“I find that giving in to the serendipity of the process is incredibly cathartic,” says Alex Wilkinson, the talented Waikato-based ceramic artist behind Mystery Creek Ceramics.
Specialising in nerikomi, the Japanese art of folding coloured clay, Wilkinson uses this technique to embrace a huge array of colour and patterns in her work. Translated as ‘kneading’, nerikomi is an incredibly time-consuming way of making ceramics where layers of different coloured clay are stacked and pressed together. It’s only on slicing through the pressed clay that a single patterned piece is revealed, that can then be transformed into an object. “It’s very grounding and technique-focused. It takes many years to learn to bend the medium to what you want to do,” says Wilkinson.
Not for the impatient, one piece can take one month to construct and two weeks to fire. She loves the randomness, saying of the process, “Once the piece gets in the slab roller and in the kiln all kinds of weird and wonderful things can happen.”
From stripes to checks, to textured sprinkle glazes and her most popular design – a rainbow stripe – her pieces feel joyful, and bring a sense of optimism to a table. “I want them to feel like a little piece of art you can have your morning cup of coffee in,” she says.
Wilkinson wasn’t always set for a career as a ceramicist. After finishing high school, she began studying chemical engineering, then switched to business studies, but things finally felt like they clicked into place when she found her niche at art school working with clay. She credits ceramics with lifting her out of a depression that had taken hold as she eschewed her creative side and tried to conform to what she felt like she should be doing.
Looking back, it’s clear that this trajectory paved the way for the success of Mystery Creek Ceramics, with her business acumen put to good use and her aptitude for science an advantage in the colour chemistry involved in ceramic glazing. But at the time, the stop-and-start nature of her journey felt like a failure, something she attributes to her young age and having not really failed at anything before.
“Pottery taught me to fail on a small scale, and that you can try again and again,” she explains. “I can’t control what’s going to happen – you hand it over to the process. Even if something doesn’t work out, the process will have taught me something.” Working with clay has taught her the benefits of letting go of perfectionism, of making and remaking, and of embracing the process.
Having recently graduated with honours from a degree in sculpture, Wilkinson is working toward an exhibition showing her artistic work, opening mid-October at Ramp Gallery in Hamilton. The series of sculptural objects look like “small, gloopy desserts”, and, she says, have been vehicles for experimentation and pushing the boundaries of ceramic glazing.
Wilkinson now divides her time between Mystery Creek Ceramics, her personal artistic sculptural practice, and teaching, of which she says, “Passing my passion for ceramics on is my favourite part of my practice.”