Alissa Coe – Artist Profile

Alissa Coe is a ceramic artist with a strong design background. After training in industrial design and launching a design studio in Canada, Alissa set out on her own from a new base in the Piedmont region of northern Italy. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Well, Alissa reports that it is nice – great in fact. She’s been able to deeply connect with materials and a sense of place, while maintaining a successful business with clients around the world.

Floating Petals, looking up at an installation of 1500 hand-rolled ceramic porcelain shapes created for the Brahma Residencies in Beijing, China.

JTW: Alissa, you studied industrial design at the Ontario College of Art & Design (“OCAD”). Will you tell me more about that general training and also what particularly attracted you to ceramics?

AC: While I was studying industrial design I began to realize that my favourite part was the tactile model-making, prototyping part of the design process. When I had the opportunity to take a ceramic mould-making class it filled the desire to actually make finished products with my hands. It was completely captivating to me because it opened up a new possibility beyond designing for production to designing and hand-making multiples on a small scale. It was the first experience I had with ceramics and I felt very inspired.

Hand-Thrown Black Stoneware Pedestal Vases

JTW: After graduation, you formed a design studio Coe&Waito with a partner, Carly Waito, making porcelain table top wares and sculptural installations. What role did you play in that partnership and what did you learn from it?

AC: Carly Waito and I worked together through most of our time at OCAD. We understood each other and shared the same design sensibility and passion for details. It was her idea for us to take the ceramic mould-making class that set us on our path. We did our final thesis project together and when we won an award for it we put the money toward the purchase of our first kiln and got our first studio space. It was a 50/50 partnership, we designed and made everything together and ran the business together as well. It was our experimentation with installation art which was the most interesting part to me and it was ultimately what set me on my current path.

Wood Inspired Carved Sculptures, one of two series created for hotels and residences in Hong Kong and Taiwan

JTW: You now have your own firm and have also moved to northern Italy. What prompted those changes, and how do you now divide up the work between you and partner Matias?

AC: With coe&waito we developed a wonderful body of work together but we got bogged down in the sales and production of our wholesale collection and had a hard time finding time for creating new work. It wasn’t really financially or emotionally sustainable for us so after a while we parted ways. It wasn’t so long before we were approached by an art consultancy asking about one of the sculptural installations we had made together, and if we would be interested in doing something similar for a hotel project. Carly wasn’t interested at the time and I accepted the project on my own. That ended up being the beginning of the solo chapter of my career which lasted 6 years until Matias joined me in 2018 as part of our plan to move to Italy. It was a move we had dreamed of for most of our adult lives and when my studio grew too busy for me to manage on my own that dream became a real possibility.

Ceramic Flower Walls, installation created for the Bellagio Hotel in Shanghai, China
Ceramic Flower Walls, detail

Matias handles most of the day-to-day administration and logistics which leaves me to focus most of my attention on the creative side: concept development and the creation of the work. It’s a dream for me to have a partnership that is split in this way.

JTW: Has your relocation to Italy influenced your creative directions?

AC: Living here in this incredibly peaceful, beautiful place, being able to focus my attention on the creative process, and working with the new materials which are available to us here have all made a huge impact on our work. We draw so much inspiration from our surroundings, the details, natural materials, the changing seasons and constant stimulation of the senses. We are becoming part of something quiet and enduring here, I sometimes feel almost like a conduit, filtering our natural and ancient surroundings into the clay, honing an idea: a warm, rich, minimalism, which has been developing inside of me since the beginning… an idea which I believe is part of what lured us here.

Stoneware “Roca” Pitcher
Stoneware “Roca” Pitcher, detail

JTW: Will you tell me about your creative process? Do you plan out your work in advance – perhaps in response to a client’s specific direction – or is your work more spontaneous and intuitive?

AC: Yes, most of our work is planned out in advance. Our clients usually have criteria they are working within, even if it’s just overall dimensions. We use these to develop the concepts which we propose using drawings or small scale mock-ups to communicate the ideas. When an idea is approved we produce it more or less to the specifications we outlined in our proposal.

Vase Installation, 16 hand-thrown porcelain vases grouped in a composition, created for a luxury residence in Taiwan

I love the challenge and satisfaction of designing within parameters and executing work according to the design, but outside of the commission-based projects I tend to be very spontaneous and intuitive which is my absolute favourite way to work. It allows me to discover new materials and techniques and, eventually, that informs the work we do for client commissions. So, to a certain extent, it’s all connected.

JTW: How much of your current work do you create as one-off pieces, and how much is made with more “industrial” or production-type processes like slip casting? Do you have a preference for one over the other?

AC: It completely depends on the project. We usually only use slip-casting when we require many multiples of the same shape or of a series of shapes – especially shapes that would be difficult to construct by hand. Slip-casting requires a lot of set up because of the model-making and mould-making stages and it also requires a significant amount of finishing work since the edges and seams of the cast pieces come out of the mould rough. So, it’s actually quite labour intensive which means it is only really useful in particular projects. Most of our work is hand-built.

Hex Collection cast porcelain geometric tableware

JTW: What inspires you and triggers your creativity? How do you keep those sources of inspiration alive?

AC: I am very much inspired by my surroundings: forms and details in nature, the quiet, a sense of timelessness. It’s amazing how a walk in the woods can be both calming and revitalising at the same time.

And working in clay inevitably sparks creativity. On one hand, it’s so malleable that it invites exploration. But, on the other, it can be quite precarious—at every stage in production there’s a risk of failure: cracking, warping, slumping, etc. There’s always a tension between what I might try to do and what the material will allow. I’m constantly learning which always leads to sparks of inspiration.

You can see more of Alissa’s work on her website.

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