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Artist in Focus: Ebony Russell

Nostalgia is a funny thing. We’ve all had moments big and small when a certain smell, taste or the lighting at a particular time of day triggers an unexpected wave of powerful memories and emotions. Ebony Russell’s sense of nostalgia is strong, and it permeates her work.

Ever since welcoming Ebony to the Modern Times fold earlier this year, we’ve wanted to know, see and experience more of her work. And finally we’ll get exactly that, as she is our next Artist in Focus.

Ebony loves being an artist and has an unrivalled passion for porcelain. The saccharine embellishments, figurines and delicate layers of her piped pieces are all linked to her childhood. By firing these pieces, she gives them a permanence and longevity. In Ebony’s words, she’s recreating and solidifying her childhood dreams, driven by this mysterious notion of nostalgia. 

Ebony decided from a young age that she wanted to be an artist; her love of art was shaped by the intergenerational traditions and craft practices of the women in her family.

What led you to be an artist?

Looking back now, I can see how my love of art was shaped from an early age by the intergenerational traditions and craft practices of the women in my family.

I was always surrounded by women making things for love and for family – many of these skills helped to earn extra cash and give them independence.

I decided early on that I was going to pursue art. As an artist and as an educator, I wanted to turn my passion and skills in art into a career. I have never regretted this decision – I love being an artist and sharing my passion with the students I have taught.

She revels in her career as a artist and has an unrivalled passion for porcelain and thirst for knowledge related to her chosen medium.
I push the medium to its breaking point, inviting collapse and instability in the form.  Once the damage is imminent, I switch my focus to one of preservation and protection - attempting to save it from ruin and total deterioration.”
— Ebony Russell
Ebony uses the concept of decoration to explore her experiences of gender construction and feminine sensibility.

How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?

In my current art practice, I use the concept of decoration to explore my experiences of gender construction and feminine sensibility. I work to challenge the perception that practices that were traditionally coded as particularly feminine, are in some way insignificant.

By incorporating techniques and processes traditionally used in cake decorating, the saccharine embellishments and delicate layers (representative of a nostalgia for my own experiences in childhood and adolescence) are intensified and given permanence with the use of high-fired porcelain. In a sense, by focusing on decoration as my main form of construction, I recreate my childhood dreams.

By incorporating techniques and processes traditionally used in cake decorating, she creates objects that are both fragile and permanent.

In 2019, you were awarded the Franz Rising Star Scholarship and spent three weeks as Artist-In-Residence at the Franz Collection factory in Jingdezhen, China, where they produce incredibly ornate yet traditional porcelain. It looked like an incredible experience, how has this influenced your work?

The Franz Artist In Residence program has been one of the greatest experiences of my artistic life. I learnt so much about the production of porcelain. The insights and technical advice I gained form the numerous employees at the factory in Jingdezhen have been instrumental in my growth as an artist and my continued use of porcelain.

The expertise of the staff across all the different departments and production line helped me gain a more in depth understanding of the medium – from mould making to slip casting, glazing, firing and lustering, not to mention the colour and underglaze techniques.

I didn’t realise that I would be allowed to use the hundreds of factory moulds – the way they tied into my studies and practice was perfect. I found myself in a working factory that made the objects I had coveted as a child – ballerinas and angels, butterflies and ponies, the stuff of my dreams. I was at the source and could incorporate the figurine casting moulds into my work without having to cast my collected objects or try to model imitations of them by hand. This was a sheer joy and opened up a whole world of opportunities and new inspiration for me.

My residency in China was like getting a Masterclass in each stage of porcelain production from design to shipping.”
— Ebony Russell
A residency in China was extremely fulfilling and eye-opening for Ebony. It was 'one of the greatest experiences' of her artistic life.
It helped her to gain a more in depth understanding of porcelain - from mould making to slip casting, glazing, firing and lustering, as well as colour and underglaze techniques.

What is inspiring you at the moment? Books, artists, music, anything!

I just finished reading The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story by Janet Gleeson. This book details the events leading to the discovery of the formula for European porcelain and its rapid spread in the 18th century. I found this book at the end of my MFA studies and it took me awhile to get through it, but I’m glad I did.

Over the past few months, encouraged by our recent social isolation, I have found myself exploring online catalogues of some of the galleries and museums I have visited. The NGV and the Powerhouse have a great online resource, as well as The Getty and The Frick Collection in the USA.

In the studio I listen to podcasts – Dolly Parton’s ‘America’ was my last. Anything by Mark Kozelek and Sun Kil Moon has been on high rotation in the past few weeks.

I recently binged on the period drama Belgravia and have been told that I need to watch The Great on Stan, so that’s next on my list. I live for the costumes and the scenery – the rooms are so opulent and filled with flowers and art.

Ebony's work - which is driven by a strong sense of nostalgia - is whimsical and dreamlike. Pictured is one of her latest candleholders.
Some vessels are functional, others purely sculptural. However all of her works are intricately detailed and intriguing.

What is coming up for you? Anything new you are working on or working towards?

I have been making a new sculpture for a group show in San Francisco for this October held at Modern Eden Gallery, in collaboration with The Beautiful Bizarre Magazine. The theme is Midnight Garden and I’ve made a diorama inspired by my childhood obsessions with fairy tales and ornaments from my personal collection.

I’m currently working towards a solo exhibition at Artereal this November showcasing a series of major new artworks, including a large-scale ceramic installation and I’ve put in for a few residencies in Australia for later in the year – keeping my fingers crossed that one is successful.

There's plenty on the horizon for Ebony - from a group show in San Francisco to a few potential local residencies and a solo show in November.

What would be your dream project?

I’d love to make a body of work that responds to pieces in the collection of the NGV or the Powerhouse Museum. As a child, my school took us on a few excursions to the NGV – it was a four-hour round trip to have two hours in the gallery. For me it was totally worth it, the treasure trove of artworks was magical. The Decorative Arts and Design collection has always been a major influence on the work that I make.

I’m also really interested in the collection of Pates Potteries pieces at the Powerhouse Museum. I’d love to respond to these objects made between 1947 -1970. They filled my grandparents’ homes and I have been obsessed with them ever since.

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