Osa Atoe: The Process of Making
Baton Rouge based ceramicist, Osa Atoe, grew up in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. and lived in Portland, OR and Oakland, CA before settling in Louisiana. Her bachelor's degree is in Sociology with a minor in Women's Studies, and she's always played in various punk bands. She started taking community pottery classes in 2013 when she was living in New Orleans, quickly became obsessed with the medium and made a small at-home studio for herself in the spring of 2015. She completed a one-year post-baccalaureate program for ceramics at Louisiana State University in May 2018. Pottery by Osa is a one-woman operation, making sales online via her Etsy shop and in person at craft shows in Louisiana and Texas.
In her own words, "I make functional terracotta pottery equally fit to commemorate milestones and to embellish casual daily rituals, like that morning cup of coffee. I hope to achieve an earthy, rustic beauty with the pieces I make. Each one provides a tactile experience for the user because of the places I leave unglazed and the portions that I carve. My attraction to geometric patterns comes from their cultural universality. While researching the historical uses of red clay, I noticed a commonality of decoration—particularly during the Bronze Age period—from Europe to Africa to Asia and the Americas. My family is from Nigeria, so I think people are inclined to tie the aesthetics of my pottery to my cultural heritage, but prefer to see my pottery as a reflection of the cultural exchange that comprises the core identity of the U.S."
What are some of your latest design inspirations? What are you most excited about working on these days?
For the past year or so, I’ve been exploring textiles more, and basketry in particular. I learned that some of the oldest ceramic specimens in the world are marked with the texture of baskets because ancient people used them as molds for clay pots. It’s lead me to find baskets and use them as molds and to look to basketry for decorative inspiration for my pottery. Lately, I’ve been most excited about exploring glaze carving as a decorative technique. I learned it at a ceramics conference this past winter and it’s taken my surfaces to the next level.
How has your relationship with the music scene and social scenes around the country influenced your work with ceramics?
I was involved in punk scenes in different cities across the country and the predominating ethic is DIY-do it yourself. So, when I was in a band, we set up and booked our own shows & tours, released our own music and so on. With ceramics, I do the same thing. Instead of waiting to be invited to sell places, I contact local businesses and set up my own events. I think being in the punk scene definitely made me even more of a self-starter than I otherwise would have been.
What music are you listening to these days in your studio?
I haven’t been listening to much music in the studio. I mostly listen to books and podcasts in there. I’ve been listening to a bunch of music after work. I’m all over the place. Punk, pop, 90s rap, R&B, international...
What are you reading these days?
I’m reading a book called The Horse, the Wheel and Language about a theoretical Bronze Age proto-Indo-European culture and the beginnings of modern civilization as we know it. Mostly I read fiction, though. The last novel I read that I really loved was There, There by Tommy Orange. I’m also re-reading parts of The Unknown Craftsman, which is basically a bible for ceramicists but would be a valuable read for any craftsperson or artist.
Are there specific art movements or cultural movements you do associate with more than others? And would you say you follow more modernist ceramics trends or traditional practices?
Any potter who works the way I do is a product of the midcentury studio potter movement. Ceramicists like Marguerite Wildenhain, Lucie Rie, Karen Karnes, Toshiko Takaezu and the late Warren McKenzie paved the way for us solo potters who seek to express our individual style through the vessel. The difference with me is I started with very little training at all. I do not have a BFA and I only touched clay for the first time at the age of 34. That is why when you try to ask me about identity and meaning, I talk about grasping for technique, because I’m still struggling with so many basic aspects of making. I had to teach myself a lot.
How do you continue your self education?
I read, watch YouTube videos and attend workshops and conferences whenever I can. I completed a one-year post-baccalaureate program at the Louisiana State University ceramics department in the spring of 2018, which was really big for me since I learned pottery through community classes and had little formal training. Also, this past winter, I went to Morean Art Center in St. Petersburg, FL for Florida Heat Surface and got to learn from all of the ceramic artists who presented.
I was watching your interview about if your work inherently preserves African culture, and it made me think a lot about how much people will create their own stories about what you are based on the way you look or the way they perceive your work. On a similar note, I could ask, do you think your work is inherently feminist? Or southern? Or punk? Or in some way inherently based on other parts of your identity? I suppose everything we do is always based on our life experiences, so it’s hard to escape that.
Yeah, I think my work is naturally a reflection of all that I am, so it is all of those things (except Southern because I’m originally from the East Coast.) But with ceramics, so much of it is about the technical aspects of it. It’s about the process of making. How to throw or build a certain form, how to attach a handle, etc. I obviously do have a lot to say about identity and culture, but mostly, for me it comes down to focusing on the making—the process, the activity. Honestly, I think it’s better if the viewer or user of my work interprets its meaning rather than me.