Straddling the line between art and craft — pottery has only been recognised as a fine art for a nanosecond of the time it’s been in existence, more often relegated to the decorative arts or crafts realm — ceramics are finding new popularity in increasingly mainstream sources for their cathartic and multifaceted appeal.
It’s precisely this accessibility that makes it so beloved of would-be crafters and amateur artists looking for a way to expand their skills or express their pent-up creativity. And its current voguish status with celebrities — Seth Rogen creates vases and vessels prolifically, while Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio reportedly spend evenings in Pitt’s studio making pottery over sandwiches — has propelled it into the spotlight as a desirable pastime. And while in no way are they re-inventing the wheel, this high-profile celebration of ceramics is making it ever more aspirational as a mode of creativity.
SA’s thriving ceramics scene is alive with artists pushing the envelope and exploring their spiritual and personal narratives through the medium. Ceri Muller thinks SA is catching up with the international scene. “Younger artists are starting to explore more traditional art forms in a modern way,” she says.
The very nature of the artform — tactile, gradual, grounding — makes it more than just craft for craft’s sake. But rather a mode of exploration, relaxation… meditation even.
Chuma Maweni finds total absorption in the process. “When I’m working with clay, I become one with the piece. Nothing outside matters anymore,” he says.
Farah Hernandez affirms this notion. “I find a lot of healing working with clay. I am working with natural elements — water and earth — which are very grounding, and while my hands are busy, my heart and mind find peace,” she says. Hernandez’s popular breast cups started as a personal journey to healing. “They began at a point where I felt completely detached from my body, lacking a sense of self. This work (which I initially did for myself) has become the work I am most recognised for and my most personal and vulnerable work to date.”
Muller experiences the same type of spiritual outlet. “It gives me an emotional reprieve. A meditative creative outlet. Without wanting to sound esoteric, I do think that working with earth is really grounding. I find it humbling working with a medium that it is both so fragile and incredibly robust,” she says. As far as possible she tries to make the creation of her pieces a judgment-free space where she can just be present. “While I am actively making the forms, the process is also intuitive and the pieces are always expressions of my internal dialogue. In this way, ceramics are really cathartic for me.”
Eva Schuman of Eva Makes Ceramics says, “It’s repetitive, and can be very meditative, and being able to use something that you’ve made is incredibly gratifying.”
This intrinsically functional nature of the medium gives it an element of practicality, so it feels more accessible than a painting on a wall. Maweni notes that being able to easily buy something such as artisanal dinnerware means you can access the art form without a huge barrier to entry. Muller also finds that the functionality of ceramics makes people feel more comfortable with them. “Because of their prevalence in our homes — from mugs to vases to trinkets one collects as a child — ceramics have a domesticity to them that is familiar,” she says.
Jade Paton also enjoys the grey area ceramics sit in. “I like the challenge of creating something functional that could be equally strong as a sculptural object.”
On the flipside, Hernandez’s experience is that the functional nature of the form is a barrier to its perception as art. “It makes it more accessible to people but it also means it’s not always considered art but craft,” she says.
Schuman sees this currently shifting. “I think when most people buy pottery they intend on using it — it’s not purely decorative. But I do believe that is changing. Increasingly, it doesn’t need any other purpose other than to look fabulous in someone’s space.”
Paton, whose work is making waves on the international stage, has seen a shift locally. “I think there has been a new wave of young artists gravitating toward this art form, in SA and the rest of the world. These creatives are exploring the boundaries of the medium,” she says.
“I think people are finally starting to appreciate the handmade nature of ceramics and are more open to pieces that are not just perfectly made and functional but that hold creative energy,” says Hernandez.
Maweni sees the process of evolution taking the form of a contemporarisation of the traditional. “By combining traditional and contemporary we come up with designs that have been created with the consumer and art collector in mind,” he says. “This gives artists a lot of room to express themselves now. This means ceramics in SA will keep moving forward, and never regress, while also never forgetting where we come from.”