Eva Zethraeus is a ceramic artist living and working in Gothenburg, Sweden. Zethraeus creates organic, complex, biomorphic sculptures. She sees them as landscapes, both on land and underwater, the sculptures seem to be frozen in motion yet at the same time display a quality of life and movement. Her art is influenced from both her painterly background and her deep admiration of Japanese aesthetics. She has received numerous grants and scholarships and her work is in the collections of both the National Museum in Stockholm and the Röhsska Museet in Gothenburg. Internationally she is represented by Hostler Burrows Art Gallery in New York.
Could you tell me a little about your childhood growing up in Birmingham and Madrid?
My parents emigrated from Sweden, first to Birmingham, England, and then to Madrid and Barcelona. It was when I moved to Spain, at the age of eleven that my interest was sparked for art and specifically painting. I have a particularly strong memory of my first visit to the Prado Museum, where I quickly left the rooms with the heavy paintings of Goya and Velazquez and found myself on the bottom floor looking at paintings from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It was there that I discovered ‘El Jardin de Las Delicias’ ( Garden of Earthly Delights) by Hieronymous Bosch. This painting has continued to fascinate me and the more I look at it, the more I discover. It has recently been cleaned and new imagery has come to light. For some reason this painting has followed me all through my life, parts of it showing up in other artists’ work, in Monty Python sketches and even on restaurant walls!
My parents have always had a passion for art and culture, travelling all around Spain, discovering the rich and dramatic history of all the different cultures and people who have lived and died on the Iberian continent.
Of course having lived in Madrid with my high school right behind the Prado Museum, and within walking distance to Reina Sofia and the Thyssen Bornemiza Collection, I have had the good fortune to experience great art throughout my childhood.
Why did you choose ceramics as your art form?
I always thought I would be a painter. I think because painting and drawing was closest at hand. When I started a two year art foundation course at a folkhögskola in Sweden I discovered the ceramics department. There were no ceramics teachers at the time but a fully equipped studio with 12 wheels. I borrowed a book on the basics of throwing at the library and spent many hours learning to throw. I still thought I would be a painter.
I continued to study at another art school, a two year printmaking and drawing course. As I was new in Gothenburg and didn’t know many people I started to take ceramic classes in the evenings and then later at weekends. After two years I decided to take a chance and apply to HDK, College of Applied Arts and Crafts in Gothenburg to study a MFA in Ceramic Art. I was accepted and my artistic life took a three dimensional direction!
You have done several workshops and residencies in Japan. What attracts you to Japan and how has this shaped you as a ceramic artist?
Japan has a strong ceramic tradition and when I found that there were possibilities to do ceramic workshops there I jumped at the chance. Japan was love a first sight! Not only was there a strong and long tradition in ceramics but also a respect and appreciation for the art form in everyday life. This is true to most things in Japan, the love and appreciation and respect for nature, history and art is overwhelming, but also so touching.
To give an example there is an expression in Japanese called Kakomittote Meduru. This means framing something in order to see and appreciate it. I experienced this while walking in a temple area in Kyoto. Amongst the undergrowth in a wooded area, someone had put four sticks in the ground around a patch of very green and soft moss and then tied a string around them creating a frame. This had been done by a random passerby, who had admired the beautiful patch of moss and so created this frame so no one should miss the beauty of this experience– Kakomittote Mederu.
The Japanese way of appreciating nature has influenced me and my work profoundly. The special contemplation gardens, some dating back over 900 years, were a new and profound appreciation of nature and the spirits that live there.
There is a very organic marine aspect to your art, are you inspired by marine life?
It was during my MFA studies at the College for Design & Craft at Gothenburg University that I worked with the idea of camouflage in nature. The concept of camouflage in plants and animals intrigued me. I am fascinated by double natures, and the idea of coral, an animal camouflaged as a plant has been an inspiration in my work since then. I have worked with several natural occurrences such as the Fibonacci series, an algorithm that continually occurs in nature as well as the golden section and most recently the phenomenon of virus, which by scientific definition is not a living organism as it can not feed itself but is a living growing organism with its own specific DNA.
How does inspiration arise for a particular piece?
As I wrote above my inspiration comes from nature but also working in the studio affects the direction of my work. Working with clay is a challenge, a plastic material which has its own characteristics. Working, developing and forming the material is an ongoing, at times frustrating, process. The more I work with porcelain the more I need to see how I can work more intricately, in a more complicated way or to play with the size.
There is a silent knowledge that exists between my hands and the clay and the surrounding air which dries the clay during the process of making.
What other materials do you use apart from clay in your pieces?
I work specifically with porcelain clay and a series of matt glazes I have been developing over the last twenty years. For the last ten years I have been adding platinum lustre to the pieces as a contrast to the matt glazes. This is inspired by the Japanese Kintsugi, a method of repairing ceramics with gold.
Last year I made a public commission of five sculptures in concrete clad in mosaic. I really enjoyed working in larger scale and with mosaics, and I will definitely continue to work and develop this method in parallel to my ceramic practice.
Do you think ceramic art gets the attention it deserves in the art world?
The short answer is no! The longer answer is an ongoing debate between Fine Arts and Fine Crafts.
What in your opinion, is the biggest challenge in being a ceramic artist.
The biggest challenge when working with clay is time. Knowing when to do what in the process of making. If you work too fast and the clay is too wet then your piece can collapse. If the clay is too dry then it is almost impossible to continue working. If you get this balance wrong then your work can fall apart, crack, explode in the kiln or during the drying process. There are so many things that can go wrong in the ceramic process that it is difficult to list them all. I always say that ceramists are masochists. We continue to work with clay although most days are heartbreaking when something happens with a piece you are working on. Sometimes I wonder how anyone manages to get pieces successfully finished at all!
How would you describe a work day?
I am a person bound by routine. I am in my studio between 9am and 5pm and sometimes longer. I plan my studio days at the beginning of the week, as I need to know how much time I have in order to make different things. A large piece takes a week to make, and the balance of drying, that I mentioned earlier, means that once I start a piece I need to finish it or the work will be in vain. I enjoy and cherish working days in the studio when it feels like time stands still and there is an organic flow in the making. But there are a lot of days preparing clay, working on glaze chemistry, documenting and writing. Life is never dull!
Do you believe that the survival of craft is vital in our fast paced, consumer driven society today?
Yes, I do believe the survival of craft is vital in our society today. I think there is something humanly essential in the need to work with one’s hands, to feel materials and experience the satisfaction of making. Until recently I used to teach ceramics and found that nearly all my students had a positive experience working and making in clay.
I also think that society is beginning to take interest in the process of making, learning skills and appreciating handmade quality and attention to detail. Maybe we are going into a new arts and crafts movement somewhat like the one at the beginning of the 20th century.
Is there anything special that you are working on now?
At the moment I am working on a new series in black, grey and white. I love colour and have worked with colour over the past twenty years, but have decided to see what happens with form and surface with the absence of colour. The challenge being that the clay is unforgiving and the attention to detail is even more important.