When I first saw the work of Elise Birnbaum of OATMEAL - I instantly had a connection to it. The vessels she creates are works of art. The cloud pruned vessel (the one I have in my Dining Room - it gets ask about all the time) is what first drew me into Elise's work and I've been in complete love with the work she's created ever since. Her pieces have texture, movement and the formations the embody are like no other.
Her work is something I will cherish forever and I knew that I needed to reach out to Elise to share more of her story with all of you. I was incredibly honored she said yes so quickly. And I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did!
What drew you to working in ceramics?
I have always been someone who makes things, no matter the medium. I was working in retail display in a more corporate environment and I was kind of searching, for a way out and for a place to channel my energy for creating. For a while I would take all different kinds of classes on nights and weekends, I decided to take a ceramics class, which I hadn't done since high school, and I was immediately in love.
How did you manage to evolve your passion into a small business?
I started making things and sharing them on instagram, just for fun. I was getting a lot of interest from friends, then friends of friends, then complete strangers. My friend and I would get breakfast (oatmeal) and talk about the things we were making and how we wanted to leave our day jobs. At the time I was working a full time job, working part time at a friend's woodshop and then making ceramics in my spare time. The interest in my ceramic work kept growing and I knew I couldn't continue juggling what now was three jobs, so I took a leap and quit my full time job and less than a year later I had to leave the woodshop too to focus my time and energy on OATMEAL.
Tell us about your studio?
My studio is my favorite place in the world. I share a space in an old warehouse building with my dear friend and fellow ceramicist, Chealsea Erdner Scott who runs Bombabird. We found the space a little over a year ago, it has huge windows and tall ceilings and is just this big space we've been so fortunate to get to fill. We spent about a month building it out ourselves right before Chelsea got married and I left for Japan for a few months.
What is one thing you can't live without in your studio?
My dog. I love bringing my dog, Foss, to work. She makes me take breaks and is a good reminder that while my work is very important to me, I am more than my work.
Tell us a little about your process and how does the Japanese aesthetic connect to your work
My husband and I went on our honeymoon to Japan a few years ago and while we were still there I said to him "I have to come back and make work here". It is an incredibly inspiring place and I felt very connected to the Japanese cultural connection to objects and the thoughtful, considered approach Japanese people seem to apply to many aspects of life. I applied for a residency and spent a summer making ceramics in the Japanese Countryside. It changed my practice and my life. My process these days is that I sketch a lot, I come up with shapes or forms to make and then when I make the initial piece, I allow for the material to stray from my original idea. There is a big difference between a drawing a ceramic form and I let the material show me what it wants to be. Working with clay is a balancing act between being in control and letting go.
What does a typical day look like for you?
My day always starts with coffee. I like to get up early and enjoy a slow morning to myself on the couch, drinking my coffee and listening to some news. Then I might answer some emails or make some breakfast and head right to the studio. It always feels good to get into making early in the morning. My work tends to involve periods of active making and periods of waiting for the clay to set up and dry a little, so I try to work on multiple pieces at once. I might take a break in the early afternoon and take my dog to the park if the weather is nice (but we live in Pittsburgh, so more like "if the weather isn't terrible") and grab a coffee at a friend's coffee shop. I'll come back to the studio, work some more, pack up shipments that need to go out and then head out to do some sort of physical activity. My brain works best when I am consistently working out and I come up with a lot of ideas that way too. Then a quiet night in, making dinner with my husband or maybe with some friends and an early bedtime, always.
Where do you draw inspiration for new pieces? Travel, books, nature, etc.
My most recent collection of work was inspired by sculptural garden trees, or niwaki, you see all over Japan. Travel always inspires me, but so do all the books on my coffee table. I think I have become very open to the world and that has allowed me to find inspiration in a lot of different ways. I think some of that is a muscle, I've been working in the arts and making art all my life and have really exercised that muscle. I find that the more open you are to taking in the world, the more curious, the more easily inspiration comes, and from all different places. But I do love to travel and find it essential to staying curious.
What advice do you have for others trying to do something similar?
Work. Search. Work some more. There is no shortcut, there is no secret or golden ticket, there is something you have to find for yourself and the only way to find it is to go looking for it. I felt lost for years in terms of what I wanted to make, what medium, but I kept searching. Sometimes I still have moments when feel lost, but I keep pursuing it as if I know there is something to find, even when it is hard to trust.
How do you see your work evolving in the future?
I have a lot of different directions I would like to go. I have more sketches in my sketchbook than I could make and that feels like a very good problem to have. Sometimes I want to make more sculptural work, with less functionality. I think I will just continue to let the work lead me, it hasn't steered me wrong yet!
A HUGE thank you to Elise and please check out her sale that launches today, September 2nd.
Photos from Elise Birnbaum | OATMEAL