INTERVIEW: Now We Dream of Clay

Published on Sep 14th, 2016

In August Josée Aubin Ouellete, Suzanne Déry, Aideen Doran and Jennifer Bailey participated in a wood-fired ceramics residency at CASS in partnership with West Dean College. Assistant Curator Helen Turner talks to Josée Aubin Ouellete and Suzanne Déry about friendship, clay and systems of production

Josée Aubin Ouellette and Suzanne Déry carrying one of Déry's works, 2016

I approached Josée Aubin Ouellette to participate because, controversially, she is a good friend. However I would like to question whether this indeed is controversial and what the political implications of friendship in artistic practice are. I met Josée whilst on residency as an artist at The Banff Centre, Canada in 2011. This period of heightened incubation in the Rocky Mountains produced allegiances, discursions and devotions. Josée became a dear friend - yes because she is nice, but also because I deeply respected her practice, philosophy and inexhaustible work ethic.

Due to the potential isolation and unconventional social structure of being an artist it is common to see practitioners band together, connect and establish extremely close relationships. I asked Josée and Suzanne, both friends from Glasgow School of Art, what they thought about the idea that friendship is in fact, not a euphemism for nepotism, but a powerfully political form of solidarity.

Helen Turner: Josée and Suzanne, I think it would be interesting to think about Mineral Supplements in light of Céline Condorelli's definition of friendship as ‘a set-up for working and a dimension of production’. Does this ring true to your methods of production? Do you see friendship as a positive foundation for artistic production?

Wood-fired kiln during the firing process, 2016

Josée Aubin Ouellette: We were conscious of the friendship factor in our project from the very start. Maybe it was initiated by the fact that you and I had our residency bonding experience in Banff, but I also feel that the community in Glasgow has a good sense of camaraderie where friendship is a fluid part of the way we operate. Importantly we didn’t just choose to work with friends because we could. We chose to work as friends because we thought that our familiarity and intimacy might facilitate discussion about our ideas to a greater depth. I would say, however, we were all business on the residency and it wasn’t until we got back to Glasgow and met up to hang out that we cooled down a bit from all our work!

Suzanne Déry: Ever since I became involved in art I gravitated to certain other artists to shape friendships and build solidarities that were openly supportive, productive and inventive. These friendships made stronger and encouraged me to be more daring too! I do believe as friendships grow, they take form in material, like an embodiment of what is happening through the conversation and labour.

Helen Turner: Do you think this facilitation of friendship for artistic production is a positive way of looking at nepotism?

Packing the kiln, 2016
Ceramic works laid out after being removed from the kiln, 2016

Josée Aubin Ouellette: Of course I know that safeguarding against institutional nepotism is crucial, but as artists being awarded the opportunity to create our own working conditions it was constructive for us to use friendship as a backbone to the project. Competition isn’t a great system for artists, and neither is nepotism. Friendship seems like a respite from both of those things, a constructive and creative space rather than a purely critical one, which is especially important during a residency and production phase.

Suzanne Déry: I make art because it's something I can do where I don't have to follow "the rules". It's maybe the one thing in my life where I can do whatever I want. I'm not interested in trying to deny or apologise for something that I feel is natural. Maybe people feel less justified working with 'friends',rather than with 'professionals', but it's all the same to me.

Helen Turner: The works produced for Mineral Supplements were all individual and starkly different, however they were all produced from the same (very communal) process of the wood-fired kiln, which required commitment, allegiance and responsibility; all traits related to friendship. Do you think the works you created would have been different had you experienced this residency separately, on a more isolated individual level? 

Josée Aubin Ouellete holding one of her hot rocks, 2016

Josée Aubin Ouellete: Ultimately, the clay acted as a common ground between us bringing out different approaches, but showing our common underlying interests in the material. The physicality of the work created an atmosphere of camaraderie, quite different from our usual solitary studio practices. Because we don’t normally work with ceramics, we bonded over getting to know the material together. As we found our ways of working with it and helping each other deal with technical issues, it brought us together. 

Suzanne Déry: I think the wood-fired kiln was a way to connect our work in the end yes, but to me, that we all worked with clay was perhaps the communal energy. Pulling, pushing, building, shaping, slapping, extracting, gluing, tearing, breaking. We all had to build from the same material and that was what I found most connective. Our shared and yet differing energy is embedded inside this clay and crystallised in the kiln. We all had a strong sense of wanting to see our ideas come to life from the get go, but working together in the same space became like fuel to keep going. In fact some of the larger pieces I made would not have been possible without Josée, Aideen or Jenny's help and also new 'friends' from West Dean and Cass.

Helen Turner:
Do you think there is such a thing as autonomous artistic production?

CASS and West Dean Staff with Josée Aubin Ouellette and Suzanne Déry, 2016

Josée Aubin Ouellette: I really associate friendship with learning, so the artistic spark might be there, but connections keep me going. I know I would feel extremely frustrated and stunted if I didn’t have friendship in art. In friendship, there’s also political alignment, solidarity based on a common situation, obstacles, skills, and mutual support. The politics can remain unspoken, but sometimes they need to be made explicit and loud in order to empower people. In a community of artists, this support extends to supporting each other’s work, sometimes indirectly as an audience or something, and sometimes physically as in “can you help me carry this enormous heavy object across town’’.

Suzanne Déry: It feels like art has to be brought to life in the company of others and through connection. It can be made to exist autonomously, but that’s only half of the puzzle. It is transformed in the collective experience; through new eyes, hands, minds, bodies, places, spaces, philosophies, relations…

Exhibition Mineral Supplements will be on display at Cass Sculpture Foundation in 2017 with work by Josée Aubin Ouellete, Suzanne Déry, Aideen Doran, Jennifer Bailey, Lauren Hall and Claire Shallcross.

Celine Condorelli is an artist who lives and works in London. Her works consist of installations, publications and curatorial projects. This post refers to her publication The Company She Keeps, Celine Condorelli, Ed. Polly Staple & Nick Aikens in collaboration with Chisenhale Gallery (2014).

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