Pot­ter Aleth Ocampo’s ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with form

How culi­nary pur­suits shaped Aleth Ocampo’s pot­tery


The mo­ment we step in­side a small cor­ner of Aleth Ocampo’s workspace is the same mo­ment we re­al­ize that Ocampo—a pot­ter, painter, and chef—is a mas­ter maker, some­one who cre­ates no mat­ter the space, no mat­ter the medium, no mat­ter the cir­cum­stance.

We find Ocampo by a be­spoke molave table. A few steps away is an­other wooden piece: a lad­der she had used in the ’80s to paint mu­rals. Strewn across the table’s hard­wood sur­face are a cou­ple of rolling pins, a cake turner, and some cook­ing spoons. Here and there are a few cakedec­o­rat­ing sup­plies. These are tools Ocampo has re­as­signed from kitchen duty to pot­tery projects. And while the ob­jec­tive of our visit is to spot­light her stoneware, she can­not help but align the clay­cen­tric craft with her culi­nary pur­suits.

“I’m in­spired by food when it comes to the form of my pot­tery. [They] re­ally [go] hand in hand,” says Ocampo, ex­plain­ing that her ap­proach to de­sign­ing stoneware will al­ways be geared to­wards the din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

After all, the main rea­son she got into pot­tery was to cre­ate hol­lowware by hand for the recipes that she pre­pares; she used to run Sari-Sari Cafe­te­ria in East­wood. “My goal was al­ways to make ves­sels for my food,” she ex­plains.

While her delv­ing into pot­tery be­gan as a per­sonal de­sire to heighten a meal’s mul­ti­sen­sory ap­peal by in­clud­ing hand­some din­ner­ware into the mix, she even­tu­ally had to un­veil her craft to the public when friends be­gan in­quir­ing about the clay works she would post on­line.

The same thing had hap­pened with her cook­ing: She would usu­ally throw din­ner par­ties for friends and loved ones, who joked that they should be pay­ing for such a gas­tro­nomic ex­pe­ri­ence—and from a for­mally trained chef at that. This even­tu­ally led to Ocampo host­ing

pri­vate din­ners in her Ma­gal­lanes home, but that is an­other story.

Her meth­ods, although un­con­ven­tional, are crafty in the best sense. This is per­haps one of the most en­dear­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of Ocampo’s pieces: They are molded by hands that make do with what is avail­able, and they bear the painter-turned-chef-turned-pot­ter’s im­print.

Most of Ocampo’s pieces are hand-painted with doo­dles and pat­terns in­spired by ev­ery­day things. An up­com­ing solo ex­hi­bi­tion in func­tional art hub Aphro Liv­ing, which will open on Oct. 21, is set to re­veal the pot­ter’s re­cent ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with form. While the pieces will still fea­ture Ocampo’s hand-painted de­signs, you might just see a koi fish-shaped dish, or a plat­ter that takes the shape of bok choy or Chi­nese cab­bage, in­stead of con­ven­tional plates, mugs, cups, and bowls.

“What I like about pot­tery is the process. It’s so un­pre­dictable. I al­ways say it’s much like life. Ac­tu­ally, I was go­ing through so much when I de­cided to go back to pot­tery,” says Ocampo, who had ini­tially tried her hand in pot­tery in the ’80s but ended up stick­ing to paint­ing and cook­ing after de­cid­ing that the wheel wasn’t for her. “I used to be such a con­trol freak; You can ask my daugh­ters. Pot­tery taught me to let go. You can­not make clay fol­low 100 per­cent of what you want be­cause it be­haves dif­fer­ently. Even when you bake it, you don’t know what’s go­ing to hap­pen—if it’s go­ing to warp or not. Even the col­ors change.”

Years later, she finds her­self wak­ing up ev­ery day, adamant still that the pot­tery wheel isn’t for her, but with a new­found urge to get her hands dirty with clay. All of Ocampo’s pieces come alive through hand-build­ing pot­tery tech­niques such as slab, pinch, and coil. “I have tools that help me, but I want to have a direct in­ter­ac­tion with the clay with­out a me­chan­i­cal gadget in­ter­fer­ing with what I want to do.”

This de­ci­sion to do with­out the wheel has chal­lenged her to work on her pot­tery daily, since she gets to store clay at home and work where it is most con­ve­nient for her: in her liv­ing room with Chowee, a chow chow she refers to as her “youngest child.”

But even when she works in the com­fort of home, Ocampo doesn’t deny that there are still chal­lenges to her craft. “For me, the most chal­leng­ing as­pect of any­thing is start­ing. Even with pot­tery, in any form, I think, you just show up and work. That’s the most chal­leng­ing: to drag your­self to start. But if you’re pas­sion­ate about some­thing, each day you look for­ward to work­ing. It’s dif­fer­ent.”

She shows a deep ad­mi­ra­tion for friends in the pot­tery com­mu­nity. “Of course, I also draw in­spi­ra­tion from fel­low pot­ters. They’re very gen­er­ous in shar­ing tech­niques and ideas,” Ocampo says, not­ing that pot­tery is very much a com­mu­nal act. Fir­ing pieces takes days—some­times weeks—at a time, and sev­eral stoneware artists of­ten com­mune through the process. A sin­gle piece is fired twice, and pot­ters of­ten share a kiln, too. Much like the culi­nary ex­pe­ri­ence, it is an in­ter­ac­tive process, where hu­man con­nec­tion is key to get­ting de­sired re­sults.

“For me, with what I do, I think what’s most re­ward­ing is that I have both worlds. Pot­tery is de­layed grat­i­fi­ca­tion; the process takes eight weeks, right? You have to wait. When I cook, though, it’s in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion. When you’re done cook­ing and then you feed your fam­ily, your loved ones, and see their ap­pre­ci­a­tion, then you get val­i­da­tion. And I al­ways be­lieve that I’m only as good as my last show or my last din­ner, so I strive to make things bet­ter next time.” •

Ocampo, who used to be a mu­ral painter, has a home filled with pieces made by fel­low artists and pot­ters. Her solo ex­h­bi­tion at art hub Aphro Liv­ing fea­tures pot­tery works still ded­i­cated to up­lift­ing the din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, but this time through...

The artist and her makeshift pot­tery stu­dio, which she fondly refers to as “a small cor­ner in my liv­ing room.”

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