Interview with Klai Brown

Klai Brown is a Los Angeles-based artist who is best known for melding drawing and ceramics. In this interview, Klai tells the story of her artistic beginnings as well as how she started her own business. She offers tips on using craft fairs to solicit feedback and advice on the creative process.

Just Like Grape: How did you start combining ceramics with drawing?

Klai Brown: As a kid, I always loved to draw and paint. When I spoke to my parents about pursuing art and an education in the arts, my parents were like, "No, that's terrible. Do business. Do law. Do something more serious." And so I looked for something else to do.

But eventually I found myself in a junior college and decided to take a few drawing classes and ceramics. There, I ended up falling in love with clay. I loved that it could be anything and that it was really primitive. That you could draw on it or make functional ware or even a sculpture. With clay, there were unlimited open-ended opportunities to solve problems. I also loved that it was just mud that came from the earth.

When I ended up at Cal State Long Beach for art school, I focused on ceramics because I felt that it was a more legit entry into the arts. It was more like learning a trade. Anyway so I earned my degree in ceramics, but the entire time was trying to create a surface to draw on. Eventually, I began drawing on my ceramics and found that that was a really satisfying way for me to merge two of my strongest interests.

JLG: Who inspires you on the ceramics side and who inspires you on the drawing side?

Klai: I’ve always loved really expressive works like portraiture from Egon Schiele. And I grew up loving graphic novels from the 80s and 90s as well as punk rock posters. I also love Asian-inspired artwork as well.

I had a ceramics teacher, Vince Palacios, at Cal State Long Beach who showed us his technique for drawing on porcelain with black stains, which is primarily what I do now.

That was probably that first time that I got introduced to what I love to do. Now, this woman named Ayumi Horie is the closest person doing what I want to do. She's pretty awesome.

JLG: So how did start selling your business? When did you first start selling your work?

Klai: It’s actually pretty random. After I graduated from school, I was mostly making stuff that I liked in my garage. I had a day job, I was subbing, but was always looking for ways to be creative.

Eventually, I decided to make a business card and a website. I just wanted to share my creative endeavors with people. After giving my card to an old friend, she told me about a group called the Long Beach Craft Mafia, which is basically a group of girls who want to create small craft businesses. It’s a way of bonding, sharing ideas and giving each other support.

A few of them were doing craft fairs, so I decided to go to one. I remember that there were eight of us sharing a table for the first one that I did. At the craft fair, it was the first time that I sold a meaningful volume of work. It was really exciting to get that positive feedback.

JLG: Do you still go to craft fairs? 

Klai: Yeah, craft fairs have been super awesome. When you're making stuff and not sharing with anybody, it's weird. You wonder if you’re just tripping out and making stuff that nobody will like or you're just kind of in your own world.

So connecting my work with people is exciting just to get feedback on what they like. When you get strong feedback and praise, it makes all of your doubts and fears worth it.

Of course it’s also awesome to know that I’ve made sales as well and I can pay my bills.

JLG: How do you keep yourself from designing for the mass market versus pursuing your artistic vision?

Klai: I really believe in just just playing when you’re creating. When I create things, I don’t necessarily create something because it’ll make money. When something doesn’t sell, it’s just feedback and I don’t take it personally. When I create something, I definitely try to make it something that I love. Sometimes the thing I hate the most sells the best.

Like recently, I created a few pipes for smoking pot and the one that I liked the best didn’t sell at all. And I thought, “Well, isn’t that funny.”

JLG: What’s next for you on the business and art side?

Klai: Well, I love making one-of-a-kind, handmade pieces, but I’m starting to explore producing things that can be produced in larger quantities. I’m also partnering with other makers. I’m working with Son of Sailor, where I created a one-hitter for smoking pot and they created a sheath for the pipe. It should be out for the holidays.     

Check out Klai's website and shop here.