1 Sfondyli, 9 in. (23 cm) in height, red stoneware, terra sigillata, 2021.

Who am I? Where do I belong? These essential questions that we eventually all ask were the same ones Elena Vasilantonaki was exploring when she took her first ceramics class in 2010. Born in Athens, Greece, her family moved constantly due to her father’s military career. They were never in one place for more than two years. Consequently, she felt a lack of connection or sense of being rooted. Vasilantonaki says that clay as a material has allowed her to experience the sense of connection that had been missing from her life. “It represents roots, ancestry, and a feeling of being grounded,” she says. Connection to a sense of place and her Greek ancestry are manifest in her ceramic vessels, which at once appear both old and new. They look as though they could have been excavated from the earth or dredged from the sea, yet they seem utterly contemporary in their uncomplicated lines and graceful contours.

Healing from Trauma

With a degree in English literature, Vasilantonaki worked for years teaching English as a foreign language to native Greeks. While at home raising her two small children, she felt the need to return to a creative outlet. She’d always enjoyed drawing, so she enrolled in a drawing class in Athens in 2008, where students were given bisque-fired pots to draw on with underglazes. So many questions arose in her: What is clay? What is an underglaze? What is bisque firing? What does glazing mean? How are you going to fire this? An acquaintance soon introduced her to local potter, Janet Lines. Vasilantonaki enrolled in her class, touching clay for the first time at age 32.

2 Elena Vasilantonaki with several of her ceramic pots.

As she began work on a year-long class project called Metamorphosis,Vasilantonaki intuited it was time to explore some past trauma around her relationship with her mother. Through a series of five figurative sculptures, she probed the lifelong journey between mother and daughter, while exploring the question “Who Am I?”. In the first piece, the daughter comes to life within her mother’s body. In the second piece, the daughter sits on her mother’s lap. In the third piece, mother and daughter struggle, clash, and fight for dominance. In the fourth piece, the daughter carries her aging mother on her shoulders. In the fifth piece, the mother is no longer alive, but carried within the daughter’s body. The work was a turning point for Vasilantonaki, prompting her to begin psychoanalysis soon after completing the project. She says she hasn’t been the same since, and that the trauma now resides in her differently. The physicality of working with clay, of releasing energy from the body, allowed for a somatic form of healing. She came to recognize that a metamorphosis was happening, not just in the sculptures she was making, but in her own mind and body.

3 Pinakio, 9¾ in. (25 cm) in diameter, red stoneware, 2020.

Finding Inspiration in Ancient Forms

In 2017, Vasilantonaki purchased a kiln, set up a home studio in Athens, and launched her one-woman operation, Pilos Clay Art (pilosclayart.com). She began working on a daily basis, searching for inspiration in a more conscious way. The question “Where do I belong?” became more pressing. Though surrounded by traditional Greek pottery growing up, it was only after she began taking ceramics classes that she started to look at those forms more closely. She began visiting museums to study, photograph, and sketch. Her eyes were opened to the beauty of these ancient vessels, and she began to feel a sense of belonging in the lineage of Greek ceramic artists. Functional storage jars called pithoi and amphorae, traditionally used for bulk storage of either grains or fluids, were prevalent throughout the areas bordering the Mediterranean Sea during the Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Ages. Ancient forms such as these soon became inspiration for Vasilantonaki’s own ceramic vessels, though she’s quick to note she’s not interested in making replicas of these artifacts. Instead, she hopes to bring a contemporary feel to her work while utilizing ancient ways of working.

4 The brick chamber for smoke firing, filled with sawdust and various other combustibles, Gra Kera, Crete, 2019. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Knowing Herself Through Making

Coil building is Vasilantonaki’s primary method of constructing, and this technique, which has been around for thousands of years, connects her to a sense of history. She approaches working with clay as a journey of self-discovery, and says coil building allows for a certain freedom as she’s working, opening a dialog between her and the piece. She finds the meditative quality of this slow, rhythmic way of working to be restorative, and she relishes the quiet hours spent alone in her studio.

5 Sfondyli, 9 in. (23 cm) in height, white stoneware, terra sigillata made from local clay collected by the artist, smoke-fired, 2020. 6 Smoke-fired bowl, 8 in. (21 cm) in diameter, white stoneware, terra sigillata made from local clay collected by the artist, 2019.

Mark making and pattern are important aspects of Vasilantonaki’s work. She wants the tactile quality of her vessels to evoke an emotional response in the viewer. She makes two lines of work—one is mid-range, electric-kiln fired, and the other is smoke fired. Most of her stoneware pots that are fired in an electric kiln are left unglazed and are reminiscent of the volcanic rocks and beach sand on the island of Santorini. For her smoke-fired wares, Vasilantonaki uses a white stoneware clay that’s brushed with terra sigillata or slip made from clay she collects on the island of Crete, where she travels regularly to smoke fire. While there, she also collects olive-wood ash, using it to make an ash glaze that sometimes adorns her electric-kiln-fired work. 

7 Smoke-fired bowls, to 10½ in. (27 cm) in diameter, white stoneware, terra sigillata made from local clay collected by the artist, 2019.

When you touch her pots, she wants you to feel the small crevices on the surface, to feel the clay, not the glaze. “I wish to celebrate the beauty of irregularities and embrace the imperfections that define our own human nature and make us unique,” she says. Vasilantonaki makes use of a few simple tools, like a serrated scraper to make marks, but her favorite items are those she’s found in nature that she can press into the clay­—shells, sea urchins, volcanic rocks from the beach, sand, seed pods, branches, or grass. When treating the surface of a pot, she recollects what she’s seen while out walking—like eroded rock walls or the chipped paint on old houses. Photography is Vasilantonaki’s second passion, and she often captures images of these sightings, taking them back to her studio where memories of strolling along alleyways or looking at rocks on the beach can find their way back into her work.

8 Coil-built bowls, to 8 in. (21 cm) in diameter, red stoneware, terra sigillata, 2021.

Working with clay has become a necessity, a way to get to know herself better. “I need to be creative in order to be well,” she says. If she needs to spend the day packing pots for shipment or tending to computer work, she makes sure she also has her hands in clay, even if it’s just to attach a few coils to a work in progress. “If I don’t, then it’s not a good day. I’m not happy and everything goes wrong.” Vasilantonaki is in the studio five days a week, taking an afternoon break to go to the sea for a swim. When she’s not in the studio, she’s devoting time to her family. Yet even when she’s not working, she’s thinking about the pots that are in process, weighing decisions about what to do next.

Building Connections through Social Media

Vasilantonaki says anxiety makes it difficult for her to do much socializing, but Instagram has provided a platform where she can feel comfortable engaging with others (follow her at @pilosclayart). Her gift for photography is apparent while browsing her Instagram feed. She stages photos of her pots in her basement studio using the ledge of her wooden workbench and the natural light that streams in through the window above.

9 Ancient Contemporary, 12½ in. (32 cm) in height, earthenware clay from Crete, terra sigillata, 2021.

She enjoys meeting people from all over the world via Instagram, and has quite a large following that took years to build. Her following gained a few thousand new supporters due to her involvement with the Artists Support Pledge, a platform that originated in the UK by artist Matthew Burrows, to support artists whose exhibitions and shows had to be canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, artists were given the opportunity to sell their work directly. They were encouraged to keep their prices below $200, then give back a portion of their sales to charity or toward the purchase of another artist’s work. Vasilantonaki says participating in the Pledge platform was “life-saving” during the pandemic.

Smoke Firing

While most of Vasilantonaki’s work is fired to cone 6 in her electric kiln, she smoke fires whenever she has the chance. In smoke firing, carbon from burning leaves, seaweed, sawdust, paper, or other organic matter blackens the ware, leaving marks from the path of smoke and flame. This ancient and relatively simple form of firing creates unique results and provides endless possibilities for experimentation. When Vasilantonaki first tried smoke firing, it resonated with her immediately, “I loved that it took place outside, under the trees where I could listen to the birds, and that it used materials found in nature.” Now, she especially enjoys taking a walk before the firing, collecting objects that feel meaningful, and then bringing those back to place in the smoke-firing chamber. An admitted perfectionist and overachiever, Vasilantonaki says those qualities have exhausted her body and mind. “There’s a certain letting go involved in a smoke firing that feels freeing,” she says. “It’s a kind reminder that you cannot control everything in life.”

10 Fiali, 13 in. (33 cm) in diameter, black stoneware, terra sigillata, 2021.11 Fiali, 8½ in. (22 cm) in diameter, red stoneware, terra sigillata, 2021.

Athens has strict rules about lighting fires, so Vasilantonaki is restricted to doing very fast firings of just three to four hours in an old trash bin in her backyard. She’s not quite comfortable lighting fires there, though, and she’s able to do longer firings on the island of Crete in the small village of Gra Kera, located up in the hills, where her father lives and can help her. In the summers, she travels by boat to Crete with her pots in suitcases. Childhood memories of walking on the red earth are reflected in the colors of both her red-stoneware, electric-fired pots and in the wild clay slip she brushes on her smoke-fired works. “The island beaches, the olive-tree-covered hills, the cicada song, and the smell of jasmine trigger a sense of belonging and are an endless source of inspiration,” she says. Vasilantonaki and her father built an above-ground brick chamber that holds up to five pots. When not firing pots, her family uses it to cook food. Before firing, she cleans out the chamber, collecting the wood ash from the olive trees to take back to Athens for her ash glaze. Then she fills the chamber with sawdust, branches, leaves, dried fruit, animal dung, seaweed and salt from the sea—and then, she says, “magic happens.” It’s here where the elements of nature—earth, fire, water, air—all come together. Being able to bring her father into this part of her life feels meaningful, and she says she’s closer to him now than she’s ever been.

12 Alavastron, 14½ in. (37 cm) in height, red stoneware, 2021.

Upon opening the kiln, Vasilantonaki says, “Sometimes it’s love at first sight; other times it’s not so pleasant and there’s a bit of disappointment.” She’s learned not to judge the results too quickly, however. “As you live with the piece, certain qualities get revealed. It’s easy to become imprisoned by expectations.” Before packing up her pots and heading back to Athens, Vasilantonaki gathers sand, wild clay from the cliffs, ashes from family meals, minerals, and small stones. She’ll bring these relics that speak so much to a sense of place back to her studio, asking herself how she can incorporate them into her work.

the author Susan McHenry, is a studio potter, writer, and educator based in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She has an MFA in writing and literature from Bennington College. To learn more, visit emptyvesselpottery.com or follow on Instagram @emptyvesselpottery.

Topics: Ceramic Artists