January 27, 2023
Letting True Nature Take The Lead : Olivier's Ceramics Journey
Hi All! My name is Olivier, Olly; born and raised in Amsterdam, and I would like to share my story about how I decided to quit my job and start as a ceramic artist and sculptor. I hope this story inspires others to explore their artistic side, as it has given me so much joy in life!
Art and especially ceramics, has always been a part of my life. As the only two artistic people in my household, my father and I had the tradition of going on a creative holiday every summer since I was 13. We quickly discovered a Dutch ceramicist who had moved with his family to the south of France and was organizing ceramic courses on top of a hill, watching the beautiful landscape.
Here my father and I fell in love with wheel throwing. So most of the summers, we went there and did a wood-firing, one of the most fun things to do. Especially if you're a pyromaniac like me haha! We would take shifts all night long to sit by the kiln, feed it, and be mesmerized by the fire with a nice glass of French red wine.
As wood-firing ceramics is one of the most unreliable ways of firing a kiln, the results were rarely what you expected, which reminds me that someone once told me to never be happy with one's work until it has come out of the kiln, glazed. I learned this lesson after a couple of summers as often the piece I looked forward to the most coming out of the kiln became the ugliest. And other pieces that were more of an afterthought became the prettiest. I love this unpredictability; you have to surrender to the process.
These holidays gave me so much serenity. I can be completely absorbed in my work, the hours fly by, and the outside world doesn't exist anymore. Clay is just this wonderful medium within art with so much versatility. You can wheel throw with it, make sculptures, and "paint" with the glazes. What I appreciate the most is how malleable it is. I think it makes the material very inducive for the creative process itself. In my creative process, I often start with a certain image in my mind, and this idea evolves while working. The clay allows me to make mistakes and learn from them. This attribute even stays when you start glazing, as you can always wash the glaze off when it still needs to be baked.
Fighting against my own nature
Later in my life, during my years as a psychology student, this holiday tradition faded, being distracted by student life and A LOT of partying haha. After I finished my Masters in organizational psychology, I started working in the human resource department. I learned a lot about motivational theory, predicting work performance, and employee engagement, and I was excited to put my knowledge to good use.
I was able to do this in the beginning, especially in my internship and first job. However, with later jobs, it became more and more about processes and making these more efficient. Finally, in October 2021, I realized I was missing creativity. After a quick refresher course in wheel throwing (I became a little rusty after those years), I realized that I wanted to spend much more time on ceramics. Around the same time, I realized I wasn't happy with my job and the industry.
Within human resources, you are required to be very organized, able to handle strong/dominant personalities, and say no easily. All of these things I'm terrible at haha. Of course, I learned over the years to be more organized, prioritize tasks and say no more often. But still, looking back, I know that it cost me a lot of energy. It felt like I was fighting to be someone that isn't me. Fighting against my own nature. Because I love to say yes to people who ask for help, I love to say yes to new experiences, and I don't mind a little chaos. There is much more to it than these points, but I'll leave it at the short version.
Sooo, back to my ceramics ambitions. Knowing that my current job was not sustainable, I started searching for alternatives. Which path do I want to take with ceramics? I considered many options. I thought about splitting my job in two, keeping my position within HR, and finding a job at a ceramic studio where I could learn from the Masters. But unfortunately, pottery is not famous for a sustainable income, especially not for a beginner. Or starting at a school for ceramics. Or doing a new bachelor's at an art school in Amsterdam specializing in ceramics. Or flying off to Florence and following a 12-week program while learning Italian. Choices...
During my search, I connected to a friend of a friend who studies ceramics at the Gerrit Rietveld Art Academy. She answered my questions and asked what I wanted to do the most with ceramics. My answer was: to experiment. I want to experiment with wheel throwing, sculpting, glazing, and making detailed shapes and textures. I want to experiment as much as I can! Based on this, she suggested that working at another ceramic studio wouldn't match me, as you make someone else their work.
I decided that I wanted a space where I could work on my own in my free time, still keeping my job, exploring this refound passion for creativity a bit more before making big decisions. So I ended up at Studio Pansa, a membership-based shared workspace concept for potters. This was a great space to start my experimentation phase. I didn't need to worry about managing a studio space or learning how to fire a kiln.
At Pansa, I started out by making new textures, mostly organic. Here I had one of my first ideas for a whole series of art pieces, which is still in the making. The basic idea is to make ceramic pieces that are integrated with moss. I want to explore the tension between the organic and the designed and engineered process of ceramics. With this method, I want to make pieces that are a form of climate action. I got the idea of using moss from my pandemic hobby, making terrariums with my best friend. He discovered that some types of moss can grow very well on terracotta pots when you keep the moss humid. Terracotta is bisque-fired earthenware, so making bisque-fired sculptures for the moss to grow on should be possible!
For the non-ceramists, bisque fire is the first firing in the kiln you do to bake the clay and make it ready to be glazed.
Now I'm still figuring out to tackle some of the hurdles with this concept. First, I have to find the suitable species of moss that stay alive for a long time, and the moss needs to be kept wet or humid. I have found the suitable species and placed a piece under a glass display dome to keep it humid. Now I'm running into the last hurdle: the water evaporates and "stains" the glass, so you can't see the artwork clearly. Still figuring out how to beat this problem, which I'm convinced I will after some more experimentation.
A few months later, it was April 2022, and I was getting increasingly unhappy with my job. Which was a high contrast with the time I was spending on ceramics. At one moment, I had a complete meltdown in front of my ex, and I decided to quit my job and pursue the path of ceramics further.
I quit in July 2022.
The decision to start this new path was so exhilarating! I've never felt more alive than when I made this decision. It gave me a sense of agency I hadn't felt for a long time. This is the path I want to take, I have no f*cking clue if it will work out, but at least I've tried. But I'm confident that I can create pieces that make me happy AND that are an outlet for my mind and my concerns for society and the planet. We'll see if they resonate with others enough to make a living.
When I made the decision, I was also running into a lack of skill & knowledge on how to make bigger and more detailed ceramic pieces. So I wanted to do some kind of course again. There is much to find on Youtube, but I prefer to learn live. I had a hiking holiday planned to Slovenia in September with a friend and thought: maybe there is something similar in Slovenia as I had in France? A quick google search, and I landed on Katja her VAWAA page. Happy me, there was still availability! I planned it so that I first had a week of hiking with my friend, which after I would meet up with Katja for my VAWAA.
Jumping to my VAWAA. First of all, you must visit Slovenia, it is breathtaking! Magnificent mountains covered with forests. As a Dutch person, this makes me very happy, as the Netherlands is a flat, very flat, agricultural wasteland with its beauty in its own way. Still, it's not something I particularly enjoy.
When asked during my booking if I had any specific goals for the VAWAA, I told the team & Katja that I wanted to advance my skills in making more detailed ceramic work. For example, small and long textures like those in the picture and improve my wheel-throwing skills.
Going to my VAWAA with Katja, I got a warm welcome at her family home, which sits at the foot of a mountain. When we started, I brought two designs I had drawn, and we used these as my learning tool. Katja was amazing. She was very open in sharing all the knowledge she had gained over the years. I was quite focused, so I wanted to work long days in the studio. Luckily Katja was happy to accommodate me. We often discussed my complex design, waiting for the clay to dry more until I could attach it.
During a coffee break, I could enjoy the lush garden that her mother cared for. Once, we went together for a small hike on the mountain. The tranquillity that I experienced on my holidays in France, I definitely also found with Katja. I'm very grateful for my time with Katja. I'm happy that we connected and are still in contact!
My new course at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy started when I returned home. Oh, right, I hadn't told you that yet. So, along with working at Studio Pansa, I also decided to apply for a 6-month orientation course at the Rietveld Academy.
I wanted to explore if ceramics was the only medium I was interested in and wanted some guidance in the creative process. Below you can see my admission piece that landed me a spot! After 10 Saturdays in the course, I can already draw one conclusion: I will not only stick to ceramic art.
In October, I got the opportunity to have my own studio. So I started planning which equipment I needed, what kiln and getting in touch with ceramists who already had a studio and could share tips & tricks.
Now, it's been a year since I started my *journey* (read in an obnoxious voice) and started my own ceramics studio, OBBE Studio. My studio has all the basics. I'm still building a website and figuring out all the administration that goes into having your own company. But one thing is sure, I love what I'm doing.
Written by VAWAA Guest, Olivier
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