By Oriana Confente
Olivia Turchyniak is a ceramicist based in Tiohtià:ke / Montréal, Canada. As a newcomer to the city who wanted to support local artists during the pandemic, I started a growing collection of mugs by Olivia. I was drawn to the materiality of her pieces, like the organic and grounding qualities of the clay she uses which connect to deeper themes present throughout her work.
While she makes vessels for hot beverages, Olivia’s conceptual projects concern vessels of another kind. I learned her ceramic practice began with abstract representations of bodies – hollow sculptures that take shape as folded, dimpled mounds of flesh. In her artist statement, she declares that the body itself is also a vessel, one we need to “mold into a home.” Olivia’s artworks have been featured in group exhibitions at the FOFA Gallery and most recently, at the Montréal Art Centre.
Curious about her interpretations of human anatomy and the lumpy forms she creates, I wanted to know more. Olivia and I chatted over coffee and cannoli before visiting her studio, our discussion spanning flesh, functionality, and fine arts. The conversation that follows has been edited for clarity by us.
Oriana: I’d like to start by learning more about your choice of medium. Can you tell me about the materials you work with?
Olivia: Ceramics has been my main medium for about five years now. I work mostly with stoneware clay because I prefer a mid-to high-fire clay with structure to it – I’ve found a clay body that I like.
Oriana: They’re called clay bodies?
Olivia: Yeah! A clay body is a mixture of different materials to make it workable. It’s a man-made product, versus clay, which is a natural resource.
Oriana: You’ve drawn striking comparisons between human bodies as fleshy vessels and the organic aging of clay bodies. Can you go into more detail about the themes of your work?
Olivia: I’m primarily working with themes that have to do with the body and the earth, with permanence and impermanence. My most recent project, “SEED/SOIL,” is a self-portrait. The forms are abstract figures that have my tattoos to make them identifiable. It’s a lifelong project. Each sculpture features a different body part, and I’ll keep creating them until I stop getting tattoos.
We tend to view tattoos as permanent but in the grand scheme of things, our bodies aren’t that permanent. Clay is technically one of the most permanent mediums you can work with, it can last thousands of years. I’m playing with that idea of im/permanence. Clay also ages in stages, it matures with time. While clay is sourced from the ground, our bodies also end up in the earth when we die. There are so many parallels between clay and bodies and there’s a quality of clay that inherently reflects the body.
Oriana: How does it feel to look back on earlier projects? Do you see yourself reflected differently in those artworks?
Olivia: For some reason, I depict myself a lot, maybe unintentionally. My most recent project is the most conscious self-portrait compared to others, which are reflections of subconscious mental states or reflections of my environment. “MAMMARY,” a series from 2019/2020, is a representation of a female form. It’s a grotesque image that’s strangely appealing at the same time. Breasts are really sensitive in our society and I wanted to represent a feeling of being uncomfortable. From the beginning, what’s tied my projects together is my interest in the human body and how I can express that.
Oriana: I want to discuss your functional wares too because, as you know, I’m a big fan. I’m curious about the connection between your functional pieces and your fine arts pieces.
Olivia: The functional wares started about a year ago, mid-COVID. I really wanted to learn a new skill. I think what I like about the functional stuff is that it’s not conceptual at all. It’s something I do when I don’t want to think too hard, and I just want to make something that serves a utilitarian purpose. I do see the practices as separate, but I think I need both practices in my life – I find that I’m not always inspired conceptually and sometimes I need a break from that. The functional wares are easy to go back to and I can produce work without thinking too hard.
Oriana: How does the making process differ between a thematic project and your functional wares?
Olivia: My sculptural works are hand-built using a coiling technique, which is when you roll out cylindrical, tube-shaped pieces of clay and stack them to make a hollow sculpture. My functional wares are made on a wheel which is very different from hand-building. Quicker, too. I can bust out ten mugs in the same amount of time it would take me to do a tiny portion of a sculpture.
Oriana: Which process is easier for you, mentally and physically?
Olivia: It’s physically exhausting either way, but mentally, the functional work is easier because I’m repeating something very technical. With the sculptural work, I’m figuring it out as I go, and I have to think about gravity too.
Oriana: Is it messy?
Olivia: It’s very messy. Very dusty.
Oriana: Do you like that?
Olivia: I love the tactility of it. Making sculptures is meditative for me. It’s very grounding and the sensation is something I’m addicted to, I guess. While I’m working, it’s really like a flow state. My mind is just so hyper-focused on what I’m doing. I think that’s beautiful and I’m constantly chasing after it.