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A Conversation with Ashlyn Pope

How did you get into clay? 

In college is where I first got into clay. I signed up for a Ceramics I class because Sculpture I was full. My first piece fell apart and I fell in love with the challenge of mastering a material that gave push back. It still pushes back and I am still trying to master it. 

Nearly all of your vessels include an addition of sweetgrass elements. Why is this important to you and how has it evolved since you began? 

The sweetgrass elements are included on my works because they are apart of my Gullah Ancestry. I am a descendant of people with a long, rich history of being artisans. One of the arts that they are known for are Sweetgrass baskets. I bring the elements of these baskets into my own vessels to represent the idea of our ancestry and culture being the foundation of what makes us who we are today. Using these elements are also important to me because as a descendant of these amazing people, my family line in particular, lost the history and knowledge of making these baskets on the way to assimilation. As designs and the ways of making these baskets are handed down through families, I have been unable to learn the practice of my people. I still hope to find someone within our culture who is willing to teach me, but for now, I use a permanent material to reclaim my culture so that it can never be taken or lost to me again. 

The sweetgrass inspired forms I am make have evolved quite a bit. Originally, they were forms strictly focused on recalling the idea of baskets. Now, my pieces use elements of sweetgrass basket forms and work harder to incorporate content that extends beyond Gullah culture and into addressing broader experiences of the African American community. 

Observing the last few series of work that you have made, it seems that you approach imagery through many different techniques i.e. carving, painting, mishima and slip trailing. Your patterns, lines and imagery begin to feel like quilting. Could you speak to the significance of your imagery and references to quilting?

I use imagery mostly of cotton but sometimes there are images of rice plants, indigo plants, tobacco plants and even sometimes magnolias. These are all crops important to the foundation of American history and the reason for slavery. I use images of cotton, rice and indigo in particular because the Gullah people were brought to the islands off of the coast of the Southeastern United States and to the low country of South Carolina in order to harvest these particular items. I use magnolia’s because they are my favorite flower and a way for me to pay homage to Billy Holiday and her song Strange Fruit. The use of plants as decorations on ceramics is my acknowledgement of ceramic history. However, it is also simply because plant imagery on pots is beautiful and the audience gets to see something beautiful. Though, if the audience chooses to pay more attention, they will understand the full weight of the history behind those flowering buds and what it means for those white lines (usually slip trailed in white) to be drawn across Black bodies. 

My work does reference quilting as it was a tradition I did receive from my elders. My grandmother showed me how to quilt and I proceeded to take the visual aesthetics with me along the ceramics road that I chose to travel. Quilting is also important as quilts and quilt making is a large American tradition. Within the Black community they became ways to tell stories that could be passed down from generation to generation. I think of my ceramics as a way to tell stories. I also have a degree in Fashion design, so fabric and pattern really mean quite a bit in my practice. I no longer wish to make clothing but instead call to my history with fabric for my ceramics. 

In your most recent series of cups, the majority hold evidence of having been bound and constricted. The same forms also offer an abundance of volume. Could you talk about your treatment of the vessel as a figure/body and what it feels like to make these pots?

Clay, to me, even in its most unrefined form represents humanity. I grew up in church and though I am not much of a practitioner now, I remember being told that God shaped man from clay. To me, my vessels have no other choice but to be the human body. So, when I am discussing the Black experience in America as being bound and restricted, I physically have to bind and restrict my forms. 

I would like to say my actions in physically binding and then unbinding is therapeutic but if I allow myself to think beyond the physical actions needed to do this, then it becomes an emotional burden. Seeing my brown clay bound by my hands can be emotionally taxing. I feel some relief when I remove its binds but I find sorrow in the scars I left behind. The only solace I have in the entire process, is seeing that the pieces are still standing tall despite having been forced to fit into constraints. We as Black bodies manage to survive within those constraints.  

If you could make a mix tape to reflect the vibe of your studio practice, what would be the first 10 songs?

Strange Fruit- Billy Holiday 

A Change Is Gonna Come- Sam Cooke

They Don’t Care About Us- Michael Jackson 

The Lord is Coming- H.E.R ft YBN Cordae

What’s Goin On- Marvin Gaye 

Django Jane- Janelle Monae 

Freedom – Beyonce ft Kendrick Lamar 

Human- Rag’n’Bone Man

Tightrope- Janelle Monae

Let it Be- The Beatles 

Check out Ashlyn Pope’s bio, artist statement and available works HERE.

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