Ceramics and Resilience: An Interview with Alyssa M Julian
Artist: Alyssa M Julian
Words & Photos: Walter Cabal
Alyssa M Julian splits her time in Los Angeles, CA between forming objects on the pottery wheel and working behind a computer screen. Lately, she spends more time in her home studio than anywhere else, making ceramic objects inspired by time spent in nature, found relics, and everyday observations.
I spent sometime in Alyssa’s Silver Lake apartment. We ended up revolving around how the formative events in her life have shaped her, and have found their way into shaping her ceramics. Dive right into the middle of our conversation…
…and why wouldn’t you put this one in the kiln?
If I were to put this in the kiln now, it would explode, because it has so much moisture at the bottom still. In the first firing of the kiln, you’re driving all the moisture out of the piece. You’re firing to a low temperature to get all the water molecules out. It should be bone dry, like not even cold, when you put it in the first firing. Most of the time it’s 2 firings, but other times you can fire 3 times.
So what is about solo trips to Joshua tree that draws you to them?
I don’t know. It’s balancing for me. It doesn’t scare me. I moved to England by myself at 17, and I think if I can do that, I can camp two hours away from home, in a car that I can lock myself into.
Whoah, what made you move over to England at 17?
I went to the University of Greenwich in Southeast London right out of high school. It was a three-year program in Journalism, no general ed., only major-related classes, which is the way to do it. There was no class I was bored with because they were all things I was interested in, and that’s the dream right? Honestly I was so shy before - I wouldn’t even walk across to campus. Like, social anxiety to a crippling level. I think going to school in England helped that. I had no choice. I would’ve hated it, because I wouldn’t have ever made any friends.
Seems like something deeply formative. You don’t strike me as someone who is “socially awkward to a crippling level” ha! What were some forming times in your life? Are there stories that you tend to go back to?
I think my life philosophy is really: “what you see is what you get.” That’s me. I have experienced a lot of loss in my young life, which I think is always formative. I’m very close with my family, and losing some family members makes you remember that we’re kind of playing this life game. You can eat as many salads as you want, but it might not make a difference. You can be the healthiest person and still get cancer.
I don’t mean it in a way that’s “woe is me”. There’s no need to feel bad for me, there’s nothing to feel bad about. I’m here still kicking and screaming. I’m alive. So I think having a certain level of openness just allows for a nicer interaction and a deeper connection. If someone mentions the passing of a loved one, I’m able to relate with them on the experience. I think there’s a great strength in vulnerability. I don’t think that it’s cool, or self-protecting, to not tell people things. I don’t think you knowing my life secrets or knowing my life’s trauma makes me any less of a person. I don’t think it gives you any sort of upper hand. I think it’s kind of like this is what’s happened to me. Why wouldn’t I share?
It makes sense why you would know what exploding clay is like, and be able to explain it to me. It seems like you’ve done it many times - in ceramics and in living.
Yeah. It doesn’t hurt that bad.
There’s a melancholy laughter that I drop, and my posture falls a little, but the corners of Alyssa’s eyes and cheeks remain raised in a smile.
I think that’s one of ceramic’s greatest life lessons; you can’t get too attached to anything. In terms of ceramics as an art, there’s a chance for loss in every step of the process. So I could throw something, and as I’m moving it off the wheel I could stick my finger in it and it’s gone. It could dry and I’m trimming it and I trim too close and I trim a hole in the bottom. Sometimes things turn into planters, but if it doesn’t work, I gotta trash it. It’s gone.
All the while she says these words lightly grinning from the corner of her eye at the falling sunset and growing shadows in the room.
You mentioned that you were close with your family. Have they been a support system for you when life throws you on the spinning wheel?
I’m very, very close to my parents, I see them frequently, and our whole family is close. It’s really beautiful. I think that’s a very formative thing. There are fifty of us at every Thanksgiving. My family is really into hosting get-togethers. I hang out with my whole extended family and my cousins as friends. It’s so odd to me when people are like, “I don’t talk to my brother”. I’m like, “you don’t talk to your brother?” I talk to my brother on the phone for like 3 hours a week.
My mom majored in Fine Art, my dad started taking music lessons as a young kid taking the train or the bus up to the city, so they’re both very arts minded, and arts supportive. That’s why I think growing up I was always in art classes, or taking art in high school.
My kiln is actually set up at my dad’s house. It’s his “trap for me” to come down. Ha! I drive everything down there, and we get dinner, and I can hang out with my parents who I adore. They’re super supportive. They’re always hosting me and hosting other people.
If you’re spending a lot of time around the table with your family, or witnessing your family set the table for other people, it makes sense to me that you would create products that reflect that table setting. You’ve got cups, mugs, plates etc.
Yeah, that’s how it translates. I almost exclusively make tableware, which is funny. I met someone who does ceramics, but their style was nearer to a sculptural style. And it was a funny reset to realize other people have their own way of doing things. I wouldn’t really think to make sculptures, necessarily. Even if I do get sculptural, I love to make things that serve a purpose. I like every form to have a function.
Tell me about why you tend toward objects with a purpose, and perhaps why you’re drawn to ceramics in particular.
I love the idea of picking up a ceramic piece because you have this connection to it. Like you see it in a shop and you are drawn to it, and you love it. Then you pick it up and it feels great in your hand, and then that becomes what you use everyday. I love the thought of someone using something I’ve made to drink out of everyday. That’s awesome you know? I love the idea of creating something that someone reaches for as frequently as I reach for my favourite mug.
One of the other things I do is brand strategy for others, and that’s so digitally involved, there’s scheduling things on my computer, and I’m only on my laptop, and I’m emailing constantly.
I think ceramics as a medium is so beautiful because when I’m elbow deep in mud, I can only focus on my work now. I can’t focus on social media or emails, and so centering for me is more of a re-calibration. Like I said earlier, I love going on solo camp trips because you’re with yourself, and it’s quiet, you can decide if you want to hear noise. If I want to play music, then I do, and if I want to be in nature by myself, then I am, and I sit in the quiet. But I think they’re both centering, and re-calibrating in that way. They both help alleviate external distractions.
Do you play music while you’re throwing?
Music is such a huge part of my identity, but it’s funny to think about how when I’m at home I don’t have music going constantly. Many of my friends come to me for recommendations, but when I actually start thinking about it, I wake up in the morning and I don’t put music on. When I do put music to throw on my wheel, I listen to a lot of Ethiopian jazz. I also drive without playing music in my car.
I actually see this translating into your ceramics, because there’s something that’s not ornate about your pieces – something effortless that I feel – like going through the day without any music. Your pieces feel like the physical version of “natural sounds”.
I think I’m constantly trying to figure out what feels most true to me, which is why I haven’t really dived into standard “sets” yet. I rarely begin at the wheel going, “I’m gonna throw twenty of this”. Making ceramics a business means that part of it is for others, but it’s also for me.
With ceramics, maybe it feels so effortless, because for me, it really is. I make things as they happen. I’m not really thinking or sketching too much. I sit down, and if I do create like 20 bud vases, they’re all going to go under a general bud vase category, but they’re all going to be a little different. It goes back to that having a personal draw to a particular piece.
I see this, and I want this specific one. It’s mine and no one else has it.
It’s your life philosophy right there! What you see is what you get!
That’s right! What you see is what you get. That's me.
From a distance our explosion of laughter and confetti of giggles echo from Alyssa’s second story apartment. It melds into the natural soundscape of the orange Los Angeles city at sunset.