull a handle, or inspect your leftover materials for inspiration. I wonder if the frustration with tech for Prown and other artists comes from this limitation. With natural clay the exploration is endless and the possible shapes are infinite.

Maybe a compromise lies in the combination of techniques. Prown, too, incorporates aspects of the digital into her sculptural work. Psssst… is a green and yellow clay spray bottle that hisses at the viewer as they pass. It utilizes sensor-activated sound to interact with the viewer. In 2016, Prown experimented with LED lighting elements. In Toaster Iteration, a bulbous clay toaster glows red inside its toast slats. The effect is playfully volcanic. Prown’s ceramic versions of kitchen objects call forth the every day and imbue it with tech and whimsy. The spray bottle and toaster lose their functionality once made ceramic, but gain curiosity. The transformation slows you down, makes you wonder where this item came from, and why it was made this way. What else in our kitchens, our pockets, and our lives have been transformed by the tech industry? This pace is similar to the experience of reading a paper book. In this instance, tech activated more sensory processing, it didn’t limit it.

3D printing is a tech invasion that is getting a lot of attention nationally and internationally. It’s a medium with endless possibilities for creation. It can cut manufacturing out of the picture in the making of complicated objects (like a fully functional platform jack, on-demand organs, and a single-handed bottle opener). It’s also bringing up a bit of moral panic as open source designs for weapons threaten to roll out. The world seems to be asking: what happens when anyone can make anything?

This question is exciting for visual art collaborations. During her residency, Prown worked with Ceramics Studio Manager Ruth McKinney Burket to make a mold for slip casting from a 3D printed bowl. Though there were a few technical glitches in the mold making—there were limitations both physical and in the understanding of a new process, so it didn’t quite work out… yet. Both artists are confident that it could work and I’m excited to see what happens when it does.

Next, Prown is working on a ceramics project to help support the local food bank in Westchester, NY. As part of the show High Contrast: Culture Confronts Chaosshe built five jars inscribed with notions of hunger and fullness. The work will be on display in Peekskill, NY throughout the fall of 2018. 

The recent artwork by Lise Prown explores the intersection of technology, interactivity and everyday actions and objects. Often creating transient artworks and technology based installations that use the language of popular culture to examine expectations of signification in the modern world. The goal of her work is to reach as broad a cross section of viewers as possible while creating artwork that is content rich and artistically engaging.

Lise Prown has a BFA from Minneapolis College of Art and Design and an MFA from the Yale University. She has recently retired from being the Technology Manager and Gallery Coordinator for Westchester Community College, Center for the Digital Arts. She is now teaching and making artwork and ceramics full time.