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A return to the elemental: the pottery of Shazieh Gorji

A return to the elemental: the pottery of Shazieh Gorji

‘The challenge is to do the thing you have to do because you’re in love with it and can’t do anything else. Not because you want to become famous or rich, but because you will be unhappy if you can’t do it.’ 

(Warren Mackenzie, North American craft potter)


Firmly anchored in the tenets of the pottery movement of early 20th century ceramists Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada, Shazieh Gorji’s work uses elements from western and eastern arts, techniques and philosophies. The Handmade Movement, established by the two potters in England, took inspiration from William Morris’ Arts and Crafts Movement; both were a reaction against the impersonal quality of mass produced goods. And since, in Shazieh’s words, food itself is ritualistic, eating or drinking from hand crafted dishes adds an extra dimension to the experience of eating. Although hand-made has come to symbolize something prohibitively expensive, craft pottery has gained a strong foothold in Europe and America, while the concept of celebrating the rituals of eating and drinking out of something beautiful, as Leach and Hamada initiated, has been a long-standing tradition in Japan, China and Korea.

Pottery has come a long way since the mid twentieth century, evolving into a sophisticated art form. As with other art disciplines, globalization has ensured that techniques and traditions from all over the world are explored. In Shazieh’s case it has led her to experiment with various ways of firing the pots that she makes, from gas kilns to Anagama (the traditional Japanese wood fired kiln) and pit firing. Her work ranges from utilitarian ware to conceptual pieces for display. Deeply conscious of man’s relationship with the environment, she has used natural materials such as salt, banana peels, twine dipped in salt water as well as oxides and copper wire, laying or sprinkling them over the vessels before pit firing. This latter, the most ancient and basic method of firing, involves digging a hole in the ground, laying the pots in the depression, and covering them with wood and manure which are then lighted to fire them. All of these elements produce different, sometimes unexpected textures and colors in the final work.

It is this quality of the unexpected that becomes exciting, particularly in atmospheric firings. Although in her recent exhibition, The Lighter Side, she used the raku method of firing in a gas kiln, her eventual goal is to build and own a wood kiln. American potter Dick Lehman says of wood firing, ‘it’s a combination of science, art and chance.’ Shazieh explains, ‘you have to know how to increase the temperature using wood and air, and the design of the kiln has to work to accommodate that. It’s a physical, emotional and spiritual process.’ Her preoccupation with atmospheric firing, which began at university while doing field work, led her to take on a studio assistantship in Arkansas, learning how to fire a wood kiln with Joe Bruhin; and later with the ceramist Mary Bowron. Her reverence for the technique is apparent in her explanation of the business of loading and maintaining the temperature in a wood kiln, talking of the heat delirium that often occurs when the stoke box has to be reloaded, and how everything, from the climate outside to the size of the kiln and length of the firing, affects the process.

The concepts behind wood firing encompass a philosophy. The five elements, air, wood, fire, earth and water are in equilibrium. Earth and water combine to make clay, which dries in the air. Wood and air combine to make the fire which completes the creative process, the results of which are never fixed. Firing the kiln is a communal effort, in which a group of people take turns to feed the fire with more wood. This teamwork leads to dialogue and the exchange of ideas. The longer the fire burns, from two to five days depending on the size of the kiln, the more ash deposits there will be on the vessels. Ash melts and becomes a glaze, while the flames which lick through the kiln, touching the pots in passing, create dark fire clouds, or blushes, on the clay.  The long firings ensure the durability of the final product.

Ceramics was not the art form that Shazieh chose to specialize in at college. She first studied printmaking, in the form of mono-printing, a process that delivers instant, satisfying results. Later on, she took a ceramics class almost as a challenge to herself, because she was not comfortable with the material. Perhaps it was just this that brought out the devotion to craft that she was seeking. In this very technical art form she found endless possibilities, ‘From techniques – manipulation of material, glazes, firings, you can choose a panorama, and then forge your own vision. And when you know how certain slips and glazes work, you can play – because you’ve memorized technique until it’s like a second skin. The documentation is done – that’s key – and you no longer have to think about the recipe, so you can work intuitively. You pick the tools that you’d like to use and then explore your voice.’

That voice has come out in the body of work produced during her thesis in America and in Karachi between 2008 and 2010 when she was a full time working artist. Her thesis work included mono-prints composed of fresh day lilies, used in various stages of decomposition. ‘I wanted to take away from the seriousness of art works which are sold for exorbitant rates. It was a commentary.’ Her thesis ceramics consisted of flower shaped bowls, very thin, fluid and asymmetrical, in which she used wood fired ash with other elements to make glazes.

Returning to Pakistan, she exhibited in group and juried exhibitions locally as well as internationally. While preparing work for Clay Clan II, curated by Kaif Ghaznavi, she explored the bottle form. ‘The bottles I made for this show were simply bottle forms. There was no dialogue between most of them.’ Afterwards, she began to play, collapsing the bottle necks, making the bases larger or smaller, giving them human postures and personalities. This evolved into the conceptual work shown at her solo exhibition ‘The Lighter Side,’ held at Rohtas Gallery in Islamabad in December 2009. The works are named for the emotions that they represent. Short, squat Awkwardness appears to try to fold himself inwards, looking self consciously backward as if to see if others are commenting on him. Solitude is dignified and graceful, her head slightly inclined, but content to stand alone, as if she wants to keep a distance from others. By contrast, the two groups in ‘Grapevine’ bristle with impatience, chests puffed out, huddling together to listen to what the other has to say. And Eavesdropper’s neck, elongated to lean forward, is almost like a suction pipe. The work is whimsical and humorous, full of witty innuendoes and sly observation. Using raku glazes and firing methods, the ‘pots’ feature the crackle effect created by dipping the just-fired pots into sawdust, then plunging them into water. The skilfully manipulated glazes divide each piece into charcoal black and off white to grey crackle, so that they have a deceptive uniformity. Looking at the artist’s portfolio, one finds a common thread in earlier work. In Silhouettes Converse, executed in Vermont, the ‘bottles’ aree quick line sketches drawn in glaze on plates rather than free standing forms; while the Foxy Ladies are a series of heavily ruched and folded vessels. The theme is one that she would like to revisit, making each piece into a life size ‘figure.’

Earthen Dreams, a group exhibition held earlier this year, featured hand and slab built pieces. She calls these a one-off experiment based on musings and impressions following a camping trip to Baluchistan. The rich textures obtained by folding and pressing various objects and materials into the wet clay, and the vibrant colors, express the sky and the contours of the land. They are a continuation of techniques explored in earlier work.

Living just outside the capital, a conscious move by the artist directed at bringing her closer to the land and to the elements, has given Shazieh the opportunity to explore nature, plant forms and wild life at close range. Unafraid to experiment with bending and shaping the clay into unconventional forms, a Western concept in which the artist challenges his material and accepted rules, she has created amorphous clay forms resembling chrysalis, pods or curling leaves, which are ranged on the drying rack in the studio, awaiting the next stage of creation.

Ceramics, a comparatively new art form in Pakistan, proves challenging for young artists. Although Sheherazade Alam revolutionized the conventional view and created a base for studio pottery, there is still a long way to go. In Shazieh’s words, ‘In America, every state has a platform and there is appreciation and awareness springing from exposure which begins at the school level. Pakistanis, however, usually know about only two kinds of ceramics. The first are indigenous terracotta, beautiful but very cheap. The other is Chinese industrial ware. It will take time for people to get used to the idea of studio ceramics. In the meantime, you can’t make a living off the craft. But that hasn’t deterred me. Although it can be isolating to be part of a very small community of clay artists, it is also exciting and it can take you places. The danger is that the lack of competition can give one a sense of false accomplishment.’ (Title of above photograph: ‘Lovers‘)

Belonging to an aesthetically conscious family – her mother and aunt ran a family business restoring and re creating traditional furniture, both her parents collected antiques and objets d’art, and her elder sister has always enjoyed painting – did not directly affect Shazieh’s decision to study art. It was when she went to study at Bennington in Vermont, that she realized her métier. The college specializes in experiential, inter disciplinary learning, so that science students are encouraged to take sculpture classes, to learn to translate and understand theory. Based on the educational philosophies of John Dewey, the idea of study is structured around doing something to work out the theory behind it. Graduating with a degree in Visual Arts and Education, she later taught workshops at schools as well as in her private studio. She worked briefly in the media, and also made a short film about identity, ‘Answered’ for MotiRoti in 2007. It challenges people’s standard perceptions, and features the artist changing her skirt in fast forward over and over in response to the question ‘who are you?’

‘I take my inspiration from my surroundings: the people I meet, random encounters, the landscape. I have a basic sketch in mind but I play. Things can change as you make them, partly because the clay has a mind of its own. Creation is about listening to your inner thoughts when you’ve got your hands on your material.’

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