Studio Visit: Dean Roper
by Shoko Wanger
Dean Roper hasn’t always made what he refers to as “summer camp” ceramics. Then again, he hasn’t always had a popular shop. A flourishing Kansas City studio. An Instagram account with over 16,000 followers.
In fact, long before Roper was producing golden ashtrays and porcelain banana holders—items now known among his signature pieces—he was a student enrolled in a traditional ceramics program. Frustrated with the curriculum’s lack of creative freedom, he was inspired to start fresh after graduation, trading formal technique for a colorful body of “chunky, naive-looking” work inspired by skateboarding, pop culture, and the personal interests of his friends. Since then, he’s built a career on embracing the inverse of his art school teachings. ”In the studio, I try to embody a shithead high school kid trying to get away with making something crazy,” he says.
It’s an approach that’s served him well. “I don’t ever really sit down and thoughtfully design a product,” he continues, when asked about his process. “It just happens.”
You’re a formally trained ceramicist who describes his current work—which includes bongs, banana holders, and basketball planters—as having a “summer camp” aesthetic. What led you down this particular path?
When I first started studying ceramics, I was in a very conservative, traditional program. The entire curriculum was very technical—it involved chemistry, form, glaze effects, all this nerdy ceramics stuff. I struggled with having really strict boundaries in place, when I felt art was supposed to be limitless. I was so over that, and I just wanted to negate it as much as possible.
Then, when I graduated, I realized there was nobody telling me that I couldn’t do what I wanted. I started making things that I knew were disapproved of in institutionalized ceramics: bongs and weird pipes and ashtrays, really chunky, naive-looking summer-camp ceramics. It was everything I couldn’t do in the past. I thought, well, now I’m just going to make the craziest things I can possibly make. That experience had a huge impact on me and the way I thought about what I wanted to do.
What sort of reaction did you receive to that?
You know, it was really split. There were people who really didn’t agree with what I was doing. And then there were people who really understood where I was coming from, and were really excited about it. It was interesting to see that split.
In the beginning, my work was something that only people who studied ceramics would be able to understand. But then I thought about it and tried to make what I did more universal. That was when I started making as many bongs as I could. I made them without any concept or preconceived idea. I’d just go in and make something, really casual. Then I’d leave, come back in the morning and think, wow, I just made a Bop-It bong—what am I doing? My work is really impulsive, which I enjoy. There’s no thought, really. It’s just an outlet.
“The Internet allows me to be anywhere I want. I can just post a photo on Instagram or have an online shop, and that alone does so much.”
You have a pretty significant Instagram following. How have you used social media and the Internet to spread the word about your work?
I love when I can get in the studio and make something really bizarre—like a Pepe the Frog bong—and put it on Instagram and see the response it gets. I use the Internet as a sort of survey, a tool to see what people are interested in and excited about. That gets me excited.
Then, I’ll try to figure out whatever it is that’s interesting about that piece and make a version of it that I can produce easily in larger numbers. That’s how my design process works.
"I’d just go in and make something, really casual. Then I'd leave, come back in the morning, and think, wow, I just made a Bop-It bong—what am I doing?"
Which item in your shop has received the most memorable reaction?
I jokingly made a giant Cheeto pipe a while ago. I made that totally on a whim, and a lot of my friends were excited about it and wanted one. But I couldn’t produce 10 or more easily, so for Christmas, I decided to make everyone mini versions. The reactions I got to those were amazing. I thought maybe this was something I could actually work with.
It was cool to be able to take that idea—which was initially just meant for me and the people I’m close to—and share that with a larger audience. Even though the product itself is funny and weird, that experience was really special to me. And I’ve been making Cheetos all day every day ever since. Which is obviously a great thing.
You live and work in Kansas City—not exactly an arts capital (yet, at least). What’s it like working as an artist there?
I’ve found that a lot of correspondence ends the second that I say I’m from Kansas City. People will reach out and want me to do a studio visit or a show, and when I tell them I live in Kansas City, they won’t write me back. But I also have a lot of freedom here. It’s really, really affordable. And the Internet allows me to be anywhere I want. I can just post a photo on Instagram or have an online shop, and that alone does so much.
Do you ever experiment with mediums other than ceramics?
I co-founded a small design collective I've been working on for the past four years called OBJET. We do a lot of workshops and pop-ups. We're also making some really cool clothes hangers right now, and have a ton more projects in the works. I’m getting into making clothing lately, too, and embroidery. When I’m in the studio and I’m tired or things aren’t working out, it’s a nice way to switch things up and utilize different tools. I like to do a lot of experimenting.
How do you see your work evolving in the future?
My hope is to grow and to produce more product, keep it fresh, and continue to make things. I want to maintain my studio practice but also have fun. That’s all I really care about.
Photographs by CrystalLee Farris