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When it comes to ceramics, Katie Kimmel has the magic touch. Crafting custom pieces from her home studio in the Mojave Desert, the artist’s pet portrait vases elicit months-long waitlists. Her work — which includes sculptures, furniture, and graphic apparel and home goods — has also been shown in galleries like Hashimoto Contemporary and sold in such boutiques as Big Bud Press, Anomie, and Future Perfect. And she spent much of the past year creating decorations for her own wedding, including a handcrafted disco ball featuring one of her dog’s faces. (She’s got two Chihuahuas, a Saint Bernard, and a tortoise — comes with the desert territory!). We caught up with Kimmel to discuss how a college ceramics course turned into her life’s work, falling in love with a hospice foster, and watching iZombie. All of that and more, below.
* The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Why pet portraits? Have you always been an animal lover?
I’ve been asked to do people before and have said no because it’s more stressful. I think with dogs, I can’t really accidentally insult them, so that’s a big pro. I’m a huge, huge pet person and I’ve made a lot of sculptures of my own dogs for my personal pleasure.
Tell us about your dogs!
I’ve got three dogs: two Chihuahuas, Pony and Muffin, and then a Saint Bernard who just turned one. His name is Boss. They make an interesting combination. Actually, I’ve also got a huge tortoise, Joey. We just got him, so he’s a bit of a mystery to me.
Where did you find a huge tortoise?
I guess tortoises get moved around a lot just because they live so long. A friend of a friend was getting a little too old to take care of him, so we got Joey.
How do your pets inspire the ceramics that you make?
The customs are the job part of my art process, but I definitely make a lot of sculptures of my dogs for gallery purposes and also personal. My wedding was a big making-art-about-my-dogs outlet. I’ve got a disco ball of my dog Pony’s head right now that I’m not quite sure what to do with, but it was a lot of fun.
Did you incorporate any of your other art into your wedding?
The disco ball took me about a year. I was planning on doing three, but was like, “If I have to go through this mirror process again, I’m never going to come back from it mentally.” I was just calling them party balls; they’re basically disco ball shaped, and then I painted them to look like my dogs’ faces. Then I made all the floral arrangement vases, which were just kind of standard Dalmatians. I made some special vases, like of my dog Pony having a glass of wine. That was at the bar. They all got stolen. I’ll never see them again. But it was by friends and family, so who cares?
What was the first pet sculpture you made?
I did ceramics in college, and at the time I was interested in creating little cute storybook narratives that existed outside in the world. One year I did a whole beach theme. There were some dogs, and one was taking a photo. I think that was the first dog-specific ceramic that I did. They’re way different than my style that I have now, just from making a pretty obscene amount of them since.
What is your process in creating a custom vase from start to finish?
I work from photographs, obviously, so I’ll do the sculpture part first. Ceramics is a real “hurry up to wait” deal. I take them all in bulk, so even after Christmas, I’m still working on about 25 right now. I have to shelve it for two weeks to let it dry out, then bisque fire it. Then I’ll do the glazing, the first paint, fire it to see if it’s finished, and I’ll just keep going until the colors are right. I watch TV a lot while I work. This Christmas season I watched iZombie on Netflix. It has to be something very low-stress.
I’m sure you’re like a well-oiled machine at this point.
At the beginning, it was the most stressful stressful thing. At this point, I’m glad the emotional part is out of it, and I trust myself now that I know what I’m doing.
Do you find that living in the desert inspires creativity?
Obviously it’s gorgeous and it’s so quiet, which is not a bad thing when you’re making art. I can listen to iZombie as loud as I want. Before I moved out here, I was living in LA and my studio was like an hour away from my apartment. By the time I got there, I was so tired and nothing was lining up. I couldn’t afford anything; I remember I never really had enough clay.
Now I’m out here and I have so much space and it’s really inexpensive. I feel like I can afford to have my job, in a way. I live and work on the same lot and it’s really easy. I feel like I’m in my little cozy work hub; it’s really awesome. I honestly can't imagine a better situation than the one I’m in right now.
Have you noticed an increase in demand from customers (especially during the pandemic when everyone got a dog)?
It’s funny, little things I notice from year to year... Two years ago, before the pandemic, I got about 150 vase orders for the holidays. I’d say 90 of them were just a single pet. This year, it was a much, much larger percentage of two-pet portraits. I was like, “Oh, everybody got a second dog this year — that’s hilarious.”
How have your pets helped your overall well-being during the pandemic?
At the beginning of Covid I was like, “Oh well, I’m just going to be here.” It’s very isolating, or it can be, where I live. I’m really just at my house for weeks and weeks at a time. There aren’t really any restaurants. I’m only two hours from LA [so in normal times] I can leave if I’m going stir crazy, do something fun and come back. Obviously, Covid eliminated that, and I was truly stranded out here.
I was like, “I’m gonna foster dogs, because why not? I have all this space and I like dogs.” So we got this hospice foster, a Saint Bernard named Frankenstein, who died three months later. But he was so cool. He was stunning. He was just this f*cked up Saint Bernard — could barely walk. We were so in love with him. We brought him in knowing he wasn’t going to live that long, but immediately we were like, “We’re going to cure his cancer with love!”
That’s so sweet.
After that, I was obsessed with getting a Saint Bernard. At one point, I found out that my husband and I were both trying to surprise each other with a dog, which would have been a mess. I’d have two Chihuahuas and two hundred-pound dogs. We eventually found Boss and he’s awesome, but he’s a total pandemic dog. He’s a little bit feral, which is complicated because he weighs more than I do at this point.
I’ll be working in my studio — I usually leave the doors cracked — and the three of them will just burst through the door and kind of wreak havoc and be like “hey hey hey hey!” Then they go off and do their own thing. It’s always a really funny, happy parade that’s going through the house and workplace at all times. It’s a constant highlight.
That sounds like a dream to me. I’m waiting for the day when I get a dog, but you know, that Brooklyn apartment living…
I know. My friends who actually just moved to LA, they were living in a Brooklyn apartment with an Old English Sheepdog and I was like, “This is insane.” I can’t imagine having to take to the streets in the snow with a dog. I’d be like, “Just piss in my bed. I can’t deal with this.”
Any new projects in the works?
I’m actually about to remake all the vases that I made for my wedding, because one thing that happened last year is that all of my very close friends got engaged. So I’m trying to finance going to all of these weddings; they’re all going to be destination weddings for me. I made, for my wedding, like 250 of these little bud vases. They’re basically like toothbrush cups. Next week I’m going to start wedding phase two and remake the wedding gift vases. Oh, I’m also in a show at Hashimoto at the end of this month. It’s a food show called “Potluck.” That’s my big outing this month.
Commissions reopen in April 2022 for Katie Kimmel’s custom pet vases.
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Avery is an editor at The Wildest. She has written for numerous publications, including Refinery29, BuzzFeed, and V Magazine. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her fiancé and cat, Chicken, and has high hopes that one of them will let her adopt a dog.