Candy Coated

Katie Marks’s Ceramics Are Playful, Colorful, and (Often) Rimmed in 22-Karat Gold

From vases to bongs, the Portland ceramicist's wild creations sell out as fast as she can make them.

By Rebecca Jacobson Photography by Christopher Dibble October 16, 2019 Published in the Design Annual: 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

Katie Marks is on a quest to make ceramics more “extra.” That means more iridescent rainbow swirls, more big-eyed unicorns, more glitter (so much more glitter). In a market crowded with tasteful terra-cotta and self-consciously sophisticated earth tones, Marks’s mugs, vases, and smokeware are a kaleidoscope of color, a blast of jubilance—like a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper in ceramic form.

“Clay has always [made] me feel good,” Marks says. “It’s always been the thing I turned to in order to get my head out of a bad space. And I wanted to create work that could do that for other people.”

Based on her Instagram following (217,000, at last count) and her Etsy shop updates, which sell out in literal seconds, Marks is making people feel very good indeed. Last fall, the 30-year-old ditched Seattle for Northeast Portland, where she built out a basement work studio. She finds herself amid a bustling ceramics scene—this city is home to dozens of wildly talented, rule-bending potters churning out wares that range from shapely white vases to pickle-shaped pipes to hand-thrown pour-over travel mugs.    

Marks didn’t come up through traditional channels: no art school degree, no fancy residencies. She took one wheel-throwing class as an 18-year-old in a northern suburb of Seattle, and proceeded to educate herself at, as she says in her Etsy bio, “the University of YouTube,” practicing in her studio apartment on a potter’s wheel she’d scored in a Craigslist trade (swapped for a digital camera). She later talked her way into a studio assistantship with an established Seattle potter who had a knack for trippy glaze effects, and, in 2013, sold her first pieces under the name Silver Lining Ceramics: mugs carved with rain clouds, gold-striped spoons, and sugar bowls with drippy green glazes.

Those early pieces were sweet, but decidedly not the confetti-strewn, chromatic carnival her work is now. It took switching from a gas kiln to an electric one and firing at a lower temperature—there’s serious science behind the glazing process—for Marks to achieve the saturated hues she loves.

“My brain exploded,” she says. “I was just like, why haven’t I been doing this forever?! This is where I want to be.”

A glance at Marks’s work leaves little question of her interests: the tropics, cannabis, cats (her own is a slinky, ink-black seven-year-old named Grandma). But some of her trademarks began as one-off requests. Five years ago, a friend invited Marks to submit to a gem-themed gallery show. Marks made a gold-handled mug with pale blue, crystal-shaped slabs spiking skyward. That piece sent her on a geological kick that endures today—crystal shapes continue to adorn mugs, pipes, and sometimes ceramic ice cream cones. To many vases and cups she now adds hollows that evoke crystal-studded geodes, rimmed in 22-karat gold luster.

“The way the Earth sculpts rocks is beyond anything a human can do,” Marks says. “So it’s fun for me ... to put a human twist on [those forms].”

And the rest? The motivation is much simpler. “Everything else I make is just like, that sounds fun,” Marks says. “I have a firm belief that if you can dream it, you can make it in clay.”

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