Slowness is the apogee of the creative process for Melbourne ceramicist Zhu Ohmu whose acclaimed ceramics are an ode to the intimacy of touch. Through clay, she explores the space between the form and formless.
Here we chat with Zhu about embracing craft with persistence and commitment, how her intentional wind down reassures her creative process and wellbeing and the upbringing that led to her becoming her own best friend.
Please share a little bit about yourself.
When I was seven, my family immigrated to Auckland, New Zealand from Taipei. At age 11, my family moved to Shanghai to spend time with my father who was working there at the time. I moved back to Auckland at age 13 and then to Melbourne at age 22. It wasn’t easy to be in transition and always adjusting in my formative years, but the lived experience has given me the gift of cross cultural sensitivity and being my own best friend.
One thing that was a constant in my life whilst growing up between cultures is my love of artistic expression. I didn’t come from an artistic family but I have been making art for as long as I can remember, and am lucky to have found this passion very early on. Although my parents wanted me to study business or accounting because I also excelled at maths in school, I am grateful they tolerated/supported my decision to attend Elam School of Fine Arts.
"One thing you can expect from my practice is slowness. Slow in the way I make, slow in releasing new works, slow in concept development. We are living in a society where our value is so tied up with speed, productivity, instant gratification and exponential growth – an insatiable cycle of mass production and consumption that has become extremely detrimental to our environment as well as our physical and mental health. We’re not allowing ourselves to exhale and rest"
What led you to your craft, were there any defining moments that influenced your love for ceramics?
I graduated from art school with a background in painting and drawing, moved to Melbourne and suffered a creative block for two years - and too much partying was partly to blame. I made a conscious decision to dedicate more time to the studio. My ceramics practice started in 2015, when I started experimenting with more tactile mediums to make vessels for pot plants. I taught myself the hand building technique from online videos/forums and by asking a lot of questions at the local kiln.
Handbuilding may be the most direct and simple method for interacting with clay – pressure is applied and the clay responds - but it is a tactile sensibility where one must rely on the physical friction between the hands and the clay body to discern where and how the material will move. I love the intimacy of touch that explores the transitional space where clay vacillates between formless and form.
Your work investigates the resurgence of the handmade and the ethics of slowness in an age of mass production. Can you share a little more about this musing?
One thing you can expect from my practice is slowness. Slow in the way I make, slow in releasing new works, slow in concept development. We are living in a society where our value is so tied up with speed, productivity, instant gratification and exponential growth – an insatiable cycle of mass production and consumption that has become extremely detrimental to our environment as well as our physical and mental health. We’re not allowing ourselves to exhale and rest.
Slowness has now become an act of resistance for me. It is honouring my process and my general wellbeing.
What do you hope people will see, feel and think when they view your craft?
I’m less concerned with what people will think or feel when they engage with my work, but I would like them to slow down and notice deeply.
Do you have any advice for those looking to pursue a career in the creative realm of craftsmanship?
Make it your practice. The definition of practice is the repeated exercise of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency. It is a commitment. Embrace failure as a learning process.
We noticed you headed home to Aotearoa back in May to connect with your loved ones. What was it like returning after such an extensive lockdown in Melbourne?
It was very special to see my family and let the land that raised me fill my cup. I am glad I went home when I was able to - I cherished every moment and was cherished in return. A few friends I have not seen in many years have moved home since the pandemic and we spent a couple of nights revisiting our old haunts.
Texture or colour?
Summer or winter?
Most treasured accessory?
A pale duck egg blue jade bangle that was originally a gift from my grandfather to my grandmother, passed down to my mum then to me.
Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
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