Melbourne artist Zhu Ohmu creates stunning ceramic vessels slowly, with care and a deep understanding of the medium. Her unique pieces draw attention instantly to their individual folds and form, challenging our expectations of ceramics whilst delighting at the same time! Ahead of seeing her work in Modern Times exhibition at DENFAIR 2018, we chat with Zhu Ohmu to learn more about these enigmatic works and find out how she went from an unmotivated parting graduate to a successful self-taught ceramicist mastering her craft!
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat to us today! Perhaps lets start at the beginning, could you tell us a bit about what brought you to your ceramic practice?
I found ceramics through chance, one of life’s turns in a way. I graduated from Elam School of Fine Arts (NZ) with honours in 2011, working mainly with watercolours and small paintings. After art school I moved to Melbourne and suffered from artist’s block for two years. I was so unmotivated with painting so I began experimenting with other mediums. At the same time I noticed that something else was missing in my new life in Melbourne, a serious lack of indoor plants in my home. My mum is an avid plant collector and infamous for stealing cuttings from front yards and botanic gardens. I started stealing cuttings as well. I found the typical plastic planters to be ugly but didn’t have the money to shell out on nice ceramic ones for ill-gotten cuttings.
So I started making my own kooky planters out of pinch air-dry clay, posted them on social media for laughs. To my surprise a friend I went to Elam with liked them enough to offer me a collaborative show in her artist run space back in Auckland. I decided I want to make fired ceramics for the exhibition – mostly concerned that works made from air dry clay would not survive the transport to New Zealand. But I only had two months to whip up a new body of work from a medium I had no experience in. This all took place over the Christmas period when pottery classes were suspended. I had to teach myself via online forums and YouTube videos, and also asked a lot of questions at Northcote Pottery Supplies.
Fortunately I had beginner’s luck and the three pieces I had time to make all came out successful! I had a show I was happy with, and I loved the tactile process of making with clay and my ceramics practice was born.
It sounds a bit like it was destiny! What influences have you taken on in your practice of making work?
The process of making has become an important aspect for me. The resurgence of the handmade and the ethics of slowness in an age of mass production is the main influence behind the process of my work.
With such an emphasis on the handmade, could you guide us through aspects of your process? What is it like to formulate from idea to a finished work with your pieces?
The concept behind this process is mimicking and inversing the 3D printer – a machine that needs to be programmed in order to produce a result. I don’t do any preliminary planning or sketches. The only thing I get to decide will be the base size of the vessel. Forms emerge spontaneously as I work with my material. Built through stacking, folding, pressing and pulling, these pots are often dictated by the weight of moist clay and pushed to their structural limits. Due to the nature of this technique, instead of focusing on a singular piece, I work on several at a time. The formation from clay to greenware usually takes 4-6 weeks and as the process is intuitive and without any preliminary planning, each ‘batch’ is titled and numbered by the overarching feeling that found me during this period.
Where do you look for inspiration and ideas?
I think most artists would say that inspiration is everywhere from a conversation to a picture in a magazine. I think for me I could condense my inspiration sources to three categories, Mother Nature, academia and the Internet.
The process of making has become an important aspect for me. The resurgence of the handmade and the ethics of slowness in an age of mass production is the main influence behind the process of my work.”
What do you think has been the biggest lesson for you in working as a ceramicist?
All ceramicists will tell you about coming to terms with failures. Cracked greenware when clay is dried too quickly, a piece exploding in the kiln, a glaze that didn’t turn out quite right. During a firing temperatures go up to thousands of degrees Celsius – so you really have to surrender yourself to the kiln. Breakages are very common in works – from little breakages to the whole thing tumbling down like a stack of cards.
While I have embraced the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi; the acceptance of transience and imperfection, my biggest lesson since then is to adjust to the way I build my vessels so they don’t break! What’s the saying? ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting the same results’ – yeah, took a couple of years of broken pots to really get that through my head.
Thank you so much for taking the time to tell us about your work and inspiration!
Zhu Ohmu is a contemporary artist based in Naarm, Melbourne working primarily with ceramics. She graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Honours) from Elam School of Fine Arts, Auckland in 2012.
To see new works by Zhu Ohmu, please join us at DENFAIR 2018:
14 – 16 June (Public Day Saturday 16 June 18)
Melbourne Exhibition Centre (Door 8)
TO get your ticket, register for a Public DAY DENFAIR 2018 Pass here.