1 Exhibition view of “Making Place Matter,” with works by artists Kukuli Velarde (background, far left), Molly Hatch (background, center and right), and Ibrahim Said (foreground).


The first exhibition in a new facility requires consideration of transformed context. The Clay Studio, formerly a resident in the Old City District of central Philadelphia, is now located in South Kensington, an area that was once thriving with industry. When the factories closed, their employees moved to the suburbs, leaving a neighborhood that absorbed immigrants from a range of countries and cultures. In recent years, developers took notice, making gentrification rife.

The fact remains: South Kensington is a neighborhood into which The Clay Studio wanted to be welcomed. To do so, an exhibition council that included thirteen neighbors began meeting in the fall of 2020 to consider “art-making activities around language, translation, exhibition design, and how design can help people feel physically comfortable in the space.”1 This agenda, considerate of and empathetic to the neighborhood, resulted in “Making Place Matter,” a worthy exhibition that celebrates diversity and community. 

2 Exhibition view (left to right): Molly Hatch’s Linea and Linea Stack.

In considering appropriate artists, it was obvious that ceramic artists associated with The Clay Studio should take priority. Kukuli Velarde, born in Peru and a resident of South Kensington, was a resident artist in 1997; Ibrahim Said was a guest artist in 2015; and Molly Hatch held her first major solo show at The Clay Studio in 2010. Their respective oeuvres make for an intriguing display.

Interests of Inclusion

Velarde’s A Mi Vida has two parts. A life-size nude self-portrait (oil on aluminum plate), captured during her pregnancy with her daughter, overlooks seven baby strollers, each containing a ceramic child-like entity. The two- and three-dimensional aspects not only represent the separation of Kukuli (mother) and Vida (child) that will inevitably arise as the generations diverge, but also the separation of children from parents at the US/Mexico border. The forms of the children are unorthodox—some are even alien-looking with fishtails and a duck’s beak. The strangeness of these children is a metaphor for the labels they are given by unwelcoming authorities; their otherness is the lot of most immigrants in a new country. 

Despite the terra-cotta babies’ unusual shapes and decoration in pre-Columbian, pop-cultural, and organic motifs, they are cuddle-able, as was seen during the exhibition’s opening reception. Velarde was adamant that the figures be placed in manufactured carriages, a gesture that aligns with helping the local people (often baby-stroller-pushers) feel comfortable in The Clay Studio space. The juxtaposition of crafted and mass-produced is jarring for the seasoned craft observer, but the interests of inclusion are served.

3 Exhibition view (left to right): Kukuli Velarde’s A Mi Vida and Molly Hatch’s Ouroboros.3 Exhibition view (left to right): Kukuli Velarde’s A Mi Vida and Molly Hatch’s Ouroboros.

Maintenance of Heritage

Ibrahim Said, who learned ceramic production from his father in Cairo, Egypt, adheres to Islamic aesthetics by producing a mashrabiya, a pierced screen that separates public from private. His portion of Making Place Matter comprises three pedestals, surmounted with curved clay panels that rise over seven feet from the floor. Said, who now lives in North Carolina, taught himself to do marquetry for the surfaces of the pedestals and contrived a hidden bolting system at the base of each panel that gives the illusion of an undulating upright magic carpet. On the Bank of the Nile, a title that refers to the place from whence the artist and the artistry originated, is imbued with geometric patterns glazed with Nile-green tones. Depending on the light entering the gallery’s front windows, the screens’ piercings cast additional patterns onto the pedestals and floor. The mashrabiya, endemic to Islamic architecture, has been brought into the 21st century in this tour de force of ceramics. Said’s work, a combination of superb skill and magic—none of the panels broke during processing—is a testament to the importance of maintenance of heritage crafts.

5 Kukuli Velarde’s A Mi Vida (installation).

Life, Death, and Rebirth

Ouroboros, one of four installations by Molly Hatch, welcomes and confronts the viewer. Its confrontational attribute is the radial configuration of 37 plates, bull’s-eyed by a central plate of gold luster. The gold’s reflection is startling, contrasted against a snakeskin-patterned blue background. The ouroboros, a snake eating its tail—symbol of life, death, and rebirth—is a suitable icon for the entire exhibition as The Clay Studio and these artists re-place themselves geographically and gestate new work. 

Hatch is also represented by Philadelphia Waterworks, inspired by an early-19th century dinner plate in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The plate, made in China and exported to the US, depicts the Fairmount Waterworks, part of the first municipal water system in the US. Once again, the installation comprises 37 plates that, reading from right to left, go from past to present, with the present being the viewer’s reflection in superimposed gold-luster saucers. Linea and Linea Stack are Hatch’s exploration of three dimensions. Some of the plates in Linea, decorated with a floral pattern reminiscent of wallpaper in her grandmother’s home, have a sole in lieu of a foot: from the rim to the gallery wall is a vertical edge extending several inches. Linea Stack is composed of hexagonal tubes that suggest a honeycomb, with gold luster on the edges, or a cellular molecule. This free-standing porcelain sculpture is a first for Hatch.

6 Kukuli Velarde’s A Mi Vida (detail).

The Clay Studio’s exhibition space is large, with the provision of movable partitions to semi-isolate the disparate works on display and suggest a circulation route. It will readily adapt to future displays. The current gallery guide and catalog robustly supplement the artifacts. In keeping with the South Kensington environment and the backgrounds of Kukuli Velarde and Ibrahim Said, the guide and Jennifer Martin’s introduction to the catalog have been printed in Spanish and Arabic. Raymond Rorke, Communications Designer at the Clay Studio, is to be commended for the quality of the printed material.

A new beginning portends opportunity, transformation, and growth. Making Place Matter is a starting point for, and a stepping stone to, more matter that matters.

the author D Wood has a PhD in design studies and is an independent craft scholar whose artist profiles and exhibition reviews have appeared in an international roster of art and design publications. She is the editor of and contributor to Craft is Political (Bloomsbury, 2021).

1 Jennifer Zwilling and Elizabeth Essner, eds., Making Place Matter: Clay, Cultural Identity, and Community (Philadelphia: The Clay Studio, 2022), 18.

Photos: John Carlano.

Topics: Ceramic Artists