Alana Wilson’s Futurist Relics: Ceramics of Sydney
Along the cliff edge overlooking Sydney’s Tamarama beach, white fences frame its waves. At the bend in the fence, sits the quietest house on Pacific Avenue. Below it, is a white-washed garage. Inside this sandstone studio, amidst its bleached and peeling walls, local ceramicist, Alana Wilson, moulds and manipulates terracotta and porcelain paper clay.
The delicate yet robust forms Wilson sculpts with her hands are informed by ancient pottery, reminiscent of relics unearthed in Crete or Egypt. Rather than guiding her works with an electric wheel, Wilson uses the primeval coiling method. This creates structures by adding layers on top of each other, like the process of the sediment which forms the rock face near the sea, outside her workspace.
A strong sense of Wilson’s environment pervades her work. The surrounding seascape allows her to watch the surf sculpt the land during the changing seasons. It’s a degradation she mimics in the surfaces of her vessels. “I think seeing the decay and the deterioration change, it’s not as if it gets better or worse in a way, it’s purely change that’s inevitable… I aim to highlight that decay in my work”, she says.
By experimenting with different glazes, Wilson achieves the aesthetics of this decay. Recently, she has been working with sea salt. “When you put sea salt in the firing process, it really destructs, it melts away”, she says, pointing to a texture reminiscent of porous rock. Another veneer has her dotting Shino, a traditional Japanese glaze onto planes, which once fired protrudes like coral. Next to it is a vase displaying a brilliant turquoise of oxidized copper, the same hue of the nearby ocean swells. It’s as if each of her works have edified under water, buried treasure of the sea rather than the earth.
A strong sense of Wilson herself also pervades her works. After layering the coils which form the body of her works, she uses her fingers to smooth its surfaces, each of her fingerprints still evident in the wet clay. Her makers mark inscribed at the bottom of each ceramic is her initials; an A sitting atop a W, forming an anchor. It is also an anchor, the emblem of loyalty and commitment, that she has as a tattoo etched into the inside of her bottom lip. This is a fitting symbol for Wilson, who has a strong connection to water which runs through her family. Her father still runs swim schools in Queensland, and Wilson upkeeps this tradition by teaching swimming three days a week at a local pool.
Wilson’s loyalty and commitment is also reflected in the vision of her ceramics; to pay homage to ancient forms but abstracting them in her own way. Her ritual vessel, inspired by a traditional Chinese drinking vessel, resembles its form, but the variations of glazes and slenderness of shape are Wilson’s own. “I want there to definitely be an acknowledgement of those cultures and what’s come before us, to remind viewers of the beauty and that we don’t have to re-invent the wheel” she says. “There’s so much out there already that can be looked at in a different way, but I am also pushing that from a technical ceramic point of view.”
It’s this ability to ride the line between the ancient and the new that caught the eye of the set designer for Ridley Scott’s Alien Covenant film. Wilson was commissioned to produce works for the film, and would fire up the kiln in her studio after a day teaching at the pool. Despite the rotundness of these forms required for the brief, they still retain Wilson’s signature; a sense of fragility. “I definitely look at those contrasts of light and fragile”, she says. “I guess, aesthetically this is what I prefer to look at and maybe how I am myself. What I appreciate is a little more subtle and calmer and I do not feel the need to push my work or myself out into the world.”
But pushing out into the world she is. In November this year, Wilson will be exhibiting in New York with fellow ceramicist Romy Northover. The show will have both artists creating works inspired by the concept of the tea bowl, which will be shown at a teahouse gallery. Then next year, the two will take the same body of work to London, to explore different audiences’ perceptions of their work in different cities. And though the big cities keep calling, one has the feeling it is the sound of Tamarama’s waves that Wilson will always hear more loudly.
Cover image by Ophelia Jones