Jani Hileman didn’t intend to be a ceramist but some things are inevitable. “I always thought as a kid if I got really good at one thing, I could do that and let it take me around the world,” she explains. The daughter of two ministers, Hileman grew up playing with Pennsylvania dirt in her backyard. A childhood spent largely outdoors and exploring National Parks led her to a photo major at MICA. By sophomore year however, she felt drawn to the ceramics department where she found a mentor in professor Sarah Barnes and inspiration in the class of graduating senior women, whose work she found engaging and whose company she found supportive.
Two years later, in 2018, Hileman’s undergraduate thesis show was a collection of clay sculptures of women’s bodies, in all shapes and sizes. In this ongoing “Terraferma” series, she is representing women as people first, allowing the intimate scale and fragility of the medium to draw the viewer in without resorting to sexualizing the female body. Hileman says that with her figurines she is setting up scenes and trying to make comic strips on the wall that reflect the relationships between people in mid-conversation.
A current resident artist of the Creative Alliance, Hileman is one of the nonprofit’s youngest live-in residents ever. Hileman keeps herself busy assisting photographer Joseph Hyde (a BmoreArt contributor), working at Clay Monster Pottery, and pitching in around the Creative Alliance—a favorite job is hanging up the marquee letters. I met up with Hileman in her studio at Creative Alliance to talk about why Baltimore is a great place to live as a young artist (despite those pesky red light cameras!), feminism is essential, and clothes are a drag.
SUBJECT: Jani Hileman, 22
WEARING: Black T-shirt, black denim, and work boots
PLACE: Highlandtown, Baltimore
Suzy Kopf: What is the most important art-related book you’ve read?
Jani Hileman: I think, impact-wise, I’ll go with 20th Century Ceramics by Edmund de Waal. All his books are worthwhile. It was the first real overview I had of the recent history of ceramic art and it expanded my understanding of the material, and where I am in it.
What did you think of his Hare with the Amber Eyes?
Honestly, I enjoyed it. I think most people never think about the history of the objects that surround them, but the stories are rich and varied. I enjoy using objects that had history before me—a stool my grandmother owned, a jacket from my mother, cameras from my grandfather. As an object maker, I was enthralled by the story and Edmund de Waal’s fascination with the history of these small, beautiful netsuke.
New York City or Los Angeles?
Neither! Ha. Baltimore is as dense of an urban space as I think I’m cut out for in the long run. This city has snuck into my heart. If I had to choose, I think I’d go with LA. I’ve never been, but I have family in the western part of the USA and I love visiting new places. I’ve also been told there are wonderfully wild parks within city limits.
What is the art supply/business-related material you should buy stock in, you use it so much?
I’d buy into a kiln company. Or kiln brick. There are so many different ways to work in clay, but everybody needs a kiln. Hands down, Skutt is the best electric kiln. I’m hoping to get one of my own soon.
Whose career do you aspire to? Why?
Beth Cavener Stichter. She’s a successful sculptor doing her own thing out in Montana and also running her own studio/residency program. Also, Lauryn Axelrod. She is a potter and community builder in Vermont.
Pen or pencil?
Pens. I usually despise pencils—mine are constantly dull or broken. Except carpenter’s pencils, because they’re heavy duty, fun to sharpen, and won’t roll away.
Complete this sentence: My parents are both ….
Presbyterian ministers. I grew up in the church, on a rural piece of land in PA. That early experience with an encompassing community was highly formative, in ways I’m just beginning to dig into. The recent show I had of porcelain slip-cast objects was in part inspired by this early time in rural PA. All the objects I cast were from that time and place. My father is probably the biggest collector of my mugs!
Do you have what might be described as an unusual hobby? What is it? How did you get into that?
If anything, rock climbing? Though that’s pretty common here. Perhaps frisbee. I can throw a disc happily for hours. In another life, I think I’d be a retriever.
Whose work would you want in your home? Specific piece?
I’d love a wall piece by Shelsea Dodd. I love her recent piece “Hera’s Revenge.” And a big drawing by my friend Jerry Allen Gilmore, another resident artist here with me at Creative Alliance.
I am starting to collect small ceramic pieces, mostly mugs from my favorite artists. I love having morning coffee in a unique cup made by a friend or someone I admire. If I get stuck in the studio, I take a break and use one. It usually helps. It’s like having a library of material, techniques, and other artists’ thoughts in my home. Right now, I’m dreaming of a small white slab mug made by Sarah Pike.
I think it’s really cool that you reference and admire so many female ceramic artists. Can you talk a little bit about what being a feminist means to you and/or how it influences the work you make?
Feminism has a direct influence on most of my work. I’m focusing on sculpting women, perhaps in an effort to subvert the typical portrayal of women in art. My sculpture is honestly more about the person/character rather than the body. For most of them, I’m inspired by the women in my life, my friends, my family, my peers.
I realized at some point at MICA that most of the art/media I was consuming was created by male artists, and made a conscious choice to seek out and support other female-identifying creatives. A mentor at the time told me to seek out and meet women I admired in my field (ceramics) and see how they were navigating the world.
My favorite poet right now is Mary Oliver, and my two favorite musicians are Amythyst Kiah and the incredible duo Anna & Elizabeth. That’s not to say I left behind the male creatives I enjoyed—Neil Gaiman and John Scalzi are still some of my favorite authors. But I feel more balanced.
If someone made a doll of you, what is the outfit you’d most likely be wearing?
I’d probably be wearing my classic dark jeans, black T-shirt, denim jacket, and work boots. You’d be hard pressed to find me in anything else on a given day.
A lot of artists seem to enjoy having a “uniform”—for you is there a particular reason why you gravitate towards wearing the same thing?
Yeah. Choosing clothing has always been a chore. I like getting up in the morning without having to spend time or mental energy choosing how to present to the world. I find something I’m comfortable in, feel good about, and is decent enough, then get multiples of it. Right now, that’s dark jeans with an unmarked black T-shirt, and my trusty dark denim jacket (with all the pockets). Bright colors can be distracting when they are in my field of view all the time.
If you had unlimited funding and the time and space to make it, describe the piece or series you would make.
Rather than one series, I’ve been dreaming of buying some land and starting up my own artist residency program. If I had unlimited funding, I’d want to set up a studio, build some kilns, and begin building up a community. As much as I love clay and making things on my own, the real power of art (and specifically, for me, clay) is to bring people together.
Right now, I’m working on a series at Creative Alliance to sculpt the performers live during their shows. It’s a recent development, but I’m really enjoying it. I’ll have a big show at CA during March and April in 2021, these portraits may be part of it. Since I have some time, I’m reaching in many directions to explore a little post-grad before committing to a single series.
Does your astrological sign match your personality?
I’d say so. I’m a Virgo. I am an introvert, a stickler for independence, and practical to a fault. I don’t put much stock in astrology, though I see why people find it interesting.
What was the most memorable assignment you were given in school? What did you make?
I think my first slip-casting assignment. The flask I made wasn’t impressive, but it was my first real experience with plaster mold-making in clay, and I loved it. Casting was a whole new way of finding form. It sparked a whole body of work, some which I showed in my exhibit, Home & Hearth.
If you found a penguin in the freezer, what would you do?
Haha, is it a dead penguin? If so I’d probably cast it—I make a line of porcelain bone jewelry, and I have a particular love of vertebrae and skulls. If it was alive, I think the Maryland Zoo would love to help me find her a more comfortable chilly home.
What is a trend you wish would die?
I’d like the new trend of speed cameras appearing everywhere in Baltimore to stop. I’m constantly getting those and I hate it. That and the predatory ticketing for parking. It’s highway robbery, and the exorbitant fines are totally disproportionate to most income levels.
What would your teenage self think of you today?
I think she would be pretty stoked to know what’s in store. I know it wouldn’t have been her imagining of what’s next, but I made it out of Quarryville. I’m doing my own thing, making what I want to see out in the world… She had this idea that if she picked one thing, and did it really well, it would take her around the world. She thought it would be photography, but clay is letting me travel even if it’s only been around the states so far. I love it.
Photo by Joe Hyde
Photos by author except where otherwise noted. Featured image by Joe Hyde.