Q&A: Jess Nicholson

Jess Nicholson is the Wellington ceramicist behind Sick Ceramics – she makes bowls, mugs, and other vessels from recycled clay, finishing her abstract pieces with natural glazes and foraged pigments.

Jess, of Ngāi Tahu descent, uses clay to explore issues of her cultural identity, and feelings of disconnectedness and alienation. She often blends expression and functionality by working emotive anthropomorphic qualities into her ceramics.

How did you get introduced to ceramics?

I started pottery two years ago. My mother bought my brother and I a throwing class. I was struggling a lot with my mental health at the time due to the stress of university, and mum knew I had been interested in ceramics for a long time. I’m so glad she gave me the opportunity to try out the craft. I ended up loving it so much that I became a member of the Wellington Potters’ Association.

What do you like most about it?

The thing I like most about clay is that it can be a fully immersive, tactile experience. Clay goes through a few different stages before it’s a finished piece, and each stage provides you with a different opportunity to change, fix, or tweak it.

Are there any downsides?

Time always seems to go too fast at the pottery. One minute it’s midday and you’ve got hours to kill, but next time you look up at the clock it’s 6pm and dark outside.

What’s surprised you about your practice?

Over time, clay has also given me a way to explore and express my cultural identity as well as my feelings of disconnection. At first, I just liked putting wacky handles on mugs – and don’t get me wrong, I’m still that guy – but now I also spend a lot of mental energy figuring out how to visually articulate how I feel being an urban Māori and Pākehā – and how being white passing makes connecting with my culture that much more difficult.

Why do you use found clays and pigments?

Working with a natural material provides an excellent opportunity to think about the environment and the sustainability of my practice. All glazes rely on mined materials, but it’s really hard to find out about the ethics and sustainability of this practice. Also, potters don’t seem to want to talk about it. Because of this, I’m experimenting with found clays and pigments to minimise my reliance on big companies digging them up for me.

Jess is exhibiting in Wellington Potters’ Association’s annual exhibition Ceramicus 2021, at the NZ Academy of Fine Arts Gallery, 21st October – 6th November.

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