Catching Up with Ceramicist Lucy Olivia About Her Latest Collaborative Exhibition.
On a gorgeous Berlin morning last week at a socially distanced, Kreuzberg cafe, we grabbed a jasmine tea with Lucy Olivia. She was kind enough to open up about the evolution of her ceramics practice and let us know what to expect from her latest collaborative exhibition with fellow artists and friends Maya Byskov and Eilis Kemp. The exhibition “Idle Currents” opens at Tête this Thursday (August 6th) from 6-9pm and runs until Sunday, 11-6pm.
Lucy’s journey to full-time ceramicist has been far from linear. Originally from the US, Lucy moved to Scotland when she was seventeen to study, after which she headed to Switzerland for a couple of years before finally finding a home in Berlin.
Her background is far from arts-centric, and rather rooted in environmental science and research, so it wasn’t until 2015 that Lucy took her first ceramics class. Until then, her days consisted of policy consulting for the UN and Berlin based think tank Ecologic Institute, she explains,“I was working a lot on conservation issues related to biodiversity and illegal wildlife trade.”
Lucy’s first exploration into ceramics involved working with a pottery wheel, but it wasn’t long before she realised this method wasn’t for her. She felt that the cups and bowls created on the wheel were too geometrically perfect. They were too symmetrical and so lacked individuality and personality. So she changed her approach.
“I started handbuilding, which is much freer. You can really experiment with shape and form using coiling techniques. It’s a very slow, ancient practice of rolling out long thin coils and stacking and blending them into each other to build the shape up. Working with the clay in this way, I could lose myself for an entire day. It was a relief from a desk job where I was fighting to concentrate.”
This new method of creation opened up Lucy to new artistic possibilities. She was able to create ceramics that appeared to defy gravity and balance. “When you're hand building you have to play with time and the moisture of the clay. As the base shape dries it gains stability, and you can then continue to build with moist material. This opens up the possibility for literally any shape or size vessel. I like to push the visual assumptions about balance, and build shapes that look like they should topple over.”
It wasn’t long before she was ready to go all-in on her passion for ceramics, leaving behind her work in environmental research to find “unapologetic, full-time refuge in clay” in 2017. I was curious if her years in environmental research had influenced her ceramics practice. She enlightened me. “I am working on integrating environmental considerations into my work. I try to keep the integrity of the clay bodies present in all my work, so I seek out clays that leave some visual reference to where they came from, and what kind of mine or mineral composition they are made of.”
Lucy’s infatuation with clay is a huge part of her passion for ceramics. “It's an amazing material. Clay is actually rocks and minerals broken down over millennia and dissolved in water. When you start working with it, clay is soft, like a thick mud. Then, through the various processes of firing it to temperatures up to 1260 degrees celsius, it becomes vitrified gaining strength and hardness. When it emerges from the final high fire, its chemical composition actually resembles what it started as; stone.”
And when it comes to the timelessly explored trade-off between form and function, Lucy unashamedly favours spontaneous shapes over functionality.
“If you're building something to be functional there's gonna be a lot of focus on its ability to perform that function. I’ve tended to either ignore the utilitarian aspect of it, or just use it as a starting point. For instance, I might set out to create a vase, but a vase that has no problem being inconvenient to use, but is still somehow aesthetically pleasing.”
Our conversation naturally flowed into material research, and how scientific innovation with materials can support the overall sustainability movement.
“There is a lot of possibility for innovation with material research and the creation of new materials from waste, because there is so much surplus in so many supply chains.”
I mentioned our friends at Kaffeeform who developed a bioplastic from discarded coffee beans, which they use to create new cups. She shared some other exciting innovations with me.
“A Berlin based designer, Sophie Rowley started making furniture out of recycled denim. It actually looks like blue marble, and the new material is visually sophisticated and beautiful. Probably the opposite of what you would imagine when you think of old blue jeans as furniture. I’ve also read about a designer turning milk waste into fabric. So really, the possibilities to develop new and high end materials from waste seem endless. It’s more than just a design question though, it’s also one of science, so connections between those disciplines seems essential.”
Lucy, Maya and Eilis’ upcoming exhibition “Idle Currents” is a collaboration born from the relatable circumstances of a locked down society.
“We're three friends. Two of us were in lockdown in Berlin and another was in a more extreme lockdown in Spain for several months. As we were digesting this new reality of not having free movement, and with the approach of summer and the longing to travel, we decided to choose an island and explore it virtually. Each of us did this in our own way. I used Google Maps and was dropping the [pin] to look at photos that other people had taken on this island. We were trying to somehow get a sense of [the locations] without actually going there. And it satisfied, to an extent, this idea of wanting to travel and be somewhere else. So each of us, using this idea, have developed works."
From Exhibition Statement: “Confronted with limitations, the mind is summoned to the Aegean Sea. Daydreams trace imaginary cartographies through a displaced perspective. Focusing on something that has not happened, but which nonetheless exists, the exhibition cuts across spatial and temporal constraints and explores conjured moments and objects filled with ambiguity.”
The three exhibited artists/friends have very different practices. Whilst Lucy is a ceramicist and Eilis’ background is in textile design, Maya’s self-expression is found more through the written word. We have no doubt that the collaboration of these exciting and diverse individuals for this powerfully relevant concept will make for a meaningful experience. And we’re excited to see it come together.
Thank you to Lucy. We can’t wait for the exhibition.
You can find more information below.
All photos by IISLE STUDIO.
Words by Ewan Waddell.