This summer at the Art School, artist Joey Chiarello teaches a new ceramics class: Build a Creature, which starts May 24.
We asked Joey to tell us a little about himself and his animal inspiration.

When Joey Chiarello was a little boy growing up in Colorado, his older sister tricked him into thinking he was part Japanese. He believed it long enough that a teacher finally had to call in his parents to break the news that their son was no longer identifying as white. Decades later, Joey’s inner demons still emerge in sculptural self-portraits styled after samurai, replete with sinister features from Asian mythology. Joey’s actual appearance is much different—he is lank, bearded, and smiles a lot. His earlobes sport holes from gauged earrings and his arms are illustrated with tattooed creatures—evidence of a self-sculpting past. This contrast between outer and inner image is evident  in Chiarello’s Pondering the Truth, a ceramic piece now on view at the Hawai’i State Art Museum.

'Pondering the Truth' by Joey Chiarello

‘Pondering the Truth’ by Joey Chiarello

“I made myself into a deity to work out some of my most current issues of growth, both spiritual and artistically,” Joey explains. “The demon armor represents my commitment to the acceptance of my personal demons. Therefore they become guardians and friends.”

His openness to inner conflict is somewhat new, and the result of “moving and melding with new art scenes,” which Joey says stems from jumps between his home in Colorado, to Hawai‘i, to Washington, and back to Hawai‘i.

More recently, Joey has studied with influential teachers such as Esther Shimazu and Sergei Isupov, who set him on his largely self-taught trajectory. He has learned to use his work to interrogate himself, as well as broader concepts of identity and place, such as when he applies Chinese zodiac signs and cherry-blossom decoration onto his ceramic sculptures of common pet species—like pugs.

These snub-nosed animals were a guilty pleasure for Joey, during what might be called his “Dog Years” in Seattle. Stemming from a break-up and a desire to cheer the Northwest’s rained-in, technique-driven artists, whom Joey calls “my suffer-in-silence-sweethearts,” he found himself churning out ceramic dogs for shows and galleries between 2007 and 2010. They were stable forms during his difficult separation from his partner (with whom he is now happily reunited), plus he likes animals—“My childhood was spent in the mountains of Glenwood Springs,” says Chiarello. “I was always around wildlife and constantly inspired by all of them.”

That time of transition, external and internal, is exemplified in My Sweetest Friend (pictured with Joey above), the last dog Joey allowed himself to make, in 2011. At that point, the peak of the Dog Years, Joey suddenly felt giant jumping spider pieces leaping out of him, like the one that will be invading the Art School’s Nanogallery this fall. As he describes it, this shift forced him to reexamine his “spiritual path,” his “constant drive for introspection and discipline,” since “the technical and narrative aspects of each work are completely guided by my own spiritual growth and life lessons.”

One of Joey Chiarello's jumping spiders.

One of Joey Chiarello’s jumping spiders, going on view in the Art School’s Nanogallery this fall.

As the complexity of Joey’s path increases, so does his success. His ceramic sculpture of a tiger, titled simply Awareness, is included in the current exhibition Natural, Unnatural, Supernatural. Works like that involve up to a five-step process, that can include slabbing, multiphase sculpting, multiple firings, glazings, and adding real animal whiskers. Pugs and other smaller pets and monsters, can be done in two steps. And even within that simple split, between creating the clay figure and adding the glazes, Joey finds that the most basic works become “ripe with narration to bring light to our egos within.”

Inspired to take build a creature with Joey? Register online.