Interview by Eric Hsu
Photography by Helen O’Donnell (unless otherwise noted)
I first became aware of Helen O’Donnell through her blog(www.anemonetimes.blogspot.com) where I had enjoyed reading about her gardening adventures in New England and abroad. I finally got to meet her briefly in person when she came down to volunteer at Chanticleer a few years ago, and had fun seeing gardens with her during my summer holiday in Maine last August. Helen is passionate about plants and gardens, having worked in some of the most beautiful New England gardens as a designer and horticulturist. She has taken her skills to another level as a deft propagator of annuals, tender perennials, and perennials at Bunker Farm, Dummerston, Vermont. The farm’s site can be visited at http://thebunkerfarm.com/.
Please introduce yourself.
I am a gardener, garden designer, printmaker, and co-owner of The Bunker Farm where I run a specialty annual and perennial nursery in southern Vermont.
The arts or the garden?
Both! I have worked as a gardener and farmer every season since I was 15 and I studied art in college and spent a year in Florence, Italy studying printmaking. And I have spent different amounts of time working in both fields, teaching printmaking at the Putney School and simultaneously working as a gardener and garden designer. As my art is completely influenced by plants, landscapes, and the outside world, it is hard to approach gardening, garden and plant design without art. The garden is probably the most complicated form of art, with it encompassing all the dimensions. You have 2-D and 3-D principles of design (color, form, shape, texture, light etc.), but then there is the fourth dimension of time, like music, dance, or theater. There is a performance aspect that follows the seasonal changes, as the plants are growing and changing expectantly and surprisingly. There is an audience participation that is completely out of your control from weather to microbes.
What is your earliest memory of plants or gardening?
I remember my parents sitting down with me after school once, I must have been around 8, and telling me that I wasn’t allowed to eat plants at school. I guess the teachers called home concerned because I was showing all the kids what plants they could eat in the playground. My dad showed me what plants to eat because he was a chef and used to garnish his plates with all sorts of edible flowers. I have really strong memories of foraging around outside for wood sorrel, vetch flowers, violets, and clover and finding them delicious.
You spent the first part of your career working for the landscaping company Deer Meadow in Maine. How did that professional experience shape your present relationship with horticulture?
Working for Deer Meadow taught me three main things, one was that I seemed to have a knack for gardening at age 17, two that I really liked doing physical work, and three, I learned the importance of working and learning under a serious, knowledgeable head gardener. Diana Johnson’s encouragement, enthusiasm, and knowledge about plants and willingness to teach me was inspirational. With the encouragement from my parents, (my mother is a brilliant gardener) I continued to learn under other talented gardeners who all shaped me into who I am now.
The New England region is sometimes overlooked for its gardens especially since the Mid-Atlantic and Pacific Northwest often receives attention. Beautiful gardens are always found despite climatic challenges and New England is no exception. What gardens, private and public, in your region inspire you?
Close to home, there are a few pockets of great gardening here in central New England. Right here in Putney is Gordon and Mary Hayward’s garden, where I worked for years. They have a beautiful garden comprised of English-style garden rooms, complete with hedges, axial views, evergreen pillars, woodland walks, and long borders, yet with the backdrop of New England hayfields, locust trees, and fruit orchards. Over in Peterborough, New Hampshire there is cluster of terrific gardens and gardeners. One is Juniper Hill where Joe Valentine references iconic English gardening ideas against the scenery of a classic New England house and sheep pastures. Michael Gordon’s town garden is built on a steep slope and includes three main terraces, all with highly original plant designs, incorporating self-seeders, with unusual annuals and unique shrub specimens. Maude Odgers of the Artful Gardener has a beautifully romantic garden with sweeping curvy beds filled with an array of specimen plants, in cool color tones, but filled with juxtaposing textures.
Another favorite, and one that not enough people have visited yet, is Bruce Lockhart’s Swift River in Petersham, MA. He truly has it all with meandering woodland full of great swaths of interesting woodland specimens, trees, and shrubs. As well as pleasure gardens, more typical style mixed plantings framed by hedges and paths, plus a magnificent Piet Oudolf-style meadow, with thousands of wild, blooming perennials and grasses. Add a vast rock garden full of unusual alpine and rock specimens, many that he started from seed. It is a fantastic garden and one people must visit.
Great Dixter is often cited as one of your favorite gardens overseas where you have visited and worked several times. Outside of Great Dixter, what other gardens in England and elsewhere do you like? And their strong points?
I spent a month at Hidcote Manor in the Cotswolds before my time at Great Dixter and that was my first glimpse into English gardening. For me, that garden feels mysterious; the garden rooms feel like a maze, each opening revealing a different path to take. There is an immense feeling when standing at the top of the long view, looking down the long avenue of hornbeams. It is a garden where I feel the presence of its creator Lawrence Johnson, much like at Great Dixter, where the spirit of Christopher Lloyd remains, is revered, and is celebrated still. On my last trip to England I visited Charlotte Molesworth’s topiary garden in Kent and I was really touched by that garden. I didn’t get to meet her or her husband, but to me, the garden feel wholly authentic. It was so creative and so expressive, with every evergreen shaped into magnificent birds, spirals, tiers, and minarets. The other thing that really appealed to me is that the garden itself felt completely lived in and the spaces were well used, I loved the seating areas and patios and how the garden went from highly ornamental to practical all at once. I am not sure I have ever been to a garden that felt so completely genuine, that every choice was theirs to make for the love of it.
Gardening is riding a switchback of hope and disappointment once climate adjusts your expectations. How has cold-climate gardening, complemented by mild-climate gardening in UK and elsewhere, characterized your gardening style now?
I am an optimist through and through so I really do believe that every climate has its advantages. We know England can grow incredible coveted plants, but we can grow Cleome and Echinacea! I know that sounds boring, but those plants are exciting and can be hard to grow for British gardeners. Of course I am like everyone in that I try and “push” my zone. However, growing and raising plants is more interesting than just sticking to the zone on the plant tag. I understand why most gardeners wouldn’t buy a plant not rated to their zone, but when raising things from seed and really paying attention to what works in your own garden, you can start to get away with all kinds of things. I am always surprising myself with what I can grow (and can’t grow). I have recently been experimenting with a gravel garden where I have never watered or added any compost or fertilizer. The garden is at the top of a stone wall, south facing protected from the north wind by the house, and mulched with gravel- which gives it excellent drainage in winter. I am growing all sorts of stuff that shouldn’t survive here- like Stipa gigantea (hasn’t bloomed yet, but it has survived three winters now), Knifophia caulescens, Hypericum androsaesum ‘Albury Purple, Ferula communis– none of these plants have reached their full potential yet, but they still survive and I find that pretty interesting.
Agriculture is the precursor to horticulture – once the land provided what humans needed to nourish and shelter themselves, it too became a place for ornamental use (i.e. cottage gardens). Once food production became industrialized, humans gradually lose their agricultural roots as they migrated to urban centers. Gardens and farms are different systems because the latter is more inclusive (i.e. animal husbandry and post-harvest processing). Was it a natural step for you to become a farmer while still working in horticulture?
Yes. My first job was working on an organic vegetable farm. I started when I was 15 and after the second summer the farm was given away, I then migrated over to landscaping because I liked working outside and with plants. From then on I just kept gardening. I don’t have a degree in horticulture, but I have had a very rigorous education working for and learning from the best of gardeners, all of it ‘hands on’, learning passed on through the work itself. I just kept doing it because I like it. Farming is the same way. I like raising things and I like working. And if you are paying attention and giving your work a lot of care, then you will get better at it. Whether it is flowers or cows, it feels the same.
The Bunker Farm certainly embodies the small-scale local agricultural ethos that come to define rural communities near urban centers. I understand that the farm’s goal is to be self-sufficient, sustainable, and have strengthening ties to the community. How did your farm come about within your interests?
It definitely felt like a very fortuitous turn of events. My husband Noah and I had been farming on a small scale on his family’s land. We had a few cows and pigs and I had a tiny greenhouse where I grew annuals for gardening clients. My sister and her husband lived across the street and we would raise chickens and garlic together. Noah and I were looking at properties hoping to find something of our own that we could continue to do similar small scale farming. We would constantly look at really run down properties and drag Jen and Mike along and start dreaming about all the things we could do together. Then Noah saw an ad seeking applications to buy the Bunker Farm through the Vermont Land Trust. This proposition was much bigger than any of us could have dreamed about previously. But the land and the buildings offered us all so much and we each had skills to fill each part of the farm. Noah worked on a small dairy farm at the Putney School for 3 years, mastering farm mechanics and cow husbandry and with 60 acres of hay fields, having cows was a natural fit. He knew enough that dairy on a small scale would be difficult, so we went for beef cows. There was born the idea to start a meat CSA, offering pork, chicken and beef. The farm also had 16 acres of old sugar maple woods that could be tapped again to produce maple syrup. Mike had worked for a few years for one of the bigger producers in our area and had the initial skills and passion to start a sugaring operation at the farm. There was a large greenhouse, standing empty, but ready for me to fill it with plants. My sister is a third grade teacher and passionate about outdoor education and works to get school and community groups on the farm. It honestly felt like the land was looking for someone to fill all these different parts, it wouldn’t really work if it was just one thing, and so in the end, the four of us were a good match.
Despite its previous 26-year-old ownership under Larry and Marilyn Cassidy, the farm still needed significant improvements before it could become fully operational. How was funding and the subsequent development approached?
The farm was actually in pretty good shape when we first moved in. The barns and structures were operational, there was power and water everywhere, and the green house was in pretty good shape too. We of course put everything we could into it in the beginning, but we started our first fall with the two cows Noah and I had purchased prior to owning the farm. Each year we have bought more cows in and started our own breeding program and we now have twenty-two cows. In our first year sugaring, we didn’t own an evaporator, which meant we couldn’t even make maple syrup from the sap we collected. Instead we focused on setting up the infrastructure, hanging all the tubing in the woods, and sold the raw sap to a sugar maker down the road. With everything, we started out small and grew each year, acquiring another piece of equipment, upgrading to better systems, etc. We all have other jobs, which took some of the financial pressure off the farm in those busy and expensive start-up years.
James Rebanks, the author of ‘The Shepherd’s Life’ commented in an interview: ‘I like the idea that people lead lives devoted to something bigger than themselves – the landscape, the folks and their continuation. Somebody like my father wouldn’t have thought his life was particularly meaningful or significant in its own right, but he saw himself as part of a community and way of life and tradition. I deeply admire that in an age when most things are about the individual and about instant gratification and consumption.’ What roles do you see yourself and your family within the historical context of Bunker Farm?
I think about this a lot actually because it applies to many different parts of a life. This idea that the four of us belong to something bigger than ourselves has really been a core value of the Bunker Farm. At the micro level, this is how four adults (two being sisters) have survived in a rambling farm house with two toddlers for the past few years, not to mention all of us running a farm business together. You always have to consider the larger purpose, that we are doing something that is more important than our daily needs or comforts. At a more macro level, we definitely feel very humbled to own, work, and live at the Bunker Farm. This is a historic farm and one that has meant so much to so many people in our community- it seems like every neighbor and every neighbors friend knew someone who lived and worked the farm. Not to mention that the farm has meant so much to the Cassidy and the Bunker families. We feel the responsibility to carry the farm forward in a way that our community can feel good about.
Vermont’s winters are long and cold, yet I get a sense that a farmer’s day is rarely quiet. People unfamiliar with farming rhythms tend to view winters as slow months. What would define your responsibilities during winters?
Sugaring season starts in late January these days, so our winters truly are very short. My winter tasks include all the plant and seed ordering, plant lists and database work, garden design work and bookkeeping. Last year I took a nutrient management course that helps our farm write a nutrient management plan (manure, fertilizer, lime applications) for all our hayfields. This program is run through a few different Vermont state organizations, but it is an effort to get small farms to comply with new water quality standards, manure and fertilization regulations. It is in the best interest of the farmers to improve their soil health and soil retention on their farms, so there is an economical benefit for farmers too.
Late January and February brings the seasonal ritual of tapping its astoundingly 3,300 sugar maples for maple syrup, which your brother-in-law Mike Euphrat oversees. Do you participate in the process and how is the syrup different from the others you have tasted?
A sugar bush is measured in number of taps, which is interesting since many large trees can have two taps. We have 1,200 taps on 16 acres here at Bunker Farm and we lease another 3,100 taps on 40 acres down the road from us. In a really, really good season we can make over 2,000 gallons of syrup in a year. I am on the tapping crew, so I go out and help put the taps into the tree, which is essentially drilling a hole in the tree, hammering in a plastic tap, and connecting the tap to a web of tubing that carries the sap to large collection tanks. The season generally runs when the temperatures are above freezing during the day and below freezing at night. This temperature difference gets the sap to move up and down the tree, bringing sweet sap to the emerging buds in the tree. I help check the vacuum in the woods, fixing leaks in the tubing and making sure the taps are tight. We use vacuum pumps to draw the sap through the lines and a reverse osmosis machine that takes sap at its natural 2% sugar solution and pushes it through a filtration system that takes water out and leaves us with a higher sugar concentrate. Boiling, trucking, and canning are all other parts of the operation. In terms of taste, we did win a blind taste test during the Maple Rama festivities last year out of 70 other entries. This win is due to Mike’s fastidiousness in terms of how he runs his operation. He is very clean, very precise, and he measures everything. He finds what works and sticks to it. He is very disciplined and deliberate about the operation, from collection to processing, and he produces a product that really is superior. Most people would think maple syrup is maple syrup but like anything the more you taste and know something, the more you can taste the differences- ours is rich, smooth, clean, balanced, with a slightly wood fired flavor.
February and March coincides with seed sowing and seedling pricking out. It is a crucial junction when lambing and calving season too begins. Given how the demands can be stressful, how do you balance these jobs with your team?
February and March is a really busy time for us with sugaring, it is a really intense season because during a perfect stretch of weather we could be boiling for 24hrs straight with short breaks before you are back at it again. Mike hardly sleeps at all during this time. We plan for pig farrowing end of March and April, but calving isn’t until May and June and we gave up having sheep a few years back. Every season is a little bit crazy, but our worst month is actually May. That is when Noah and Jen are still teaching, my gardening season is in full tilt, the plant nursery is at its peak in sales and watering, Mike is working at Walker Farm, chickens are arriving every two weeks, and pasture rotation is just beginning. Not to mention weeds are growing like mad and the grass needs mowing! We each have our area that we manage but we help each other out as much as we can- during the busy seasons all hands are on deck. It can be really stressful and tiring, but we have a really strong sense of shared purpose that holds us all together.
Propagating and selling annuals is an audacious business move since the everyday gardener rarely moves beyond the ‘bread and butter’ marigolds, pelargoniums, and petunias. A number of the varieties you sell do not necessarily wow upon first impression, although they will impress the jaded gardener later. How do you go about educating your customers that those tufts of foliage forecast tremendous potential?
A lot of people tell me about how hard the nursery business is, it seems like they are always going out of business everywhere. For me, I just started out wanting to grow cool unusual plants that I can’t get anywhere else for my own gardening business and my own garden and from there it has steadily grown. I have about two dozen great gardeners who buy my plants fairly regularly and they are definitely helping to get my name out there, plus existing CSA customers. My plant list seems to attract the type of gardener that doesn’t need the plant to look flashy in order to buy it, which really helps! The other thing I have going for me is my own excitement about what I am growing. Even if I haven’t grown it before, I clearly chose it because it sounded exciting. Gardeners love trying new things and a passionate sales person can help!
Each year, seed and plant catalogs tempt us with endless varieties that either are new color variants, better disease resistance, and later to flower. How do you whittle down your desiderata to realistic limitations of space and time?
That is actually a really interesting question and one that I think about every year. My process is pretty intuitive which sounds a little naïve. I just find myself every year attracted to really different groups of plants each year. For example a few years ago I wanted to grow lots of different perennial Centaureas. It sounds a little boring and they really didn’t sell well, but I fell in love with Centaurea dealbata, C. scabiosifolia, C. ruthenica, and C. macrocephala. The following year it was Dianthus, and I grew some very cool perennial types including D. pinifolius, D. knappii, and D. carthusinorum. Last year I had terrific luck with Mirabilis so I am growing four different cultivars this year. I can imagine over the years I will have a solid list of things I will always grow and then the list of experimentals will come and go and come again. I have a feeling every year will always be different than the last.
What are some of the interesting annuals or tender perennials you have propagated and grown that you envision a bright future?
Here are some solid performers:
- Ageratum houstonianum ‘Red Sea,’ – a really nice bushy mid height Ageratum with a really good purple pink flower.
- Alonsoa meridionalis ‘Rebel’ – shocking orange red in late summer through fall, such a surprise late in the season.
- Ipomoea quamoclit – incredible fine and vining foliage with scarlet tubular star flowers.
- Pennisetum villosum ‘Cream Falls’ – a great floriferous fuzzy flowered grass in bright white. Fills a space and blooms early and long.
- Phlox drummondii ‘Cherry Caramel’ – such a nice surprise last year with its multi colored caramel pink phlox flowers, blooms well with deadheading and for a long period.
- Mirabilis jalapa ‘Limelight’ – one of my favorite annuals, sort of garish, but with incredibly bright chartreuse foliage and hot pink flowers, the plant gets big and bushy and goes all season. Good for a semi-sunny spot.
- Hibiscus acetosella ‘Mahogany Splendor’- grown purely for its foliage in our area, but in one year a single plant can get five feet tall and three feet wide. Leaves resemble a dark red Japanese maple in form, texture and color, though a little larger.
- Tropaeolum peregrinum – a lovely climbing nasturtium vine with bright canary bird flowers. Foliage is so ornate too- nice to let it scramble over and through a dark yew hedge.
In addition, you sell herbaceous perennials to complement the annuals. What are you currently growing?
I am actually growing a fair number to perennials and biennials each year. Some particularly good ones are: Verbascum bombyciferum ‘Polar Summer’, a great biennial verbascum with large rosettes of enormous felty gray leaves. The flower spikes are tall and branching with a semi-snaking habit with bright yellow fuzzy flowers along the stems. Patrinia scabiosifolia is another tried and true and underused perennial around here with upright stems of bright yellow umbel flowers, sweetly scented blooming mid summer. Euphorbia oblongata is another great perennial spurge with lovely striped green leaves and bright yellow flowers, the seed heads look good all season too. Wow, all yellow flowers and all good plants.
What is your desert island plant?
Salvia confertiflora because I don’t think you could feel too lonely next to a plant like that, so big with those large pungent leaves and those long delicate spires covered in fuzzy bright red buds. Plus it would offer some shade on hot days and would bring all the hummingbirds and bees.
What would your advice for those people interested in merging horticultural and agricultural enterprises?
The very unromantic advice I have is to write a really good business plan. We did that (because we were required to in order to buy the farm) and it turned out to be one of the best things we have ever done. We have referenced the plan many times and it helped us prioritize and know where we were headed. It gave us the beginning skills to budget, make financial plans, and work as a group.
Thank you Helen!
“Just so magnificent. I love dipping in and out of these different, really quite intense worlds, which people have created within other worlds. It’s extraordinary to see how people adapt and live in these really quite extreme ways”.
~Christopher Bailey, former designer of Burberry, in Travel Almanac
Interview by Eric Hsu
Photography by Aviva Rowley (except credited otherwise)
A born and bred-Brooklynite, Aviva Rowley studied fine arts in Cooper Union during which she worked as a florist and continued to do so after graduation. Desiring something less temporal, Rowley turned to ceramics as a medium for holding flowers. She builds her vessels backwards, using her floristry background as an inspiration, and because her work is handmade, no piece is uniform and one of a kind. Texture and shape dictate her style while the matte black glaze unifies it. Please visit her site (www.avivarowley.com) or IG: @avivarowley.
For someone whose taste tends towards macabre, your ease and preference with clay as an artistic medium seem worlds away because clay, once fired, does not project rigor mortis. Clay feels alive and vital within one’s hands, hence why did you elect to work with it?
I never really thought of myself as macabre necessarily. It’s funny because clay, while it is alive and vital in one’s hands while wet, once you fire it, it definitely does project rigor mortis. Frozen in time. A huge part of why I started to make ceramics was the experience of building these huge events as a florist, just to watch everything die within a day or two. I wanted to create something more permanent and unchanging as a vessel for things to grow, fade, eventually die…
My parents have been a huge inspiration to me throughout my life. My mom is a psychologist and self-taught ceramist as well. I grew up playing with clay, and water and plants and weeds and dirt, with the backdrop of the wild city skyline. My father is a brilliant painter and scholar, who definitely leans towards the darkness. They both have been an incredible influence in my life as a creator. I grew up in Brooklyn and my kiln is still at my parents’ house, in the house I grew up in, next to my mother’s wild overgrown flower garden.
Constance Spry, perhaps the fore runner of the wild untamed floral style popular now, worked closely with Fulham Pottery in London to design and develop a series of ceramics for floral work. How did your florist training shape your perception towards ceramics, and has it influenced the form you prefer to work with?
It has completely changed how I think of the “vessel,” I consider what goes in my vessels while I am building them. I like to create lips and shapes that will speak to flowers. Some of my favorite forms I’ve built dictate the way the flowers fall – the slit vase, for example, lets flowers fall in a really elegant mohawk.
There needs to be a conversation between the vessel and what you put in it. Our mutual friend Phil has been one of my biggest inspirations. He would hate that I’m saying this, but he’s really been my muse for the past few years. I make vessels thinking about how he would use them, I add snakes and handles and knobs and gaps for him to twist around. While my own floral work is very simple, when I build a vessel I imagine so many possibilities – yet I’m always surprised how different florists use them.
Many of my dearest friends are still florists, which is a fascinating resource. I am working on a collaboration with another of my floral friend Sophia Moreno-Bunge. She lives in California so we have been doing a snail mail back and forth. Making vessels with her in mind has been such a fun experiment, and I’m creating forms that I never would have imagined otherwise.
In addition, you have started a Keiki-Club “to create an open social community for friends and flora fanatics to come together and grow plants, share knowledge, and trade collections”. Does this exposure to different plants and individuals besotted with them inspire your work in interesting directions?
One of the first ceramic pieces I built was a hanging saucer because it was an answer to a plant problem that had not been answered before. Being a part of such a positive community, where people can get together and tell stories, and introduce one another to new things… I never thought of it as an inspiration to my pottery, but now that I think of it, it is. I tend to like older plants, ones that have a past, and have been growing and adapting to their environments. I like to imagine my vessels as homes.
Some ceramicists experiment regularly with glazes because they feel that the functionality, which underwrites the vessel form, is an artistic limitation. You have deliberately kept your glazes to a matte black or a weathered beige despite how varied you have manipulated the forms.
I’ve always created intentional limitations in my art. I chose the gun metal / matte black glaze because it really speaks to flowers, and definitely lets me experiment more wildly with my shapes. When you see my vessels in person, there are a lot of slight imperfections in glazes; I’ve actually been experimenting a lot with different textures while keeping the black as a basic language.
I like how they appear as silhouettes, and work well on their own… when you add plants or flowers it adds a whole other dimension which is generally out of my control.
If an Aviva Rowley ceramic was a plant or garden, what would it be?
I would be an undiscovered underwater ruin, left alone for so many years and enveloped in overgrowth. My partner said I’d be Psychotria elata… look it up!
Thank you for the interview Aviva!
Interview by Eric Hsu
Photography by Phillip Huynh
** Her exhibit “T: Exploration & Experience of the Teabowl”- with Romy Northover (pictures featured here) goes until November 26 at FLOATING MOUNTAIN 239 W72nd St, New York NY 10023. Pieces are available for purchase and can be viewed at https://www.floating-mountain.com
` Photo Credit: Alana Wilson
Swimming brings one’s body with the water’s buoyancy, yet the process of molding and shaping clay is an anchoring force with hands. Where do you see the cross dialogue between the two activities?
Both are very meditative, predominantly done in solitude and combine physical movement and awareness of the body with a required mental acuity to work through a repetitive process. Both connect with a natural element – earth and water – which I find quite calming and humanly intrinsic. Over time, the wiring between brain and body becomes so ingrained that you can let your mind wander whilst the body is in automatic mode of a learnt technique. Both activities require a sense of technique, which is similarly soft, efficient, streamlined, responsive to the least amount of touch, and both techniques rely on a sense of flow and refining the surface resistance of the body against the elements.
Your work belies the exacting but unpredictable process of overlaying different substances and glazing. What do you find fascinating about the alchemy?
There are endless parallels between the ceramic surfaces and surfaces and textures that exist in nature. Of course, ceramic materials all exist and are derived from natural resources but the process of firing results in a more compacted environment with the kiln’s heat and the firing speed. Scientifically, all of these ceramic results exist somewhere in nature that have occurred through varying means and all natural surfaces and materials will depict a chemical story of creation and destruction, as do the ceramic pieces.
As a child I would get lost in observing rock pools full of geological and marine life, collecting seashells and interesting rocks to study. This childhood fixation has informed my interest in the minute details of elemental decay and natural observation. Over time I have come to recognize stronger analogies between the natural destructive process and environments comparative to those in the medium of ceramics.
Within the ceramic process there are numerous aspects left to chance and susceptible to variation. Different materials will have specific reactions within the firing – how it transforms through heat exposure, how fast it is heated, its melting point, vaporisation point, oxygen content in the material and the atmosphere and its reaction with the other glaze ingredients it is mixed with.
In its elemental form, the vessel projects functionality that people have difficulty divorcing when it comes to appreciating ceramics as an art equal to painting or sculpture. How do you hope to have someone see your piece beyond its basic purpose?
I used to look at this viewpoint as a hindrance, always trying to prove something with the vessel. There is an inherent conditioning when dealing with the vessel throughout anthropological, art, and social history. Functionality not only alludes to a use but also to a relationship to the human body and human life. I now embrace the steadfast connotative functionality of my work and prefer it over purely conceptual art (in terms of what I create myself, not necessarily as to what interests me as a viewer).
Having a pre-conditioned utilitarian context allows a certain scale of intimacy for the works to intersect the viewer’s perceptual / experiential process on a different level. Sociologically the viewer forms some sense of connection to it and hold it in a perceptual realm relative to their everyday life as opposed to a more conceptual work, in which they may feel separate from in terms of anthropological connection and conceptual understanding.
The difficult concept to divorce from the vessel is its ability to hold something, therefore an empty vessel is often perceived as incomplete. I seek to highlight the emptiness and twist the conception to depict the potential to be filled, within which there are various possibilities – both physical and conceptual ‘fillers’. The depiction of the unused or empty vessel allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions based on their individual conditioning. In a sense this conditioning (towards an utilitarian object such as a vessel) is on a different level to the conditioning to comprehend conceptual or abstract art.
Throughout this consistent questioning within my own work, I have looked at and questioned other forms of art, architecture, design etc and its relativity to humankind. I am interested in its ability to intersect with the everyday life of the everyday person, to not exist only in the vacuum of a white box gallery or as a material commodity, financial investment, or interior decoration. Within my work I aim to honor the history of the vessel and the different historical values – emotional, cultural / historical, technical, conceptual – that all correlate to the final result.
There is a consistent duality of logic vs reason, cultural vs individual; but in the sense of attempting to draw attention to the importance of humanity and humankind there is the critical requirement for communication, which is community. The viewer’s perception is a moment in time, yet can be long-lasting in terms of their recollection of reality and how it affects them. The majority of viewers would not be aware of their own perceptual process to this extent but I find the relationship between functionality, physicality, conceptual understanding and conditioning an extremely interesting area to observe and study in relation to my work, art and life in general.
Pot Plant, which was curated by John Tebbs for the Garden Edit, and Lilies of Forgiveness, placed your work in relation to ephemeral plant material. Did either exhibits re-center the focus on how florists utilize your ceramics?
As discussed in the above answer, I primarily look for highlighting an emptiness and the potential of completion based on societal conditioning towards and empty vessel. However, I love working with ephemeral plant material as it truly represents natural beauty and its decay, and takes away that sense of ownership or forever-ness that so many people crave. These ideas are constantly embedded within my work, so with the right people who appreciate these ideas I am always keen to collaborate. John Tebbs from The Garden Edit, Simone Gooch of Fjura, and Alia & Ezra from Regime des Fleurs all create beautiful work, utilizing nature as creator and transcending nature as decoration or pure product.
There is an old Chinese saying ‘滴水穿石’ which translates to ‘dripping water eats away the stone’. It alludes well to how your pieces bear the corrosive effect of water almost to the point of close disintegration. Is it a mediation on the transience of humankind and material goods?
Absolutely. More so an exploration of the innate impermanence of everything and attempting to break down the societal attachment to completed or beautiful things; to encourage an acceptance of the process of continuous transformation and inevitable decay, in all things – physical and otherwise.
The marine environment is unforgiving to terrestrial plant life, but what would be an Alana Wilson ceramic personified as a plant or garden look like?
This is an interesting question, and each ceramic piece has its own identity in a way … possibly a rockpool or reef, could that be classified as a garden?
Thank you Alana for the interview!
Interview by Eric Hsu.
Currently the ceramicist-in-residence at Saipua, Red Hook, Brooklyn, Simone Bodmer-Turner has been turning beautiful singular pieces in earthly tones and with natural imperfections. The irregularities of their shapes and textures give her ceramics an idiosyncratic feel not replicated in commercial, wheel-thrown pieces. Simone’s first forays into ceramics began with jewelry sold through independent boutiques, and her creative evolution into full-sized ceramics felt destined. Her local artist residencies have been based in Massachusetts and upstate New York. Simone has refined her skills in Onishi, Japan and Oaxaca, Mexico where the differing cultural perspectives towards ceramics has influenced her work, as well as the selection of clay and the process of shaping and firing. Simone’s work has a loyal following, and is found in private collections. Her recent show at Saipua, pictures of whom feature here, was successful, and several pieces sold out within the first hour. For more information, please visit her website (www.simonebodmerturner.com) or IG: @simonebodmerturner
Clay is a metamorphic medium that either can be generous or unforgiving under a creator’s hands. What is it about clay or the processing of shaping ceramics you appreciate over other media?
The romance of using a medium that is created by the intense pressure of the earth compressing rocks, minerals and decaying matter is an act I find endlessly poetic. It was a real kick in the gut to realize that most of the clay I’ve been using for years in city studios from ceramic supply stores are mixed as individual ingredients and are very distant from the original methods of digging and mixing clay. Getting closer to the original practices surrounding the medium is why I’ve traveled all over the world to study from communities who have less industrialized clay traditions.
As someone who moved very quickly to hand building after I was trained – as most who are interested in ceramics are in a city studio – on the wheel, clay really functions as a sculpture body for me. Learning the nuances of a clay body’s capabilities depending on its moisture level and physical composition is a never-ending endeavor to master. Though I feel that clay will certainly be part of my practice for my entire life, I’m itching to try different mediums like stone and concrete.
The dialogue between functionality and conceptual art seems to be a perennial conflict for ceramicists – the vessel in its elemental form exerts strong psychological hold on us humans as a receptacle for sustenance and seeing it as an art itself is harder to reconcile. At what point does your role as the artist becomes aligned with that as a craftsperson focused on functionality?
I fit into a strange niche in that I am drawn to historically functional forms – water vessels, wine and sake fermentation vessels, urns, ceremonial vessels – but I don’t work as a potter does, churning out functional ware, but preferably as an artist, creating one piece at a time, never to be exactly the same as the next and whenever inspiration strikes. Which luckily, is often. I’m well aware that this may well work to my detriment, but at the moment it works for me. That is not to say that I haven’t taken on projects or needed to set deadlines for myself which force me to work more like a production potter, but for the most part I work on my own time at multiple pieces at once as they dry in different intervals. Once you get a good groove going it’s a lot like cooking, and a body of work comes together bit by bit all together and each piece often winds up influencing each other in the way they might interact. Though at the moment, I’m making functional vessels, I am very interested in the sculptures of artists like Noguchi, Brancusi, and Calder and potters who have turned to sculpture like Peter Voulkos and Ruth Duckworth. I’d like to be incorporating more modern forms into the more traditional inspiration I’ve been working with.
The Dutch designer Hella Jongerius once said: “Colour is subjective, there is no truth in it. A colour by itself is nothing, and so it gets its character from the colours around it.” Your ceramic work takes on the muted earthly hues (i.e. ashen gray, white, rusty ochres), and they reflect the atmospheric light conditions from morning to evening. Although they are prized for their spare colors, Japanese and Mexican ceramics are well known for their brilliant colors. Was it a conscious decision to emphasize the form and texture over color for your work?
There’s two parts to the natural hues of my work. My base will always be a creamy, hyper-matte white. It doesn’t detract from the form, and keeps even the most Grecian inspired pieces feeling contemporary. I started using glazes in this spectrum as a stylistic choice but it has also acted as a placeholder while I test and experiment with recipes to get more texture and complexity onto the surface of my pots. After working in many collaborative spaces where the glazes are mixed for you by the staff and set out in buckets for you to essentially pick your color and put on a shelf to go into the kiln, I desperately wanted to understand the chemistry behind the muted creamy substances I was handing my artistic vision over to. Only in the last two years have I committed to mixing all of my own glazes and really understanding the naturally occurring, and, these days, many man-made, components of a glaze. I aspire to get to a point where a glazed piece can come out of the kiln and if I’m not happy with it I know what to tweak without having to scratch the whole batch. Matte white will always be my base, but I’m looking forward to seeing how all the test batches I’ve been working on come out.
Despite the preponderance of natural motifs in Japanese arts and culture, most people still view Japan as this country ensnared in futuristic, technology vise with little connection to the natural world while holding on its past relics. You have expressed surprise at the depth of the Japanese connection with nature. What were the few specific things that struck you during your time there?
I wouldn’t say that I was surprised to find how connected the Japanese people are to the natural world, as I tend to romanticize everything, but I would say that I was lucky to be in a place and with people where that connection is still deeply ingrained, rather than in a big city like Tokyo which I found very overwhelming commercially. The whole experience of firing the Anagama kiln up in the mountains was fantastic – in the magical sense of the word. We were up in the hills above Onishi amongst the cedars and the vines, staying in a cabin and taking turns stoking the fire through the night. I worked the 3am-9am shift with my dear friend who had flown over to help with the firing and travel around Japan with me. By 3 am most everyone had gone to sleep and it was just Elissa and I sitting in front of the fire telling stories often riddled with sleep deprived nonsensical humor, or often not talking, for hours listening to the deer call to each other through the forest. We would sip sake through the night and make coffee on the camp stove at the first sign of first light, and cook ourselves breakfast before the rest of camp had risen. When the other potters finally arrived to take over our shift, we would soak in the wood fired tub as the mist lifted out of the forest before taking a nap.
The Japanese community from the town and our friends who came to help with the firing just seemed comfortable and at ease living in the woods. Everyone moved confidently from cooking over gas to cooking over fire, foraging in the woods for the perfect stems and branches to decorate the communal table, having tea on a plank suspended from the trees rather than in a more traditional setting. It was an incredibly enchanting moment in time.
You were a fellow of the Pocoapoco, “a multi-disciplinary, research-based residency in Oaxaca, Mexico offering time for retreat, a platform for creative exploration and space for a collective intelligence”. This fellowship too molded your impressions on ceramics and its place there. What did you take away from Oaxaca that was different from Japan?
Though people imagine Japan is the place to go to train under a master, my work was more independent there, whereas Mexico was the place I worked under a master. Rufina and her sisters had been making pots since they were 6 years old and had learned their craft from their mothers and their grandmothers in Atztompa, a 30 minute drive outside of Oaxaca city center. They were incredibly skilled and had a profound knowledge and intimacy with the clay. Though the cultural experience in Japan was perhaps more formative for me – greatly in part to the fact that I was living there three months longer than I was in Mexico – my time in Oaxaca was incredibly formative stylistically and technically.
The pottery there, and generally in Central and South American, is still made the traditional way through various hand building techniques. Rather than being looked down on for my hand building tendencies, as I’ve experienced in many pottery communities in the developed world that favor the more perfect wheel thrown forms, my style was embraced in its familiarity. I learned many building and burnishing techniques from Rufina and her sisters, but what I really learned was not to be afraid of the clay, to handle it more forcefully in order to coerce it into the desired shape. I remember squirming while Rufina literally beat one side of my pot with her hand to get it symmetrical and took a machete to another pot to carve down imperfections. I took a bunch of jicaras home with me and have been carving and burnishing my pots with them to get a smoother surface than my earlier work. I’ve started working with sculpture body which has a lot of grog, which is similar to the clay bodies they dig and mix in Atzompa. The flexible strength of that clay has made me work less timidly.
How has becoming the ceramicist-in-residence at Saipua alter your perspective as the work will become complementary to cut flowers and plants?
Working with Sarah and her team of florists has been incredibly informative in terms of building vessels for specific arrangements of plants. Luckily, my work is heavy by default as I prefer to build with a thick coil and like the feel of something substantial which helps eliminate the problem of a pot falling over from the uneven weight of stems. Sarah’s arrangements are bountiful and wild, which often means putting stems in vessels in an nontraditional fashion, which she has been teaching me to build for. I am personally drawn to what can be done in a shallow vessel with a flower frog, and have been experimenting with building them into my pieces. It’s a constant learning and experimental process. Hand building lends itself to building interior walls and lips to assist the ill-balanced, but more interesting and poetic to accommodate the stem or branch. Just getting to handle the flowers and learn about them from Saipua has been incredible. Plus, the crew is some of the most hard working, deeply sweet, and insanely talented individuals I’ve met in any working environment. I’m very grateful to share space and artistic vision with them.
If a Simone Bodmer-Turner ceramic was transformed into a plant or garden, what would it be?
Hah I’m not sure if it’s exactly “me as a plant” but I am completely, undeniably in love with Pink Smoke Bush. The lightest shade. It’s the most ethereal plant with deep mauve-purple leaves that flowers into this frothy cloud of pinky purple feathers with mint green undertones. I never get tired of it. I want a whole yard full of them.
Thank you Simone for the interview!
Ceramicists and gardeners are bonded by the same element: the earth they mold into vessels or cultivate for plants. The similarities end when the vessels, having been fired, are completed, but gardens continually develop until the gardener leaves or has relinquished control. Ceramics have a tactile warmth conspicuously missing from our digital lives we now inhabit. They permit us to access the fundamental and beautiful moments of life that evolve around eating and dining and growing. In all, they reference the humanistic touch not replicated online. There has been an increased popularity of ceramics not only as a craft, but also an art form. In this series over the next three weeks, we explore three ceramicists whose work reevaluate our perception of functionality and connect us tenuously to ephemera, especially cut flowers.