Inside one nondescript brick building on the West Side of Chicago that houses many artist studio spaces, there are high ceilings, whitewashed walls and clunky doors with metal latches.
At first glance, Ball’s work is straightforward. She makes charming, handmade, ceramic pieces for everyday use. But, look closer and you’ll notice provocative, yet tasteful hand-painted drawings of women during an intimate moment on some of the pieces. Or you’ll notice that some of the unassuming table objects, inspired by mid-century furniture, are also perfect for smoking out of. And looking even closer still, you’ll notice that around Ball’s own neck is a tiny gold chain with the word ‘feminist’ emblazoned in intricate lettering. It’s subtle details like those that add the greatest impact to what she is producing.
CUSP Magazine visited Leah Ball at her studio in Humboldt Park to learn more about her and the inspiration behind her bold work.
Q&A – CUSP Magazine & Leah Ball
CUSP Magazine: I read that you’re originally from California. How did you end up in the Midwest?
Leah Ball: I spent half of my life in California. I grew up in Southern California, and then when I was 11 we moved to Austin, Texas. I went to high school there, and I married my high school sweetheart. We moved here for him to go to grad school, and then we got a divorce. I stayed here, and he went back home.
CM: What do you like most about Chicago?
LB: I think I like the seasons. Being from lots of fair weather places, it’s kind of nice to have a time when you can hermit and just go inside and really focus. I feel like my work has gotten better because of that. And even though it’s a really big city, which is great because there’s a lot of things going on, it’s still a very affordable place to live.
CM: How do think the city of Chicago has impacted your business and art?
LB: Everyone is really friendly. When I first moved here, I was writing a blog on jewelry design. That’s where I started. I met some of my closest friends interviewing them and going to their studios. They were so friendly and open, and it was really easy to just sort of get into a community.
CM: What products do you offer?
LB: I make mostly functional ceramics and art objects. Primarily, they are marbled porcelain and anything from pipes, to mugs, to bowls, plates, vessels … and I’m trying to get a little more conceptual. I also have the line of Feminist as Fuck jewlery.
CM: How did you come up with the idea for that?
LB: I’d seen on Instagram a shirt that had the phrase, and I really, really loved it. I thought it was kind of funny, because I know that there are two F-words in that. There’s fuck and there’s feminist, and some people are more offended by feminist than they are by the word fuck, which I think is kind of silly. Look, we need to go forward. Feminism should not be a bad word. But, it seems that it still is, and that’s because legislators and anti-abortion groups are attacking and undermining women’s rights every chance that they get. Let’s rally and make it fun. Let’s do what we can to make things go forward instead of backward. I reappropriated a hashtag on a t-shirt, then I hand drew everything and worked with a CAD designer and had everything made from there.
CM: Do you make the jewelry here
LB: No, I actually don’t do jewelry anymore. I don’t do it anymore because I got really sick two years ago. I think it was from overexposure from doing metalwork, because I’ve been doing metalwork for around eight years. Now I actually work with a jeweler who does all of it for me. I do all of the design work and I can do repairs and quick stuff, but I don’t spend much time doing it.
CM: How would you define your personal brand?
LB: I guess mostly playful, functional, but also … I don’t know. I just make stuff I like.
CM: What do you think makes your work distinct?
LB: I think for the most part, the fact that it’s marbled. I mean, marbling definitely is taking off … more and more people are doing it, which I think is awesome because it’s just going to push all of our works into more interesting directions. But I do think that at the time I learned to do it, I became obsessive with it, so my colors and the way that I interpret it is unique. For example, not everyone is using neons. And I’m doing mostly slip casting, so my forms, I think, are also unique.
CM: What is slip casting?
LB: I basically carve an original piece out of throw-away clay. I don’t even fire it. I pull plaster molds of it, pour liquid porcelain into the molds and then let it sit for 30 minutes. The I pour it out and then break it away, which is pretty fun because it keeps things exciting. You never really know what it’s going to look like when you open it. And I get bored really easily, so it’s nice to have a process that is still exciting no matter what. Every piece is different.
Leah – “Even though it’s still pretty stuff that you can buy in a boutique, I think it’s nice to assert a position and be comfortable talking about it, you know? I think it’s something I’m really proud of — that I’m a feminist, and that I’m about sexual liberation, and that I want marijuana to be legalized. I don’t mind making that commentary with my work.”
CM: You hold workshops in your studio. What made you start offering them?
LB: I feel like a lot of times that I do shows, people always ask me questions about my process, so I figured I might as well show them. It’s about two things: one part, the fulfillment of making ceramics, but also to have an appreciation — it’s not that it’s hard, but for how much work really does go into it. I think that’s really nice. People come in and make something, and they’re really happy with it. Then they are also much more appreciative of what other ceramicists are doing. And when they see the process, it helps them break it down like, “Oh, that’s how you would do that,” and “That’s difficult,” and “I see why a person charges this much for it.”
CM: What is your vision for your business going forward?
LB: It’s tricky. There was a period of time where I wanted to get into ceramics for restaurants, and I still think that would be a fun project. But I’ve been working more on conceptual work, even though I would say they are still very functional, like the Feminist as Fuck jewelry. I’m working on a line of jewelry and ceramics depicting women masturbating, because I think that it’s really important that we embrace the power in pleasure.
CM: Would you consider yourself an activist?
LB: I guess I really like to make work that maybe makes people stop a little bit. I need to do more work to really consider myself an activist, honestly. But I do think that I don’t mind making charged work that makes people think a little bit more. Even though it’s still pretty stuff that you can buy in a boutique, I think it’s nice to assert a position and be comfortable talking about it, you know? I think it’s something I’m really proud of — that I’m a feminist, and that I’m about sexual liberation, and that I want marijuana to be legalized. I don’t mind making that commentary with my work.
CM: Is there a friend or colleague that you think is also on the cusp, someone who’s making a name in the creative community in Chicago, that you would recommend we look into?
LB: My friend Chelsea Ross is a photographer, and we work on so much together because she is awesome. She’s one of my inspirations, because she really thinks through things thoroughly and brings a lot of depth to things.
Ball meshes the practical and beautiful with the political and taboo. Her work is fun and cheeky, but also important. By incorporating themes of feminism, women’s rights and female sexuality into her largely functional work, Ball is creating literal conversation pieces that lend themselves to important dialogue in a simple and approachable way.