Feel the Bern
Former speech pathologist Maureen Kennedy forges new path as a ceramicist
eugenia uhl photographs
The New Orleans iconography that local artisans incorporate into their work might include the ubiquitous fleur-de-lis, a traditional treat like a sno-ball, or perhaps a crawfish or alligator. Maureen Kennedy has incorporated a less common, but nonetheless quintessentially New Orleans, icon: the cockroach. A recent collection from the ceramicist, known for hersimple, clean handmade wares, featured items emblazoned with the perennial nuisance of New Orleans.
“The idea of a roach in a bowl or cup kinda freaked people out, but at the same time it’s a very much an image of what we deal with every day here,” Kennedy says. “There’s not a day where I don’t walk into my studio and I’m like, ‘Oh … hey, little friends.’”
For Kennedy, it’s all part of the fun, sometimes scary, adventure of committing to the life of a full-time artist. On the sidelines of her life for many years, art is the central focus of Kennedy’s life now through her company Bern Ceramics, which in its short history has embarked on some big projects.
The Slidell native attended the University of Mississippi to study speech pathology, where her plate was full of challenging pre-med courses. To ease some of her stress, her family suggested taking a “fun” class, so Beginning Pottery it was.
“I was awful at it,” she says. “I’m covered in clay every time I’m walking across campus to my dorm, thinking ‘What am I doing?’”
But eventually, things clicked.
“It’s almost like learning to ride a bike: One day you just get it. It either works for you or it doesn’t. When it did happen, it was probably 2 o’clock in the morning right before the semester ended — it was like, ‘Oh my God, I can finally do it.’ I didn’t look back after that.”
Ceramics remained a hobby when she moved to Charlottesville, Virginia and started working with children with autism. She lived there for 10 years, and on a visit home to the New Orleans area she decided she needed to move back.
“I realized there was such a need for behavior therapists in this area after the storm,” she says.
Back in New Orleans, she took a ceramics class again as an outlet from her stressful job.
“It was therapeutic for me,” she says. “Here I am working with all these kids, providing therapy for them, so this was a really good way for me to balance.”
She sold her wares publicly for the first time at the Little Flea market in the Lower Garden District, and nearly sold out of everything. Since then, she’s taken the leap to running Bern Ceramics full-time, which has led to some exciting collaborations. Kennedy likes these collaborative projects; pulling inspiration from others infuses some variety into her work, and helps with the isolation of working for yourself.
Kennedy collaborated with Sara Ruffin Costello for the bug wares made available for the Southern Style Now design festival. Costello is the former creative director of Domino magazine who now lives in New Orleans with her photographer husband Paul Costello.
Another recent collaboration was with chef Kristen Essig to create plate wear for the restaurant Cavan (Essig has since moved on to become chef and partner at Coquette). Even for big projects like this, Kennedy makes everything by hand using a pottery wheel. This gives each plate a slightly different look from the next, as well as tactile allure.
“The plates are all the same, but if you stack them all up they’re not going to stack completely perfectly. I like that — it gives a handmade sense to it,” she says. “The people that are drawn to my stuff, they say the like to pick it up.”
Kennedy’s works — which include vases, plates, and “catchalls” — have a natural ceramic tone with pops of light blues, greens, and pinks, and sometimes warmer hues. Some plates are painted with a well of gold in the center.
You can find Bern Ceramics at Little Flea Market. She fields a lot of orders through Instagram (@bern.ceramics), and will be stocking her items in more stores here and in other cities (she’s currently working with a boutique in San Antonio on another bug-themed collection).
She works out of a garden shed at her Uptown house that she’s transformed into a studio. After taking a huge career leap, she’s sometimes that clay-covered college student again, asking herself, “What am I doing?” but for the most part she seems to be enjoying the adventure.
“It worked out and it’s not been easy, but what is, when you’re working for yourself?” she says. “It’s been a growing experience and it’s been exciting.”