Interview: Ceramic Artist, Sarah Nedovic

Conversation AMY HENDERSON
Words OLIVER MOL Images ARJUN SOHAL Film TIMOTHY MELVILLE

Sarah Nedovic is a Melbourne-based artist whose iconic work plays with functionality and aesthetic, drawing inspiration from abstract and figurative sculpture while remaining in dialogue with the natural world. Famous for her clay, sculptural lamps, her work has been collected by Dior Institut Paris, and has been featured in Vogue, Belle, Milk, RUSSH amongst other publications. However, as you will soon discover, what makes Nedovic so impressive is her ability to trust her intuition; courageously, while pregnant with her first child, she experimented with a variety of art forms that eventually resulted in her new career. More than anything, Nedovic’s work feels harmonious, elegant, authentic and complete, as if she was put on this earth to simply—and with equal attention to practicality and beauty—create art. Needless to say, she is an artist who has found her calling.

I would love to talk about how it all began. I know that you were working as a textile designer, but how did you become an artist?

I was working in textiles and pregnant with my first child, Angus, and I knew that I didn’t want to keep working in fashion for the rest of my life. One night, my husband George asked me who I wanted to be—which was something I hadn’t thought of since school. I often think about what I designed at school. I made a lot of pieces I was really proud of, and it was probably because I had no restrictions. Anyway, I had this time because I was having a baby, and I wanted to approach this new experimental phase of my life without any pressure. One day my friend gave me a bag of clay because she was heading overseas. At first, I didn’t like clay at all. I am very drawn to how clay feels, the tactility of it, and the clay I was given was really fine. I didn’t engage with it. So I put the clay aside and tried plaster, but it was messy. I tried resin, but the way I was using it didn’t feel quite right. Same with wax. I was just experimenting, but I was also used to working to a brief and deadline, and I didn’t have that anymore, so it was challenging. At some point I signed up for a life sculpture course, and I drove out to this warehouse where we sat around this gorgeous model and sculpted her out of clay. Everything I was doing related to sculpture or handbuilding in some way.

The course allowed me to think about clay in a different way. When people study ceramics, or they do a course with their local studio, they instantly go to the wheel. They’ll make a pot or a bowl, and usually try to make it perfect and functional. Because my first experience with clay was sculptural—we were practicing with armature, creating wire forms as a framework to support clay—I thought what you could achieve was endless. Of course that’s not true, but I fell in love with clay again, and then through research I found the kind of clay that suited my work, which was handbuilding clay. My stepdad studied industrial design, and we grew up knowing that if we needed something, we would build it, and I think I responded to that clay because it is really hardy. You can knock it around, and it gave me more flexibility when homebuilding and firing large forms in the kiln. Then my mother-in-law gave us a lamp from New York, and it has these stacked resin heads, and it sparked something in me. I thought, Maybe I will make a lamp in the kitchen of our rental apartment. Our rental had no heating, and I used to cook dinner at 10 in the morning because the oven generated so much heat. The kitchen was massive, and we had this long trestle table, and the space had access to a tap to wash my tools. I played with clay and cooked, and it was the most amazing, lovely time. I came out with eight designs, and that was how I made my first lamp, Number 54.

That’s beautiful. What happened next?

I really wanted to document and photograph the lamps, so I contacted Stephanie Stamatis, an incredible stylist who worked with the amazing photographer Lauren Bamford. I was 39 and a half weeks pregnant; my son was due in a few days, and I remember piling the lamps in the car, then grabbing my hospital bag. I thought that if I started having contractions, I would just drive straight to the hospital. But that didn’t happen. Everything went so well, and the girls were amazing. Even now, people email to say they want a certain lamp from that original photo shoot.

Afterwards, the girls put the lamps on their platforms, and within two or three weeks we were getting orders. Everything kind of went boom. It was wonderful, but also scary because within that week and a half I had my son, and I was in hospital, and my Instagram was going off because Stephanie was tagging me in a photo that suddenly had hundreds of likes. It was exciting.

 

It is extraordinary because you gave birth to a child and at the same time, a business that launched you into a new career. Your whole life suddenly found a new trajectory. 

Once again, I was fortunate that I had a supportive husband. I had heating and lights on. I could order take away. My mum could drop over eggs and milk and bread if we needed, and yet I still found it really hard. How do you be a mum and a creative? I started to think about women back in the day, and the roles they had traditionally played. They were home makers, they raised the children, cut the wood, put the stove on, cooked the food, did everything involving the house. Generally, they weren’t appreciated or respected or acknowledged, and I was like, How did woman do everything, and raise children, and be creative? I started reading about women in history and researching their stories. All the lady lamps reference the year a woman passed away. Number 18 is Aretha Franklin. Number 54 is the French author Collete. She was always shadowed by her husband, who used to put his name to her work, and she was never recognised as a writer until she left him and became a lesbian, and finally wrote under her own name. Number 76 is the architect and furniture designer Elaine Gray. Number 79 is Peggy Guggenhiem. Number 71 is Coco Chanel. I became a huge feminist, and I was like, Women are amazing. I am amazing. I have birthed this baby. I am feeding this baby. I am being acknowledged for making something with my hands, and I am making my dreams come true. The hormones really kicked in.

Often, when we put too much pressure on our work, the results can feel stifled and diminished. Do you think creating in the kitchen while cooking—rather than going to a studio—took the pressure off? Did you feel vulnerable or insecure suddenly changing careers?

Oh, one hundred percent. But also—and even though I really was trying to find myself—this was never meant to be anything other than a hobby. The most important thing was that I had time, and I was fortunate enough to have a partner who supported me, and I had the financial freedom to create. That’s a huge thing. But I think what also helped is that I had an end date. I thought, I’ll take leave, and work really hard to get this collection done before the baby comes, and then I’ll return to being a designer. Also, I was going to be a mum, which meant I already had a new role, and that probably removed the pressure in some way. I think my stars aligned, and I was really fortunate to have made something that people responded to in that time. Also, people respond differently to you when you’re pregnant. Now, four years on, I think a lot of my creativity comes from hard work, but also confidence. I don’t know if confidence relates to being pregnant, but a lot of things have to align to design: I need to feel good, feel free, feel confident, feel inspired. It’s really hard in this day and age, and there is a lot of pressure, but I have a studio, great people around me, great clients, and so I have this confidence that says I can keep designing.

When I first made the lamps I remember thinking, When I am more established, or when I get to that point in my career, I would really like to give back, and to a female, and have something like an internship, or give an amount of money to allow someone that freedom—because I know if I didn’t have that support none of this would have come about.

 

Making art—even with a team around you—can be an isolating experience. How important is community, and how have you navigated the Melbourne artistic scene?

Everything began in June 2019, and then we went into lockdown in February 2020 for two years with our six month old baby. I wasn’t from the ceramics or interiors world, and since then we’ve had another kid, so I feel like I have been slow to discover that community. I feel like a bit of an outsider, but I also think that a lot of creatives feel like outsiders. I can’t speak for everyone, but sometimes you’re an outsider because you’re looking at the world in a different way. I don’t know. I remember being in a bar with some girlfriends and they were all talking about a particular celebrity. I was looking at the roof wondering how it was supported. I’m often not interested in what the general public is talking about. I don’t really like talking about people. I like real, meaningful, tangible conversations that some people find boring. I want to know how stuff works.

Influence is such an interesting concept because we can almost create a visual map that might document how ideas morph and change. We have spoken about the women who have influenced your lamps, but could you talk about the artists or artistic movements that have influenced your work?

I find brutalist structures unbelievable on so many levels. The strength, the geometry, the balance—I actually wrote down the meaning of Brutalism, and it means: massive forms creating a sense of mass weight and scale; expression of structure creating a memorable and powerful image; unusual shapes; parts of the building that can differentiate or have dramatic effects. All those things are what I am trying to do in my work. At the same time, my favourite art is installation work. James Turrell has an installation at MONA in Tasmania where you watch the sunrise and sunset through a rectangle, and it gives off this light, and you sit in this enormous space and have this feeling of being absorbed. It was overwhelming, and yet I felt this incredible calm, which is the same feeling I have with Brutalism. That sense of scale, and how it impacts a person: that is what I love in design.

 

The art you create is also unique because it generally has a tangible purpose. Where do you think this comes from?

My mind is quite practical. If I am going to design something, I want to be able to use it in my house. I want my art to do more than just take up space. There’s also a part of me that feels that work with purpose adds value. I suppose it is a confidence thing, because suddenly it is not just Sarah’s design, it is Sarah’s design that lights up. As I said earlier, I grew up in a really practical home. If we needed it, we built it. If it was broken, we fixed it. If someone said to me, “Build something that looks nice on the wall,” I wouldn’t know what to do. I find that terrifying. But if someone said, “Design a light that prompts intrigue,” suddenly you have an extra element on that journey. I always like to add a story and depth to my work because it could mean something to more people. The art feels more dynamic. At the same time, there’s something really intimidating about putting yourself out there on your own. I think lighting and that functional purpose is a crutch for me.

The late painter Bob Ross once said, “We don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents.” What is your relationship to clay, ceramics and fragility of art?

Ceramics is a really interesting area because you are always learning and evolving. Something is going wrong all the time. Sometimes, I open the kiln and it’s just not what I expected. There might have been an explosion, or a glaze might have turned out different to how I imagined, and I might lose or have to refire my work. It can be unexpected in both a good and bad way. Recently, the glaze I have been using—a natural matte white earthenware glaze—has become really expensive and rare, because it includes an ingredient now used for Tesla batteries. You’re also working with natural materials, which is a wonderful challenge. Clay comes from clay pits, so when they move to another site the clay changes, and the clay reacts differently to the glaze and the kiln. All of a sudden, your work changes colour. There’s so much out of your control, but I love it because nothing is ever the same. The materials are from the earth. When the clay is darker it means there is more iron in the clay, which suggests there used to be lakes and rivers there. You’re working with natural history, and it’s interesting because we have orders for pieces and clients expect the same thing every time, and that is not always possible. There’s an impermanence that is beautiful.

Speaking about the fragility of art, I recently decided that I only want to make enough pieces to keep the doors open, and to pay my staff, and keep the lights on. As soon as we hit that amount then we stop, and the rest of the time is development for everyone on the whole team, and design time for me. The business is not driven by profit, it’s driven by design. And I think it’s important for myself and for the team. Everyone needs to feel like they’re growing.

 

Do you find it difficult running a business, creating art and spending less time with your children? If so, how do you combat that?

Massively, but I also feel like being in the studio and having this outlet makes me a better mother. I feel guilty about the time I am not with my children, but I also think it is about being there for the right times. When Angus finishes school and he gives me a hug, it’s the best. My mum was a stay at home mum. You would come home, and there was a cake in the oven, and dinner was on the table at five. Of course, you always want to give to your kids what you had, but I also recognise that I think the best version of myself is when I am doing what I love. At the same time, maybe I’m also able to offer something else. Angus is about to start school holidays, and I am going to take him into the studio and have a clay day. We have done this in the past and it’s really sweet. I give him a big slab of clay, and he just makes these little things. Growing up, I loved helping my step dad in the garage, and I want Angus to come to the studio in the same way too. I want him to create, and I hope in time it will become part of his identity, and he will understand that he can make whatever he wants. I want him to have that space.

 

Thank you so much for your time, Sarah. As a closing question, could you describe how you see the future of your business?

I just want to keep having fun. I have lots of ideas. I want to continue building a network and a team and a community that I can support and that can support me. I am very aware that I can’t get there on my own. I’m not going out to bars and networking. My community is in my studio, so I want to continue creating and nurturing that environment, surrounding myself with people who are like-minded and inspired, and if I can build that into someone else’s work then that’s amazing too.