Installation view of Sea of Vapors, Museum of Museums, Seattle, 2023. Photo: Zack Bent

Beginnings and Endings: A Conversation with Emily Counts 

Seattle-based Emily Counts takes a personal approach to sculpture, creating ceramic and mixed-media works based on memories that also leave ample space for interpretation. Sea of Vapors, her immersive installation at the Museum of Museums in Seattle (on view through September 1, 2023), leans into the narrative potential of ceramics. Using form, symbolism, color, lights, and mirrors to build her world, she explores magic, dark fairy tales, identity, mortality, and our relationship to nature. 

Lauren Levato Coyne: Your sculptures invoke magic and the occult. Could you explain more about these themes? 
Emily Counts:
Themes of transformation and metamorphosis are really beautiful to me, as is magic in general. I have been making work about the process of aging, and thinking about the beauty that can be found there, in an attempt to work through fears about it. My goal is to find a place of strength as I get older, looking to my mother, grandmothers, and great-grandmother as examples. The references to people with magical powers like wizards, witches, and magicians connect to this positive, powerful vision of aging bodies and people with special wisdom and abilities. I also think of artists and acts of creating as magic—the artist as a witch. There is a lot of mystery, even in my own process, about bringing ideas out of the ether—it feels like a magic act. Supernatural themes are about embracing the unknown and appreciating a world that still contains mysteries. I think about ghosts quite a lot, too, and the idea of people existing on another plane. The flower and plant pieces also reference that transformation process because they are in a state of wilting or rotting, with insects feeding on the fruits. I depict imagined species, but I think of them as wildflowers that could be used for a remedy, elixir, or potion.

Detail of Sea of Vapors, Museum of Museums, Seattle, 2023. Photo: Emily Counts

LLC: To me, Sea of Vapors is a dark fairy tale. Your collection of figures—witches, mystics, oracles—are all gathered on a boat-shaped platform with an owl at the helm. Can you break down the symbolism? 
The platform is a very simplified version of a boat. The owl at the bow has two faces because I felt like a lookout was needed there to watch for icebergs and other dangers. The boat concept grew out of a desire to incorporate three of the existing columns in the exhibition space. I pictured them as masts with a boat-shaped platform built around them. The platform, which raises the figures up in a stage-like manner, also serves to hide the electrical cords that connect to the illuminated sculptures. 

The idea for a masted sailboat—geometric Plexiglas “sails” are attached to the columns/masts—also made sense to me symbolically. My parents met on a ferry boat, and a tradition has started within my family of people requesting that their cremation ashes be scattered into Puget Sound off the side of a boat. I also want this for myself, so a boat, for me, represents my beginning and ending. That personal significance is a lovely base for figures that are somewhat autobiographical. But I also like the idea of them being involved in a journey by boat, which joins them together in a shared experience of adventure, anticipation, and discovery. They are in a dream space, outside of time, and there is a destination.

Installation view of Sea of Vapors, Museum of Museums, Seattle, 2023. Photo: Zack Bent

LLC: You balance these potentially heavy themes with a nice dose of humor, like the best fairy tales. Could you say more about your dark, yet playful humor?
The humor is an instinct and an urge, and it is about a system of balances both in my work and on a personal level. The funny parts can be a reaction to my lifelong ups and downs with depression and anxiety. Since a lot of my inspiration comes from early memories, there are references to childhood that read as playful. Warm, bright colors and humor can be counterpoints to what’s inside my head. That contrast between a moody interior world and my artistic output is kind of funny to me in itself. I want the work to have balances and be multifaceted, to contain humor, beauty, warmth, danger, and sexuality. I use symbolism like spiders or the vampire fangs in Vampire Florist to signal the duality of what is scary but also magical. I’m drawn to layered symbolism. I think that scary, funny, or subtle sexual imagery rounds out what might initially appear as sweet or beautiful.

LLC: Individual titles like Mid Life Strawberry are also very funny.
People seem to enjoy that one. I want people to know that there is a strawberry out there that understands them. It is decomposing a bit, getting soft and panicking about it, but it also has a special little worm buddy and lovely golden rot patches.

Mid Life Strawberry, 2022. Glazed stoneware with gold luster, 17 x 12 x 5.5 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

LLC: Fairy tales involve universal signs and signals, particularly in terms of color. Could you explain your color code and choices?
I love the meaning behind colors. The colors that I use are often tied to memories and have personal meanings or associations. Mauve, deep yellow, and vermilion are current core colors in my glaze palette. Mauve and lavender recall childhood perceptions of things that I considered either beautiful or feminine. Mauve also has a quality that feels like memory in general—hazy, a little hard to define. In that way, mauve represents mystery, and it feels subversively strong. Deep yellows like goldenrod also make me think of the past but not necessarily times that I was present for. The ’60s and ’70s come to mind, with specific fabrics, and late summer flowers. The warmth there is comforting. Vermilion represents power, strength, boldness, electricity, and internal fire. If these three colors are combined, there is a good balance of energies; it can represent how I want to be present in the world or a message that I want to give to people.

Silver and gold metallic luster overglazes naturally associate with objects that are precious, rare, or powerful. Silver signifies the future, with sci-fi or mystical connotations, while gold relates more to the past: heirlooms and treasures. The yellow of gold also gives it a more emotional quality. Often when I use metallics I am thinking about magic.

The association or meaning behind any one color also depends on the type of material being used and the surface quality. Every shade will have multiple connotations, and they all get knitted together within a piece. A glaze color might relate to an old push button telephone or a grandmother’s lipstick; a shade of velveteen may connect to a chair that I loved as a child.

There are times when I am thinking about color more than anything else. I have to think it through more intensely when working with ceramics since the glazes look very different in their fired state. So, I am holding the potential results in my mind’s eye. A lot of work happens in my imagination, and the results are not exactly as expected—that’s the gamble, the joy and sorrow of ceramics.

Installation view of Sea of Vapors, Museum of Museums, Seattle, 2023. Photo: Zack Bent

LLC: Could you say more about the use of light and mirrors?
I frequently use light with my pieces, starting in 2010 with a hollow ceramic sculpture, a light bulb, and a bit of stained glass. I love combining translucent materials like glass and Plexiglas with opaque ceramics and seeing how the light interacts differently with them. I am attracted to the contrast—how you view color as a glaze on ceramics versus illuminated or transparent color. The experience of viewing becomes more active, a more layered experience of seeing. I also have been working with colored light, electrically illuminated sculptures, and sometimes colored light that extends beyond the physical boundary of the piece to interact with surrounding space. I love shiny and glowing things. I think that’s a very human reaction, like how we are attracted to firelight. The colored light within the faces of my figures signifies that they are more than human, supernatural.

The mirrors are there to create a different moment of interaction with viewers. If you see a reflection of yourself within the piece, you become a part of it for a moment. I hope that it encourages another kind of connection with the work. Most of the mirror pieces use two-way mirrors. I place lights inside the hollow sculptures that automatically cycle on and off behind a mirror-backed opening or window. Viewers see their own reflection, or the reflection of the room, in the mirror within the sculpture. When the interior light turns on, the reflection is replaced by the illuminated interior space containing a hidden object or image.

LLC: Do you have narratives in mind when you start a work, or do you allow the story to develop freely? 
I don’t start with narratives; they seem to develop as things move along. I may have a very simple action sketched out—like a person talking on the phone—and associations, or a story, start to emerge as the piece is made. Although I think of my current work as narrative, it is very open-ended and shifting. I am more interested in creating the seeds of a narrative for viewers; their stories of what they are seeing are the most important.

The activities and themes depicted with these figures include making magical spells, communicating with animals, exploring the afterlife and nature, journeys, gardening and floral arranging, transformation, time and memories, connectivity in physical and non-physical forms, aging, and reflection on bodies, death, loss, and grieving. The meanings behind my figures and their actions are partially autobiographical, and they also reference important women in my life, especially people who have died. The sculptures portray feelings and personality characteristics, while also aspiring to something more otherworldly.

Installation view of Sea of Vapors, Museum of Museums, Seattle, 2023. Photo: Emily Counts

LLC: Do you work in other materials besides ceramic?
My primary medium is ceramics, but I also use fabric, stained glass, Plexiglas, and wood, and I’ve worked with cast and fabricated metals in the past. I have dreams about objects all the time, invented objects and materials. For Sea of Vapors, I incorporated a lot of fabric and soft sculptures. I hand-dyed cotton velveteen to create specific colors and also used satin and metallic lamé. As a sculptor, I am really in love with variation in surfaces, from velvety and super matte to high gloss and metallic. Working with a range of materials, as well as a variety of ceramic glaze finishes, allows me to explore a wide spectrum of tactile qualities.

LLC: Your work has a lot in common with painting and the narrativity of illustration. You studied painting, didn’t you? 
Earlier in my career, I moved back and forth between painting and sculpture. I received a degree in painting from the California College of the Arts, and the early paintings focused on self-portraits. My style became more detailed and controlled over time, almost with the look of drawings. Those brushwork techniques and habits got passed on somewhat to my style of glazing. I often have a careful, deliberate way of applying glazes, and I paint underglazes in a similar manner to how I would use gouache. The practice of looking toward myself as a subject is an extension of that series of paintings as well, although it’s less obvious that the sculptures are self-portraits. 

Detail of Sea of Vapors, Museum of Museums, Seattle, 2023. Photo: Zack Bent

LLC: Your show at MoM is being cut short because the museum has to close to due infrastructure concerns. What do you hope to do with the installation now? 
Even before receiving the news, I was thinking about how Sea of Vapors might travel. My goal is to find other institutions where I can show it in different configurations. The way that it’s currently built is very site specific, but I have ideas about how to keep the core concept and elements while allowing it to evolve and grow in different spaces. There are exciting possibilities in discussion. 

Sea of Vapors is on view at the Museum of Museums in Seattle through the museum’s planned closing date of September 1, 2023.