STORIES

Alex Simon Knows How to Make Good Choices

By Celia Gold on December 12, 2018

“Do you wanna see my studio?”

Over her shoulder, I see the glimmer of a halo I quickly learn belongs to a neon rainbow lighting up the wall behind her. Portland-based ceramicist Alex Simon, whose spirited, glitter-fueled Instagram is one of only a few reasons I haven’t defected from the platform (yet), greets me with an impromptu tour of her workspace. She steers me past rows of freshly minted work (“these are some new Hitachi pipes and a moon goblet friend, out of the kiln this morning”), a motorized mixer capable of generating 40 gallons of porcelain at a time, a shipping loft with racks and racks of multicolored sparkle tape (stocked and ready to go for the Holiclays, as Alex calls them), and her pup, Frankie, lounging on a faux-fur couch nearby. It’s an artist’s (acid) dream setup, complete with bedazzling station and lava lamp—the tonal equivalent of Rainbow Brite sunbathing in Key West.

More vibrant than the glitz—striking though it is—is Alex’s sense of gratitude. She has a way of saying “thank you”—actually, it’s “thank you so much”—that makes me feel like I’ve been mispronouncing it my whole life. It sounds so different from the rote delivery I'm used to giving (and receiving), and it’s obvious she means it. Like most of what I find in her studio and over the course of our conversation, it’s revitalizing. Alex, like her space and work, is an unexpected 70 degree day in December. This is one of the secrets to her artistic success.

She shares the other one, toothe importance of being real and the limits of respectability politics in her career as a spirited queer, femme, Jewish artist who uses her hands and uplifts her communities. Gay for Clay Meetup, anyone? Or, if you’ve got some time and resources to spare, Alex runs a queer summer camp for adults that fundraises for a different POC organization every day and just concluded its eighth year running. Clearly, spending time wisely is something Alex knows how to do, and she extended some of hers to talk with PRØHBTD about her practice and inspiration.

Whoaaaa!

...And then up here is like all craft show props and lighting for photography and boxes full of sweatshirts that say Make Good Choices… and then looking up… the disco ball and party light, [a Broadway-inspired, Your Name in Lights] FEMME sign, and rainbow friend. I feel like it's really important to have your am-bian-ce-ay game on point.

Did you say am Beyoncé?

Yes.

Yesssss.

It's like, if I can't romance myself in my dream studio, what am I even doing?

Wise words. That’s an incredible set up you have. Good for you.

Thank you so much! I was sharing this space with another artist for years, and then he moved out, and my self-employment jam started to pick up and become really full time. It's like you know what: Let's gut it, let's paint everything pink, let's glitter the walls, and let's install a disco ball. Let's turn this house into a homo. Rainbows everywhere. Yes, fur on this couch, please. Yes, more sequins. Yeah, that's my studio.

I have this new product that I'm working on. I'll show you. It's four months in the making, and I just started casting it yesterday. But this is my brand new lipstick pipe.

Holy charisma, Batgirl. I love it. What’s the process been like?

I have this design that I've been sketching for months, and I took it to this company that has 3D designers. They took my sketches and met with me for like an hour and a half and then turned them into a 3D mockup and printed it in plastic. They 3D printed me a lipstick pipe, and then I made a silicone mold and a positive in silicone of their 3D plastic, then made a plaster mold and cast it in porcelain. Now it's day two of three months in the making of lipstick pipes.

Wow, congratulations. You’re no stranger to collaborating, but is this the first time you've worked with an outside designer?

It's the second time. I would say they're designers, but they're more like fabricators. They're there to make my dreams into a reality. For the lipsticks I went in with a ton of sketches and then we went back and forth with the edits for months. It was a long time of being like, “No, I want this, no like that.” And the clay has about a 14 percent shrinkage rate so everything is factored around material and what do I want my end game to be.

For the Hitachis [a different style pipe], I actually had multiple people give me their old vibrators that started sparking. They all started sparking. So it was like, paying homage to these sex toys that had been working hard for like 10-plus years.

That’s pretty good. Ten years is a solid amount of time.

Yeah, it's a good run.

Your work infuses whimsy into everyday objects. How do you choose what to make?

My products are made from found objects, like I'll take my inhalers and make molds of them and then turn them into porcelain. Or found objects like an inhaler, vibrator, whatever, and in some cases, when what I want to make isn't from a found object, I'll figure out, “Kkay, how do I get what I want out of a prototype?” To me it doesn't really matter where the prototype comes from—whether it's 3D printed or handmade or found object. How's it going to translate into clay? All these pieces, the thing that binds all of my work together is that it's all an extension of my personality. You know it's like, oh yeah, unicorn heart mug, of course. A Hitachi vibrator, why aren't we celebrating sex-positive stoners? Why is cannabis so male-dominated? Why can't we have more fun with it, and why can't we be more feminine?

Why isn't it more fun, is sort of how I'm coming at it. I make these mugs, like this unicorn heart mug says The Gays of Our Lives. If this is the mug you're drinking out of every single day and starting your whole morning off with, then your routine becomes a ritual. It becomes an act of self care, versus just getting caffeine. That's kind of what I want all my pieces to do, to be like, “Oh, I'm treating myself to making my life more fun, more intentional, more handmade, more queer and more out there.”

I'm hopefully going to have this textile artist make handmade little bags for all my new lipstick pipes that will hopefully be pink fur on the inside and gold sequins on the outside, so you're like, “Oh, let me just—luxury on luxury on sparkles on fur—treat myself.”

(Laughs.)

That sounds pretty on-brand. I want to circle back to something you said about the dominant culture in the cannabis industry. I noticed when I started getting involved in the industry I found some self-proclaimed feminists right away, and I found some people working in intersectional feminism within cannabis advocacy…

It's not a lot…

No, not a lot, but when I say “found,” I mean on social media. But you're right in the sense that if I were to go to a cannabis convention, it would be dominated by white cis men. I'm curious about your experience as a femme-positive, out, queer feminist artist in the cannabis industry.

There aren't a ton of queer ceramic artists in cannabis, I will say that. There are a couple, but there aren't a lot, and in a lot of ways it feels like, are you a feminist or are you a straight white man? There isn't a ton of space, but it's growing. There are some brands that are really taking off who are doing a lot of queer merch, shall we say. There aren't enough. It's cool that we're all friends in a way, and we all support each other. A lot of queer ceramic artists are also underselling their stuff because they want it to be accessible to people.

Yeah, that's a really hard one for artists, especially folks with an anti-capitalist bent: pricing your work appropriately so that it honors your talent and time.

(Exhales.)

Yeah. There have been some roadblocks. I have a really strong queer, Portland, cannabis-positive but not fully cannabis encapsulating community. I had a leg up in terms of starting this business. My friends were like, “Yes, keep going, you got this.” Emotionally, financially supporting me and saying yes. I feel like Portland is a really special bubble of women empowerment and queer, it's kind of a queer safe space, especially for stoners. Even before weed was legal, it was a very stoner city that was very supportive of women. I feel like I have a big leg up in that.

It's definitely a boy’s zone. But the cool thing, the most empowering thing for me, is that the more authentically weird my work gets, the more me it is—the more rainbows, the more gold, the more out there, the more vibrators, the more lipsticks—the more fun my work gets, the more it sells. If I'm making something just because I think it will sell, it probably won't sell. If I'm making something because I need to make it, because I want it in the world more than anything, because it feels right, that's when it takes off.

That's been the most empowering thing about this whole process of self-employment, especially in cannabis. We don't all have to be factories to be successful. I’m only making things that feel good to me that I really want to make, and I'm trusting that people will feel that authenticity and that energy, and they'll show up for me and support my work. They are. It's so cool.

I think those are really crucial pieces for readers to hear… that we don't have to be factories and that the more “you” the work gets the more it resonates. That's counterintuitive to a lot of us, especially for marginalized folks. The message we usually get is that the closer we can assimilate, the better off we'll be, the more access to certain privileges we'll have and the fewer feathers we'll ruffle. That's how many of us have been taught to keep ourselves safe, but it's an unsustainable strategy in the long term.

Exactly. I feel really privileged to have gotten the amount of exposure that I have already so that I'm reaching those people. I know that it's taken me years to get there. My ceramics are definitely a big part of me, but they're not my everything. That's a whole thing: How do we support marginalized people by being queer, having fun and also doing the work? The [queer, adult summer] camp is definitely part capture the flag and friendship bracelets, and part, how do we disassemble white supremacy and how do we uplift people in our communities that really need it? Ceramics is a huge part of my life, but only one of the things that reflects me.

It's also weird to see all of these straight white men getting rich off of cannabis for inventing a very simple glass pipe, for example, that's like made in China. It feels like there's a lot of access for those people to do those things. There's a lot of support, there's a lot of media. Like any marginalized people, you have to work so much harder. But for me, it's so much more satisfying to know that the people who are getting my work are all in.

Can you talk about what your experience has been connecting to other queer folks in the industry? Or in your practice in general? I think your commitment to fortifying your communities is a big part of what sets you apart.

It's been awesome. We have a secret club. (Laughs.) Not so secret. There’s a very let's lift each other up tone in the queer ceramic community, in my experience. I feel really held by the queer ceramicists that I’m lucky to know and love. If we don’t support each other, who will? The community studio I'm so happy to be a part of is super weed friendly. We have a fully fenced-in backyard so everyone here was down to product test and give feedback. It's been a fun journey. I feel like it's only getting better for me personally because as weed is legalized in more places and as ceramics is having a huge surge of new makers and new energy—in a lot of ways thanks to Instagram—I feel like I've gotten a lot of support and not a ton of pushback in general. For me, it's been a mostly positive experience.

But making pipes is only one facet of my work. I’m also making bowls. I'm making planters. I'm making vulva. It’s all true to me. My boob planters are made from molds I made of my friends' boobs, so you’re celebrating feminine energy and celebrating real bodies. Real people use vibrators, real people use inhalers, real people are fun and not everyone wants a $80 minimalist pipe, no disrespect to those people. I'm learning that more is more and that's okay.

What I really want is for people to play. Interpretive dance like this Hitachi is a microphone, but I'm actually getting stoned. It's awesome to be creative! My work has the care of a person who put a lot of fucking love into it. It’s somewhat edgy, but it's not anti-anything.

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