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A Colorful Exploration of Cultural Heritage, Material, and Time

A Colorful Exploration of Cultural Heritage, Material, and Time

It is an understatement to say that the work of ceramic artist Renata Cassiano Alvarez is capable of transporting you on a journey through cultural heritage, time, and material. From colorful glazes, familiar narratives, and archaeological inspiration, the viewer will surely discover new elements each time he or she encounters them!

Yet, for Renata, the experience in her craft and the self-awareness she’s developed over time are perhaps the most valuable aspects. The moments she spends with clay are those that bring her closer to her Mexican-Italian family, the past and understanding the meaning of timelessness.

We spoke with Renata over Zoom and corresponded via email to present this interview.

In addition to the English version, it is also available here in Spanish. Translations were made possible by Renata Cassiano Alvarez and Gonzalo Milcoff. | Haga clic aquí para ver la versión en español.

Renata Cassiano Alvarez. | Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Material, craft, and context

K+C — To get started, how would you describe yourself and the work that you do? 

Like everyone, I am a human being in constant flux. I like to think that I am curious and patient, but I most certainly contradict my perception of myself at times. Family and connections, history, and memory are extremely important to me. What I have learned with time is to wait and take the time I need to do things. It has become more about the distance and not about the speed. The important thing is to get where I am going and know it will take the time it needs. Process, both in my work and in my life, takes a central role. I remind myself to pay attention to what I am doing and appreciate every moment because I never know when something, a gesture, a memory, an action is going to become important. 

My artistic practice is very much informed by labor, my relationship with material, and my context as a Latin American. It follows different paths and flows with the circumstances of where I am working. It is important for me to be flexible; If I were set on making my work a certain way regardless of the circumstances I find myself in, I would miss out on all the opportunities and the freedom granted by the unknown. I have learned to manage my frustration, instead of surrendering to it.

K+C — What typically inspires the physical nature of your ceramics?

My work is inspired by archeology, architecture, history, and objects I have encountered through my personal history. I am interested when ceramics can take on the characteristic of other materials such as stone. Archeological artifacts from Mexico / Italy play a big role, not only formally, but in how I want my sculptures to be perceived. With a sense of timelessness and an understanding that is not wholly complete.

Artefatto Seminato III. Ceramic. | Photograph courtesy of Renata Cassiano Alvarez.

Exploring her cultural heritage

K+C — Your parents were also archeologists. Could you tell us more about how the study of archeology or the past has influenced your creative practice?

The influence that archeology and growing up in the context of being surrounded by objects and ideas based in the past has had on my practice is something that has come into focus slowly over the years. I think it started with my fascination with shards and cracks in my work. In my studio, I tend to organize broken pieces and have them on display. I am attracted to things I cannot understand or immediately figure out, and objects which need to be deciphered. Maybe even then, they keep a mystery to themselves. I want my work to be that, something that keeps you coming back and gives you something new every time.

K+C — And when you mentioned that certain archeological artifacts from Italy or Mexico play a big role, which specifically do you mean? Are there certain kinds of objects to which you are regularly drawn?

I think all archeological objects are fascinating, especially when you start thinking about how old they are, what they have been through and seen. It’s as if you were holding time in your hands. In the case of Italy, I have always been attracted to the cracked and broken marble busts or figures, in particular the ones that are missing parts. This lack of completeness leaves a space to build a story and speaks to experience. From Mexico, objects carved from obsidian have always been high on my list of favorites. I find a similar material metaphor between my process and the formation of obsidian — a type of glass/stone that is formed after a volcanic event and is carved, cut, and polished.

Every experience becomes part of the story

K+C — Cool! Ok, so to change gears a little…You have studied in Mexico, Italy, Denmark, and the United States, and have completed residencies in multiple countries, too. (Australia, China, and Estonia, to name a few.) Have these various cultural experiences had an impact on the physical and conceptual aspects of your work, or your approach? If so, could you tell us how?

Absolutely. I think that if I didn’t allow for these experiences to impact my work, I would be missing invaluable opportunities. Each place has given me not only cultural experiences and personal relationships but new ways of looking at my work. In every place, I find formal references that I integrate into my sculptures. But I think the most important is that I have grown as a human being and discovered aspects about myself that I didn’t know were there.

Every place has given me something that I have incorporated into my practice. With Mexico and Italy, I have a fundamental personal and familiar connection. In Denmark, I started to push the material and tried unorthodox techniques and finishes. Each place has represented a challenge, some more intense than others, but all valuable. 

A vignette from Renata’s studio to play around with different possibilities for assemblages. The pieces in the photo reference both Roman and Pre-Hispanic architecture. She also sees them as mirrors. In the Aztec cosmography, the god Tezcatlipoca wears an obsidian mirror on his foot. The mirror represents knowledge. | Photograph courtesy of Renata Cassiano Alvarez.

I never know when something, a gesture, a memory, an action is going to become important.

Artefatto-Seminato-V. Ceramic. | Photograph courtesy of Renata Cassiano Alvarez.
Piedra-Falsa-I. Ceramic. | Photograph courtesy of Renata Cassiano Alvarez.
K+C — You also studied painting and drawing. How have these influenced your work?

My practice oscillates between different media, and painting and drawing are part of that rotation. I think where their influence comes through the strongest is in my use of color and understanding compositions in my assemblages. In terms of color, I think a lot about them complimenting each other and what they communicate. In making my assemblages, I imagine them as if in a frame and try to understand how each frame is composed.

K+C — The influence of painting definitely seems connected to your colorful glaze work. But, it’s also interesting how time and permanence are part of the glazing process. Can you tell us about your approach to glaze work, and how you experiment to find the “right” glaze finishes?

Something that has fascinated me about glaze since the beginning is its sensitivity to change, the smallest modification can transform the result entirely. My approach to glaze is tied to language, and how language can transform form and physicality. I started thinking about material language and how if you change the traditional role a material plays or the language it speaks, you can change its physicality.

The glaze is treated as the surface, the finish of a piece. When it becomes the structure of the object, it becomes something else. In my work, I transform it into a stone. The need to find glazes that can take the force from the cutting and polishing has been a driving concept and to get my work to where it is now it took many years of experimentation and failure while being open to letting go of a first idea and letting the material guide me. Sometimes I assume the material will respond in a certain way, and it gives me something completely different in return. 

Note to the reader about ceramic glazes:

*Ceramic glazes are liquids that help to waterproof, decorate, and give ceramics a smooth, glassy finish after a firing. They come in practically every color and can also produce various effects on the surface of objects. The most common way to glaze ceramics is by completely submerging or dipping objects in a bucket of glaze. Additionally, painting, sponging, trailing (with a nozzle bottle), pouring, dripping, spraying, and splattering are also ways to apply glazes. Nonetheless, glaze work can really become a study in itself within ceramic work. Whether due to the variety of glazes, changes in kiln temperatures, or multiple firings, each can change the outcome.

Figurine with Mirror I, 2021. Ceramic. Part of the Elevate exhibition series with 21c Museum Hotel Bentonville in Bentonville, Arkansas, USA. | Photograph by Anthony Kascak.

In making my assemblages, I imagine them as if in a frame, and try to understand how each frame is composed. 

Renata with her ceramic works in the vitrine exhibition space. | Photograph courtesy of Renata Cassiano Alvarez.
Photograph by Anthony Kascak.
K+C — Patience and curiosity must play a big role when you don’t know what to expect! Has this element of surprise been difficult to adjust to as you’ve developed your practice?

Yes, it has taken some adjustment, but this flexibility is always necessary when working with ceramics, I just need it in higher concentrations because of the way I work. There is a lot of frustration inherent to my practice; my sculptures can move quickly from successful to a total loss at any point in the process. This has required that I learn to manage both my expectations and frustration instead of surrendering to it. I must be open to finding a new solution to a problem I thought I had already solved, and willing to let something I was excited about go at a moment’s notice. I believe that clay finds power in its capability for unlimited and unpredictable transformation, finding a way to coexist with this power creates the potential for something truly spectacular. 

Siempre Voy a Volver, Mantén Encendida la Luz is an assemblage I made for @21cbentonville and their Elevate project. It brings together my background in archeology, my favorite time of the year which is Día de los Muertos, a bit of Luis Barragán and my grandparents eating cachi in the kitchen in a late Roman August.” — Renata Cassiano Alvarez. | Photograph by Anthony Kascak.

Supportive communities make a difference

K+C — I imagine a lot of that process has been affected by your access to specific tools, studio spaces, or even institutional support. What has your experience been like from the time you started as an artist compared to how it is now as part of the faculty at the University of Arkansas?

In making my work I use a lot of glaze, colorant, and recently gold luster. These materials can be expensive and there is always a need for infrastructure and the expense of kilns and firings. Adding to the tools I need to work with clay, my practice also incorporates stone carving techniques and tools. When I started with this approach to my work, there were a lot of things that needed to be figured out which I could only do by making a lot of work and trying out new ideas. I was constantly wanting to try a lot of things but couldn’t because I lacked the tools and the resources.

The past couple of years I have had the privilege of having the support of wonderful colleagues and friends and the resources of an institution. This has allowed me to take big strides in my practice and work through ideas faster as well as purchase equipment for cutting, grinding, and polishing stone and ceramic. Without this support, it would have taken me much longer to take the risks which have allowed my work to grow and mature. 

K+C — That’s wonderful! I can understand how the new support systems have made a difference. Was there any advice that you found helpful during the beginning stages when you had a lot to figure out?

To dive deep into the aspects of my practice that were the most challenging, and to keep true to my vision for what I want to make, despite it being difficult and frustrating.

People won’t always see the value in the early stages of what you are doing when you try something new, but if you believe in it you need to keep pursuing the idea. It takes time to develop a voice and a relationship with your practice and it is not easy. There are many times when you feel like doing something else entirely, but if you keep focused on what matters to you the results will start to show.

K+C — Thank you, Renata. It was a pleasure!
Artefatto-Seminato-I. Ceramic. | Photograph courtesy of Renata Cassiano Alvarez.

If you’re interested in other ceramic makers, click here to discover the world of experimental ceramics.

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