Kopal Seth just finished her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design (“RISD”) in 2020, and has recently started a residency at The Clay Studio in Philadelphia, PA.
She spent a few minutes with me explaining her background and her work, and how the former has influenced the latter.
JW: You grew up in India, which has a long, deep ceramic tradition. Do you reference that tradition in your work, and if so, how?
KS: Yes, I do. I was born and spent the early part of my life in a small town in the rural part of central India. Throughout my early years I saw many, many pots made out of local clay in a style known as “Matka pottery”.
These are large pots used to store water and grain. They have round bottoms with no feet. The porous quality of the clay “breathes” to keep any water held within the pot cool during hot weather. The water also absorbs minerals from the clay body for some health benefits.
Matka pots are very traditional in Indian culture, but this is a fading tradition. I reference Matka pottery in my work in the clay I use and in the underlying structural forms I employ.
My ceramics also reference what I refer to as the life cycle of pottery – from the making of pots, through its use to its ultimate breakage.
I also use pottery as a symbol of growth and continuation. Many rounded, Matka-like forms are at the center of my pieces. I place other ceramic elements on these rounded forms, oftentimes radiating outwards.
I think of these additional shapes as symbols of growth and replication on a traditional core. At times the growth is overwhelming and subsumes the original source form. In a way it’s emblematic of what’s happening in India today.
These ceramic elements also reference some of my last memories of India, as I sat looking at my homeland from an airplane. I remember these aerial views of human expansion across the landscape, seeming to overtake everything. It was very powerful and alarming. There’s a certain element of those visual memories in some of my work.
JW: Can you tell me about the evolution of your work and what attracted you to ceramics?
KS: After high school in India, I wasn’t really aware of ceramics as an art form. I was attracted to art, and enrolled at university to study painting. I took several elective classes during my undergraduate program, including a ceramics class. I wanted to try it once, just to experience the material. But I didn’t think I would turn in this direction.
I think an experience I had with raku firing was a turning point for me. I was fascinated with the entire process, from making the pot, glazing, firing, and even the destruction of pots in that process. Things were breaking all the time, and that had a certain quality that I liked. I realized that at first you have a lot of control over the creative process, but ultimately you become aware of how little control you really exercise. There are intense physical and chemical forces acting on and transforming your pots. It’s really interesting.
As an result of these experiences I had working with ceramics, I decided to focus on ceramics in my MFA program at RISD.
JW: How does artistic training differ between India and the US?
KS: Well, there definitely are differences. Part of that difference may be between undergraduate and graduate programs. I would say, though, that art training in India follows a traditional academic formula. There is not much room for experimentation. You train in techniques and stick to what you’ve studied. In the US, however, there’s infrastructure to support trying different things out and going in different directions to see what you can find. You can try different things, see what you like, and discard things you don’t like. Different opinions and experiences are welcomed, and critical thinking is valued. I’ve found that welcoming approach at both RISD and here at The Clay Studio.
JW: I don’t have a sense of the scale of your work from images on your website. Are these pieces large?
KS: Most of the rounded work is fairly small – small enough to hold in your hands. The rectangular pieces are a bit larger. Let’s say they would fit on a desktop. They also can be assembled in different configurations, but again, pretty much fitting on a desktop.
I am interested in building up the scale of these pieces. I will probably take that scale up gradually. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while. I didn’t have that opportunity at RISD due to the pandemic.
JW: Where do you see yourself going from here?
KS: When COVID hit this spring, all the RISD studios were shut and I couldn’t work on most of my projects. The school will give graduating MFA students a show, as is traditional for graduates. I’m working on finishing some pieces for that show here at The Clay Studio.
While things were suspended during the initial phases of COVID, I started thinking about some changes I’d like to make – or things I’d like to add or explore. My thinking has evolved. I would like to incorporate light and shadow into my work, and possibly also find some middle ground where I can combine my original interest and training in drawing and painting with my ceramics. I’ve started working with porcelain instead of terracotta type clay. Porcelain clay can be thin and translucent, allowing some light to show through it. One thing I’m exploring is working with 3 panels of clay, incorporating some of those geometric shapes but also playing with light and shadow. I may have some type of light shining through or from behind the forms rather than just light falling onto the forms.
JW: You’ll be able to explore these directions at The Clay Studio?
KS: Oh, yes. I selected The Clay Studio residency program for two important reasons. First, there’s an incredible legacy here. Amazing people have come through the program and are in the residency program right now. It will be a wonderful place to exchange ideas and grow artistically. Second, I was really attracted to The Clay Studio’s community outreach programs. They have a Claymobile, for example, and go around Philadelphia to hold community events promoting the arts. It reminds me of community in India. I wanted to be a part of that, to gain from the community as well as to give back to the community.