Saint Heron, Solange’s Creative Agency, Kicks Off Inaugural Ceramics Residency
Through a month-long program at Brooklyn’s Clayworks on Columbia, four BIPOC women artists—Armina Howada Mussa, Lalese Stamps, Dina Nur Satti, and Kenya Cree—will work under seasoned mentors to realize ambitious new ceramic works with the goal of preserving vital connections to the African-originating practice of forming vessels out of mud and clay.
In 2013, Solange Knowles launched Saint Heron as a music and cultural media hub that preserves, collects, and uplifts stories, works, and archives that amplify Black and Brown voices. This past May, Knowles announced Saint Heron would expand into a full-fledged cultural institution that embodies each of those pillars. To usher in the new era of creative growth, Saint Heron started launching a series of digital dossiers that act as “literary and visual retrospectives” of BIPOC family and artist lineages across disciplines, as well as a permanent art collection and an artist-in-residence program.
Each artist will have access to in-kind studio space, materials, and a skilled team of local artisans to realize their work, all with the goal of preserving vital connections to the African-originating practice of moulding and forming vessels out of mud and clay. When the residency wraps up, one-of-a-kind works ranging from functional sculptures and furniture to architectural objects will go on display virtually through Saint Heron’s boutique shop and gallery Small Matter. Below, Saint Heron editorial and content manager Shantel Aurora-Pass gives Surface an exclusive first look into the residency.
How does the ceramics residency fit into Saint Heron’s broader vision, and what are some of the program’s goals?
A connection to the identity of ceramics has existed at our core since the early days with our Small Matter x Tactile Matter collaboration in 2016. The Ceramics Artist Residency was the culmination of a lot of reflection. We began thinking, not just about our connection to ceramic objects, but how we revere the cultural significance of ceramic artistry and hold space for the life and energy of the objects themselves.
It’s broader in a sense that the collaborative spirit of design we originally harnessed now involves more artists working closely together over a longer period of time. But it’s more a fruitful harvest that grew from earlier seeds planted. There’s a great sense of urgency in Saint Heron’s mission to preserve, document, and archive works within our own community. We have to make sure we are preservers of our own stories and we are not leaving that up to the institutions around us to have all of the power of those stories for generations to come. This residency is a part of the new bricks of Saint Heron’s foundation.
The residency aims to foster a collaborative environment that will “refurbish historical and social conditions of production.” Will you elaborate on that idea?
We’re saying this isn’t a machine striving for institutional recognition or respect. This residency was created to hold space for the intimacy of creation in this medium by artists who earnestly connect with the African-originating practice of making, molding, and forming objects from mud and clay.
Every touch or stroke imprinted on these vessels is significant because of the connection to the ancestral spirit of this practice. We deem that important and worthy. But it’s not enough to just say that. We wanted to demonstrate, in action, how important the life of these creations and their creators are. We couldn’t do that without making them accessible to the communities that inspired their creation. So this informs the structure of the residency because it’s about the artist’s autonomy first—what their individual connections to this practice are leading them to convey through these objects. Then it’s about the community taking these vessels into their spaces with a personal relation to the energy and identity of the vessel itself.
The structure of the residency is fluid in that it follows a communal frequency that exists outside of normal production for mainstream consumption and ownership. It’s personal on a cultural level.
The residency will see each artist create custom commissions through the lens of futurism being sold at Small Matter. What should we expect in terms of the work and how we can ultimately experience them when the residency wraps up. Will Small Matter open as a physical space?
Saint Heron Small Matter explores the spirit of intentionality and collaboration through a range of contemporary art and creative design works for commerce. The Saint Heron Permanent Collection & Gallery will evolve from our incubator space to a very special space in the future and we’re looking forward to sharing more about that as it nears. But here and now these works will be made available through our Saint Heron Dossier.
As far as the work itself, you can expect a range of signature objects that hone in on sculptural vigor for decorative and functional uses. Varied colors, shapes, textures and other deft quiddities that are artful, but are also concentrations of energy that translate into space. The artists were selected because their works appeal to the ethos of Saint Heron’s design language. Each ceramicist brings something unique to the collaboration. The works created during the residency will be available for purchase through Small Matter.
There are numerous barriers to entry for early-career sculpture and ceramic artists. How do you forecast the Ceramics Residency growing and evolving to address the classism and exclusionary forces within the art world?
The fact that these barriers even exist is a mountain to move itself. It’s not something Saint Heron can do alone or in one residency and we’re totally aware of that. The acquisition of space, materials, and tools to bring this residency to life presents its challenges, and this residency is one of the many art- and design-based programs that Saint Heron will continue to host and produce for Black and Brown artists across mediums. The artists will participate in a week-long workshop where they’ll receive mentorship from ceramicists already thriving in the industry. That’s an added layer for the artists to exchange and learn from artists who have already begun tackling those issues.
I can’t speak for the art world at large, but I can say that Saint Heron doesn’t have any plans to allow those roadblocks and exclusionary practices to prevent how we celebrate and honor our culture. We also look to the blueprints set by other incredible Black-owned institutions and art programs in our orbit. So many of us are doing the work for our own. We’ll be dedicating ourselves to creating more opportunities like this and expanding them to reach as many artists as possible—exposing those artists to broader audiences, and assisting aspiring collectors of color on the path to building personal collections of their own.
The art of ceramics is a crucial conduit for storytelling and elevating spatial experience. How did the inaugural group of artists come together, and what are some of the most compelling aspects about how they approach this unique form of creative expression?
Each of the artists in this inaugural group have crucial personal stories reflected in their work. These women meditate and emote and story-tell through the ritual of their practice. Armina uses introspection for contemporary takes on ephemeral forms found in nature and the body while Kenya’s approach is rooted in her perspective as a Black, queer woman in visual conversation with identity. Dina’s practice was born from her personal journey into the indigenous culture of her Sharan homeland while Lalese’s artistry grew from the curiosity of a new hobby in ceramics.
I can’t forget the workshop mentors Tracie Hervy and Anina Major, who are so skilled, well-respected, and persistently widening the boundaries of ceramic arts for future ceramicists coming up behind them. This group came together just based on our admiration of the artists and their perspectives. We’re familiar with their work, we see it, we love it, we resonate with it, and we want to honor what it all means to us out loud.
What do you hope the residency will teach others—and yourself—about the art of ceramics?
As a unit, Saint Heron has gained a wealth of knowledge about the ceramic arts during this process from our interactions with the artists, the workshop mentors, and our partners. We’ve been taught that the minimal presence of Black women in ceramics isn’t because fewer exist, but because little space has been held for their esteem. We hope that the residency calls attention to and promotes engagement with these artists’ work and that it fosters a wider awareness of the cultural significance and ritualistic practice encompassing the journey of ceramics to other people of color not particularly familiar with this art form.