Work In Progress: Rosa Novak

Last week I got the chance to chat with Rosa Novak, TAC’s most recent Work In Progress (WIP) resident, as well as the opportunity to tag along on her immersive ‘Field Guide to New York Clays’ workshop. We got a taste of how a natural clay dyer borrows from the environment, and how to spot otherwise unnoticed material for throwing. Novak’s work is incredibly site specific, entangling her pieces with poetic expression and introducing us to the vast array of colors found in our natural surroundings. From her extensive exploration into California’s clay and botany, she has been able to find ways of working outside the perimeters of mining, and graced us with an exciting and forward-thinking perspective on design within craft.

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When and how were you introduced to the art of ceramics and natural dyeing?

I started throwing when I was about 8, so I’ve been working with clay for a long time. Neither of my parents are artists, but my grandma’s an artist and my uncle is a ceramics professor called Justin Novak. He teaches at Emily Carr University up in Vancouver, so he really inspired me and made me realize I can make a living from clay. I didn’t have a grounded interest in natural dyeing until I got to California, and it’s definitely a larger culture there compared to Chicago where I grew up. Even though since getting in to it I’ve figured out that it does exist in the midwest – but just in different circles to the ones I was in.

What are your personal written pieces about and how does it sit with your creative work?

In the past year I’ve started on zines again, which are small magazines made accessible by being self-published and not asking for too much for one purchase, if any. I love giving out zines – it’s one of my favorite things to do, and a nice way to work outside of money. I guess subconsciously I’m thinking about the point within my own life when I was collecting clays, and about how that point in time related to the work that came from it. It sends me back to a time and place, helping me remember who I was with and what I was feeling. There’s a lot of childhood memories that involve clay – finding clay is this funny craft project that you did as a kid where you weren’t afraid to get really dirty. I’ve noticed from conversations with people that there’s this nostalgic connection to the earth that exists within a lot of us. It feels as though the different clays I’m collecting are markers of time. I definitely think I’m just a sentimental person!

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Do you try to understand the environment you work in before you take from its resources?

Yeah, it becomes an excuse to travel and I love to gather things while I go. I have all this mapping of California, mainly clays and dye plants. Clay foraging can sometimes be a little bit easier in terms of ethical foraging. I try to be mindful of how much I take when foraging for plants and whether I’m not taking too much of one population. With clay, it’s a little less regulated and there are fewer restrictions, as you don’t need as much. I can take a small chunk of clay and dye 2 yards worth of fabric and then I also use it for throwing. I consider how to work outside the culture of mining, it is incredibly disruptive and ultimately we’re destroying our natural eco-systems. For my own moral compass, I’ll usually take something that’s invasive or widely available.

What have you learned from New York City’s landscape, and how does it compare to California’s?

That’s something I’m still learning about. California is generally considered quite geologically interesting across the board. There’s more visible geology because the land is more open, if you go just outside San Francisco you’ll see the cliffs of Marin or you see Pacifica, these huge exposed bits of land giving you a sense of the full geologic strata. Long Island is quite the opposite, as it’s considered scientifically un-interesting mainly due to the amount of clay content and alluvium it has. For me in complete contrast to these views, I find the mix-mashed areas of sediment wholly interesting and rely on it entirely to create the things I make. When I did the clay workshop at TAC, people were really shocked at the possibility of foraging for clay in the city – you just can’t see it because there’s so much concrete!

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Have you explored foraging in many other locations?

I haven’t yet, but as I’m from Chicago I would love to at some point get some midwestern clay. The last time I drove across the country about a year ago, I saw a lot of the west that I’d flown over but never got to see properly. If I ever do that trip again, I’d love to collect some clay along the way. I’ve gathered clay as far north as Siskiyou county, and as far south as Slab City in California, so I guess its good that I‘ve started with the longest state..

Do you have a favorite clay?

So right now, it’s probably my biggest frustration and biggest love.. It’s this one clay that I got in Santa Barbara – it’s bright yellow – so, so yellow. It almost looks like turmeric, but slightly sandier. The texture of it is really gritty. I love it.

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What are you getting up to in California as of late?

Well, I’m working for this store, Homestead Apothecary. It’s an amazing business that sells local herbal products and has programming teaching herbal medicine. There are a lot of people working within natural dyeing who are writing books and spreading the word in that way, but there aren’t that many brick and mortar shops that are actually selling supplies for natural dyeing, and there’s a lot to be explored within medicinal dyeing. I’m building up a natural dye section within the store, so a lot of big batch dyeing to come from that, as well as hosting more workshops and of course making zines.

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Have you got any plans or creative ventures to come?

In the next year or two I’d love to have a line and get in to that. I have a friend who I’m trying to convince to collaborate with right now, she’s a painter and a furniture maker, we really respect each others work. I believe we would really compliment each other and it wouldn’t be redundant. It would open new doors, which is exciting. I want to bring the ideas slow fashion have to ceramics, I get excited from the possibility of color and the variety of origins you can source from. I do think there is a disconnect with where materials come from, and that’s why they’re not valued as much as they could be – slow fashion and slow food are very connected to this concept. I’m hoping that more ceramicists will exist within that same thoughtfulness and movement. That’s the main focus for me right now.

Keep up with Rosa Novak’s work by visiting her website, and follow her on Instagram!

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