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Where Earth Meets Fire: The Masterful Porcelain Creations of Alice Drew

by Joey Phoenix

The Salem Chamber of Commerce hosted the 94th Annual Celebrate Salem Awards Dinner on April 27, 2016 at the Peabody Essex Museum. The theme was Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age, which corresponds to the current exhibit on display at the Museum until this coming June. 

Each year, the Chamber selects a distinctive artist to craft unique awards for the event, someone who will be able to capture the spirit of the theme and infuse that vibrance into the pieces themselves. This year, that person was the talented Boston-based ceramicist Alice Drew. 

“I work in porcelain and screen print the surfaces of my work using underglazes. The screen prints are made from my drawings. The specific imagery that I chose for the Awards blends European plate borders, Dutch trading ships, and figures from Japanese woodblock prints. The forms that I used are inspired by porcelain vases and plates found in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.”

“The Executive Director of the Salem Chamber of Commerce, Rinus Oosthoek, contacted me in January and asked if I would be interested in making the awards for the 2016 Celebrate Salem Awards. His wife, Gina Chase, was a student of mine at The Clay School a few years ago, so he was familiar with me and my work.” 

The commission was an exciting and challenging one for Alice, and she rose to it expertly. 

“There are six different awards, and I wanted each award to be different in form, but work well together as a collective whole. I designed [them] with the blending of Eastern and Western European themes and motifs in mind, while also incorporating the importance of the shipping industry in the trade routes in early New England.”

Alice’s pieces for the event perfectly captured the feel that the event directors were trying to convey, and incorporated the richly decorated and illustrative scenes customary in her portfolio – a dynamic gallery which contains masterfully designed narrative scenes ranging from clipper ships to birds in flight to vintage patterns. 

When crafting new pieces, Alice draws inspiration from both the natural and domestic worlds, pulling from bold colors of damask and brocade fabrics, dramatic architectural details (both Eastern and Western), and a wide range of natural elements. 

“I am inspired equally by both the natural and domestic worlds. Because I am so tied to my domestic role as a mother and caregiver, I am inspired by patterns and objects found in the home, fabrics, wallpapers, furniture and interior architectural details. Elements of the natural world inspire me by the freedom and adventure I see in the flora and fauna around me.” 

Alice describes her work as screen-printed, hand-built porcelain pottery, and although she doesn’t claim a favorite product, she loves making teapots. She also handcrafts bowls, mugs, pitchers, plates, platters, trays, tumblers, and vases. 

“I work in porcelain and screen print the surfaces of my work using underglazes.  The screen prints are made from my drawings. The specific imagery that I chose for the Awards blends European plate borders, Dutch trading ships, and figures from Japanese woodblock prints. The forms that I used are inspired by porcelain vases and plates found in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.”

Having grown up in a home where art was at the forefront of her life – her father and three sisters were artists and her mother a musician – Alice was able to appreciate creativity and the processes involved therein from an early age. Yet, while her burgeoning talent was encouraged by the support of her family, she attributes her dedication to her craft to the example set by her grandmother.

“I was close to my grandmother, she lived and worked on a dairy farm, so I think I got my work ethic from her. She was a hard worker; always making dolls, doll clothes, mittens, and baking.” 

Despite growing up with a family of artists, Alice didn’t always know that she would one day spend countless hours transforming clay into beautiful pieces of art. it wasn’t until college that she was able to narrow in on ceramics as a possible career path. 

“I took my first ceramics class during my junior year in college. I was originally a graphic design major, but after taking a ceramics class, I changed concentrations.” 

To quote Jerry Gillies, “You’ll discover your own path when you come upon it, because suddenly you’ll have all the energy and imagination you’ll ever need.” This certainly seems the case for Alice. 

“I love working with clay, at all of its various stages. I get such a high level of satisfaction working with the material, and creating useful utilitarian objects with my hands.”

Like Alice eventually found out, there’s so much more to ceramics than simply firing clay, and the process of converting raw materials into finished products is a beautiful journey in itself. Although, being a mother of three small children (all under seven years), she isn’t able to get into the studio as much as she’d like. 

“I typically go in to my studio early on a Saturday morning before anyone in our house is up.  But before I go in, during the week, I will prepare drawings, and sketches for the pieces that I want to make for that Saturday. All of my drawing and sketching is usually done while our youngest child naps. 

“I have to really utilize my time well and work with economy, because my time in the studio is so limited.” 

Yet once she’s there, she wastes no time making the magic happen. 

“Once I am in the studio. I roll out the clay slabs that I need for the day, and organize my screens and underglazes.  I gather all of my templates, for the various pieces that I’ll need, and cut the clay from the slabs and start printing. Once my clay slabs are printed, I assemble the work into different forms. The length of time it takes to make each piece, depends entirely on what objects that I am making. Pitchers, teapots and mugs take a lot longer to make than plates and bowls, so some days I can make 8-10 bowls, but only 2-3 pitchers.”

It’s incredible to think what’s she able to accomplish despite how little time she actually has. 

“I wish I had more time in the studio, and more time to develop my work. There are a lot of directions that I would like to take my work, but not enough time to devote to it. Eventually I will have more time for studio work, when my kids are a bit older. This is just the season of my life that I am in right now, where my children need and depend on me more.” 

At the moment, in addition to creating the signature pieces that she’s come to be known for, she has started to work on a few new creations including fine art wall pieces and free-formed large floral tiles. 

To Alice, creativity is about finding her voice in whatever material she is working on, whether she’s crafting a stunning nature-inspired teapot or a artful vase with scenes derived from the streets of Paris or the minarets of Istanbul. 

If you didn’t have the privilege of seeing Alice’s unique creations up close at the Celebrate Salem awards ceremony this past April, fear not. In November of this year, she will be participating in the “Ortlip Gallery Ceramics Invitational” at Houghton College and in December, you can find her at Craft Boston at the Hynes Convention Center. 

Joey Phoenix is a Salem-based, photographer and videographer and proud member of the Creative Salem team. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @jphoenixmedia

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