On the trail of a gypsy potter
Constantly hopping from one residency to another, ceramic artist Ashwini Bhat shapes her dance with clay
When Ashwini Bhat laughs, from across the world in Mendocino, California, I can feel its ripple right here in Chennai. While she moves from one residency to the next, Bhat has her feet firmly planted in the earth, her first love. Mendocino County is a popular artist’s colony.
This February, Bhat goes back to Nick Schwartz’s Flynn Creek Pottery in Comptche, where she and other visiting potters come together to load a big old kiln on the slope of a great Redwood forest. It is wet and cold out there, and the kiln could take four days to preheat. Then, they will fire their ware for another six days. It is a long, slow process and Bhat prepares herself for the things she will do together with the others, like chopping and stacking wood to fire the kiln. It is heavy work and the potters get hungry.
“I can cook for 30 people!” she says gleefully. “I’m good at that.” Once, she and artist Antara Sinha made tens of chappatis, lamb biryani, Chettinad curry, salad and semiya payasam for the entire group at the Tasmania conference in 2011. That was also the turning point in Bhat’s life, when she realised that travelling and working in diverse communities was extraordinarily energising.
Before she transitioned to pottery, Bhat was a dancer with the Padmini Chettur Dance Company, and then an editorial assistant for the online magazine Almost Island. Being a ceramic artist is a rigorous physical activity that needs a different kind of endurance.
At Golden Bridge Pottery in Puducherry, she learnt her craft from Ray Meeker. Meeker’s ceramic project for Hyatt Chennai required 54 firings; so, Bhat and other artists got a packed experience of over 18 months, culminating in 2011.
What travel does
Her passion to explore comes from her relentless streak of personality. She learned early from her mother. “Life is not going to give it to you on a plate. Even as a young girl growing up in Puttur, I wanted to travel. And, this is exactly what I wanted out of my artistic life. Never to settle into comfort zones. New people, new clay, new kilns: it’s challenging and exciting.” In 2012, Bhat got an invitation by Josh Copus at Clayspace in the River Arts District of Asheville, North Carolina, where many warehouses are converted to studios. During her solo show through the artists she met, she heard about Chris Gustin’s studio in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts and Cub Creek Foundation in Appomattox, Virginia. The following years, she spent her time between the two. “I did whatever needed to be done. This is what a woodfire community does. There would be 20 of us chopping and stacking wood from 9 am to 3 pm at Gustin Ceramics and we did 15 cords of wood in a day.”
Bhat agrees this may not be up everyone’s alley. She equally likes working in complete isolation and says, “Even in these residencies, I create my own space.” 2012 was also the year Bhat built her own kiln at her home and studio in Puducherry and her kiln-cat Mojo guards it when she is away.
The residency experience
The unabiding love for wood-firing has taken Bhat to 14 residencies so far. “Each one fires their kilns so differently, figuring out through trial-and-error to get the best results. What grew from these experiences was my sense of confidence.”
Bhat’s work is in major shows and galleries across America, the most recent being the ‘50 Women: A Celebration of Women’s Contribution to Ceramics’ exhibit at the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, and at the In Tandem Gallery, North Carolina. “I am overwhelmed by the reception for my work, humbled by it,” she says. “I consciously chose to live a nomadic life and it has been path-breaking for my practice.”