Dustin Yager ’06 and Julia Elsas ’00

The Conversation

By Karen Kedmey ’00

Mixed-media artist Julia Elsas ’00 and ceramist Dustin Yager ’06 first met at a jewel box of a community clay studio in Brooklyn, New York. They were discussing how to price work, and Elsas thought Yager had a slight Midwestern accent. He mentioned that he had recently moved to Brooklyn from Minneapolis and she replied: “Oh, I went to college in Minnesota.” You know how the rest of that conversation goes.

Elsas, who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and Yager, from Greybull, Wyoming, both majored in studio art at Carleton and both have pursued careers as artists. They have lived in other cities since graduating, but they felt the pull of New York.

When Yager moved to New York in 2016, he decided to focus full time on the elegant, edgy porcelainware he makes and sells through his business, Ceramics + Theory. Many of the expressions he inscribes and the images he draws on his pieces cannot be described or shown here without a PG-13 warning.

Elsas, a New York resident since 2010, has balanced her time in the studio with teaching and with the more recent development of two businesses: RE/PRESS Editions featuring her handmade functional goods, and Prime Mates, which offers “marriage services for creative Homo sapiens.”

The three of us met in Elsas’s south Brooklyn studio recently to talk about art and being an artist.

Dustin Yager ’06 and Julia Elsas ’00Dustin Yager ’06 and Julia Elsas ’00 Photo: Michael Berman

Karen Kedmey: When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

Dustin Yager: In high school, art was the thing I enjoyed most. In a small-town school, the curriculum can be very rote, so I’d take an art class, but I’d also set up an independent study in art so I could set my own goals and challenge myself. At Carleton I declared as a sociology major and then changed my mind two days later. Art is what I want to do. I don’t know if that has ever translated to ‘I will be an artist,’ at least as a professional declaration.

Julia Elsas: I don’t feel like art was ever a declaration for me, either. It always has just been woven into my life. Growing up I was surrounded by art. My mom was curator of African and pre-Columbian art at the Birmingham Museum of Art, so every family trip we took involved going to cultural institutions. It was never a decision or a question for me. But I did resist it. I declared art history first at Carleton, and then I realized I was fooling myself. I’m an artist, not an art historian.

Julia Elsas ’00 and Dustin Yager ’06Julia Elsas ’00 and Dustin Yager ’06 Photo: Michael Berman Yager: I grew up on a farm. Carleton hired ceramics professor Kelly Connole when I was a sophomore, and Kelly is from Montana. So we had this western mountain anarchistic streak, this western queer connection, and that was part of my decision to major in art. By the time I was a sophomore or junior, I think my family realized . . .

Kedmey: . . . he’s not going to take over the farm.

Yager: Yeah.

Kedmey: Were there models that helped guide your thinking about what your career as an artist would look like or how you wanted to pursue it?

Elsas: It’s hard for me to pinpoint one thing. The exposure I had growing up showed me that there are many different art worlds. There’s not really one way to do this.

Yager: For the longest time, I thought that unless I was making something that was going to be in a textbook someday, it wasn’t worth doing. That was such a wrong bias, but I was so impressionable as a student.

Kedmey: Wow, that’s a lot of pressure. Julia Elsas ’00 and Dustin Yager ’06Julia Elsas ’00 and Dustin Yager ’06 Photo: Michael Berman

Yager: And I still fight against it.

Kedmey: Tell me about the mediums in which you work and what draws you to them.

Elsas: At Carleton I delved into printmaking, then printmaking brought me to sculpture. From there, I got into bookbinding, book arts, papermaking. Then I got involved with textiles and embroidery. And then video. I started working with ceramics about five years ago and I love it. In 20 years maybe I’ll think, ‘Oh, I really have a handle on ceramics now.’ ”

Yager: I’ve been working pretty much exclusively with porcelain since 2007. I never wanted to be a potter, but then as I kept working with porcelain I was like: ‘Oh, I’m a potter. I make pots.’ ”

I like how clay references the domestic through its potential to be used. So even when I have made conceptual vessels and jars, I think they’re most interesting because of their functionality.

Kedmey: You both possess a keen, almost anthropological sense of observation. What do you notice when you’re looking at the world?
Elsas: Sometimes when I see people, I just see a shape, or positive and negative space, or color. I’m very observant about body language and human behavior to the point that it can be distracting. My work was more explicitly about that earlier. I still have those same concerns, but it’s less explicit.

Yager: My work in grad school got into material culture studies, and I ended up doing this anthropological thing. I would go to my friends’ houses and talk to them about their possessions and why they put them where they did. I’d try to read their identity by how they arranged their domestic spaces.

Kedmey: What’s an example of something you’ve observed and made work about? Bouncing Ponytail by Julia Elsas ’00Bouncing Ponytail by Julia Elsas ’00

Elsas: After Carleton I worked at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where there are bouncy ponytails everywhere on campus. I would sit outside, eat my lunch, and observe these women. In graduate school and after, I was interested in capturing these voyeuristic moments. I was fascinated by beautiful, bobbing ponytails. So I made Mechanical Ponytail [a bouncing ponytail made of synthetic hair that is connected to a motion-activated motor].

stools by Dustin Yager ’06stools by Dustin Yager ’06 Yager: Sometimes I feel like I’m a contrarian. During the push to legalize gay marriage, I was interested in other stories we needed to highlight. So I made a pair of stools that juxtaposed the progress from Reagan and the AIDS crisis to marriage equality, but also the way that HIV is still stigmatized, and the story about CeCe McDonald, a trans woman of color who was being imprisoned for defending herself during a violent attack.

Kedmey: Talk to me about what you find funny and how humor influences your work.

Yager: Well, I’m funny.

Elsas: I think I’m really funny, too. A lot of it is you either laugh or you cry. It’s the absurdity of life.

Kedmey: What is one of the greatest gifts that being an artist has given you?

Yager: The choices I’ve made in the past year always come back to freedom. Even when it’s a superstruggle and I’m filled with doubt, my guiding principle is mostly freedom.

Elsas: For the first time, I’ve started to appreciate that everything I do every day is related to art. It feels liberating to make things, and to help people realize their ideas—and to try to realize my own. Life is so short, and this is how I feel I should be spending my time.

Dustin Yager ’06 and Julia Elsas ’00Dustin Yager ’06 and Julia Elsas ’00 Photo: Michael Berman

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