On a cold, windy morning in January, I found myself taking refuge from the elements at Market Street Grocery’s coffee bar in downtown Pittsburgh.
The friendly barista, Vaughn, slid me a shot of espresso and said:
“I have a friend; his name is AJ. He made the ceramic espresso cup you drink from every morning. He recently quit his day job to focus solely on making ceramics. You ought to meet him sometime.”
Fast-forward a couple of weeks and I’m inside an airy studio space on Susquehanna Street (in Homewood). AJ is shifting around his workspace, pointing to partially finished projects and freshly painted ceramic items.
His cuffed jeans expose a pair of dark, high-cut boots. His chiseled jaw is clenched as he lifts a planter to show me the details of his life’s work.
Q&A with Andrew Jowdy Collins (Jowdy Studio)
Very Local: Tell us a little about your upbringing; before you got into ceramics.
AJ Collins: I was born in Greenville, North Carolina. My dad worked as a refrigeration contractor and taught me how to weld.
I attended Appalachian State for undergrad and took one class at Penland School of Craft.
Very Local: And THAT was your first exposure to ceramics?
AJ: Yes. Penland’s program led me to an apprenticeship. As students, we were encouraged to take a cross-discipline (which was brilliant). It’s my belief that modes of construction inform and enrich each other.
Very Local: Did your apprenticeship lead you to a ceramics career?
AJ: Actually, no. I moved to LA as a freelance writer. I dabbled in different types of writing, including film production work and even some journalism. I learned and I grew a lot as a person.
It was around that time I enrolled at UC Irvine and got my MFA in poetry. Throughout my life, I’ve been continually led back to my true writing passion: poetry. It’s something I still do.
Very Local: It sounds like your time in California was an influential part of your journey.
AJ: Absolutely. Through the fine arts community, I met a Japanese ceramicist named Ryoji Koie. He and I began experimenting with a wood-fired kiln; he taught me how to take the very traditional practice of “wheel throwing” clay and do something new with it. He showed me how to bend (or alter) clay when you cut it off a wheel.
Very Local: How would you explain a wood-fired kiln to an amateur?
AJ: A wood-fired kiln is THE oldest (firing) method and it is VERY labor-intensive. It’s also my favorite. What I love is the way wood firing yields pieces that SHOW how they are made. Look closely and you can see the seams. If they are joined, they are perfectly imperfect.
Very Local: What was the “Ah-Ha” Moment when you knew this was your life’s work?
AJ: So, a lot of people feel that throwing clay on a wheel is magical. I like it too, but I first fell in love with hand-building clay slabs. You feel the clay give, stretch and resist. It’s like the clay is a malleable wood that you can join together as it takes on new forms.
The gratification (of this process) was so immediate. Clay is a very alive and shapeable material. When I got into hand building was when I knew this was my calling.
Very Local: Tell us about some of these pieces we are seeing here in your work studio.
AJ: To be honest, I like to have complete control over the design process. Some of what you see here is direct-to-consumer. Some are going to stores. And some will go to fine arts shows.
You’ll notice some slight deviations in color that I think are really lovely. When I started glazing, I worked with a chemist. Now, I make a base glaze and add a spectrum of stains to get the colors I want.
Very Local: So, what WAS this Pittsburgh day job you left (to pursue ceramics full time)?
AJ: I’d been working at a law firm specializing in international bribery and fraud. Basically we acted as a consultancy. Radically different than my ceramics work.
Very Local: Why do you call your ceramics practice “Jowdy?”
AJ: My grandmother’s sister married this amazing Lebanese man named ‘Jowdy.’ He’s my great uncle and that’s where the name comes from.
It’s my middle name, Andrew (Jowdy) Collins, but most people call me AJ.
Very Local: Where can we find your work for sale locally?
AJ: I have a full line of large decor pieces and functional tableware. I’m also focusing on large lighting pieces, planters, and wall tiles. You’ll be able to find them at:
- Make + Matter
- Shop PG+H
- Franklin and Mercer
- Pittsburgh Center for the Arts
Very Local: What can we expect from Jowdy in the future?
AJ: Well, I’m focusing a bit more on fine art so I can fill my (future) showroom. It’s something I’m really excited about.
Also, my Fallingwater project goes live today (Friday, Sept 27). If you are at Fallingwater or make your way to their website, I designed some exclusive work for them that we’ve been quiet about til now.
And finally, I’ll be showing my work at Moss Architects on Nov. 1 as part of an event on Penn Ave. We’re making wall hangings (tiles) that are a combination of wood from Urban Tree and porcelain from me.
All photos by Julie Kahlbaugh