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Getting Fired. An interview with ceramicist Alexis Stephenson

Getting Fired. An interview with ceramicist Alexis Stephenson

Meet Alexis: Geordie, Folk alumna, and now, Bali-slash-Amsterdam-based ceramicist. We chat making, moving continents, moulds, and instant vs delayed gratification in this week’s interview.

Words by Charlotte Brook

Her pots are going to be sold in a shop that design studio IYA is opening in Deptford Market Yard in March. Springing like a defiant daff from the ground zero of endless e-tailers as ‘i you all’, this is their first stationery, home items and print shop in - yesss - a bricks and mortar space in Deptford. Specifically, the railway arches underneath the newly restored Grade II-listed carriage ramp that is also Britain’s oldest piece of railway architecture. It sounds like a nice bit of tarting up: sensitive, low key and striking hopefully that elusive balance between being profitable and unobtrusive. Anyway, back to Bali.

‘You put everything in, and you have no idea what you’re gonna get out.’

The portrait shot on Alexis Stephenson’s website says most of it: a crumbly wall behind her, potter’s wheel spinning in front, iron tools, overflowing sacks of plaster, a look of wry joy and concentration…  It’s an evocative antidote to desk life even just to look at.  Her path went south to London, east to Japan, down to Bali and now she is half in Amsterdam, half in her home-from-home, the Gaya Ceramics art studio in Bali. 

Seeing the work of artists like Jun Kaneko really opened my eyes to what is possible with clay. His large heads and Dangos really inspired me, initially I wanted to make something like that.

Even when it all goes wrong, which it often does, I still go back for more. After moving to Bali and spending so many hours throwing on a wheel, chucking it out and starting over again, something really clicked. I really love the malleability of clay, the chances you can take with it, it reacts to everything around you and it's pushed me mentally and physically to my limits.

What did I learn during my time in Japan? That no one understands a Geordie attempting Japanese.

My studio here is a shared space in Ubud, a central, tropical part of Bali.  It’s a traditional Indonesian wooden building, intricately carved, with kilns and stacks of wood on either side.  It is open air and surrounded by lush greenery. It’s quite unlike anywhere I've been.

The smells of the studio vary from the incense that drifts through when offerings are made at the studio temple to local traditional foods, the wood burning smokily and the wood fire, soda, raku and gas kilns in reduction.

Soundscape?  We love a good life-story podcast conversation in the studio, but when I'm on my own I'll listen to whatever I feel like that day, a lot of my boyfriend Jonny Nash's music, Holly Herndon, Chris & Cosey, Nick Cave or a mix from somewhere.

In terms of firing techniques,
Raku is like my instant gratification and wood-firing my delayed gratification.

Raku can be quite a fast paced process, over in seconds but the results have that instant beauty.  Anagama (wood firing) is however definitely my preferred technique: it takes 3 days to laod the kiln. You put everything into it and you have no idea what you're gonna get out.

I love Jennifer Lees use of oxides in her forms. Ken Matsuzaki’s modern take on traditional styles. Tabuchi Taro’s wood-fired porcelain. I'm also looking, reading about Olivier Van Herpt’s 3D printed work.

I really learnt at Folk how it’s the subtle things
that can totally change a piece’s look, like the stitching or the lace. I apply that to my ceramics.

I would love to work with porcelain and potentially slip casting next. And definitely 3D printing. But 100% more wood firing, that learning curve has only just begun, really.

Visiting her motherland at Christmas, Alexis bumped into Matt and Fleur of design studio IYA in the pub, who she knew from Folk days (they used to work upstairs and still collaborate on graphics). 

Consequently, six one-off ceramics by Alexis (from £64) will be sold at i you all, Deptford Market Yard, Deptford, SE8 4BX from March, which is open by appointment to start, then will be open house at weekends.  Visit to pick up a pot, and for perfectly chosen pieces of stationery that I’m delighted writing this gig has brought to my attention. /

Photography credit: Sally May Mills