burning clay
burning clay

For Zheni clay is like a partner that she is in a constant dialogue with. As an architect, she continues to cultivate the space by placing the objects in it.

How did you get into working with ceramics?

I think it was some kind of luck. I studied architecture in my home town in Russia. Before coming to Slovakia I mainly worked as an interior designer, quite successfully. So there was not much thought about changing my profession. What made me rethink my whole life was when I gave birth to my daughter, here in Slovakia. She completely changed my values and direction. At that period I have tried clay and I was amazed.

What inspires you and how is it related to your processes in making?

As an architect, I continue to work with space by placing the objects in it. I think a lot about borders of space, both physical and mental. How the outer affects the inner. What can my piece offer to a person not only in the aspects of everyday use but in its mental context? How can my vases influence the “life flow” of the person they belong to. I am not only creating an item to use I am creating an experience.

I am a child of post-Soviet Russia and much of my inspiration comes from there. I appreciate postmodernist and brutalist architecture. I associate myself with an aesthetic of pure material, impressive forms, making my objects massive, tactile and sensory. 

Also, I am working with a technique that has not changed over time; I am using clay as ancient, basic material, creating rough textures, unfinished edges and earthy finishes. It allows me to be reminded about the very basic feeling of nature, of its non-judgmental simplicity. Where time is slow. And easy just to be in. I return to the ground. It is especially important now when life goes faster and humanity becomes more and more digital.

How do you perceive the material itself, exploring its properties, discovering its possibilities?

Clay. This is a reason why I started ceramics. Understanding the material that over the course of thousands years influenced many cultures, gives me energy during the design process. Piece of the ground. Liquid, soft and malleable. Very strong after firing. Working with clay is a learning process which is based a lot on sensory perception. But then the constructive way of thinking, which I got from an architectural education, allows me to understand the technical aspects of pottery work. 

I respect clay and work with it as with a partner. in a constant dialogue. I do not make tests, I trust it completely. There is no such thing as a mistake, all of the processes and results are right with this material. I always give space to the material, trying not to control it. 

How important is the space in which you work? How does it affect you? 

For me, the studio is a first of all a working space. A laboratory. There is always research and experimentation happening there. Every tool has its place. The studio should be clean, but not always. Clay is mud after all.

My studio is in constant motion – space that changes with needs, with the arrival of new tools or new processes. I have this place for a year now and it gave me a lot. Here is where I discovered my way of working with clay and how I think about it. It is a place of power. A place to be, to create. I tend to miss the studio when I haven’t been there for a while. 

An ideal space for a studio would be one I could share. With another maker and with the public. Big, bright. With a showroom and a space for meeting people. 

What is your design process?

In my studio, I work with two types of objects- sculptural and tableware. Both have the same aesthetic principles but are made for a different purpose.Tableware is a very important part of my work. By making it I spread an idea that an everyday joy from simple things can make up a whole life. Sculptural objects are results of my experiments with the material and usually reflect my current state. Both types of objects have a similar design process which consists of researching, sketching, creating and testing. 

Researching phase may be about different aspects, depending on what are the results. With tableware, of course, it is user experience research and creating a story of the object. How and when it will be used. Sculptural research is more about ephemeral materials, contemplating life. And of course about the material study: which clay to use, thickness, time of drying and so on. 

Sketching is usually very simple. Mostly I make an architectural sketch that clearly shows its construction and size. 

The actual making is the most important stage. There are so many stages that have to go right in pottery. Throwing or hand-building, trimming, lengthy drying, minimum of two firings in a kiln, clay recycling. Big changes can be done throughout. I can rethink the size, depth or texture, whatever. Or try another clay. Sometimes the object breaks throughout the process and that puts me up against a challenge to either destroy or restore it.

What matters in the production of your objects?

Of course, as every handmade process, ceramics takes time and patience. For my object, the initial idea and the construction are very important. Improving my skills with time brings me different opportunities and directions to go forward. 

Where do you see the future of your studio? What else would you like to learn, what area of ceramics may you still like to explore?

I started to dig natural, unprocessed clay. Currently, this is something I find very interesting. And a wood firing in that context. Making objects out of local sources showing the history and roots of this place. 

Also, I would like to learn how to work with porcelain. I admire the thickness, lightness and gentleness of that material from which is possible to create semitransparent delicate objects. I am looking forward to a couple of collaborations with makers from different fields of craft. At the end of this year, a few new projects will arise. And I am also interested in mixing clay with contemporary building materials. So many plans!

How do you perceive manual work? Have you noticed any change in the perception of craft in recent years?

I have always been an admirer of small local brands and craftsmanship. I have friends who make things by hand – clothes, jewellery, drawings, embroidery. I value their work and stories behind every piece.

I can see the craft movement growing not only in ceramic makers community but through society, that turns more and more to higher quality, slower life. Events, festivals, lectures, pop-ups, these are the places where it is possible to educate, to get to know different sustainable initiatives and find exceptional design pieces made with little impact on the environment. I am proud to be among this bright movement and I am going to work hard in that direction. 

Photos: Ľubo Baran

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