Returning to the Earth for Answers ⏤ In Interview With Alana Wilson and Romy Northover
During the Chinese tea ceremony, the tea master is known for the controlled precision in which she prepares and serves the tea to her guests. And yet, the taste of the tea leaves is yielded to her by the uncontrollable forces of nature’s hand. It is the same with clay. A ceramicist manipulates and moulds her piece of earth, but sometimes during firing or throwing an alternate form will persist, sometimes for the better. Try as we might, the earth knows that in order to control something, sometimes, it is best not to.
In November, the “beautiful teachers” of clay and tea could be experienced together at T, an exhibition of teabowls by Brooklyn based ceramicist Romy Northover and the Sydney based Alana Wilson. The pair were drawn to the tea bowl, an ancient form still used in present day, due to its duality of the primitive and the contemporary, a duality present in each of their practices. The tea bowls made from clay and glass can be held, drunk from and purchased, at New York’s Floating Mountain, a modern tea bar that pays homage to the ancient ritual and meditative act of the tea ceremony.
After T’s opening night at Floating Mountain, where traditional tea ceremonies were performed using Northover and Wilson’s vessels, we sat down with them to hear about how their T was concocted.
Essentially, everything is derived from something and we both feel it's important to remind viewers of the past by referencing history and the way humans once were. However, it's also necessary to present new ideas and connect to current culture and societal values in order for us to connect with our audience and the people around us.
- Alana Wilson
How did you two come up with the idea of T at Floating Mountain and the idea to collaborate?
We met a couple of years ago out of a mutual respect for each other’s work and we talked about doing a show together because we come from a similar place conceptually. We wanted a fairly simple starting point, and thought the teabowl with all of its cultural variations and connections to past and present society would be a great starting point. When Floating Mountain got in contact about their new tea room gallery it seemed like kismet!
The focal point of T is the referencing of the teabowl and the Chinese Dao Cho tea ceremony, but you both transmute this ancient form into something new. Tell us how you translated the tea bowl into a more current landscape?
AW: I think we both work with a sense of duality between the ancient or primitive and the contemporary. Essentially, everything is derived from something and we both feel it's important to remind viewers of the past by referencing history and the way humans once were. However, it's also necessary to present new ideas and connect to current culture and societal values in order for us to connect with our audience and the people around us. By pushing societal perceptions of ceramics as a medium and the utilitarian form as art, we hope to educate our viewer of material boundaries and encourage an acceptance of change and altered perceptual habits. Ultimately, we always honour the history of the vessels and medium but are always looking forward.
RN: There’s a respect for history for what the bowl represents. I could really go on for ages about what the bowl represents to me but I can never find the correct words. There is a reason for the movements, the practice. I learn through doing, and the process of making ceramics, so sitting for tea and learning about the tea bowl through the ceremony has only increased my interest and has opened up many other facets for me personally. But I also think there couldn’t be a more important time to return to the earth for answers.
I love the fact that in the notes describing the exhibition, you talk about the tea bowl as a contemplative object. It is, even in a western sense where it aids us in our own contemplation as we sit, warm our hands around it, sip and reflect, going within. It seems this function is also reflected in how it’s made – the centripetal force that brings things inwards, towards the center. Can you speak to me of your own reflections on this?
AW: Absolutely. I think ceramics as a medium demands an introspective approach. The majority of artists exist as observers and essentially document their observations the best they know how.
The aspect of the circle, cycles, repetition and solitude are all evident in the process and creation of ceramics, as well as conceptually in relation to the vessel and human life.
RN: Clay and tea are the most beautiful teachers. They show you yourself which is magical on a super high level, but they also demonstrate the most basic form of working with the earth and leaves. What I love most about clay and tea it that they are without borders - It doesn’t matter what race, sex or religion you come from, anyone can sit and connect with each other and with nature through simply sharing a bowl.
In what ways would you say each of your works for T differ and intersect each other, and how is this reflective of each of your own processes or aesthetics?
AW: The works for T explore the possibility and essential connection to utilising the vessel in daily life. I think we are definitely both influenced by our own conditioning and personal history. However, we still have a similar perceptual viewpoint of ceramics, and possibly art and the world. I feel we connect on a similar wavelength in terms of visual language, what we are drawn to in current art & culture, and what and how we want to communicate our observations and ideas to the world.
Technically, my work is all hand-built and is generally non-functional although the association to utilitarianism is an important concept in my work. For the T works, I had to pull back on some pieces to make sure they were essentially functional.
RN: I think we come from a similar place in our interest in ceramics, the beauty of the vessel and a simple true love for the material. But our execution technically is quite different. Our cultural backgrounds are also very different which is great as our perspectives translate through the work in a universal language.
Throughout the process of creating the vessels for this project, did you liaise with each other much while you were making them? Or was it very much going into your own corners and carrying out the processes in a silent meditation by yourself?
AW: We did some research on traditional Japanese, Chinese and Taiwanese forms, so we were both looking at references of silhouette and traditional details in the same way. From there, the treatments and abstractions were an individual approach. In the later stages, we shared images of work and discussed connecting threads to tie out two bodies of work together to form a concise and balanced selection.
We also both made glass works. We both feel a responsibility to communicate the history of the medium and honour the vessel. We discussed this quite a bit recently in New York, that currently ceramics is really a free-for-all medium and the quality of what is out here is so varied, that the general public’s perception is quite misconstrued as to what is valuable and unadulterated. A lot of people seem to believe ceramics was just invented, and easy to do anywhere by anyone - which it is, as are most things - but the lack of awareness of what is valuable and technically masterful is extremely evident. The representation of ceramics as a medium is diluted by the weekender or flashy artists. By exploring glass, I think we both wanted to highlight the importance of craft, the vessel, the educated artisan/artist and really explore the material boundaries of the teabowl and its history.
RN: We spoke about it and agreed on a starting point of the tea bowl, I think we might have shared a mood board very early on in the process. We are both independent in our process and like to work alone - But we surprised ourselves at the visual references and the cohesiveness of the works!
I learn through doing, and the process of making ceramics, so sitting for tea and learning about the tea bowl through the ceremony has only increased my interest and has opened up many other facets for me personally. But I also think there couldn’t be a more important time to return to the earth for answers.
- Romy Northover
What was working with glass for the first time like for you both?
AW: A mutual contact put me in touch with Sydney-based glass artist Brian Hirst. I met with Brian and we discussed ideas. I was very much a designer and observer of the process as the glass blowing process requires great knowledge and skill to execute. We spent three days in the glass studio and another few days hand-working and finishing the pieces. There are so many parallels with the ceramics process but also so many differences in the sense that you're almost working backwards into the works. They really come to life in the hand-working process, sanding, finishing, engraving, whereas in ceramics, once the glaze firing is complete, the work is generally finished.
RN: Glass is a beautiful medium that translates to ceramics in many ways. There are similarities between glass and ceramics, but side by side it can also highlight the contrasts. You can sometimes get a better understanding of your known medium through exploring another. The process itself is different, it’s not hands on in the same way but is made from a distance with tools because you don’t want to get too close at high heat. Yet both process share the circles, and spinning. It’s musical, glass making, there are sounds as the glass cools and it even looks as if you’re playing an instrument. It requires finesse and technique so those pieces were made by a Glass expert, with my instruction during the process, not by me personally. I can’t trust myself to keep my hands off the molten glass!
After you drank tea out of your own teabowls during the tea ceremony, was there anything you noticed about the bowls during the ritual that you hadn’t noticed in its creation?
AW: The difference in the materiality of glass and ceramic. The hand-blown glass felt so smooth to drink warm tea from, the scale of the teabowls were probably larger than what I would generally drink from.
In the making process, we physically connect with the clay and form through our hands and body, in relation to the silhouette and final form. Whereas whilst consuming tea, I related to the vessel via my hands holding it, feeling the textured glaze on the exterior of the form, in relation to the lips and face in drinking the tea and seeing the works so close whilst sipping. Body, hands, lips as the contents are consumed.
Also, contemplating the work before, during and after using the piece. Seeing the tea leaves left in the bottom of it, observing and experiencing the forms in a ceremonial setting.
We all have individual daily rituals within our lives, so experiencing my own vessels in a traditional ritual sense was amazing and reminds us of other rituals within our lives which we could enjoy more.
RN: It’s almost impossible to separate it out as it’s such an inclusive, all-encompassing experience for me. I think the tactile area by the foot mine from trimming on the wheel, Alana’s from the glaze. I love that it’s a full sensory experience, touch, taste and sound then there’s the five elements water, Earth, air, fire present in the ceremony. It’s engaging in a very visceral way - a way of elevating consciousness and awareness through the physical body. I find every time I sit for tea I notice something new.
Photos by Doan Ly
Describe to us each of your favourite vessel created for this exhibition and why it is.
AW: My favourite are the set of six bowls created for the ceremony. They harmonised functionality whilst still having textural glazed areas, they worked as a set of six but each had their own individual nuances, they were marked and numbered in the foot, with a dot of shino for one, two dots for two, all the way up to 6. It pushed me beyond my normal non-functional tendencies to create a repeated form but still nuanced.
RN: I was throwing a piece and couldn’t center the clay because I was rushing so I threw the piece of clay on the floor in a tantrum. When I looked at it on the floor I realised it had made a great shape, so I picked it up and trimmed a foot on it. It sits like an irregular platform, a mini floating continent. Impossible to duplicate.