Ceramics Monthly: What connections do you draw between the foods you prepare at home, the brushwork imagery, and the scale and style of the forms that you make?
Sasha Barrett: Growing up in Ukraine, we would often have guests join our family for dinner. It could be friends from neighboring flats or other family members who stopped by because they were in the area. I remember dinner always being a social event. If my family didn’t have potatoes that night, we could borrow a few from the neighbor, and then they would join in sharing our meal. There was a strong sense of community. We all knew each other and were very close.
The table was usually filled with a bunch of small plates and bowls; for the most part, everything served was bite-sized. I think these early memories of food in hand-made pottery contribute to my attraction to making and using smaller, shallow serving bowls. There is the sense that an open bowl is welcoming, it invites the user to reach in.
Cooking meals at home now, I still have the urge to make multiple smaller dishes rather than one grand meal. I can be playful in the pairing of foods, as well as with serving them: placing the salad in a dish decorated with brushwork on the inside, and serving the soup in a bowl with its imagery on the outside.
CM: When making a bowl for presentation or individual servings of a specific recipe, what decisions are you making about the scale and profile of the actual bowl, as well as of the brushwork?
SB: I love the relationship that imagery on pottery can have with food. It’s hard for me as a potter to stay with one type of design or placement of motif, so the work varies with the imagery appearing on the inside, the outside, or both.
When the bowl gets emptied, one perogi at a time, an image of wheat reveals itself. When the meal is done, there is satisfaction in discovery of a familiar and related image.
I love brushwork. I love brushes in general, and have long been attracted to nice brush strokes. There is a sense of the hand in each stroke—it is not mechanical. Just like the perogies my grandmother made, there is character and individuality in each piece in both surface and form. I love the pinched edges and the sense of touch that each perogi has. Making my work in a slower fashion on a banding wheel allows me to incorporate a certain level of touch and natural edges that I find difficult to accomplish on a potter’s wheel. This way of making allows me to have a more intimate relationship with handmade food, especially perogies.
Recently I’ve been obsessively painting wheat on my pottery. It’s a simple plant to paint, and its simplicity makes it manageable for me to explore different brush styles and play with scale. Throughout history, Ukraine has been known for its endless wheat fields and its rich black soil, earning the title, The Breadbasket of Europe. Using predominantly blue and yellow as my palette, I’m referencing the stripes on the Ukrainian flag, which, in itself, is a symbol of the wheat fields and the blue sky.
Perogies are a staple Ukrainian food; they can be filled with pretty much anything. It is an important dish at mealtime because of its versatility in preparation. Ukrainian cuisine is resourceful, a result of the political misfortunes that the country has faced that have caused food supplies to be unpredictable at times. Even when food was in abundance, it was not always accessible. Perogies are simple to make and have endless variations that were developed depending on what was readily available.
CM: What draws you to working with red earthenware, both aesthetically and conceptually?
SB: I love earthenware for many reasons. Aesthetically, I love the earthy look it has, which plays hand-in-hand with the concept of the bowl being the canvas for wheat stalk paintings. I prefer using earthenware with a lot of grog; it is gritty and satisfying to touch. The deep red/brown of earthenware represents the soil from which the wheat grows. The clay body allows me to explore complex surface treatments (i.e. terra sigillata, white slip, underglaze, oxide washes, and stains) while using a simple low-fire process. Beyond that, my use of earthenware is a historical reference to the tradition of pottery making in Ukraine.
Kitchen Pots: Small Bowls
I start with a one-pound ball of clay and pound it on center on my banding wheel. While spinning the wheel with my left hand, I start to open the ball of clay with my right thumb by pressing and pinching (1).
From there, I pinch out the floor and walls while the wheel is in a constant, slow rotation. It’s important to be consistent with my motions and speed at the wheel so that I can keep the piece as much on center as possible. Because I don’t use any water and don’t pull the clay, I have to spend a good amount of time on this step, making sure the walls have the right thickness and height (2).
When the bowl is pinched, I switch to using metal ribs. At this stage I spin the banding wheel much faster and place the rib on the interior (3) and exterior to achieve a concave, smoother surface.
After using the ribs to get my final form (4), I evaluate the bowl and accentuate the natural marks that this construction process reveals. Every bowl is unique in the sense that some may have much more interesting natural edges than others, and that is exciting to me.
The lack of added water in my forming process means I can pretty much cut the bowl off the banding wheel, flip it over, and trim it right away (5). I like to trim when the clay is on the soft side so the looseness is captured in the clay from the trimming tool (6).
After the bowl is complete, I let it stiffen up to hard leather hard before dipping it in white slip. When the slip is still wet, I spray the surface with a mixture of water and Mason stain (7). This layering builds up a sense of atmosphere, and gives a dynamic background to the paintings rather than a smooth, clean slip surface.
When the slip is dry, I paint the wheat imagery using underglazes (8, 9). It’s important to do this at the greenware stage because after the bowl is bisque fired (to cone 03 in an electric kiln), the glazing process can be rather messy and I don’t want the image to get distorted.
When glazing, I cover the wheat imagery in a clear glaze with a brush, let it dry, and then cover the clear glaze in wax resist. This step makes the wheat ears have a little white halo around them. The final step is to dip the whole bowl in a translucent low-fire blue glaze before firing it to cone 03 in an electric kiln. Process Photos: Kathleen Claar.
the author Sasha Barrett received his BFA from Boise State University in 2014. He completed a residency at The Clay Studio of Missoula, and participated in the work-exchange program at The Clay Studio in Philadelphia. Currently he is working from his studio and storefront in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Find Barrett on Instagram @sashabarrettceramics.