Narelle White

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Narelle White and ceramics. Image credit Phi Nguyen.

With a passion for the messiness and unpredictability of experimental ceramics, Narelle White's practice challenges traditional notions of ceramic sculpture. With the support of the Cultural Trust, Narelle undertook a ceramic artist's residency at the European Ceramic Workcentre (EKWC) in Oisterwijk, Netherlands. EKWC is a workspace dedicated to supporting artists, designers and architects explore the possibilities of the ceramic medium. Known for its ambitious technical innovations, the centre’s team of specialised employees guide the residents in their work.

How did the residency at EKWC further your artistic practice? 

My EKWC residency provided the conditions for an intensive period of research and production. I was incredibly privileged to work alongside artists from all over the world and to gain exposure to many of the most technologically advanced and cutting-edge practices in my field. I was supported to push (and find) the limits of my experimental clay-bodies, to refine their material profiles, and to create a body of work that speaks to the uniqueness of this experience. All of this has set in motion a range of new reflections that I continue to unpack and decipher!

One technical challenge for my EKWC project was around size (how big can my experimental clay-body be?) but I also engaged with this question conceptually. Taking scale as an inherent quality of an artwork, and distinct from size, I created a body of work wherein smaller sculptures live in dialogue with larger kin, to produce ambiguous narratives of origins and growth. While I am still asked ‘how big can you go?’, I feel some peace with this question. What matters to me is an object’s internal coherence and the way it inhabits an environment – whether real or imagined. Observing the ways that size can alter a form’s effect and material language is more constructive. And it is often my smallest pieces that resonate with audiences the most.

Perhaps the greatest catalyst for growth was the experience of living side-by-side with other artists at different stages of their careers. It was an inclusive and levelling atmosphere, and I felt a shift in my own estimation of my work. I learnt to stop striving for what is absent in my practice and to recognise what is uniquely present. This shift has informed a new clarity of voice in my work, and it delights me when others observe this too.

What did you learn from working with the specialised team at EKWC? 

Working with incredible facilities and a specialised team of technical advisors stretched me in every direction. The team were generous with their knowledge and supported me to find answers whenever possible – from how to assess the health risks of my experimental techniques; or refine the ‘melt’ of my clay-body; through to unpacking the possibilities of 3d printing; or creating shipping boxes for impossibly delicate works. 

One technical problem I faced was size: how big can my peculiar clay-body be? With training in the EKWC fab-lab, I gained literacy in 3-d scanning and CNC-milling and applied this to my material research. By scanning small works and milling larger moulds, I created iterations that tested how my experimental clay-bodies performed at various sizes. I collected sands from local beaches and industrial suppliers to embed in clay, and I refined my formula with the addition of locally produced frits (a refined ceramic material). By pushing and finding these limits, I observed how a material’s language alters when subjected to different stresses or afforded particular supports. 

Working with incredible facilities and a specialised team of technical advisors is also more than a little intimidating! In a personal sense, the experience taught me to trust in my own creative direction. I learnt to communicate across domains of expertise and negotiate technical support for unconventional processes. This was especially important when I found myself working outside of existing expertise or when material outcomes were uncertain. My project posed questions for which no prior knowledge existed, and this took courage to navigate. I feel it was this push and pull between technical support and risk-taking that made my EKWC experience so unique and generative in every sense.

What are you currently working on? What are your goals for the future? 

A joyful connection to arise from my EKWC residency is with Cluster Crafts of London, who saw my works in progress and invited me to participate in a curated exhibition coinciding with London Craft Week 2020. Cluster is a contemporary craft platform that highlights experimental material application through abstract forms – a perfect fit! I feel fortunate to join such a supportive, maker-oriented platform. Also, this will be my first international exhibition and each logistical moment is a learning curve! For instance, at EKWC I learnt to pack my impossibly delicate works for international shipping, and this knowledge is now invaluable.

I am also especially pleased to be an Exhibition Recipient in the Bundoora Homestead Art Centre’s upcoming program. In this solo show, I will present work from my EKWC-IPCT residency. I am looking forward to unpacking this new body of work when the shipment arrives; to engaging afresh with its conceptual narratives; and to sharing them with an exhibition audience.  

Other highlights ahead include participating in the 2020 Wyndham Art Prize and the 2020 Biennial North Queensland Ceramic Art Awards. Tiny pieces from my residency have been shortlisted for the Wyndham, and it’s pretty wonderful to see them finding legs in the world.  

With stay-at-home regulations in place, I am otherwise catching up on photo documentation and administration. With no access to a ‘messy space’, it is a quiet relief to catch up on all the ‘clean’ jobs that make a practice go round.

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