We had the good fortune of connecting with Derek Larson and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Derek, what do you think makes you most happy? Why?
Staying in the present moment. Not thinking too much about the result. Checking in with the ego from time to time, but trying my best to tap into that bigger source within me, and enjoy what’s in front of me – right here, right now. That’s what makes me happy. And when I stray from this – when I get out of the flow – I realize that the voice inside my head that’s always telling me what I need to get, to achieve, to not lose…this voice is making me unhappy. And then I realize that this voice is based on a lot of fear. I think the opposite of that fear is trust. Trust in God or the universe or nature or whatever higher power you believe in – trust that everything is happening the way it’s supposed to happen, and if I stay in the flow of the present moment, make the right intuitive action or decision that’s required right in front of me now, I can get a lot more accomplished and have a lot more fun. And that’s why I’m so glad that, as an artist, I have found my way back to ceramics and working with clay in 3D forms. When I have my hands in the clay, I’m tapping into that higher self within me. I’m in the flow. Everything disappears. I step out of it from time to time, let my ego and decision making direct the flow. I let it set long term and daily goals for me (although I try not to get attached to those goals). But for the most part I just let it all happen. I let go. Ride the wave. And that’s been an amazing gift to myself over this past year. I haven’t always lived this way. This change in perspective started about a year ago. And guess what? For the first time in my life things are really starting to take off. I’m living happily and getting more done by not worrying about what needs to get done.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I make ceramic sculptures that range from whimsical creatures and folk art fantasies for the everyday collector, to functional and non-functional fine art pieces intended for the gallery. The thing that unifies the wide variety of work I create is storytelling. There’s a story that emerges from each piece. I have an MFA from Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Sequential Art, or visual storytelling. For years my work focused on 2D character design, comics and story boarding, and finally large scale abstract painting for galleries. About a year ago, right before the pandemic hit the US, I reinvigorated my life-long passion for ceramics and sculpture when I took a class at Savannah’s Clay Spot community pottery studio here in Savannah, GA. Quick backstory: I grew up in Maryland. I was deeply passionate about ceramics and sculpture in high school. I took every class I could take, and traveled into Washington, D.C. to take extra classes and workshops in sculpture my junior and senior year. I won awards for my 3D work and got into a few excellent art schools and programs for sculpture. But I decided to study advertising in college at Boston University. I grew fond of writing, and found a creative outlet with the college newspaper as a comic strip artist. After two years working professionally after college, I found out about SCAD and their graduate program for comics. Perfect, right? So I moved to Savannah and studied comics, but deep down I just knew it wasn’t right for me. I kept comparing myself to all the amazing talent around me. All I could think about was how long each project was going to take. I stopped making comics and tried painting for a while. Finally, I couldn’t even pick up a pencil to fill a sketchbook. There was a huge hole inside of me. I was depressed. I was empty. I was divorced. I was drinking too much. I lost my job. I was hanging on to a thread. Then something happened. First inside, then outside. I had a spiritual awakening. I let go. And the anxiety and depression fell off my shoulders. I stopped living in fear. I started living in the moment. I started living in gratitude, humility, and service to others. I shook off the past and began to feel whole again. That’s when I found out about a local community ceramics studio and took a beginner’s class. I was right where I was supposed to be. Clay became my Sherpa up the spiritual mountain that I was already beginning to climb. It reinforced my desire to live in the present moment and not get too attached to the results of my best efforts (as any ceramics artist or potter understands, you never know what’s going to come out of the kiln!). Then the pandemic hit. The studio was temporarily shut down, but so was my job as a waiter in town. So I took my clay home, purchased some tools online, and worked and worked and worked. I wasn’t focused on selling my work or any other “success” from my efforts. But quickly I was getting recognition online and from local artists who stopped by the house (mask on) to see what I was working on. Within a year of making ceramics this time around, I’m involved with the co-op art gallery called Gallery 209, the artist and makers consignment shop called Merchants on Bee, and I’m selling my work through my website and Instagram DM’s. I continue to remind myself to take the next right action and not think too much about selling or showing my work or my vision of artistic success. Success for me is to be here. Right here, right now. Breathing it in, breathing it out. With love, gratitude, and positive energy – in, then out. I’ve learned to have fun. I’ve learned that we can overestimate what we can accomplish in a year but underestimate what we can do in five. I’ve learned to block out the incessant chatter of my fear-driven ego. To live like a child in the pure sense of the word, with an open heart and an empty mind. Living this way has provided me with a safe and clear path to that limitless source of energy and inspiration – that higher self, or soul. Of course, I continue to stumble upon the path, and get dragged down by my fears and thoughts of, “if only I had this, I will be happy.” I just lovingly laugh at myself and continue on. Someone recently told me, after viewing my most recent “fine art” pieces, that they see scars in my work. Scars that are healing. Well, I like that observation. I certainly have scars. And my art, as a ceramics sculptor, is helping them heal.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
I live in Savannah, GA. The historic downtown area is about two square miles packed with historic buildings, great restaurants and bars, museums and galleries; but most importantly, there is lots of green space. Between River Street and beautiful Forsyth Park, there are 22 historic squares to walk around, each with its own fountain or monument, and live oaks with Spanish moss dangling from their tangled, drooping branches. So the first thing I would do is go for a very long walk! I’d tell them to bring their dog next time – it’s a very dog-friendly city – but this time we’ve got a lot to do. I’d also tell them to bring their camera. It’s absolutely beautiful here. No wonder there is almost always an upcoming film or movie being shot here. Finally, bring an appetite. Because we are going to walk, eat and drink our way through Savannah. The Jepson Center for the Arts, Telfair Academy; the Train Museum and Savannah’s Children’s Museum; Owens-Thomas House and Davenport House – these are a few of my favorite museums, but there are plenty more. My absolute favorite is the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) Museum of Art. Their constant rotation of world-renowned contemporary artists is phenomenal. Gallery 209 on River Street, Sulfur Studios, Laney Contemporary, and Location Gallery are my top art galleries to visit. I love a good burger at Public Kitchen and Bar, or a Croque monsieur and a Horchata Latte next door at Franklin’s if I’m on the go. For dinner I’m a big fan of The Grey, Common Thread or La Scala for fine dining, and Ele’s group of pan-Asian restaurants scattered throughout the city are solid for upscale casual dining. I live in the Starland District so the Vault is always my local go-to restaurant by Ele and the Chef. And if we’re back in Starland, I’m going to take them to Starland Yard for some music and local Two Tides Brewery tour, and Graveface Records around the corner and pick up some Greg’s Famous hot sauce (another level!) and check out the Graveface vinyl collection. Seriously, though, I could go on and on. For a great list of galleries, restaurants, bars and museums, stop in my favorite place, Savoy Society inside Drayton Towers, for a cheeseboard and a cocktail or non-alcoholic beverage, listen to some classic 80’s vinyl, and look over the back of their menu for a very cool, curated list of spots in Savannah to visit. The next day we would drive out to Tybee Island, only 25 minutes from downtown Savannah if the traffic isn’t bad. We’d spend a few hours on the beach, and have lunch at North Beach Grill. We’d climb the steps of the Tybee Island Lighthouse for a great view, and on our way back to Savannah we’d do a quick tour of old Fort Pulaski. I’d take them through Bonaventure Cemetery, with my convertible top down, to see the statue of the Bird Girl (from Midnight of the Garden of Good and Evil) and finally head over to Skidaway Island to the Wormsloe Plantation for that classic shot of the Forrest Gump “Run Forrest Run” driveway. Then we eat somewhere delicious downtown, and head over to the new Riverside Plant District for a drink at their rooftop bar, fine art galleries below (and giant geodes and golden dinosaur skeleton!), a quick visit to Gallery 209 to see some of my ceramic sculptures, and finally saunter over to Congress Street for all the bars and live music we can handle. You can pack a lot into a weekend here in Savannah. Like the art museums, our city is not too big and you can feel like you’ve really seen all of it pretty quickly. We’re way cheaper to visit than some big cities, with direct flights from all over, so y’all can keep comin’ back! Or fall in love with the city and move here, like I did.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I’d like to give a shout out to Lisa Bradley, the founder and owner of Savannah’s Clay Spot here in downtown Savannah. Exactly one year ago I took a ceramics class at her community clay studio and it was one of the most important events in the story of my creative career and outlook on life overall. In high school I was on a trajectory to do some great things with my talent as a young sculptor. But I didn’t pursue art in college and it’s been twenty years since I took a ceramics class (although I did end up going to graduate school at SCAD for comics illustration). When a coworker mentioned Lisa’s studio as a great place to be reintroduced to my high school sweetheart, ceramics, I picked out an introductory class and the rest is history. Even though she had to shut her doors at the beginning of the pandemic, her studio and her support kept my creative spirit alive, and brought me hope, joy and healing through a very difficult and uncertain time. I’m back to working out of her studio twice a week during open studio sessions and even watch the shop once a week for her! As a loving mother who owns a small business that brings joy and creative healing to the Savannah community, Lisa is a mentor to me as an artist, and a role model as a person. There are so many people I’d like to give a shout out to, but Lisa deserves a huge shout out and I appreciate the opportunity to highlight her gifts to the community here.
Artist head shot: Nuno Serrano All other images taken by the artist