Ceramicist Aviva Rowley

Interview by Eric Hsu

Photography by Aviva Rowley (except credited otherwise)

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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…

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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.

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She-oaks (Allocasuarina) drape around one of Rowley’s vessels like strung fishing nets. Styling and Photo Credit: Phillip Huynh

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.

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A cascade of Clematis seedheads from another Rowley vessel in a friend’s nursery greenhouse. Styling and Photo Credit: Phillip Huynh

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.

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Photo Credit: Phillip Huynh

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.

 

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Photo Credit: Phillip Huynh

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!

Ceramicist Alana Wilson

Interview by Eric Hsu

Photography by Phillip Huynh

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** 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


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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.


 

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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.


 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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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!