The L.A.-based artist and photographer, known for creating porcelain sculptures that embrace imperfection, finds inspiration in nature.
“Works in Progress” highlights artists across a range of disciplines whose work deals with ecological themes. Considering the particular role that artists play in the climate movement, this column will share their voices and provide a glimpse behind the curtain into their creative processes and experiences. Through a combination of Q&As and narrative pieces, this column will discuss the relationship between the natural world, advocacy, and the art itself.
Kayla Sweet-Newhouse is a Los Angeles-based sculptor and photographer whose work is both inspired by and mimics the form of natural processes. Her sculptures, many of which she makes from porcelain, take on organic shapes and embrace imperfections. Sweet-Newhouse is also the video producer for Made Out of WHAT, a nonprofit organization that brings artists together to find creative uses for trash.
Bluedot Living associate editor Lily Olsen spoke with Sweet-Newhouse about her art, her inspirations, and her connection to the natural world.
Lily Olsen: You’ve mentioned that the natural world inspires your art. How was this inspiration born?
Kayla Sweet-Newhouse: My interest in creating natural shapes came from living in L.A., which was, in my opinion, so devoid of nature. I created my work to survive; I made a jungle around me so I could be at peace and see beauty instead of the ugly pavement and billboards. After that, the deeper I dug into my creations, the more ecstatic and in awe of the natural world I became.
LO: How do you choose your materials?
KSN: I work mainly with my hands and very rarely employ tools, so my materials have to feel good in my hands. I started working with porcelain because of the buttery and soft texture; it entrances me while I work. When I started adding other clays — some darker, or with more grit — I wanted to see what would happen when these different types of clays interacted. When it comes to the materials in the glaze, I try to feel out what would accentuate the sculpture, and choose chemical compounds that will make it shiny or matte, variegated or flat.
LO: There’s an element of randomness in your work resulting in truly individual pieces. Could you tell me about the intention behind this?
KSN: We are a random smattering of genes coming from our parents, and the result is all of these completely different beings running around made up of all the same ingredients. This is the way I feel about my sculptures: composed of the same materials but each one “born” from a slightly different mixture. Maybe the weather was extremely dry, so the sculpture dried in a new way, or the kiln fired extra hot, or I mixed the glaze differently. My process is messy and imprecise because I like to be surprised by the final outcome. I find relinquishing control allows the magic to happen. I set the stage by choosing the ingredients — materials, shapes, colors — and maybe I have an idea of what I want the sculpture to do, but I leave a lot of the finishing touches up to the drying and firing process.
LO: You say that you impose harsh conditions on the clay. What did this process look like in a particular piece of yours?
KSN: Most of the harsh conditions involve pushing the clay to its limits of flexibility and integral strength. An example of this is “Who’s supporting who?” In this sculpture, I took two different types of clay, with two different shrink rates and flexibility profiles, and forced them to connect and work together to make a shape. It was an experiment to see what would happen when they had to rely on each other to fight gravity and the kiln’s heat. The black clay bent and melted while the white porcelain stayed more rigid and was forced to crack to keep up with the black clay it was connected to. Interestingly, the parts most adversely affected were where the single clays were thickest — the black clay slumped way down and the white clay snapped. The sharp points where the clays were thin, however, almost mixed together and were able to adapt to each other and use each other’s strengths.
LO: Are there any specific natural phenomena or natural spaces that inspire your work?
KSN: Fungus, the intricacies of plants, and the topographical undulations of rivers and mountains inspire my work. It’s all so mesmerizing. I love dried mud, spikey grass, and shadows. Currently, I’m fascinated by patterns that appear in disparate arenas but bear similarities — for example, cracks in tree bark, stripes on a zebra, and stretch marks on our skin.
The psychology and the behavior of animals also inspires my work. In particular, the various survival mechanisms that living creatures employ are themes I have explored through my sculptures. For example, camouflaging—chameleons and cuttlefish—and looking dangerous—poisonous frogs and non-poisonous animals mimicking poisonous ones. I explored camouflage in the ceramic photomontage “Disguise.” I started with a photo of yellow lichen I took in Scotland and imagined that the ceramic element would be an animal trying to blend into its surroundings to evade predation. I made a shape and glaze that mimicked the color and texture of the lichen on the rock.
LO: Nature shapes the way you approach your art, but how would you say your creative process in turn shapes the way you think about the natural world?
KSN: After working in sculpture, I have a lot more respect for nature. It’s really hard to make something that is beautiful and doesn’t just fall over — forget functional! Nature’s track record of creating objects and creatures blows my mind. With every body of work, I discover something new. Making a sculpture for me is a very physical process, and it is often after the sculpture is finished that I make connections between my intuitive approach and my cerebral interests. For example, one of the first realizations I had was that delicate can also be strong. Because of the thin features, my work withstands the firing and drying process much better than a thick piece of clay, much like a thin pine tree whipping in the wind compared to a thick solid tree that snaps in a storm.
LO: On your website you say, “My desire is that the result creates a Keshiki born of tension and determination with a defiant spirit of joy and delicacy for having thrived despite daunting odds.” Life on earth has faced odds as long as it has existed, but with climate change, these odds are only growing. In your work, do you think about the way climate change is shaping nature today? If so, how does this appear in your work?
KSN: Climate change terrifies me. It’s big and daunting and feels inevitable. I worry that many of us, especially politicians and the decision-makers in large corporations, are so disconnected from nature that we don’t notice or care that the world around us is screaming for help. One of the shows I’ve planned is a charred and barren landscape, where the only life forms are my sculptures — having survived climate change and crawling around in the sludge that we humans could leave in our wake. It would be a message of caution, but also of hope, not for us, but for the earth. I believe in the enormous capacity of evolution; I hope very much that humans can work together to stop climate change, but if not, I believe that the earth will continue without us. Some species will survive to start again and others will expire like the dinosaurs.
LO: What do you hope that viewers of your work feel or think?
KSN: I think one of the hardest parts of being an artist is not having control over how your work is perceived. At the same time, this can be half of the artwork. I want people to feel good when they see my work. I think there is enough brutality in the world; I want to create beauty and balance. I think for me they are a type of meditation, a calming presence where you can sit and look at a sculpture and how the shadows fall with the changing light. I want people to feel lightness and joy, a reminder to have humor and flexibility with what life brings.