Written on Stone: Rebecca La Marre in the Studio

June 9, 2017 by

WSW: Tell us about your grandmother.

RLM: “She was one of the first women to enroll in a university in Canada. She was training to go into business, but when she went to a job fair there were signs everywhere that read ‘women need not apply.’ So she went into the nursing sector and, when she was thirty, learned ceramics and set up a studio in her basement. (She laughs) She would price the work she wanted keep higher than the rest, then was angry when they sold for that amount.”

A few years ago, Chili Bowl Workspace resident Rebecca La Marre began working with clay in her grandmother’s studio. An art writer, editor, and interdisciplinary artist, she’s learning to love the physical aspects of ceramics alongside the conceptual possibilities of contemporary craft.

One such investigation brought Rebecca to the WSW ceramics studio, where she’s made plaster molds for a modern take on the writing tablet. The project is partly inspired by ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets, where scribes pressed wedge-shaped script into soft clay then fired the tablets for trade and history records. 

Rebecca’s tablets begin as thin clay slabs pressed into molds, left to dry, then fired in the kiln. After she leaves her residency, she’ll finish them with a whiteboard surface paint and use them to lead a writing workshop at the Vancouver Art Book Fair. “I was originally going to call them ‘forgetting tablets,’” Rebecca says, but the name didn’t quite fit the concept. Instead, they invite writers to “empty their heads” as a daily ritual, and while Rebecca prepares the tablets she also works to make bowls for next year’s Chili Bowl Fiesta.

Following this line of thought, another project emerged during her residency. On the studio’s back porch, Rebecca’s sealing a subset of her bowls with a fine layer of encaustic wax. Unlike chili bowls, these will not be glazed or used for eating. They are barrel-fired, packed in burning coffee grounds, sawdust, and paper for a porous, smoky surface. Before the fire, Rebecca wrote onto slips of paper and placed them in each pot, some of which now bear a burned shadow of the process. As we watch wax melt and seal the finished bowls, we discuss writing, making, and performance in and outside the ceramics studio.

You arrived at WSW to immerse yourself in ceramics through making bowls and try your hand at mold-making for the tablets. How did that lead to the barrel-fired series?

For my writing practice I follow a daily exercise from the Artist’s Way where I write three pages of whatever is in my head. When I got here, I found a book in the clay library, Finding Your Way with Clay, by a dancer who became a potter. He applies dance practice to making a pinch pot every day and connects the exercise to Jean Genet’s begging bowls. Genet’s begging bowls are a pot in the shape of a need you want to fill in your life. Since I had to make chili bowls every day, I saw an opportunity to make my daily bowl and think about making as a daily meditation.

So much of your practice centers on writing workshops and performance art, such as the Darling Foundry project which focused on automatic writing and group behavior in withheld circumstances. How do you see clay adding to your artistic exercises?

When I lived in London I worked as an editor and was trying to work my way back to making. Then I thought that being an editor is a supporting role within writing and art, so I thought about making physical supports. That’s how I decided to make tablets—they are supports meant for a writing practice.

What I like about this project is the whiteboard surface, which evokes educational facilities and, at least to me, a trace of Silicon Valley. There is a social inscription reflected in the materials, while the actual words are erased. Also, there is the very mechanical act of slip-casting the bowls. I haven’t tried meditating with those yet.

Then you view the finished bowls as vehicles or supports of a practice as well, andthe element of practice does not end with the making and firing? Do you see them connecting to writing as well?

Yes. When making the bowls they were uniform because they were from the same mold, and it was the firing that made them different. I fired words into the bowls, but they’re also blank so the need can change from day to day. There’s a trace, and in my writing I’m interested in traces, absence, voice, and language. I’m glad I was able to apply theory to the bowl form.

How do the bowls look when waxed? Here’s a glimpse of the finished project! Find more photographs from her residency on our Flickr!

Rebecca La Marre is a Montreal-based artist whose work focuses on history, technology, performance, writing, and—now—ceramics. Her books and performances have been shown and distributed internationally, including at The Serpentine Gallery, PS1 MOMA, and the Darling Foundry. She holds her Masters in Art Writing from Goldsmiths, University of London.