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Person to Know: A Ceramic Artist Who Captures the Beauty of Decay

By Merrell Hambleton

A large commission that Australian artist Alana Wilson is hand-building from terra-cotta paper clay. She uses the “coiling” method to construct almost all of her vessels.
 
Alana Dimou
A large commission that Australian artist Alana Wilson is hand-building from terra-cotta paper clay. She uses the “coiling” method to construct almost all of her vessels.

Alana Wilson, an Australian artist, has always been interested in decay — the ways gravity, heat and time alter and transform. On childhood hikes through the varied landscape of Wellington, New Zealand, where she grew up, Wilson would pocket shells and small animal bones. To the artist, these objects were relics of “the physicality and fragility of the world.”

It’s fitting then, that Wilson’s medium is clay, transformed by fire. “The destruction that happens at 1,260 degrees in the kiln is the same as what happens over time and in volcanic activity,” she says. That violence and unpredictability are central to her studio practice, and it results in delicate vessels that have caught the attention of the design boutique Primary Essentials, which carries her work, and the Australian fashion label Albus Lumen, with whom she recently collaborated on a line of homewares.

Alana DimouWilson in her ceramic studio overlooking Sydney’s Curl Curl Beach.
Wilson in her ceramic studio overlooking Sydney’s Curl Curl Beach.

From her studio overlooking Sydney’s Curl Curl Beach, Wilson, 30, hand-builds ceramic pieces that resemble both the objects she gathered as a child — perforated shells, hunks of coral, sun-bleached bone — and man-made forms shaped by nature’s forces. Delicate tea bowls and big-bellied vases, crusted with thick patinas of glaze that bubble, crack and coagulate, suggest vessels unearthed from some long-sunken ship or excavated from the remains of a Pompeian tragedy.

In fact, the forms that her pieces reference are quite ancient. Working with terra cotta or porcelain paper clay (embedded with fine particles of paper fiber that burn up in the kiln, resulting in a lighter fired piece), and using a coiling method that is itself many thousands of years old, she creates objects inspired by classical shapes: sturdy Cycladic vessels, flared Chinese tea bowls and squat, spherical Korean moon jars, among others. She’s not entirely faithful to the forms she references, however, favouring delicate, perilously narrow, bases. “I’m usually trying to skewer some expected proportion,” Wilson says.

Alana DimouWilson’s hand-built ceramics take inspiration from ancient forms: Japanese tea bowls, Cycladic vessels, Korean moon jars and more.
Wilson’s hand-built ceramics take inspiration from ancient forms: Japanese tea bowls, Cycladic vessels, Korean moon jars and more.

It took Wilson time to find her medium. She spent two years studying interior design before realizing it wasn’t the right fit. “There wasn’t a sense of discovery,” she says. So she decided to pursue a degree in fine art at Sydney’s National Art School instead. There, during her first year, she encountered ceramics. “The tactility was so grounding,” she says. “You’re right in that moment, not thinking about anything else.” Her first piece was a large bowl hand-built from white stoneware with lots of grog, a sandlike particle that adds structure and grit to clay. The bowl had torn edges and no foot, so it rolled with the weight of whatever was placed in it. But Wilson was thrilled as the piece emerged, glazed and fired, from the kiln. “You’re kind of amazed that it exists at the end — to see it survive that process.”

The artist mixes all of her own glazes, to which she adds a volatile assortment of compounds: copper carbonate, titanium dioxide or rutile. Wilson describes the chemical drama in apocalyptic terms: Ferrous deposits “ooze out in the kiln and create iron spots,” while silicon carbide particles “vaporize and turn to gas,” creating tiny air bubbles that give the work a subaqueous quality. Lately, she’s been experimenting with salt. “When used well, it can create some beautiful effects on the surfaces,” she says. “When it’s used too heavily it will destroy anything in its path.”

Alana DimouLeft: Wilson experiments with glazes that she mixes herself. She uses small tea and salt bowls to test how different ingredients will react in the kiln. Right: Shells collected from Shelly Beach and Balmoral, in Sydney, where Wilson often swims. She uses the shells to prop up glazed pieces in the kiln; the residual salt on the shells will often vapourise on the surface of objects leaving behind unexpected marks.
Left: Wilson experiments with glazes that she mixes herself. She uses small tea and salt bowls to test how different ingredients will react in the kiln. Right: Shells collected from Shelly Beach and Balmoral, in Sydney, where Wilson often swims. She uses the shells to prop up glazed pieces in the kiln; the residual salt on the shells will often vapourise on the surface of objects leaving behind unexpected marks.

Wilson embraces this potential for imperfection, or even disaster. “I don’t throw pieces out until they have really failed in a technical sense” — a significant crack or a runny glaze — she says. “My aesthetic is to embrace all the flaws in the process.” One of her current favourite objects is a small tea bowl she initially disliked so much that she packed it away for four years. Recently, when looking for work to fill out a kiln, she dug out the white vessel, reglazed it and fired it a second time. By chance, she had placed it next to another piece coated in chrome, which vaporized during firing and settled on the side of the original bowl. The result is a faint pink-and-green effect on the exterior, like patches of sun-faded paint on a whitewashed wall or the soft, flared interior of a conch shell. 

The textural glazes and delicate forms she’s drawn to mean much of Wilson’s work is nonfunctional. However, a recent trip to Japan, where she has a series of exhibitions planned for 2020, renewed the artist’s interest in making usable pieces. While staying in traditional homes and an old kimono factory in Gifu Prefecture, she observed the different ways people there live with ceramics. “Many of the old houses don’t have paintings or artworks,” she says. “The artwork is the joinery, the craftsmanship, the objects that they use every day.” This emphasis on the utilitarian has spurred Wilson’s fascination with a new mode of decay — the kind caused by human touch.