Artist Ula Saniawa of Unit 89 creates bespoke ceramic artworks that preserve a tangible human connection between the maker and the person that experiences a piece.
We spoke to the artist in anticipation of the newest collection of Unit 89 ceramic vessels that are now available to purchase in Bamford Mayfair and Cotswolds stores; made entirely by hand using an intimate hand-pinching technique.
Our conversation with Ula delves into the meaning and method behind her craft, which intentionally preserves the accumulation of gestures in the material she works. The collection of vessels and installations serve as a conversation between space, object and human – an ode to Ula’s own training and inspirations stemming from architecture, inviting the viewer to participate in active reflection as they observe her work.
You first trained in architecture before working with clay and ceramic. Can you tell us what initially brought you to this medium?
My journey began from what might be seen as the opposite direction. I come from a very science-oriented family and that was also my approach to architecture: logic, algorithms and mathematical patterns. When finishing my degree however, I began feeling increasingly disconnected and paralysed with perfectionism. The visceral need for grounding in tactility led me to discover clay and although throwing did not feel like the right fit for me, the moment I pushed my fingers through porcelain, I knew I was home.
‘Honesty’ and ‘vulnerability’ are made visible through the delicacy of your hand-pinched pieces. Were you always comfortable with showing the imperfections in your work, or is it something you have become more comfortable with over time?
Thank you, I am really glad that my pieces are received that way! Sadly, I was not always comfortable with it. I used to believe that perfectionism was my greatest quality; in fact, it was my restraint and I think that affected me greatly in how uncomfortable I was with my own imperfections. The understanding that in fact the whole world around us is intrinsically imperfect and that is the essence of its beauty gave me freedom and opened me up to more acceptance and appreciation.
'There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.'
- Leonard Cohen
Is hand-pinching clay technically difficult or physically demanding? What is it that attracts you to this particular method of working with porcelain?
Hand-pinching for me is an intuitive and responsive process that my hand naturally does by itself when touching clay, allowing for synergy with the material. Clay itself and the natural forces within it become my collaborator and they are especially revealed when pushed to the boundaries. The thinner the clay becomes, the more clearly I see which direction it wants to take.
It is however time-consuming and challenging both technically and physically. Whilst being strenuous on the body, mainly wrists and finger joints, which limits the number of pieces that could be created, they are also incredibly fragile until fired and can collapse on its own when still wet, fall part into dust when handling in their dry stage or easily crack when drying as porcelain likes to do unfortunately. Only about one in four pieces make it to the firing. Thankfully, unfired clay can be reconstituted and reused, so there is no material wasted and the final result when taken out of the kiln, their strength, translucency and delicate appearance make it worth all the prior challenges.
Do you approach the ceramic objects you make for the home and the artworks you make as installations in the same way?
All my work is based on the same principle of accumulation of seemingly identical but unique elements, and the conversation that occurs between them. The difference lays in the character of those elements: in my installations they are separate, small individual components, whilst in case of the ceramic vessels it is my gestures that become those prime units.
The two installation pieces shown in the Bamford stores are ‘Falling Memories’ and ‘Cascading Memories’. They are a contemplation on a notion that as people we are all the same, yet every one of us is completely unique, shaped into who we are by unpredictable and spontaneous events and memories. Each element is meant to represent an individual person as well as a memory within us, each element is particular, each element is essential…
'As people we are all the same, yet every one of us is completely unique, shaped into who we are by unpredictable and spontaneous events and memories.'
What drives you to create pieces that are illusive in their character?
The illusion of movement is something that the pieces I make always surprise me with and is something I observe afterwards. I believe it is an echo of the active and spontaneous yet thoughtful process. When composing a piece, I always look for the elements that speak to each other and have resonance – each one is chosen carefully and deliberately regardless of how small it might be. That conversation is what animates them and grants them an unforeseen intangible dynamic quality.
Does this refer to the architectural space or is there something else intangible that you consider as providing context?
It is both the architectural space that they inhabit, the scale, the light and shadow, the textures and objects that would surround them and the height at which they would be perceived at, but also the context of a living environment and how they could impact the people that would encounter them. It is about building mindful relationships between space, objects and human.
What are some of the ways that you bring stillness or gentle movement into your life, aside from your ceramic work?
Sometimes it is easy to get carried away with the flow of the world around us and get trapped in the whirlwind inside our heads. The gentlest thing that brings me stillness and clarity is breath: deep, slow and intentional. Reminding myself to come back to the present moment and notice little fragments of beauty throughout the day, like a beautiful shadow in the afternoon. Getting outside for a walk or a run, interacting with nature, which never ceases to amaze me.
Meditation and contemplation of the world around us is quite often accompanied by drawing or painting; intuitively and personally it is what simultaneously gives me clarity and inspiration. Achieving stillness and peace is my personal practice - nowhere near a mastery – however, these are few small elements that help me along the journey.
'Achieving stillness and peace is my personal practice - nowhere near a mastery – however, these are few small elements that help me along the journey.'