Interview by Christina Massolino
Feature image by Nicola Sutcliffe
Nicola Sutcliffe is a ceramic artist determined to express self-growth through her art. She graduated from UniSA’s Contemporary Art degree in 2019, and is currently completing a Master of Design (Contemporary Art). During Nicola’s ceramics specialisation as part of her undergraduate degree, she created strange, yet beautiful, spiralling, bendy clay vessels that spill off tendrils and roots. These objects were Nicola’s way of expressing ‘sad spells’—artwork of reflection and self-growth. Nicola discusses the importance she places on sharing experiences around mental health and inspiring artistic evolution with us.
What is it about the quality and process of clay that is so therapeutic to you, particularly the hand building technique? What are you battling or working out through this?
Being such a tactile person, I’m always drawn to touching things, so I find working with clay is a very calming process. It helps me express my emotions (clay therapy, if you will) and just be present with the clay and my thoughts. It can be a frustrating medium to work with but I always learn lessons from it. It’s my escape from the business and confusion of other aspects of life; somewhere I can organise my thoughts and often express them through the clay.
You’ve mentioned to me previously that you experienced what you called at the time ‘sad spells’ during uni, and looking further back, high school too. Upon reflection, do you think these times were depression? If so, why did you find it easier to label them ‘sad spells’?
Yes, these ‘sad spells’ were depression. I didn’t want to label them as depression because I didn’t feel they were ‘bad’ enough. I always thought of others who have worse depression than myself and didn’t think mine was valid. The reality is though, no matter how ‘bad’ or ‘not so bad’ you think they are, it’s still so important to acknowledge it and not compare it to others. Using the term ‘sad spells’ helped me then to not be overwhelmed by the word ‘depression’ but now it’s important for me to accept it as that.
You previously worked with jewellery but switched to ceramics. How did this change affect you and your personality?
I went to uni to study jewellery but my first ceramics elective changed my whole view of creating. Jewellery is a tedious process which appealed to my detail-oriented self, but it made me feel restricted. Ceramics has this flow that forces you to be gentle and calm with it. It’s taught me to let go of perfection and, by opening myself up to these imperfections and delightfully unpredictable surprises, I am much more content. You can’t control everything, so I enjoy the natural flow of ceramics and life.
Have you ever accessed mental health services provided by UniSA, if so, what was that experience like?
Yes, in my undergraduate course, I was seeing a UniSA counsellor. It was so refreshing to talk to someone external and receive guidance that had my best interests in mind. It was a safe space to be emotional in front of someone who could help identify my feelings and thoughts and give me processes to move through them. I’m a strong believer in being present with our emotions, we have them for a reason, and they’re all there to teach us something, so I listen to them, untangle them, and let myself feel them. My counsellor was amazing at helping me do this and helping me see how important this is.
Is it sometimes too much to rely on your own art as your only source of help?
As much as I love using art as my therapy for self-awareness, talking about my feelings and thoughts is just as important to me. Talking to friends, family, and people in mental health services addresses the issue in a way that working with clay can’t. I would, however, still recommend anyone to try clay therapy as well, whether it be stoneware, polymer, or straight from the earth.
What are you currently doing in your clay practices, and what does the future as a ceramicist hold for you?
I’m currently exploring themes of tactile therapy and making art more accessible to a broader range of people. In the future, I would love to teach classes (perhaps clay therapy) and have my own shop/cafe. At the moment, I’m just enjoying the present because who knows what the future holds!
This interview was originally published in Edition 35 of Verse. View it in its original PDF form via ISSUU.
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