SMH ‘My Best Worst’: Ebony Russell

SMH ‘My Best Worst’: Ebony Russell

Feature by Lissa Christopher.

Each week, SMH asks someone to tell them about the upside of a bad experience or rough patch. This week features NAS alumna and staff Ebony Russell.

To practise ceramic art is to court disaster, says Ebony Russell, a practising artist and a lecturer at the National Art School in Sydney.

There are so many opportunities for things to go wrong: collapse during construction, getting knocked before being put into the kiln, melting in the kiln, exploding in the kiln, sustaining damage from someone else’s work exploding in the kiln, being dropped coming out of the kiln …

“Every step along the path is fraught with danger,” she says. “You are constantly aware that you may lose the piece at some point in the process … In my studio, I have to carry work downstairs to a kiln room and I’m sweating bullets every time I do it.

“You become a bit resilient or you may as well not stick with it.”

Ebony can still vividly recall the moment 20 years ago when the head fell off the final piece she had been working on for weeks during her second year at art school. It was a bust with “this huge elaborate headpiece with orchid flowers … Basically, I had made the head too heavy and the neck was very thin and elongated; [it was] a very Modigliani inspired female form. I was working on it and it fell, and I caught it in my hands. It was a sickening feeling, gut-wrenching.”

It also happened in front of her peers. “In ceramics, catastrophes are happening all over the place, that’s part of the learning, but it’s quite humbling when it’s you,” she says.

“I could have just lost [my mind], let it defeat me or given up and started again,” she says, but she decided to push on and attempt a repair, yet another risky step with ceramics that “often comes back to haunt you later”.

In this case, however, the repair was successful and later in the year, it would become the first piece of her own art Ebony sold.

“I will never forget that piece,” she says. “I think the first piece you ever sell really sticks with you. So I was quite pleased with myself but I also learnt a lot about building better.

“It’s funny though … sometimes the discovery has been in the accidents. If you’re too controlled I think you miss out on things, you lose that avenue to discover something new.

“And when you work with porcelain especially, you have to work in the current moment. You have to deal with what the porcelain does, as it does it. You have to let go a bit.

“I always laugh because most of my close girlfriends say I’m really calm in a crisis. I think when a catastrophe happens I just give in to it and think, well, what’s the point of fighting it? With ceramics, at some point, you have to give in to the medium and you get used to being able to accept the way things happen because you can’t change it.”

Image: Ebony Russell in her studio. Photo: Simon Hewson.
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