Timea Tihanyi: I grew up in a working-class family in what was communist Hungary. I did not have an opportunity to do much art in school, but ever since I was little, I have always made stuff. I made all kinds of things, but they weren’t considered art. Choosing art as a profession or going to art school wasn’t an option.
For high school, I went to a nursing school and then on to medical school. I was specializing in neuropsychology—which is part clinical work in rehabilitation medicine and part research work directed at complex cognitive functions, such as speech, reading, and face recognition. It’s not all that surprising that knowledge systems and the body are at the core of my work now.
When I moved to the U.S. in 1993, I intended to get a PhD in neuropsychology. While I was starting my new life here with limited English skills and just struggling to make it, I dropped in on an evening ceramics class at a local arts center, and I really fell in love with clay. Ceramics was the one thing I did not do as a kid or as a young adult. I had tried every kind of craft and every kind of making process that was out there but not ceramics. I took the ceramics class because I had never done it and it was available. Soon, I became very serious about it. I was in a new country, where I couldn’t speak the language well and couldn’t quite connect to the culture. Clay, at that time, seemed to be a great way to express myself.
A year later, I decided to focus on ceramics professionally and enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program at Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. My very first academic ceramics class was with Judy Moonelis, a widely-recognized figurative clay artist. I was super-lucky to have been influenced by her—both her teaching and making processes.
As an undergraduate, I met Akio Takamori and Doug Jeck, two leading innovators in the field of figurative ceramics sculpture. I was doing figurative work at that time, so I came to grad school at the University of Washington, Seattle, to study with both of them. During grad school, my work changed from large figurative sculptures to room-scale installations of delicate slip-cast porcelain...