Anchored in the distinct disciplines of wood, raku and smoke firing, Alexis Stephenson Ceramics are unique, hand-crafted objects that centre on natural resources, combustible matter, colour and form. Stephenson creates her pieces at renowned Gaya Ceramic Art Centre in Ubud, Bali; a traditional Indonesian wooden structure adorned with century-old carvings and surrounded by tropical greenery and stacks of wood. Here, through horse hair raku and anagama wood-firing, Stephenson crafts her ceramic vases. We spoke with Alexis Stephenson about the firing process, what opened her eyes to the medium and her brand philosophy.
Inspired early on by the works of artists Jun Kaneko and Ettore Sottsass, Stephenson gravitated towards the material responsible for creating such interesting and beautiful forms, intrigued as to how diverse and capable it is, “I really love the malleability of clay, the chances you can take with it, it reacts to absolutely everything around you,” she explains. Influenced by ceramicists Hillary Kane, Ken Price, Ken Matsuzaki, Tabuchi Taro and Jennifer Lee, Stephenson’s work is shares a focus with those she admires; subtle detailing, time-old craftsmanship and natural techniques that expand their discipline into a platform for creative exploration.
Dividing her time between the open-air studio in Bali and her studios in Amsterdam is important for Stephenson’s creative process, “Working between the two I get the best of both worlds,” she explains. Design planning is carried out in her small Amsterdam studio whilst ideas are put into practice at her shared studio in an an old multidisciplinary building before designs are fully realised in the Gaya workshop.
Stephenson’s approach to design can be often chaotic, preferring to be guided by instinct or allowing her tools to discover her pieces but she harmoniously balances this with a more focused attitude that centres on important details and subtleties through her choice of clay, form and oxide, “I like to let the outcome of both types of firing that I use do the talking but inevitably I am completely relinquishing control to whatever the elements will bring during the firing,” she says.
Working with two different firing techniques, Stephenson’s attention remains on colour, texture and shape; crafting her vessels from stoneware clay which are thrown, trimmed and sprayed with oxide before being fired. The first method of firing is horse hair raku which is a quick, low-fired method that involves quickly heating an object until the glaze has melted, removing it and then post-firing with strands of horse hair that lay across the hot ware to imprint wandering trails of carbon across the surface. This method gives immediate results and thus instant gratification, “Raku is a fast-paced process, over in seconds by the results have that instant beauty,” she explains.
In comparison the second time-intensive method uses a traditional wood-fired Japanese kiln called an anagama which is filled with coffee and pinewood and takes three days and three nights to reach an optimal temperature of 1200 degrees Celsius. This process requires a high level of engagement - from loading the kiln, positioning the pieces like a puzzle and bricking up the door for the three-day firing. Practicing the wood-firing method has a delayed gratification for Stephenson as once loaded the control is given to the flames, “Everything has a reaction with anagama firing, how and where the piece is positioned is incredibly important. You put everything into it and you have no idea what you’re going to get out,” she states. Stephenson’s pieces are shaped by the environment they are forged in; for three days vessels are completely left to the elements to determine their actuality. This process of firing with organic materials results in textured birthmarks, rough imperfections and carbon traces trapped on their surfaces.
Ultimately Stephenson wants to evoke an “experience,” to tell a story of how these unique and individual forms came to be, of their life from natural matter to finished or rather, unfinished object, “I want to evoke an experience of what the piece has been through within the processes of making and firing,” she explains. What are born from the natural ash deposits are individual forms with beautiful sprayed cobalt finishes, roaming smoke lines and shell imprint details.