Nikki Mizak is one of six ceramic artists who demoed at the the Amaco NCECA booth in 2017. In addition to being a ceramic artist, Nikki is an Army wife and mother of two who enjoys having her own garden and raising chickens.
Hometown: Ellicott City, Maryland
AMACO Product She Can’t Live Without:
I couldn’t make my work without your Underglazes. (They) are just so perfect for what I make— a great wide range of colors that I can mix and fire in such a reliable and true way. And the slip trailers are great because of the way they fit my hand. I tried just about every one on the market and they are just perfect for me.
Five Fun Facts About Chickens:
1. My chickens scare my seventy-five pound Boxer. They are fearless.
2. Chickens are better than any reality TV show out there. The way they communicate and play with each other is so entertaining.
3. I read recently that chickens are empathetic and I believe it.
4. Chicken eggs can have multiple yokes. I think the record is eight or nine.
5. I don’t know about everyone else but chickens make me happy. They provide so much more than eggs and meat. They are loving, social creatures.
When did you begin to express yourself as an artist?
I’ve been an artist since I was very young; painting, drawing, and making things with my hands, including using clay. But things got serious when I was in high school and I made a few really fun pieces including a large bucket-sized mug with an Edward Hopper dinner scene painted on it. I loved being able to combine two of my favorite ways of creating.
Describe your creative path to Ceramics.
I was a painter first. My degree is in painting and printmaking, so I made a very specific decision to create functional work versus paintings to hang on the wall. My walls are full of paintings but when it comes down to it, I felt like I would rather combine the two types of art and have my work be enjoyed in a more intimate way. I constantly walk past the art on my walls without looking hard at them. But every time I pick up a piece of pottery, I feel the weight in my hand, run my fingers over the texture, and stare into the depths of the surface design. My challenge is to make pieces that allow for that fun exploration.
How did you discover your signature illustrative style?
I think that there is a lot of work that is unglazed or only (has) a single dip or a double dip of certain glazes— and they can be beautiful— but for me that wasn’t cutting it.I (wondered) how do I make my work stand out and be recognizable. I started with the slip trailing to get that texture going. I felt like that was kind of a reverse printmaking process for me and I did some carving which was (a return to) etching. And then one day I was like, ‘Why don’t you just paint on it? That makes more sense to you.’ So I started doing that. It took about a year before I felt like that came together and I really got the hang of how to use the underglazes well. Then I switched clays and I had to start over again. But I’ve been lucky to have great materials like the underglazes that allow me to create such true and reliable colors that have a great range from subtle to vibrant.
Your functional ceramic ware features colorful and rustic barnyard themes. What inspires the imagery in your work?
So many things inspire me, mostly people and animals. I really try to consciously take in my surroundings; like various colors, smells, textures. I would always try to have a big garden. I really like to know where my food comes from. Many people know that I have chickens and that I also paint chickens pretty regularly. I want my kids to understand that eggs and chicken and other things comes from actual animals and not just a shelf in the grocery store.
Are there ceramic artists whose work inspires you?
Absolutely— really too many to even mention them all. Some have influenced me on my journey as a potter; some taught me about technique; and some have created such amazing art that it makes me want to push forward to do the same. Hopefully one day I will get close to that goal. Some of my favorite artists are current potters like Carole Epp, Adriana Christianson, and Sue Tirrell. Of course, I think that makes a lot of sense since we all paint animals on our pots. Another favorite artist is Shane Mickey. I adore his forms and textured surface.
Jackie Brown was your undergraduate Professor of Ceramics at Frostburg State University and your advisor. How has she influenced you?
Had I not had her in my life, I don’t know that I would be working in clay now. We moved out to Hawaii. I only came home maybe every six months for a week or so and I would never run into any body except for Jackie. I wasn’t doing anything in ceramics. I was painting when I could; and teaching drawing and painting classes; and classes for Wounded Warriors. I believe in signs and things lining up and falling into place for a reason. One day after I had my daughter I was like, ‘You know what, I need something just for me.’ I thought of Jackie and how we would always run into each other and have these longs talks about every thing. So I sent her a message and I told her (that) I think I want to get back into pottery. I talked to her about setting up my studio and where to get things and she really was just a very big influence. She would critique my work which is something that you really don’t get when you’re out of a school. And she’s always been very encouraging, a mentor and a friend. Sometimes in life you’re really lucky to have someone like that.
What’s the most challenging thing about being a professional ceramist?
That’s a tough one. I think it’s a tall order in this day and age to make something special enough that someone wants to spend their hard-earned money on and bring into their home. Thankfully, there is a growing population of people educated about the importance of handmade goods and small business makers. Every time I throw, texture, or paint I’m constantly thinking about making a piece with that special attention to detail and how to grab the interest of the future owner while they are using my work.
What’s the most rewarding thing about working with clay?
Making those special pieces that get loved more and more with each use. Also, when I know someone out there is going to be opening up a box with one of my mugs or plates, I feel so honored and excited that I get to be part of someone’s event. It’s maybe a silly feeling but I just think it’s the coolest thing.
What advice can you offer to someone looking to pursue a career in the arts?
Listening to your gut and your heart to help you find your own voice. Some of my favorite work to buy looks absolutely nothing like my own work. There are elements that inspire me but I still create what I hear my inner self telling me to make. And a touchy subject is uninvited critique of your work; whether it’s at a show or in a message from a ceramic peer. I was used to critique in college and I loved that time, but I was also ready for it. When it’s unrequested sometimes it’s harder to stomach. I remember early on, my highly sensitive self would be hurt or offended, or I would try to think of excuses. Then after I took a few days to think about it, I thought, you know what, I think it hurt a bit because it’s true. So I took those opportunities to learn from comments and push my work forward.'