Like most of us, the pandemic had Brooklyn ceramicist Eleni Kontos feeling pretty bewildered last year, so — inspired in part by the 😮 emoji — she began adding an equally bewildered visage to her plates and mugs in response, a series she's since become known for.
But her fascination with faces goes back much further, to her childhood: "I've always had a compulsion to anthropomorphize inanimate objects; when I was a kid, I used to draw faces and tape them on lamps," she says. "When an object we use has a face on it, we’re more likely to interact with it in a personal way. If my plate has a face, I’m going to give it asparagus eyebrows. If my ashtray has a face, I might ash on it to make hair. So I hope that when people use my pieces, they get a little extra sense of happiness from the swirly colors, and maybe take a moment to mess around."
Her charmingly awkward faces certainly make us laugh each time we see them, momentarily alleviating some of our own anxiety about the state of the world, which is why we were so excited when she accepted our commission to bring them to Tetra in the form of an exclusive ashtray ($45) and storage jar ($80) that will throw you major looks each time you use them. Read on for an interview with Kontos about her creative motivations and current inspirations, below.
When did you know you wanted to do something creative, and how did you get started in your current practice?
When I was 12 or 13, I brought a book about portraiture drawing on a family trip to Greece. I spent my trip practicing, and something about developing that skill was so satisfying. I pretty much knew then that I wanted to work in the arts. After studying painting, drawing, and printmaking more seriously, I pursued ceramics as a kind of creative outlet from my creative “work." When I was in college, I looked for a place I could work in exchange for studio use, and somehow that turned into working with ceramics for a decade. I feel so lucky that something I started doing just for fun became my job.
How would you summarize your approach to your work and your materials?
It’s mostly playful, and about enjoying the time I spend working. Even if a piece doesn’t work out, I love experimenting, and I love breaking and recycling things that I don’t want to keep. I love playing with and feeling the different textures and sounds of clay while I’m working with it. A fellow ceramicist once told me she loved watching how rough I was with the clay, which I appreciated. I do respect the clay, but I don’t like to be too precious about it.
What’s the hardest thing about working with your hands, and what’s the most gratifying?
I’ve been working with my hands for so long — they truly are my most important tool. Unfortunately that means they take a lot of abuse. The most gratifying thing about working with my hands is having a very tactile, sensory relationship to the things I do every day. On a daily basis, I touch things that feel mushy or gloopy or leathery, and I dip my hands in water so many times. It can be really enjoyable and grounding, for example, to sink your fingers into some really creamy porcelain at a certain stage of recycling.
Did you ever have an epic fail, and what did you learn from it?
I’ve had so many epic fails over the years. Ceramics can be quite dramatic. But early on in my ceramic career after destroying something I had spent tons of time on (I don’t even remember what it was), a wisened ceramicist told me “If you did it once, you can do it again.” I think of that every time I fail, and it may suck, it may be a ton of work to have to redo something, but it brings me so much confidence (and experience) to know I can do these things again, however complicated it may seem. I also know at this point that redoing something always goes faster, and is also a chance to improve on the first attempt.
What’s been inspiring you lately?
I've been inspired by plants and flowers lately. I recently bought a book about NYC native wildflowers, which is visually stunning and also full of really cool info about the plants. I also got some room to garden a bit and all the crazy shapes and patterns plants make have brought me so much joy and peace, so I find myself dreaming about sculpting plants and flowers and sculptural plant vessels.
What’s a typical day like in your studio?
I make a cup of coffee, light a special incense, and make a wish or intention for my day there. I love to jump right into making stuff, or unloading the kiln. I also love mopping for some reason, so sometimes I do that to start the day with a nice, clean space. I’ll usually start work with the most daunting or important tasks and save the fun for the end of the day. I have a special chair near the window where I sit and eat lunch. The train goes right by my window and reflects really cool flickering light into my space in the morning. I love being there, so once I get there, it’s hard to leave. I’ll usually head home when I’m exhausted and it’s dark out.
What’s your studio like itself? And what are your favorite objects in the studio?
My studio belonged to some friends before me, and when I visited them, I thought it was the perfect studio. Around that time my friend told me about visualizing and manifesting, and I though “OK, I’ll use that studio to visualize what I want.” Not too long after that, I found out my friends were looking to pass on the lease, so I jumped it. All that is to say that it felt pretty magical, and I feel so lucky to be in this space I dreamed about. I love to take care of it and try to make it a nice place. It’s a big open room in an old building on a busy Brooklyn street, with two tall windows that the train passes. I love it because it’s big enough to have gatherings, like movie nights, group projects, and classes. There’s half finished projects everywhere.
My favorite objects in the studio now are my Nespresso machine and an old wicker chair from my mom’s attic. I like to sit in the chair by the window in the morning and sip my coffee while I plan my day.
What’s your smoking ritual?
Once in a while at the end of the day I like to go up to the roof around sunset and smoke and watch the trains go by. Sometimes a friend will join me and we’ll bring some pillows and sit together.