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Pottery and new challenges: Elsa Brittin

Pottery and new challenges: Elsa Brittin

Elsa Brittin is based in Hamilton, Ontario and is the artist behind Brittin Ceramics. Brittin’s studio practice includes creating functional hand thrown pottery as well as hand-built sculptures focused on the natural world. With a background in printmaking and textiles, she focuses on creating interesting and tactile surfaces on all the work she creates.

"Through dynamic lines and form, I aim to explore the relationship between function and sculpture. My pieces celebrate a captured moment in time where the fragility of clay and the permanence of ceramics collide to become functional pieces for everyday use. As an emerging artist and instructor, I am very inspired by my students and the eyes in which they view the natural world around them. I constantly draw from their creativity to reinvent my own studio practices and create new bodies of work."

"While I loved the challenges of all of these projects, it came to a point where I felt most drawn to the ceramics studio"

Was pottery always your main medium, or did you start your artistic career elsewhere?

I’ve been surrounded by art my whole life! My Mum is a practicing artist and instilled a love for making in my siblings and I from a very young age. It also helped that a paint brush or pencil was always just an arms reach away. This love for making evolved into a primarily sculpture based practice in high school which then later took shape into a multidisciplinary practice in university. My work in print and textiles, although not currently my main focus, are still very influential in my ceramic practice.

 

When did pottery become your main focus?

Pottery became my main focus during my final year at NSCAD University. I had been working in a multidisciplinary practice splitting my time between the weaving, dyeing, printmaking, and ceramics studios and working on many projects at a time. While I loved the challenges of all of these projects, it came to a point where I felt most drawn to the ceramics studio and wanted to be able to fully devote myself to my work there. So in my final year I made the decision to take a full course load of ceramics work and I haven’t looked back! I still work on other projects occasionally, and I teach lots of different art classes to children, but my professional practice is solely ceramics now.

"The diversity in my days keeps it interesting"

What’s something people may not realize about your craft?

I think there’s often a misconception with the throwing on the wheel specifically. It’s very mesmerizing to watch so people who have never tried working with clay before have usually at least seen videos of people throwing, and it looks quite easy to do! I teach a lot of beginner adult classes so I get to see people confidently sit down at the wheel only to be shocked by how foreign all the movements you need to perform are and how strange it all feels! It’s definitely a steep learning curve, but I usually equate it to riding a bike… once you got it, you got it! Similarly I think people are usually interested to know how much chemistry is involved on the decorating end. If you make your own glazes (the glass coating on most functional ceramic ware) you need to learn quite a bit about how different materials will interact with one another and at different temperatures. Even if you buy commercial glazes you always need to do a seemingly endless amount of tests to see just how you can make them work the way you want them. I think part of what I love about clay is that it is a lifetime of learning, as long as you stay curious it keeps on giving you new and exciting things to learn!

 

What is your creative process like? Walk me through a day in your studio!

I think one of the fun things about clay is that every single day is different in the studio. It is an incredibly time sensitive medium, so you’re constantly on the go with multiple projects in the studio at once. A typical day in my studio begins with me doing my all time favourite thing, making a checklist of all the activities I need to do that day. Once I’ve evaluated all the things I want to get done I usually get started by trimming pots from the day before or throwing some new pots if yesterdays work is not yet dry enough. Trimming is the process of carving clay away from the base of a pot while it spins on the wheel… like throwing, this process usually creates quite a mess, so it is always followed up by a quick clean up. After that I usually take time to sketch out new ideas, answer emails and do administrative work, and then get to either loading kilns or glazing my bisque work after to close out the day. I try to always fire my kiln over night since it gives off quite a bit of heat and the cooler night temperatures help keep the house cool. As I said, each day is different though so some days are filled with studio cleaning, sanding pots, photographing work, or decorating pots, while others are some combination of everything. The diversity in my days keeps it interesting.

"I think it’s really important to not fall out of love with what you do, so making sure it never feels like a “job” is my way of handling this"

Your style is so versatile! You have some beautiful more rustic-looking pieces, but we also have seen some custom creations that look different than your typical style (such as the iconic cow mug!). What is one of your favourite things to make and why?

Ha! Yes, I love custom work. It gives me a challenge to think through a project I have never made before, and I have found it is immensely helpful in my teaching to work through so many different ideas start to finish. I think it depends on the day what my favourite thing to make is. Because of the nature of my functional ware, I am usually making large batches of the same object which is very repetitive. Some days I love this as I can just get lost in the monotony of it and it’s super relaxing. Other days I just want to work on a new challenge by making a sculptural piece. Figuring out the best way to create it is a fun process that keeps me really engaged in it from start to finish. The way I have my studio set up means that I really do have full freedom over my each and every day so I can usually plan ahead to make sure my work is enjoyable for me in that moment. I think it’s really important to not fall out of love with what you do, so making sure it never feels like a “job” is my way of handling this.

 

You also teach some pottery classes! What levels do you cater to, and where can people find you? What does a typical class look like?

Yes, spend about half of my time working as a studio technician and teaching classes. I am lucky enough to be able to teach all ages of classes, from the really little guys to adults and every age in between. Reflecting on what these classes look like is funny as I realize my approach is kind of a curve from super play based kids classes where I give them the basics of how to make and just letting them run wild with it, then moving to the teen ages and beginner adults I usually create more structure and give weekly assignments to make sure they are learning the proper techniques. Moving to the more advanced classes I usually try to revert to the play based structure where I am mostly there to answer questions and occasionally demonstrate new specific techniques, but at this stage everybody knows what they’re doing and I just want them to take advantage of the shared studio space and explore their ideas. There is nothing more valuable than being able to just talk through ideas with peers so I usually try to help this happen in any level of classes. I currently work for a number of different studios. If you’re around Hamilton and I am not in my own studio, you’ll probably find me at the Dundas Valley School of Art or Creative Insight Pottery and you can also catch me at The Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery in Waterloo!

What makes you feel inspired and like your best self?

Working in a studio with others! One of the biggest unexpected challenges I faced when I first left school, was how difficult I was going to find it working on my own in my basement studio. For myself, I think it’s really helpful to be able to talk through ideas with my friends and peers. Seeing people I admire is always really inspiring and helps to keep me motivated in my own practice, so losing that when I left art school was an adjustment. Obviously being able to stay so connected online has helped, but there’s something really lovely about just working side by side in a studio. There’s a really big emphasis on community within ceramics, everybody helps each other out and a lot of the time studios are set up to be community studios, I know for my own practise I make my best work when I have this community around me.

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