Janet Abrams *89, left, with ceramics professor James Marshall in front of “In the Unlikely Event.”
Courtesy Janet Abrams

You can hear it in her voice: Janet Abrams *89 is a woman of passion. Passion for words, passion for form, passion for structures, passion for creating art. Growing up in London in the 1970s, Abrams says, “I think I was an artist from the get-go but maybe didn’t have the encouragement to pursue it.” She attended a high school with a strong academic focus, but would get off the train on the long underground ride home at the Victoria & Albert Museum to see particular exhibits.

Her life took a long and winding path before she arrived in Santa Fe, where she now has an artist’s studio and creates large-scale ceramic installations, such as “In the Unlikely Event,” which is on exhibit through Aug. 22 at Santa Fe’s form & concept gallery. (Images of the installation are available at intheunlikelyevent.com; to see other works by Abrams, visit janetabrams.com.)

Abrams earned a Bachelor of Science in architecture, planning, building, and environmental science at University College London and then worked as a journalist trainee for several years. In 1983, she was awarded a Fulbright-Hays Scholarship for graduate study in the United States to pursue her proposal to travel and study “planned environments,” such as Disneyland and McDonald’s. The Fulbright funding set her on a path to a Ph.D. in architectural history, theory, and criticism at Princeton.

Abrams’ career after Princeton included writing, criticism, and editing, but her professional trajectory began to change in 2000 when she became the director of the University of Minnesota Design Institute. There, she took a more active role in the arts. She started the Design Institute Fellows Program, through which hundreds of artists and researchers were hired on contract, and a summer design camp that brought young working designers from all over the United States and Europe to the Institute to teach teens.

It was at the Design Institute that Abrams reached another major turning point in her career.

“I think after more than seven years ... I got tired of being an administrator and being the person who supervised and coaxed and brought to fruition many projects,” she says. She wanted to get her hands dirty — literally — and went to a weekend conference at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine, where she began to work with clay. “After that, “ Abrams says, “I had a need to handle clay.”

By 2008, she was a full-time student again – this time in ceramics at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. “I am very proud of getting an MFA at the age of 50,” she beams.

All of that has taken her full circle back to her 1983 Fulbright proposal and her architectural studies. “I’m still involved in the totally planned environment,” she says. In 2013, she had a three-month residency at the European Ceramic Work Centre in Holland, where she hand-built ceramic silhouettes of the world’s 30 busiest airports — the installation that is now on display in Santa Fe.

Abrams has been very pleased with the unanticipated variety of reactions to the installation. “People think they’re organic or ruins, something urban, or fossils or a lost language… The point being not that it is one or the other, but these shapes or glyphs at the scale I’ve built them really actually are a language — of global transportation — that is not legible unless you’re a pilot or passing Martian,” she laughs. And that gets at the heart of much of Abrams’ work: the mysterious overlap between the natural and the man-made.