There is an anchor, tattooed in ink, hidden inside Alana Wilson’s lower lip.
“I just got it because, I don’t know, you go and you feel like you want something permanent to stick.
“I’m in the water a lot”, continues Wilson, speaking with a quiet confidence and calm – a quality shared also by her work in ceramics. “I’m a big lover of the water. That connection to water and its environment [is something] that I grew up with.”
There’s also a very clear subaqueous quality to Wilson’s work. She uses porcelain or terracotta paperclay to create forms that would appear almost organic were it not for the distinct evidence of the artist’s hand. They’re unassuming, and yet once glimpsed command your attention entirely, often appearing to sit upright on “really fine feet or tiny bases, so they look quite precarious.” Through a glazing process that’s at once both exacting and mercurial, Wilson develops finishes that bubble and barnacle, giving the impression that these pieces have lived years well beyond Wilson’s own 28.
In one piece she shows me, a copper and manganese glaze imbues a candelabra-like shape with the quality of precious heavy metals, and yet it’s featherweight. It looks as if it has been plumbed from the depths of a shipwreck – part of a precious loot that has spent more time beneath than above the waves. It’s fitting then that Wilson’s maker’s mark – her insignia – is also an anchor, one formed by her initials stacked one atop the other.
For two of the seven years that Wilson has lived in Tamarama, she has called a garage overlooking the beach her studio. It’s here, between white-washed sandstone walls in a room flooded with light, that Wilson breathes new life into ancient forms.
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Ceramics By Alana Wilson, SHOP SIMILAR
Credit: Lester Jones
On one wall is a drying rack where pieces, shaped on an adjacent making table, await their turn in the kiln. On the opposite wall, a mood board of images collaged above two white leather chairs tells the beginnings of Wilson’s latest story. In one image, there’s a surfer staring down the steep precipice of a wave gone wrong; in others, white wash frames an ocean bath, eddies over rocks and spirals to the surface in the wake of a torpedoing diver. Look around and another theme quickly emerges: an oil painting of a mountain ridge could just as easily be mistaken for a lunar surface; a vitrine instils a cabinet of small objects with the reverent quality of a shrine; an assortment of minerals, rocks and crystals are scattered throughout. And in the middle of it all, in a diptych format, a detail of the Roman numerals that have also been tattooed onto Wilson’s wrist: II.
Born in Canberra, Wilson’s parents returned to their roots in Wellington, New Zealand, when Wilson was a four-year-old with a predilection for collecting strange shells and stones characterised by their imperfections; objects indicative of a fascination with the natural processes of decay – something that’s very much evident in her work today.
A “super independent” teenager, at 17 Wilson acted on a long-harboured desire to move back to Australia alone to pursue her tertiary studies in an environment of a scale comparable to her ambition to pursue a career in art or architecture. A short-lived encounter with interior design soon lead Wilson to study fine arts at the National Art School in Sydney’s Darlinghurst where Wilson dove headfirst into an immersive program that would prove intoxicating. It was there, in the first rotation of a multidisciplinary program, that Wilson first encountered ceramics.
“I just loved it so much”, she recalls. “I didn’t want to leave at lunch time, didn’t want to leave at the end of the day. I thought I was going there to do painting but I just loved ceramics.” Wilson says she became enamoured with the meditative materiality not only of working the clay between her hands, but through channelling lived experiences through a medium with which she left an instant connection.
Her graduate collection, a body of work titled The Terrible Boredom of Paradise created as part of her honours year, was comprised of several large-scale vessels in shapes redolent of Oceanic cooking pots, Neolithic Chinese ceramics and pottery from the Jomon period in Japan but also intended to explore the artist’s “childhood and that separation that I was trying to get out of the environment”, the allure of which is only ever gleaned in hindsight.
The Terrible Boredom of Paradise also established a dialectic in Wilson’s work that she sees as being consistent in all works produced since: one that explores the relationship between the actuality of ancient history, forms and culture with progressive and experimental glaze technology. Wilson was awarded the Sabbia Gallery Exhibition Award for the work, a feat that propelled her onward to establish a studio of her own.
Wilson’s interest in those ancient forms extends beyond the realm of practicality into what those objects communicated about how people lived in a time and place far removed from her own. The same is as true where a piece of pottery from the Chinese Neolithic is concerned as it is for the mixed media works of Cy Twombly, Ricky Swallow or Sterling Ruby, artists who have inspired her greatly. For Wilson, the possibilities extended to her by her disparate interests entail endless permutations for her practice.
That cross-cultural conversation also carries into a dialogue around how we, as viewers, value an art object – in particular, those that entail an element of practicality beyond aesthetics. Think, for example, of a vase that is as much decorative as functional. “Functionality alludes to something of a lesser value, or that function is perceived first as opposed to a conceptual or theoretical merit,” says Wilson. “In a way, I’ve tried to embrace that; and by having the viewer aware of something either functionally or in relation to how the human body has to use it, that then allows them to either connect with it or perceive it on a different level than they might [otherwise].
“I feel like ceramics can be really boxed in by the fact that it is a material and if you’re working in ceramics then you’re ‘a ceramicist’ and that doesn’t have a place in fine art, or high art, for some people. [Your work] doesn’t just have to be a painting or a massive bronze sculpture to have value.”
Ceramics by Alana Wilson, SHOP SIMILAR
Credit: Lester Jones
Three days each week, Wilson teaches swimming lessons at the Cook and Phillip aquatic centre in the heart of the city. Never far from a body of water, the lessons are “like another version of heaven” for the artist, who relishes her time in the water as a chance for another encounter not only with the elemental but with others, something she considers “the most important thing in life, essentially.” Her pupils range in age from three to 72-years-old.
“Obviously, that’s a much more direct way of spending time with people. But in the studio, I’m connecting through a different visual language and trying to communicate what I believe is important… The importance of humanity and that human connection.”
Time spent in the pool also offers time spent in respite from thinking about the seemingly infinite variables that come into play during her ceramics practice. Where were the ingredients mined? What kind of season is she firing in? How will a cocktail of natural elements react to create different surfaces, colours and textures?
There’s an element of the alchemical that means one must of necessity relinquish control, especially once a piece enters firing stages (her single phase electric kiln can generate heats of up to 1260 degrees Celsius). One of the processes Wilson highlights as part of the practice that produces her singular results is called vaporisation, wherein ingredients within a glaze “either turn to vapour or produce gas in the firing [that] can actually move around the kiln and affect other pieces without actually being on that piece to begin with.”
Once that door is closed, Wilson and her work are essentially at the whim of the kiln.
In those works, as in some of her most recent pieces, there is as much to be said of the immaterial as there is the physical gesture. Her new experiments with sculptural works feature perforations that invite an interplay between an object, the viewer’s lines of sight and light itself. These form part of her desire to both experiment with and interrupt the natural tendency toward looking at a vessel and connecting it with functionality, and form part of a larger interrogation regarding the intention of her practice.
“You start to see how people read your work or why they want it and what they’re buying it for and what it goes next to in their house [as being indicative of] where people place value in their lives… I do feel possibly in a position where I have a responsibility to try and redirect that for some people in a way.”
What remains paramount for Wilson, above all, is that connection with others. “I guess I see that the reason anyone does anything is for some kind of human connection. You want to connect some kind of idea that can hopefully change something in their life. How I treat my teaching work and how I treat trying to communicate through the language of ceramics in the studio is still always just trying to pass on those values to other people.
“Hopefully something sticks.”