For W’s new series, “One Fun Thing,” we’re inviting creative people around the world to share an easy, relaxing, DIY activity that has brightened up their days spent at home, from Simone Rocha’s nascent kitchen garden to Chiara and Gioia Bini’s “art mail” collages to Marcel Dzama’s homemade coloring books. Consider it a grab bag of ideas for how to shake up your own quarantine routine.
The British-South African artist Katy Stubbs was supposed to have her first solo show at the Alma Zevi gallery in Venice this spring. But—and you know where this sentence is going—like everything else in the world, it’s been put on hold. The exhibition, postponed until later this year, will be composed of narrative ceramic pieces that Stubbs created while part of a residency run by the gallery. During her time in Venice, she pulled inspiration from the renaissance paintings in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, the bustle of the Rialto fish market and biblical stories to tell an age-old story of revenge. Instead of saints and ancient battles, her hand-built amphorae depict iPhone screens, discarded packs of Marlboro Reds, climbing weeds, and receipts with scribbled messages. They’re equal parts playful and sinister, appealing and strange.
Now, at home in London with her kitchen table as her base, she’s pivoted to a smaller scale as an exercise in creativity, making tiny clay sculptures in the shape of Morandi vases, pigs’ feet, and stepped-on snakes. Here, Stubbs shares her advice for beginner ceramicists, reflects on her next subject, and tells us about the two newest additions to her household.
What’s the feeling in London right now? Are things starting to open back up or are you still in full lockdown?
It’s a very strange mixture—I’d say there is a feeling of confusion. That’s the overriding sense. Some people are definitely using the confusion to hang out a lot more and others are still being incredibly strict.
What does a typical day look like for you right now?
I’ve been working from home, I live with my parents in London. I wake up quite early, and then I have my chickens, so I’ve been taking care of them. I let them out into the garden, and then I get to work. My workspace is the kitchen table, which is of course a highly contested area. I work until lunch, faff around with lunch, stare at chickens, and then work some more. And then it’s nighttime before you know it.
Tell me about the chickens. Are they a new addition to the household?
Yes. I bought them as chicks. I’ve been watching them grow up and it’s fascinating—they grow up so fast. I was really scared one of them might be a cockerel [a young rooster], so I’ve been studying her and going on to chicken forums to see if I should be really worried or not. They’re meant to be moving outside eventually, but they’re still inside. They think of home as their own home. So if I leave them outside, they’re often on the sofa before I know it. No rules with them.
How has being at home so much affected your work as an artist? Have you approached things differently or changed what you’re focusing on?
At the beginning, I had a bit of trouble. I feel like a lot of people had a tailspin moment, a bit of panic, like, “What am I going to do, how am I going to work on all the things I was meant to be working on?” And then I tried some other materials: I tried oil painting, and then I bought some different clays, and that really helped to just break the spell of being in a panic about things that I was meant to be doing. It separated it from normal life, so I didn’t put as much pressure on myself to get everything right. I’m not good at oil painting, so it’s so fun to just paint something stupid and not care.
I feel like at the beginning of all of this, anyone doing anything remotely creative was like, “Ok, I have to do my King Lear now.” It’s good to give yourself the permission to just try things out.
Exactly, I think there was this instant panic of like: I have so much time. How am I going to keep everything going? You’re given too much time, almost.
Without access to a kiln, what are some of the ways someone could start playing around with ceramics at home?
There are two things you could do: there’s air drying clay, which is super easy to buy. You can just paint it with acrylics and then add a varnish on top. And so that’s super fun, because it’s really quick and low-lift. And then there are also porcelain paints, which you can paint on your own normal plates, and just put it in the oven to cure, and then you’ve painted a plate that you can put in the dishwasher.
Any advice for people just getting started?
Drawing is the way into everything. Because even if you just did a drawing of how you felt your day was, or a moment from your day, or your imagination—it’s a way of creating your own viewpoint on your life. And everybody has everything you need for a drawing.
So, I noticed on Instagram you’ve been working on miniature sculptures. What pushed you to start making things on a smaller scale?
I think that was also part of just trying to get out of a rut. I finished all of this work for my show, that was obviously postponed. I had spent a whole year on it, all of the pieces were very detailed, and it all had been very thought out. And I just thought, I’ve got to make something small and inconsequential and hope that maybe I could make it into a bigger piece—or not, just leave them as they are. But just to get my brain out of “everything has to be important” and have a bit more fun.
Will any of these pieces be added to the Venice show when it is rescheduled?
Well, the show is really a story. So luckily it’s done, I can’t go back on it now—I just have to leave it. Each piece is part of this narrative: A woman cheats on her husband, and in his rage he kills them both. It’s this age-old drama, it’s always happened. And I wanted it to take place in modern times but based a lot on renaissance paintings and using different themes from myths and biblical stories. Some of the vases and plates are traditional amphorae, which were used to tell stories, but I’ve also added some sculpture to make it a little less classical classical.
What were some of the highlights of doing the residency in Venice?
Probably the highlight is being somewhere constantly so beautiful. It’s kind of insane. The ceramics studio was in this amazing, weird little boatyard behind a church and you looked out the window into a monk’s garden. And then the other place I worked was right on the grand canal. In Brixton, I love my studio, but it is facing over the vents of a Nando’s. So it’s a different thing.
So what kind of subject matter are you feeling pulled toward now?
At the moment, actually, I’ve been really interested in offices. Because I feel like it’s something I’m missing out on, and that everybody isn’t at the moment. I was very fascinated by office life and colleagues and your desk, and stuff like that. So I’m trying to figure out how to make work like that. It might be the ugliest show ever.
Have you been reading or watching or listening to anything that’s been inspiring to you at this time?
I just started reading The Satyricon. It’s all about what the Romans got up to and it’s just wild. They didn’t care about anything. I’m going to watch the Fellini movie tonight.