A classically trained ceramist, Dean Roper decided to invert his art school teachings and trade formal technique for what he refers to as a “summer camp” aesthetic. Roper is also the founder of the controversial ceramics blog Weed-Craft and a co-founder of the design collective OBJET.
Distilling images drawn from skateboarding, digital, pop and consumer culture, the artist creates wonky, naïve-looking ceramic objects that almost appear as if they were made by a child. As he explains, he channels being a “shithead high school kid” trying to get away with making something crazy in the ceramics class. The results are colorful objects like banana holders, basketball planters and a wide variety of bongs, which have become his trademark. Genuine and often humorous, his works are a breath of fresh air in the world of contemporary ceramics.
PRØHBTD chatted with Roper to find out more about his practice, and he talked about his aesthetics, the relationship between art and utility, his signature ceramic bongs, his design collective and the legalization of recreational cannabis.
What inspired you to abandon your classical roots and pursue an art that is normally disapproved of in institutionalized ceramics?
When you’re learning how to design and produce an object, it’s really important to know how to make that object really, really well. Form language, technique, process, content, etc….
In school, I learned these things through making cups, bowls, and plates—[but] when it came down to it, I was super over those things. Yes, I used them in my everyday life, but they didn’t activate my rituals as they had when I first started making ceramics. Everything was about good craft, and I wanted to negate that as much as possible.
Your oeuvre includes a range of ceramic bongs—from ones that simply exist as art objects to some that work as functional pieces. How did the fascination with these subversive vessels begin?
It was really just a big “Fuck You” to craft culture and conservative institutional ceramics programs, and to every [critic] getting heated over the proportions of a pot. (Laughs).
You are the founder of the design collective OBJET, which produces furniture, clothing, home goods and curates pop-up boutiques that host a selection of utilitarian objects made by contemporary artists. Tell us more about the activities of the collective.
OBJET started as a new platform to sell my friends' art in a cool environment. I was living in Kansas City at the time, and there wasn’t a lot of good art being shown, and I wanted to change that. It evolved over time into hosting pop-ups, workshops and events, while also establishing a brand identity with our product and furniture line. Now I just use it as an avenue to [create] when I want to switch things up in the studio.
You recently exhibited a selection of your works at a cannabis-themed group show at Mrs. Gallery. How do you think your work contributes to the conversations regarding the legalization of recreational cannabis?
I don’t know if I contribute anything to the conversation, and it was never really my intent to do so. I just have fun making weird bongs and smoking weed out of them with my friends.
Besides head-shop culture, where do you draw your inspiration from? Could you tell us something about your creative process?
I get ideas from everything around me. Life, death, rap music, Japan, being a cool designer, kissing, cuddling, being happy, feeling dumb and other feelings, junk food, popular culture, drugs, memes, naïve outsider art, sports, fashion, growing up… it’s really hard to say what specifically. I have horrible ADD so it’s hard for me to focus on anything for more than a couple seconds. I just compulsively make things and most of the time have no clue as to why I just pinched this weird shitty bong into existence.
Your Instagram account has an impressive following. How do you see the role of social media in the world of contemporary art?
That’s a hard question to answer—I think social media is evolving so fast. I see so much art on Instagram these days, I feel like I’m seeing so many exhibitions and fairs and stuff through people's posts or stories,so sometimes I feel like I have experienced it too in a way—but I know I haven’t really. I don’t think art can sustain itself on a purely digital platform, but who knows! In the golden age of social media, artists and designers could freely market and show their work to an audience that wanted to see it. Now I feel like Instagram is a regurgitation of bootlegs and iterations made by hobbyists who have an Etsy shop.
Who are the artists who inspired you along the way, and whose work do you appreciate now?
I was looking at a lot of the Bay Area funk ceramic artists like Robert Arneson, as well as Ron Nagle, Ken Price and John DeFazio, mixed with some post-internet garbage like The Jogging. Lately I’ve been super into the work of Tyrrell Winston, Joe Roberts, Royal Jarmon, Zachary Leener and always my friends Christian Velasquez, Brett Ginsburg, Brock DeBoer and too many more to name.
Could you reveal some of your future plans and projects?
I just finished designing and fabricating a line of home goods for Urban Outfitters that I’m super stoked about. It was definitely one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Now I’m working on some really cool projects for Hathenbruck in Salt Lake City, making some weird bongs for the sneaker company Axel Arigato, working on developing some products and experiences for a Canadian-based cannabis company, and making work for some upcoming exhibitions! Be on the look!