Sandra Olivieri: on ceramics, losing your way, and finding your path. Part I.

If you’ve been paying this blog even just the most cursory attention, you will recognize this girl – Sandra is one of my best and oldest friends, and also the faithful companion to many travel adventures, and also, consequently, a long-suffering model for several of my photographs. Sandra and I grew up in the same small town in North-Eastern Italy, and although we never went to school together we inevitably met each other through mutual friends (Gorizia is very small) and quickly developed a friendship that has lasted through more than ten years, various moves across different countries, and assorted heartbreaks, shitty jobs, and terrible decisions. On top of all of this, though – and more to the point – Sandra is also a creative and talented artist, whose work focuses primarily on ceramics. I think her story, and the way she tells it, is full of fascinating details about following your inspiration, leaving and returning home, and losing and finding yourself again; so when I went back to Gorizia this summer, I asked Sandra if I could interview her and take some pictures in her studio. Hanging out with this girl and talking about life, art, and (inevitably) various bits of gossip is one of my favourite things to do in the world, and I hope this little interview conveys at least some of the fun of our conversations. Below is Part I – Part II to be published in about a week! 

Hi there! Can you tell us who you are?

Hello! My name is Sandra Olivieri. I am a ceramicist from Gorizia, Italy.

Nice and concise, just as we like it. So, let’s jump in – how was your passion for ceramics born?

It all started when I was 17. I went on an exchange trip to China with my school – it was technically conceived for people who were studying Chinese, but there weren’t enough of them, so I basically snuck in last minute. Since it was supposed to be a “cultural exchange”, in addition to visiting Beijing’s main landmarks, we also attended a school for a few days and engaged in traditional Chinese activities. And one of these was ceramics! It was quite funny because since the teachers there spoke very little English communication was pretty difficult, so it was very hard to work out in advance what we were going to do on any given day – we were more or less picked up like sacks of potatoes, loaded onto a bus, and driven to various places. Every day was a new surprise! On the day in question we drove two hours to a warehouse in the middle of nowhere, and we more or less resigned ourselves to the fact that we were going to get murdered. But instead it turned out that the warehouse was full of throwing wheels – someone did a very short demonstration and then they went “okay, now it’s your turn to throw!”. That afternoon ended up shaping my entire ceramics career – to this day, throwing is my favourite thing to do. It was so much fun – the feeling of throwing my hands into the dirt and coming up with my shape is still so vivid in my memory, it was magical.   

And then you took some ceramic courses when you came back to Italy…

Yes, kind of. I was already doing artsy stuff at the time – I liked painting, drawing, things like that. But then I became curious about ceramics and I looked for courses in my hometown, but since it’s so small I couldn’t really find anything. I did eventually find a course at one point during my B.A., but I didn’t really like it – I felt like I didn’t learn that much, and the studio that organised it focused on a specific technique called coiling (“colombino”) which I don’t particularly like as it’s so slow. All I wanted to do was throw, but I quickly realised that not many studios focus on that! I then found another course with a teaching style I liked more, but they also focused on coiling and didn’t teach throwing. I was still glad I had a chance to get my hands dirty and play with ceramics and learn more about it, but I didn’t get to do what I really wanted. 

And at the time, as you mentioned, you were not pursuing ceramics as a career.

Exactly – after high school I decided to study something else, so I took both of the courses I mentioned while studying at university. For a number of years I didn’t really believe in the viability of an artistic career, at least for myself, so I did a B.A. in Cultural Tourism and then a masters in International Relations, which involved studying in Berlin, Nice and Istanbul.

And how did you eventually come back to ceramics? What made you believe that you could pursue it, not even necessarily as a career, but at least as a serious hobby? 

I think it was the fact that I genuinely hated every other job I tried, and I tried many! I travelled a lot, both when I was studying and when I wasn’t, I worked abroad, I tried many different things, and to be completely honest I hated them all. And then I had this conversation with a good friend of mine while we were both studying in Nice, and it kind of changed everything. It was late at night, we were smoking out of the window and talking about life, as you do, and I confessed that I had no idea what to do with my life. And he said something along the lines of: “You should just do what you want to do!”. And I said: “But I have no idea what I want to do! The last thing I truly enjoyed was ceramics, but I can’t do ceramics”. And he went: “…why not?”. And I went: “…that’s a good question”. And I mean, it’s hard to argue with that logic – I hate everything else, and as the latest studies have shown, I actually don’t hate doing ceramics! So that was basically it. I did finish my M.A., but after this big revelation I decided that I was going to become a ceramic artist. I actually have a funny story about this – after my dissertation viva, my examiners congratulated me and asked what I wanted to do afterwards. And I just went: “…I want to be a ceramic artist, actually”.

And how did they take it?

This one French Economics professor, who was also the coordinator for the whole course, looked really confused and said: “Um, that’s nice? Did you know that beforehand or did you decide during the M.A.?”. And I went “…I actually decided that during the M.A.”. He was pretty cool about it – he said: “I’m glad the course helped you figure that out – good luck!”.

I’m sure you got some transferable skills from it at least! 

Yeah, jokes aside this is something I’ve actually been thinking about a lot recently. I used to wonder how things would have turned out if I’d studied Fine Arts at university, or if I’d actually got into ceramic school in Portugal – more on this later! Or what if I’d just gone to art school as I originally wanted to do but didn’t because I didn’t think there was a job market for it and teachers, parents and relatives put a lot of pressure on me not to go for it. For context, this was shortly after the 2008 crisis, so there was a lot of stigma around the art and culture job market – everyone said that I would never make a living out of it, and I didn’t have the guts to stick with what I really wanted to do. For many years I wondered what would have happened if I had, but I actually think I learned a lot from my alternative path – I don’t regret studying what I did because this kind of lateral knowledge is always useful. And I did learn how to get properly drunk, which is always an asset! 

I remember this episode from when I was in middle school – we were about 12. We were studying music, focusing on Vivaldi or some other composer, and this guy just went “enough of this! How is this ever going to be useful to me?”. And my friend Irene got up and said “Culture is always useful! It’s for your own personal growth!”. Everyone immediately fell silent – Irene had always been a pretty quiet girl, she wasn’t confrontational at all, but that one time she just stood up to this guy. I thought “yeah, that’s my friend”. And I think about that episode a lot – I learned a lot of useless stuff but hey, the more you know… I like learning and I think it’s fun! 

Lol, nerd.

Hey, look who’s talking! 

I jest, I jest… I obviously get what you’re saying – I studied philosophy, which is another “useless” humanities degree. 

Yes, and I remember what everyone said when you decided to do that – which is basically the same things they said to me! And I always really admired you for sticking with your decision.  

But in a way they were right – I didn’t end up getting a philosophy-related job, mainly because I looked at the state of academia and went “lol, no way”. 

But I remember that you didn’t do a philosophy degree because you wanted to be a professional philosopher, but because you wanted to write and you thought it would be helpful.

Exactly! And I think the things you study don’t always end up being useful for your career, necessarily, but they can just be interesting and useful for you as a person. And, as obvious as it sounds, you are not just your career, you are also, you know, a person! 

But in addition to that, I think in the careers that both you and I ended up choosing having all this knowledge makes us better at our jobs! As a producer, writer, researcher, having a solid cultural background is so important. And as an artist it’s crucial to have all of your spiritual shit together.

Yes, and to be curious about the world and to know a bit about it.



The second part of the interview will be published next week – what happened in Portugal? How did coronavirus affect Sandra’s plans? And what’s next for our favourite ceramicist? All the questions I know you’re dying to ask will be answered next week; for now, check out Sandra’s Instagram page to see more of her works and follow her on her ceramics journey!

Read Part II here


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