Welcome to Part II of my interview with my good friend & favourite ceramicist Sandra Olivieri! Today we are going to find out what Sandra did after she finally decided to become a ceramicist, how coronavirus messed with her plans, and how she nevertheless carved out a path for herself in the unlikeliest of places. I know you are positively BURSTING with anticipation so let’s jump straight in!
So we went on a bit of a philosophical tangent last time, and while it was very interesting I think it’s time to get back to our story – well, your story. We left you as a recent M.A. graduate in International Relations. What happened next?
At that point, as we have seen, I had decided that I wanted to become a ceramic artist, so I thought “how should I go about doing that? Well, I need to go to school”. There aren’t many ceramic schools in Italy, and while you can choose ceramics as a specialist path within a Fine Arts degree, I wasn’t keen to go back to university for that long. On the other hand, Portugal and Spain have a longstanding ceramic tradition as well as specialized schools, and while I was on holiday in Lisbon a couple of years before that…
Yes, you were there when this happened! I stumbled into this ceramics atelier and asked the owner where she had studied, and she gave me this scrap of paper with the name of her school on it. And I just happened to still have it when I was deciding what to do after my M.A., so that’s how my future was decided. But there was a lot of bureaucracy involved in the enrolment – since it was subsidised by the government I had to be an official resident of Portugal, find a house, a job… So I moved to Porto, got a temporary job, and I was basically waiting for the next enrolment window to open, which wasn’t going to happen for another 7-8 months. While I was waiting, I took ceramic courses in two different ateliers alongside my job as a tourist guide (my transferable skills coming in handy again!). And it was then that I finally learned to throw. The first atelier I joined mostly focused on sculpture, which was great because I found out I really liked it. But here I also met a French girl who had gone to ceramic school in France where she had learned how to throw. She was doing a four-month internship at the atelier, but she didn’t want to go that long without practicing her throwing skills, so she found another atelier that had a throwing wheel and brought me along. Here I met my ceramics mentor and general lifecoach Clara, a Brazilian lady with 45 years’ experience in throwing – if I hadn’t met her, I wouldn’t be where I am now. This was late 2019/early 2020; then coronavirus happened and I wasn’t able to enrol in the ceramic school like I had planned. I had to leave in a hurry – I lost my job and had to move back to Italy. So I lost a lot of what I had been slowly building in the previous months.
So to give some context to our readers, Sandra left Portugal with a suitcase full of vases…
Not vases, actually, I only brought back two of my works: Giuliana, my first statue, and Istanbul, which is a low-relief map of the city made up of twelve tiles – it is heavy as fuck and it was in my backpack for the whole journey. So I physically had to carry the weight of my art on my back! I literally couldn’t bring back anything else – some of my sculptures were incomplete and wouldn’t have survived the journey, some were complete but didn’t fit in my suitcase… I still have an ex-boyfriend in Portugal who’s got a suitcase full of my vases and has recently stopped responding to my texts!
I told you – once the pandemic is over, we have to fly over to Portugal and rescue your vases! We’re going to show up at his flat and I’m going to wear a black outfit with sunglasses and menacingly stand behind you, you know, all gangster-like. It’s going to be great.
I’ll take you up on that. So yeah, I spent the lockdown in Italy, which was very boring and gave me a lot of time to think – I feel like many people found themselves in this position. I thought I wouldn’t be able to live abroad again for a long time; this was back in April when things were even more uncertain than they are now. Luckily I had already learnt the basics of throwing – it’s not something you can improvise at the beginning, but if you have the basics down you can keep practicing and progress on your own. So I invested in a wheel and started throwing, and a few months later (so very recently) I even got a job in a ceramic studio here!
If you’re not from around here, you might not understand how preposterous this is – Staranzano is a tiny village twenty minutes from here.
My destiny was waiting for me right here, twenty minutes from my hometown!
But you had to get there via Spain, Turkey, Portugal… Because if you hadn’t had that experience you might not have got the job.
Yes, and also this studio doesn’t work with throwing that much, so if I’d got this job at the very beginning I wouldn’t have been able to develop the side of my practice I love the most. And this long and winding journey was needed just to decide that I wanted to become a ceramic artist and also to define my aesthetic. So in hindsight I don’t regret it at all.
So what is your current situation? What do you do as part of your job?
The studio I work for specializes in porcelain and high-temperature, which is very cool because I had no idea how to do either of these things. I’m learning to work with a very delicate material and with high temperatures, and this is something I did want to learn at some point. There are very few people who do it because it’s very difficult, so it’s a great opportunity to do something very ambitious. Aside from that, they also work with moulds quite a lot, which I initially wasn’t super interested in but I’ve actually enjoyed learning so far.
And what about your own personal projects?
I’m still practicing – I’m trying to build my style and constantly improve. I still feel like I have so much to learn! Currently I’m practicing making handles, which is really not easy! I’m just experimenting a lot, doing lots of different things, finding my aesthetic. Hopefully when I have enough experience, both on the ceramics side and the business management side, I can open my own studio and start selling my works. And become FILTHY RICH through my ART. That is the fetish.
Godspeed, my friend! Okay, we’re approaching the end of the interview and I only have a couple more questions for you. The first is only tangentially related to ceramics but it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately and I’d like to know what you think. Both you and I decided to leave Italy and move to a different country – I moved to the UK where I’ve been living for seven years now, and you have lived in several different countries, as we have seen. As it happens, I am still based in the UK, while you ended up coming back to Italy, at least for now. I think when you’re young you might tend to think that living abroad is cool for its own sake, but we’re both getting to a point in our lives when we actually start thinking about what we want and what country really suits us best – what kind of life we want and what country will help us live that life. So my question is whether your perspective of moving away from your country has changed over the years, what you have learned from the time you spent abroad and what you think you want to do in the future.
I think a part of me will always have the instinct to move countries when things aren’t going my way – boyfriend dumps you? Move countries. Lost your job? Move countries. You have an argument with your mum? Move countries. You’re vaguely inconvenienced by the weather? Move countries! I did actually do that at one point – I moved to the Canary Islands for like four months between August and December because I hate winter. So if I get the chance, I would love to live abroad again – maybe in Turkey or in Japan, which are countries whose ceramic traditions I really want to learn about. I’ve also considered living elsewhere in Italy, maybe in Tuscany or Southern Italy, for the same reason. Before opening my own studio, I would really like to work with someone who focuses on the techniques I’m most interested in.
But more broadly, it is true that I ended up back in Gorizia more or less randomly, but the improvised plan I made up actually ended up working out! When I was in Portugal I was very stressed – it was all very exciting, sure, but my financial situation was much more precarious and I didn’t have much of a support network. When I came back to Italy, I realised I could have all the things I wanted – my art, my ceramics career – but also all the things that I missed, like my friends and more economic stability – I know how the bureaucracy works here, it’s easier to get a job, I’m living with my parents so I don’t have to pay rent, everything is generally just easier. At one point after I bought my wheel I realised it wouldn’t be so easy for me to move again – I mean, realistically, where could I go with this enormous 40 kg thing? And I realised that it didn’t bother me – I could have my art and also all the things I missed so much while living abroad: my friends, more economic stability…
… cheap Aperol Spritz, decent pizza…
Yes, you know, all the basic necessities! I spent so much time trying to run away from home but missing it really badly at the same time. Home became a symbol of everything that was wrong in my life, but that was bullshit – I was just young and stupid, that was the main issue! I think it was important for me to live abroad and I’m still struggling to accept that I’m here and it’s okay, but I feel much more at peace with it than I used to.
That’s really interesting. Okay, one last question: what would be your advice to someone who’s in the same situation as you were when you graduated high school? Or even if you could give 19-year-old you some advice – what would it be?
Stop giving so many fucks, basically. That’s what I struggled with the most at the time; for so many years in which I wasn’t actively pursuing an artistic career I thought “why am I even doing art if it’s not for money?”. Which is such a stupid mindset. For four very dark years I didn’t actually make any art at all – I was very insecure and I felt like everyone would judge me. Ceramics has been really good for me because I didn’t have any insecurities about it – like, of course I’m going to suck at it at first, I’m just starting out, and also in general it’s regarded as objectively hard! So I was able to allow myself to accept that my first works were going to suck. I never had this attitude towards painting and drawing – I’ve been doing it for many years, so I thought “right, I should be good by now”, but then I didn’t think I was and I couldn’t accept it, and it was just a horrible vicious circle. I’ve started painting again in the last month or so, and a lot of people told me that they didn’t like my paintings, and to my great surprise I realised I frankly didn’t give a shit anymore! If they’d told me the same things five years ago I would have cried for hours, but this time it helped me realise that, again, I really didn’t care.
Yeah, it’s just like, their opinion, man.
Exactly! And the ability to share my work on the internet has also helped me put things in perspective – for every person who doesn’t like my stuff there will be a hundred who do like it. So, in conclusion: stop giving so many fucks, someone out there is going to love what you do eventually.
I feel like this nugget of wisdom is an excellent note to end our interview on – thank you to Sandra for being a most gracious and patient interviewee and model, and also for the excellent aperitivo we treated ourselves to when we were done (I was truly not kidding about the cheap Aperol Spritz). I encourage you once again to follow Sandra on Instagram and maybe slide into her DMs to commission a vase/bowl or two – having an original Olivieri is going to be an impressive marker of taste and sophistication in only a few years’ time, you just watch. I hope you enjoyed reading this interview as much as I did working on it – catch you next time!