Originally trained as a painter and sculptor, Nathalee Paolinelli, has worked in clay for several years creating a wide variety of works including wall hangings, sculptures, mobiles, plates and vases. While highly conversant in the work of contemporary artists, Paolinelli disregards traditional divisions between “art” and “craft”, which is particularly interesting since she lives and works in Vancouver—a city often dominated by conceptual discourses. Working largely intuitively, her pieces are a celebration of the handmade and the irregular, allowing for flexible use and interpretation.
Interview by Emmy Lee Wall
Photography by Jennifer Latour
Emmy Lee Wall: I was interested to hear you received your BFA from Emily Carr College of Art + Design (now University) in photography. When did you transition to focusing on ceramics and what was the impetus for this change?
Nathalee Paolinelli: My shift to clay as medium for sculpture was in 2011. I found I was generally unfulfilled by the art I was making. It was difficult to determine when something was worth focusing on and at what stage it was complete. I would often push, overdo things, and ruin mostly everything. With clay it’s easier to know when you’ve gone too far. The beginning, middle, and end are more pronounced. I started by taking a class at a community centre, then set up a dusty nook in my studio. The nook gradually got bigger until I moved into a new ceramic-dedicated studio.
You also used to be a painter and sculptor. What kind of paintings and sculptures did you make?
During and after art school I was looking at a lot of Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Louise Nevelson & Tomma Abts. Then I took a trip to Italy to Il Giardino dei Tarocchi, the esoteric sculpture garden by Niki de Saint Phalle and was consumed by her work . Ultimately, I felt my works were a little too derivative and not enough my own.
Do you see any division between your current practice which focuses on ceramics and your work in other media? It seems that ceramics are treated somewhat differently from other mediums like painting and photography and are sometimes relegated to “craft” rather than considered art. Do you see any substantive difference?
Mediums that were typically labelled ‘craft’ seem to have gained momentum in the art world. When I started working with clay it did feel more rogue. I guess because a lot of the things I make now have a use value to them which are different from my earlier works in painting and sculpture.
Is there any difference for you, conceptually, between a work which serves a functional purpose and one which does not? Do you think an object with “use value” can also be an artwork?
For me there is no difference. “Use value” is an interesting term–I hope that all art is used in some way– used to inspire people.
For the past while you have created series of vases which, for me offer a functional possibility, but also work as sculptures in and of themselves. Do all your ceramic works have a functional aspect?
I make some objects that are not functional and I guess more purely sculptural. Most of the things I make can hold something in it which I think gives an interesting type of collaborative aspect to the pieces. They can evolve depending on how people decide to use them.
I like the idea of the works being collaborative between you and the owner who will ultimately determine its use. It offers an open-ended interpretation of the work. I find working with ceramics a bit surprising because putting clay in the kiln is such a transformative process – things fire in ways that aren’t entirely predictable. How do you feel about this indeterminacy?
I learned a long time ago that you can’t be so precious about the clay. Obviously you try to be but the material has its own way. There are so many things that will determine the outcome, you have to be flexible. I remember in the beginning I used to fire my work in a community kiln and sometimes someone’s work would explode and ruin a whole shelf. This still happens and I feel bad but I am also excited at the possibility of remaking.
Can you talk a bit about your process? Do you have a clear idea of what you want to make before you begin? Do you work from sketches? Or is your method more intuitive?
My process really depends on what I’m working on. I like it best when you have no clear idea of what you are making and the clay just sort of dictates how it will be. It’s entirely intuitive.
You work in both clay and porcelain — what differentiates these materials for you? How do you determine which you will use for any given work?
There are so many types of clay but I prefer to work with porcelain—I just like the way it feels in my hands.
Your hand is clearly visible within your work while some ceramicists try and smooth every edge, apply glazes evenly and aim for a pristine, almost industrial uniformity. Would it be fair to say you embrace irregularity?
I like to see where my hands have been, where a finger pressed, where a seam was rubbed out, or slip has been applied.
Can you tell us how you name your works? The titles such as “Close to Me”, “Far Gone And Out” and “Till It Shines” have a poetic and evocative quality. What is their significance?
I name my works alone in the studio, late at night, with the music playing loud in the background. Often times a song grabs hold of me and I play it over an over again. These song titles become the titles for my work. It just fits the mood.