From a clay-covered, pot plant-heavy North Adelaide backyard, ceramicist Ayesha Aggarwal creates simple but eye-catching pieces inspired by native florae.
“I was looking to be more social after a breakup, and always wanted to do clay classes so I thought I’d give it a shot,” Aggarwal tells The Adelaide Review. “[At first] I was really bad at it – I can show you my first pot – but I just kind of kept going.”
Her output quickly improved and, after some more night classes and years of practice, Aggarwal’s work has become a popular fixture among Adelaide’s various design and artist markets.
As her practice developed, almost every unclaimed surface in her North Adelaide home grew to be part of the production process, and her long-disused carport became home to a different kind of wheel.
“I used to take everything to fire at TAFE, catching the bus with a big box of pieces… I definitely lost a few on the way! I bought this one second hand from [Adelaide ceramicist] Katia Carletti,” she says of the small green kiln that sits opposite a shelf full of semi-completed pieces.
“What I can make in a day usually fills a shelf, and that usually fills the kiln, so it’s quite a nice balance in that respect. But it’s still pretty slow going.”
In many of her pieces, the soft, smooth whites and greys of the clay contrast neatly with the colourful banksia, wattle and Sturt’s desert pea blooms that adorn them. Unlike many ceramicists, Aggarwal prefers to leave the exterior of her pots, planters and vases with an unvarnished matte finish, save for a light brush of varnish to make the raised floral details pop.
After a decade or so of resurgent cultural cringe, the kind of colourful Australiana that made Ken Done rich has enjoyed a gentle resurgence in recent years thanks to a new generation of artists like Aggarwal and Adelaide scarf queen Julie White.
“Australian natives are so weird – I hadn’t really seen anything like that before I got here,” she says. “I came to boarding school when I was 13, and just kind of stayed. I didn’t see so much of these kinds of natives, but I remember the bottlebrush and, although it’s not native, the jacaranda, and I just thought ‘What is this cool, weird plant?’ I remember those plants very vividly because of the colours.”
Aggarwal is part of a growing number of Adelaide artists embracing jewellery as a means to make accessible, small-scale versions of her work. “I wanted to make a version of the pots that was wearable,” she says of her first forays into ceramic earrings.
“That’s why I went with this vase shape – they’re just quite an elegant, easy shape for anyone to wear. My first prototypes were mostly kinds of different leaves, but were so heavy. It took a bit of refining; I always messed around with making jewellery as a kid, but never thought to make it out of clay before now.”
While her makeshift outdoor studio has its limitations (“Last summer I was trying to throw on a 45 degree day, but it was hard to know what was sweat and what was water from the clay,” she admits), the blurred lines between Aggarwal’s work and home space has afforded her the flexibility to continue to feel her way to the next phase of her practice.
“I feel like my work is entirely mood-based; it tends to dictate when I pick the colours. That’s why I have so many designs too – I’m no good at restricting myself,” she says, looking over the sea of unpainted pieces that cover a dining room table that evidently sees a lot more clay than food.
Like any good millennial, she sheepishly admits her botanical fixation has its roots in the generation’s obsession with houseplants. This, perhaps, helps explain how her designs have found such an enthusiastic audience.
Her work does have one important advantage over plant varieties whose Instagram clout is proportionate to their mortality rate. “You can’t kill them,” she laughs.
“That’s my vibe – plants you can’t kill!”
Photos by Sia Duff
*This content was first published on adelaidereview.com.au and has been posted with permission.