Ebony Russell grew up in the outer suburbs of Melbourne and the Otway’s, and has always felt somewhat stuck between city and country as a result of this. She studied in Melbourne, which is where she met her husband and started a family. In late 2017 she and her family relocated to Sydney, in turn leaving a teaching job to study a Master Of Fine Art degree at The National Art School, Sydney. Ebony now works full time as an artist and lecturer at The National Art School Sydney. We had the privilege of interviewing Ebony, so read on to find out the inspiration behind her mouth-watering, sickly sweet porcelain pieces.
What is your background? How did you start working with ceramics?
I was raised by a family of women who all used craft as a voice. Looking back now, I can see how my love of art was shaped by the matrilineal craft practices of my mother, aunts and grandmothers. The skills that were passed down through the traditions from both sides of my immigrant family, shaped my love of craft and art from an early age. I was always surrounded by women making things for love and for family – many of these skills helped to earn extra cash and give independence to otherwise untrained and often uneducated homemakers. I decided early on that I was going to pursue art.
How did you start working with ceramics?
As an artist and as an educator I wanted to turn my passion and skills in art into a career. I have never regretted this decision – I love being an artist and sharing my passion with the students I have taught. My pathway to art began in childhood, when my creations in the school art room were first admired. I was drawn to clay’s transformational power, and living in the Otways I was surrounded by a strong ceramic community. I worked with renowned porcelain doll maker Pauline Middleton, at 15 won first place in the Colac Show for student sculpture, and did a residency with potter John Golding for my VCA ceramic project. The art room was my place in the world and stayed that way through my adolescence, leading me into a Bachelor of Applied Arts at Monash University and art teaching.
Your pieces can be incredibly ornate and use techniques, like piping porcelain, to create
your forms. How did this come about?
In my current art practice, the use of decoration explores my experiences of gender construction and feminine sensibility, and works to challenge this perception that practices that were traditionally coded as particularly feminine, are in some way insignificant. Porcelain and sugar are linked together in their collective representations as objects of desire, excess and luxury. The relationship between them and their mutual falls from grace, if you will, have become an important aspect of my practice.
I’m interested in clay, particularly porcelain, for many reasons. Its history is extensive and full of contradictions. Porcelain was first used to imitate the sugar sculptures of the European court in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, a time in which the genius and skill of the confectioner was still highly valued. Porcelain was emblematic of imperial taste, and not until later was it considered to be decorative, thus ‘feminine’. The material is bound up with seduction, consumption and desire and latterly, with the denigration of the decorative. It is what I love to think of as a particularly ‘loaded material’ and by using the markedly feminised craft techniques of cake decoration, I hope to create this sort of playground in which to celebrate the decorative, the promiscuous aesthetics and politics of impurity, as well as the superficial and the excessive – with pleasure and delight.
How do you develop your ideas and what’s your process of working?
By incorporating techniques and processes traditionally used in cake decorating, the saccharine embellishments and delicate layers (representative of a nostalgia for my own experiences in childhood and adolescence) are intensified and given permanence with the use of high-fired porcelain. In a sense, by focusing on decoration as my main form of construction, I recreate my childhood dreams. I push the medium to its breaking point, inviting collapse and instability in the form. Once the damage is imminent, I switch my focus to one of preservation and protection - attempting to save it from ruin and total deterioration.
I spent the last two years studying at the National Art School, Sydney, where I had a beautiful, light-filled private studio in the ceramics department. Since my graduation in 2019 I have taken a permanent residence at Kil.n.it in Glebe. Kil.n.it is an experimental ceramics studio with 12 resident artist and kilns, a classroom and workshop for both public and community use. My studio is where I make all my sculptures – it’s a great place to work with a fun and vibrant community. I also have a studio space at home with two kilns. My daughters are both in primary school and I work in my studio daily between their school hours. My focus is my practice and raising my daughters. It’s taken me 15 years of fulltime teaching to get to this point in my career. Returning to study in my late 30’s and with young children was a challenge, but it has set me up to have a more flexible work-life balance and combine my family duties with teaching, creating and parenting. Having a space and kilns at home gives me the freedom and flexibility to glaze and decorate in my own hours – I’m often found midnight lustering and loading kilns in the dark.
Have you been able to make a career/ living from your artwork?
Lecturing and teaching as a profession gives me the ability to work as an artist – it’s a regular income and helps me to support my practice. Teaching ceramics to Bachelor of Fine Art students or art to secondary students keeps me thinking and always open to new ideas and perspectives. The dialogue, questions and perspectives of students are often fresh and provocative, which naturally extends my own inquiry. I also teach primary extracurricular art classes at my daughters’ school. I love working with young kids, the energy and freedom that they use to express themselves is inspiring and reminds me to keep trying and pushing the boundaries and rules of art.
Ebony's conceptual and sculptural work is exhibited through Artereal Gallery in Rozelle Sydney. She is currently working towards a major solo exhibition there this November, showcasing a series od major new artworks, including a large-scale ceramic installation.
She also makes one of a kind and limited edition functional objects through Piped Dreams Studio, which she stocks in her online shop. Modern Times and Craft Victoria currently feature a selection of Ebony's one of a kind, limited-edition functional objects.