Oatmeal is the ceramics studio of Elise Birnbaum which I've been following for some time. I treated myself to one of Elise's large vessels a couple of years ago, it lives on top of our mantle with occasional gathered branches and twigs. Her shapes combined with subtle texture finishes are so soothing to look at, I wanted to know a little more about her process. Also, fun fact, Elise's studio is down the street from where my dad grew up in Pittsburgh!
Your work is so beautiful and I love how you can see a slow evolution in your designs. Where do you usually find inspiration?
I've kind of trained myself to find it everywhere, to notice things. A rock and how it interacts with the overgrown roots of a tree, the way skin folds and rolls as bodies bend... My sculptural vessels began as an exploration of the cloud pruned trees in the japanese gardens i saw while I participated in a residency program in rural Japan, but they've evolved and been influenced by just always trying to notice form. I really feel like there is art all around us, intentionally and unintentionally, and I like to find it.
You have a toddler.. I won’t ask you how you manage the constant pulling in all directions because I feel like those answers are rarely helpful! Has becoming a mother influenced your work?
I have a two year old, who is really helping me to stretch and grow as a human, whether I like it or not. I have no advice for balance or managing, but something that surprisingly came natural to me was that I became more flexible and my perspective and expectations just shifted. Motherhood has caused me to feel that life (and thus my work), at its very best, is precious and abundant. A lot of my shapes began with that idea of how tenderly the trees in the gardens are cared for and shaped. That thoughtfulness and attention is what I strive for in caring for a young child, as well as in coaxing a form out of clay. I feel like there is so much I want to do and want to have time to do... I want more time with my baby, I want more time in the studio working. This could feel like a scarcity of time, but motherhood has flipped all that and made me feel like there is so much I want to tend to and care for and hold onto; I am so lucky to have such an abundance of things that pull at me. It's so cheesy and I have bad days and weeks, but I'm grateful for the change perspective becoming a parent has given me.
I’m so drawn to the shapes you make, the stacks of rolls teetering perfectly always draw me in. How did you find ceramics?
I found ceramics in a time in my life where I felt a little untethered. I decided I would have a goal of trying to make everything in my home. I knew I would never really achieve this, but I decided to take some classes just to work towards something. I took a very intense woodworking class where we learned to hand cut dovetail joints and I made a stool I still use in the studio, I took a metals class where I made some spoons, a wood carving class and eventually a ceramics class. After a few weeks trying the wheel, I attempted to do some handbuilding and I pretty immediately felt like this was for me. I made some bowls we still use, I joined a ceramics co-op and spent evenings and weekends making and learning, and almost a decade later, I'm really glad I took that class. I am a big fan of lifelong learning.
I think that knitting is a lot like ceramics in that you’re sort of sculpting a material while you’re creating a functional piece. It’s sometimes hard to put the form and function together. I feel like I have to do a lot of material exploration before thinking about the final product. Do you think a lot about the functionality of your work as you’re making or designing it?
I love that comparison. I think I abandoned prioritizing function a little bit when I started making more sculptural vessels, but they are still vessels and ceramics is a traditionally functional craft. I think the weirder my pieces get, the less I feel constrained by having to make sure it's the most functional. It's fun to interject that with some of the smaller, more functional pieces I make, like the solstice bowls, where I have to totally switch gears and actually make a thing that can do a thing, that's the point. I must still have subconscious dreams of making everything in my home though and it seems to creep into my mind to make a sculptural curtain tie back or weird little shelf, very much bringing together the function and form.
Tell us about your personal style, what are you most comfortable in?
I think I probably look like I just left a ceramics studio, all the time. I really love to be comfortable and to wear clothes hard until they fall apart. So much of my time is spent moving around, playing on the ground with my child, carrying boxes of clay, crouching to see a different angle of a piece I'm working on, pulling weeds in my garden. So I like loose fits and soft fabrics to be able to move and feel like my clothes are there to serve my lifestyle, not the other way around. I love that everything in my closet is beige or brown and basically goes together without having to think too much. I think a lot about a piece of clothing before I buy it and then I love not having to think too much about it after that, other than that I love it and keep wanting to put it on for years and years and years until it's all patched and so soft from wear.
Elise wears -