Natasha Alphonse was the first artist I began working with and I return to her ceramics again and again for inspiration. Reinforcing my belief that nature is the greatest artist, many of Natasha’s pieces can be mistaken for beach pebbles, lichen covered stones or seashells. Never tone-deaf to functional needs though, her kitchen-ready ceramics are everyday favorites.
To understand Natasha’s ceramics, it helps to understand her background. Natasha was born into the Denesuline tribe in Northern Saskatchewan, Canada and grew up on a small Reserve called Black Lake. A remote community with no all weather road access; this is the land of sled dogs, fishing and caribou. She recalls a visceral response to the natural environment and the warmth of her community’s traditions. It was her family here and in Ontario that fostered her love of the arts. She went on to graduate from the Alberta College of Art & Design with a focus in drawing; and it wasn’t until her last semester that she discovered ceramics.
Can you tell us how you transitioned from drawing to ceramics? Does drawing inform your ceramics? How do the traditions of your family and open space of Saskatchewan influence your ceramics?
Making my way from drawing to ceramics happened really slowly and quietly, I started making functional objects mostly because it felt really good. It was a refreshing break coming from making really conceptually dense art, asking lots of ‘why’ questions about everything I made, to making work that was very gratifying to make both physically and mentally. I really enjoyed focusing on beauty as my goal, there are still ‘why’ questions, they are just a little different - they are about what beauty I want to add to the world and how well they function with daily use. Early in my exposure to the ceramics world I met a lot of potters who looked at the world in a very interesting way. They were so excited about all the things they wanted to make, ceramics is a beast with never ending possibilities, and no one ever seemed like they had it all figured out - one thing always leads to another idea. I thought to myself that if I spent my life thinking about creating beautiful objects for people to use and to surround themselves with, that was an idea I could believe in. I also love how these objects carry on a whole life after they are made and that’s their time to shine, I daydream a lot about their use as I create each piece.
Coming from a background in drawing, I was always questioning why I wanted to make really minimal and simple pots. I had a realization one day that I think it’s because of where I grew up. I grew up spending lots of time on a really vast lake in Northern Saskatchewan, that kind of visual space is so calming to be in, it feels like a break for your eyes, in that emptiness there becomes more space for perspective. In the wintertime it is even more intense, surrounded by white ice and a clear blue sky, sound muffled by the snow. I think a lot about balance, visually I want to create something minimal yet still raw and earthy, kind of like those landscapes. I focus on the profile line of an object and how it rests on a surface, these things become the most important part combined with texture. My childhood was spent outdoors mainly, I think that is where my true love of nature was rooted. It feels like my identity, who I am is just someone fascinated with rocks and how amazing nature is, it is my inspiration for everything I create.
What’s your creative process look like?I spend lots of time in the studio making new tests, with new clays and glaze recipes. I don’t work how some potters do, with a set collection that they consistently produce. Sometimes I wish that I could function that way but I just have too many things I am excited to try out. I’ve accepted that I am more of a small-batch producer, with new forms and surfaces that are inspired by the evolution of my tests. I also like working with the atmosphere as a collaborator, with wood or reduction gas, things become affected in ways I sometimes can’t control and it adds an element of nuance and excitement. Each thing created leads seamlessly into the next series. I pick and choose what works for what my general goals are, what needs to be thrown out and then I re-group. I spend time looking at images that inspire me, things that make me feel so inspired I can’t sit still and then I try to find the common thread between everything. Right now I see lots of textured whites, chalky and rough. Round lines, how things meet an edge and how that can change the way something feels emotionally. Lines that move slowly, wiggle with imperfection but still have a sense of humming calming presence. Lots of earthy grey tones, sandy clay and deep blue-green colors like the moody ocean.
One of my favorite parts about curating Goose Creek is the opportunity to meet artists in their studios. I feel like the way in which an artist organizes their studio is a window into their creative process; it feels deeply personal. Natasha’s studio is bright and clean; full and organized. There is a methodical order that you quickly understand even without full knowledge of pottery. Dried flower chains, sweet grass and ephemera from the outdoors adorn quiet corners of the room.
What’s a typical day in the studio look like?
Everyday is different in the studio. I usually start by throwing something, since it's the best time to really focus on the energy I want each pot to have. I work in sets, most often sets of 25 - 40 at a time, it’s good to stick with one form for a while to get into a groove and to really explore it deeply. Each week will be focused on either making new things on the wheel with trimming days in between, or glazing and firing weeks, followed by sanding and washing. Then things will either be shipped or photographed. Things take a really long time from start to finish, typically for a batch to be made it will take me at least 4 - 6 weeks for turnaround. Then lots and lots of cleaning during the day, I never realized how much studio maintenance is necessary before I had my own pottery studio, but it's a good habit to keep dust down and things clean. I am pretty introverted so spending a lot of time by myself is very sweet. I listen to lots of podcasts during the day rather than music. I also teach small classes here and there to keep a little balance. They are always full of really interesting people and it’s nice to change things up once and awhile.
You’ve broadened my understanding of ceramics from just the hands-on work with clay to the alchemy of glazing and firing. It really feels like part magic and part science! And I think this is what makes your work so identifiable.
Can you talk about this more?
I think it feels like part magic to me also because I don’t have any formal training in ceramic chemistry. It is very gratifying to make things like glazes, they translate as your personal artistic voice. Even if it is just a white glaze, there are a million kinds of white options and to make a special recipe that speaks honestly to your aesthetic is really fulfilling.
Lots of things have come from trial and error and then doing some investigating on why certain things have happened like, “why did all of my plates crack in half with this new glaze I made”... then you figure out that there’s something called glaze fit which turns out to be really important! I feel lucky that I have a sense of freedom to my curiosity about materials and firing processes, sometimes knowing all of the rules can put you in a box but when you don’t know the rules you can discover something new or go down a path that you would not have otherwise. I think sharing the process of how I choose to work with each material to the type of kiln or firing technique is really important to talk about, these are all choices that make my work what it is. Any choice an artist makes is for a reason and I think it’s super interesting to know what tools each person is using and why. I am finding that the atmosphere is really important to achieve the kinds of surfaces I am most interested in, working with an atmosphere reduced in oxygen pulls things out of the clay and glaze up to the surface and it just feels like the right direction for my work. It adds a sense of uniqueness to each piece that I felt hungry for with the collections that were fired in an electric kiln. Not to say electric kilns are inferior, it’s another tool to achieve a certain aesthetic and I just feel more drawn towards the effects of other firing processes right now.
What’s inspiring you right now?
Rocks and landscapes always. I am working more with blue-green colors, things coming from the ocean and rusty colors have been on my mind a lot. Shapes with asymmetrical ovals, in platters and vase profiles. Texture- sandy and crackle surfaces.
Do you have any dream future projects?
I think it would be fun to create a public art piece with multiple large rustic coil pots. That might be a project that I will think more about and flesh out how I can make something like that come to existence.
How do you want people to experience your work?
I want people to experience what a difference using a hand-made object makes to your daily rituals, to food, to your overall connection with real people in the world. Being thoughtful about what objects we surround ourselves with, choosing to support companies and artists because you believe in them. I want my pots to elevate your experience of drinking a cup of coffee or tea, that it brings together elements of nature into your home as something you can interact with each day. I want to bring art into the home; and, by using these pieces, hopefully they make life a little sweeter and even the simple act of eating off a hand-made plate becomes something special.
I couldn't agree more: bringing art and nature into our homes makes life a little sweeter! Thank you for such a detailed look into your creative process, Natasha. I'd be remiss not to end with a portrait with Olives, your constant companion.