Cincinnati-Based Ceramicist and Entrepreneur Didem Mert

 In ALIVE, Culture, Interviews, People

Cincinnati-based ceramicist Didem Mert’s depth of work traverses the range of small utilitarian vessels, plates, mugs and cups to sculptural innovations, unwrapping the visual possibilities of each. Her mugs and smaller pieces are distinct, often terra-cotta or cream-colored and comfortable with their intentional irregularities. You also might catch one of her plant potters swinging from the wall of a gallery, appearing to resemble a material much more elastic than clay—something closer to burlap or linen.

Mert received a bachelor of fine arts in ceramics from Northern Kentucky University in 2014 and then went on to acquire a master’s degree, also in ceramics, from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania in 2017. Returning to her hometown of Cincinnati, she opened her own studio art practice in the city’s Camp Washington neighborhood. Keep reading to learn more about how Mert’s experience below, during which we discuss her Turkish heritage, travel, career challenges and more.

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Didem Mert, Photo courtesy of Kerie Johannes.

What do you think inspired you to walk this path as a creative person?
My dad owned a woodworking business for about 30 years, and growing up, I did bookkeeping for him. He is definitely my biggest inspiration, especially for a lot of my aesthetic and conceptual choices. Growing up around him, it was very significant for me to see how hard he worked to run his own business. For me, it’s a bit different, because I make what I want and find my market, but my dad was working for customers and clients. I developed a good business sense because of him. He taught me so much.

Your family is from Turkey. How has that impacted your art and experience in the U.S.?
My parents came to the U.S. about 40 years ago. My dad got a scholarship to get his MFA at the University of Cincinnati, so he came first. That’s how we settled here. Growing up, my mom would make these extravagant, traditional Turkish meals. I actually went back about five years ago without my family—my goal was to be totally immersed in the arts there.

Do you speak Turkish?
It’s funny—I can understand it, but I can’t respond. My mom often talks to me in Turkish, and I respond in English.

How did you make your way into ceramics?
When I was in elementary school, there was one day per year where we got to play with clay. I remember being upset it was only one day. Then when I got to high school, there was a ceramics-and-sculpture course you could take—and at the time, I wasn’t good at it at all. I turned in every project late. But then I got really involved—I bought my own wheel and started making sculptural work. I remember wanting to be either a gemologist, a geologist, chef or visual artist. I didn’t think I’d go into making functional vessels. I focused heavily on ceramic sculptural work during college, and it wasn’t until my last semester that I started really investing time and energy into vessel making. As it turned out, my undergraduate thesis work was almost all vessels, and I went straight to graduate school after that.

I thought I wanted to go straight into teaching, but I hadn’t had any time outside of academia. I applied to a residency and a couple of teaching jobs. I work one day per week at a bar in Cincinnati called The Listing Loon in Northside, Cincinnati, which is also where I live. It’s one of the more hip areas of the city—there’s a stretch of bars and live music every night. I also assist at a studio called SKT Ceramics one day per week and teach community ceramics classes, but most of my time I’m making and selling work.

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Do you make work for a market, for yourself, or both? How do you negotiate that balance?
With the wares I’ve been making recently, I make what I want to make and then share it with people. I’m never making choices based on what the customer might want. However, a gallery might approach me and request a certain number of mugs or vessels—that does happen. So that might dictate what I make, but not how I make it or the design. I really do love making mugs, bowls, plates, functional wares and things like that.

With vessel-making in particular, I think of them in more of a sculptural sense and how to transform the raw material. I remember at the wood shop, I saw how my dad would transform material from its raw state with different sanding and finishes, which definitely translates into what I make.

What processes help you engage most deeply with your work?
When I was in grad school, I took a month off from working to make a photo project. I used the hashtag #inspirationalphotosfor33dazeee, and made sure no one else was using it. I took one to three images per day for 33 days with that hashtag. After the project, I spent some time looking at the photos and dissecting each composition, which were similar or in contrast to one another and helped me figure out ways I could push those things in my work.

I also did some color psychology and research in school. A lot of the color palette I’m using references the home, because it’s more pastel. Especially if you think about industrial wear from the ’50s and those pastel greens and blues used. It becomes very inviting, versus having something that’s vibrant, like a really strong red. At times I do use vibrant colors though. I actually use a bright-red surface on espresso mugs, which are intended to reference the espresso itself and the way it makes you feel: alert.

What do you think has been the make-or-break component that allowed you to transform your passion into a business?
There was a time in graduate school where I was really unsure of what I would do—whether I’d go into teaching like I’d always planned, do a residency or something else. I realized I needed to focus on creating a business and getting that experience. I think having a support system is so key. And the beautiful thing about the ceramics community is that it’s small but also vast. We’re very connected with each other through traveling and seeing each other. I have thought about moving, but I have a really strong support base in Cincinnati—my family and good friends. That has really made the difference, I think.

What has been one of the biggest challenges of your career, and how have you moved through it?
I would say the biggest challenge right now has been to figure out how I operate as a business. In grad school, I was able to really push the work past its limit, but I have to fulfill orders now. I don’t have as much time to investigate different forms. But from this summer through the fall I’ll be doing a residency, and I’ll focus on having that time to explore new forms and surfaces to add to my work.

All images courtesy of Didem Mert.

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