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Nicole Yeo: Feeling through Form


Photographs and Video by Emanuel Hahn

How did you start in ceramics?

My introduction was happenstance. A friend was passively telling me about the range of mastery in ceramics, the unexpected lightness for a material so serious and heavy. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Soon after, I learned of a ceramic artist through my job, and resonated strongly with her ideas on primitive arts and contemporary forms, old and new. I thought there might be space there for me.

I have meandered through many creative mediums. I was unsatisfied by options that forced literal and figurative expression. Clay allowed the ability to think through my hands, explore inconsequentially (low-waste), and gain intimacy with natural properties like dirt, water, gravity, heat. It was very eye opening for a “digital native”, honestly. I never cease to learn through my practice.

What concepts do you explore in your work? 

Increasingly, I’ve been focusing on letting my mind empty as I work, making space for feelings and impulses to arise on their own (I recently learned that this process actually documented as automatism, developed by the surrealists).

I’ve been focusing on letting my mind empty as I work, making space for feelings and impulses to arise on their own

I’ve found that the forms inevitability draw upon feelings, contradictions, and tensions that arise in exploring a sense of self (because that’s a lot of what I’m focusing on in my life).

This is really interesting – do you mean that you essentially let go, as you make pottery, and your work is guided through what you feel in the moment that you are creating?

Yes, somewhat. I’ve slowly evolved from trying to control the entire process with a big plan, and have given in to instinct and impulse, growing comfortable with the inevitability of disappointment. Earlier in my practice, I was really scared of failure and making ugly things, but I have a very different relationship to what “failure” and “success” means in creative practice now. I care more about an honest a sense of connection to myself.

Some days I connect to feelings that are warm, cozy, quiet – I’ll channel round, womb spaces. Other days I connect to very specific emotions (like the frowning rectangular vessel, which is nearly sarcastic). Some days I feel low-energy or overstimulated, and there are a lot of interesting complex emotions within that wavelength (as seen in the deflated vessel).

I love how my process has become more of a conversation between an instinct and material.

When working quickly without thinking or planning too much, I don’t quite nail the physics – the base is off center, or the body begins to buckle, or I work a curve too hard and it starts folding into itself. Sometimes this is unsalvageable, but mostly I’ve learned to graduate these “failures” into intentional decisions, learned techniques to use later.

I love how my process has become more of a conversation between an instinct and material. There were even a few pieces (unfortunately sold before the opportunity to photograph) that sagged and folded so much that it ripped at the mouth; but I was into it. The result imparts a little more soul into each piece.

Tension – can you talk more about how your work embodies this idea?

I think that with any work that attempts “beauty”, tension arises from how beautiful things can feel fragile. Thin walls evoke destruction, curves evoke humanity, vulnerability – they conjure visceral response. An object becomes a pair of burdened shoulders.

The presence of these seemingly fragile pieces invite the tension within ourselves of taming or giving into impulse. Inversely, I love indulgent ugliness of something heavy, broken, crude, wrong, raw. They evoke a different feeling all together, somewhere between “How would anyone dare to create this?” and “I can’t look away” and “Why is this like this?”

I think about these subtle, specific feelings a lot, and feel that spending time focusing on them brings greater clarity, and make overwhelmingly complex feel more approachable, digestible.

What does imperfection mean to you?

Imperfection has been incredibly both crippling and liberating in my work. When I was on the wheel, I kept pursuing literal perfection until it drove me into aimlessness – aiming for perfection as if the object had always existed, not created.

This joy in not taking it all so seriously was incredibly liberating, not feeling like my own self worth was compromised...these pieces are just artifacts that document my own growth.

There were a few really eye-opening moments when I finally allowed myself just to finish something super ugly. I had never let myself take big risks, or complete half-baked ideas because I was too embarrassed to create something ugly, something “bad”. It was liberating to finally let go of that, it’s sad to say that I hadn’t given myself that space and safety to be that creatively vulnerable in the past.

This joy in not taking it all so seriously was incredibly liberating, not feeling like my own self worth was compromised if I created something bad. I started to fold these feelings into my work. Learning to have separation between myself and the things I create. These pieces are just artifacts that document my own growth.

Where do you want your work to live?

With people, seen or experienced daily. Evolving in their own meaning through the eyes of their owners.


Featured collection

Nicole Yeo


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