Michal Keren Gelman
ceramicist, Mizpe Hila
Interview and photographs by Veronica Yudkevich
Tell me about your trip to Japan.
I’ve been repeatedly told that my works look a bit Japanese, which I found very flattering, since I’ve always liked Japan and its esthetics, though I didn’t notice it myself.
In Japan I had a profound experience of how esthetics relates to tradition and to everyday life. It was so inspiring. I was especially fascinated with the local potters and the way nature and their immediate environment are expressed in their work. Their esthetic gestures are so precise yet delicate, manifested both in the design and in the subtle manipulation of how much glaze is exposed to oxygen in the kiln, so that, almost unintentionally, it comes out as ‘typhoon skies in the spring’.
It resonated with me. I’m looking for airiness and freedom, which sometimes happens unconsciously, unawares. The name "Free Folding" is the beacon that is guiding me; it's like my innate yearning to be in the flow, to be free, because part of me is so tight and restrained. I found an echo of that in Japanese society, where restraint is a real issue and sometimes explodes in weird ways. Not following the crowd or not being like everyone else is frowned upon by the society. It’s actually funny that they can simultaneously be very inhibited and wildly free.
Coming back thus inspired, it became clear to me that I have to find a way to express the surrounding world in my work. Near my house there is a path that I frequent, where at sunset, during the blue hour, the trees make this black contour against the sky. I was always thinking how I need to capture that and find a way to use it; so upon my return from Japan I photographed the trees, made decals and that’s how the ‘Norwegian Wood’ series came to be.
How did you start making ceramics?
I first sat at a potter’s wheel during my studies at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, in the jewelry department. At the time I found the softness and muddiness of clay quite disgusting; I couldn’t bear it. Studying, I never understood what I really wanted to do; I lacked a connection with some element.
Life chiseled me well until clay called me again. In 2004, two years after my youngest daughter was born, I started going to a weekly class in Teffen. It was like having a crush; I felt at home. I became very passionate about learning about clays and glazes, and if it were up to me I would have turned that wheel all day long.
In 2007 we renovated the studio in our house and I decided to make a ceramics studio there. I began learning how to knead clay and make glazes, playing with it without much understanding or knowledge. I was surprised to find out how determined I was. I broke down after every horrible kiln came out and then stood up because ceasing was not an option. It’s a long distance run with clay, a never ending process.
I once wrote [in Ayelet Landau’s blog] that ‘what fascinates me in clay is the ability to make an imprint that will never be final. Because clay is a breathing material that, even fired still undergoes changes; it absorbs flavors, touches and glances.’
I’m interested in your process of finding your own voice.
At first I worked a lot at the wheel and with the silk prints I made. Then I started looking for a way to imprint my drawings in clay and discovered the technique by accident. The process of finding my voice is actually rooted in my attraction to textures; I even called myself a texture hunter.
When I realised I had a way to imprint different elements in clay, I proceeded to experiment with folding it to make a dish or a container - just like my name*; it’s a cosmic union. [container ‘meichal’ in Hebrew sounds like Michal, the name, and has an identical spelling]
Then I moved on to working with slabs and found novel ways of folding them, which quite amazed me. Much of the way was a self-taught process, because there was no one I could learn it from.
Which comes first, the form or the texture?
It’s a bit of a play to achieve balance. Sometimes I find a really exciting texture and I want to check its strength and how it looks, and sometimes it’s a form that needs some texture for balance.
Since your studio is at home, how do you find a home/work/creating balance?
At first it was pretty hard; there were even complaints that I prefer the studio to my home. I didn’t want to leave the studio at all, and to find balance I had to impose explicit boundaries. In the morning I do the office work, shopping, sometimes a coffee with a friend and then go to the studio to work. At noon I prepare lunch and return to the studio. My kids are big enough that I don’t have a deadline. It’s very convenient that the studio is downstairs, because clay needs a lot of attention.
Many artists and creatives suffer from insecurities and sometimes downfalls. If it happens to you, how do you extricate yourself from this situation?
It certainly happens. Sometimes it’s at home and at other times it’s a project that didn’t work out, which immediately leads to those ‘I’m no good/worthy’ places. It’s an ever present voice in my head; I call it ‘all my defects station’ where the broadcasting never stops: ‘You’re stupid, you have no idea what you’re talking about, it’s all a sham…’. As years go by I don’t relate to those feelings so much; I realize that things pass and change. I also have a great support group that understands me - my friends, Amit [my husband] who always reminds me, verbally or with a hug.
But, bottom line, it all comes back to keep doing the work, because clay reaches back to me and revives me. It’s a gift, but it happens only because I don’t give up. Going down to the studio for me is like going to a playground or an amusement park. In the beginning, every time I would get a smack from the tip of the carousel, and I still do sometimes, but I get up and try to get back on it. Or I cry; that’s also an option.
While working on this interview I found a blog you wrote between 2012-13. It was like reading poetry in prose. Why did you stop writing?
The reason I stopped writing was totally prosaic. I somehow managed to erase most of the photos on the blog and didn’t know how to restore them. In addition, at the time the work at the studio became more demanding, and I started teaching. I love writing, but for me it has to be precise and meticulously structured, which is very time consuming.
Perhaps I’ll come back to it... I love the name of the blog ‘katuv bahomer’ (in Hebrew ‘Written in Clay’) The name is very significant to me; it helps me find structure, an arrowhead that guides me. I’m very much a structured person, and I need explicit boundaries, only within them I can fly.
You’ve written about your love for pretty things. Any current favorites?
Broken and wounded tools that I collected in my youth, bolts and nuts. I really like stainless steel utensils, old things that were designed for a very specific use, like a porcelain insulator or a detachable thermos and a case for boiled eggs from the 1st and 2nd World War that a friend brought me from an antiques market in Switzerland. I find them so beautiful, mysterious and tactile. You can hold, feel and cuddle them; I just love it. Of course I also love functional tableware pieces that one can hold, palm, turn and touch. Sculpting doesn’t attract me, but I could forever be making cups and bowls.
What do you currently find the most challenging part of your work?
Marketing. I wish I could only be in the studio, but I have to put in a lot of my time and energy in order to be seen. The work with clay is a very slow process, starting with an idea, glaze, testing and up until the finished product. There is a huge gap between this measured rhythm and the tachycardic digital world that constantly generates numerous images of beautiful things and new collections. That also brings up the question of how to isolate your own voice, despite what you have seen.
So on the one hand I try to be a part of this world, adhering to its rules and standards, but, on the other hand, I’m still committed to the slow creative rhythm that perfectly suits me. It’s always a matter of balance, like walking on tiptoe while simultaneously flapping your arms.
Did you ever get any advice or an insight that was valuable to you?
Mainly that everything passes.