Kevin Snipes is an subtle anomaly. He is soft spoken and laughs easily. His porcelain sculptures are populated by hand-drawn cartoon-like characters, that gently poke and prod at issues of love, race and communication in the modern world.
I had a bowl of ramen with Kevin in Pittsburgh this spring and chatted with him in his studio while he worked. The video above covers Kevin’s thoughts about his work and some of his thoughts on race and culture, but our conversation veered all over the map from race and relationships to instagram and the power of images in today’s culture.
Kevin is also African American – something that is pretty rare in the world of ceramic art. We grew up together in a very racially diverse suburb east of Cleveland. In our high school it seemed like race was totally incidental and Kevin’s work reflects that. His work speaks of broad themes about connecting with lovers and society or feeling like an outsider regardless of your race.
Kevin’s work has a cartoon-like quality to it, which is misleading. The pieces he makes tell stories through his characters and through little hidden messages like word search, crossword puzzles, games. He says that most of the work is actually talking about the idea of the communication and sometimes miscommunication. One person on one side of a piece might speak something to the person on the other side of the piece, and it may not be completely understood.
“I’m actually telling stories that seem very real in that way,” Kevin says. “They’re not like easy stories. One thing I like to do is to have a surface that seems really sweet and maybe even little cute when you first look at it, but then once you get to know the piece a little bit better, you realize that there are some serious thoughts going on below the surface and that there’s room to investigate.”
Nothing about the stories in these pieces is obvious or blatant. Kevin likes to call them “incomplete stories,” and he likes people to create their own stories about his work.
He told me about one woman who bought a piece of his and then met him a year later and told him this long and interesting story she figured out about the meaning of the piece. “None of it actually had anything to do with what I was thinking about,” Kevin says. “But I think that’s great when it happens, because it means that this woman was very involved with this piece. She looked at it on a daily basis and changed her mind about it daily. It’s almost like the piece had a conversation with her and let her extrapolate her own story through it.”
None of this is easy. Kevin’s pieces are super labor intensive. He hand builds porcelain containers that are small sculptures in and of themselves. Then, using techniques called sgraffito and mishima, he “draws” on the pieces with a combination of scratching into the clay surface, painting over top of it with underglaze, scraping off excess underglaze and then finally firing the piece a second time. He calls it a very physical way of drawing. “I feel like the images are almost more like tattoos than they are like paintings because the drawings are embedded into the surface of the piece.”
Kevin has become internationally known for his technique of drawing on porcelain and he regularly teaches workshops around the US and abroad. He shows all over the US. You can see some of his work at kevinsnipes.com, but he posts more regularly on instagram at instagram.com/hollowfingers.