A rocky road

Ceramic artist Tania Nasr talks to ArtScoops about the inspiration she finds from Lebanon’s magnificent, multi-faceted mountains and how her work changed post-August 4, 2020 

How did the time you spent studying pottery with the masters from the Far East influence your approach to ceramics?

The potters I studied with when living in Singapore in the 1990s adopted very different approaches to each other, which I think was beneficial since it enabled me to develop my own, individual technique. Initially, I spent time with a family of Chinese potters who gave informal demonstration classes. They only showed students what to do once or twice and then we were expected to have a go ourselves, persevering with the technique until we perfected it. I also spent time with a Japanese potter who taught me several traditional techniques, but also encouraged me to express myself rather than strive for perfection – a philosophy I found really liberating. Somehow, the two approaches combined well and while I’ve learned a great deal about technique since, I still draw on these basics. The method I use involves feeling the clay and working out how far I can push it until it’s about to crack. It’s an unusual way of working – very spontaneous – and one I view as a dialogue between me and the clay.

You are known to take inspiration from Lebanon’s natural landscape in your work. What aspects of the natural world do you find particularly compelling and how do you incorporate this passion into your work?

Living in Broummana, I’m spoilt for choice when it comes to seeking out inspiration from the natural world. I find the Lebanese mountains particularly fascinating, especially when the excavated interiors of the rocks are exposed, revealing a multitude of layers, textures and colours. I love both the macro and the micro, so both the mineral elements and the broader geology are of huge interest to me – the way the mountain splits to reveal a valley, for example. The roughness of the dry rocks intrigues me and I regularly channel this passion for texture into my work, adding an extra element to the clay, sometimes sand and on other occasions rock itself from the mountains. 

What added dimension do you think your studies in anthropology brought to your work?

I studied anthropology a long time ago, with ceramics coming much later, but I came to realise that the two things are part of a natural progression. I’d been working in the field in rural France when doing my PhD, studying the relationship between humans and nature, but found it very challenging to continue my studies when I moved to Singapore. I decided I wanted to move away from academia, perhaps working with my hands, and tried several things before giving ceramics a go. It only took one lesson for me to know I’d found my vocation. I was concerned that the director of the department at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, where I’d been based for my studies, would be disappointed, but he was very supportive. He described what I was doing as a natural continuation of my intellectual journey, transforming a natural resource, with the results simply in the form of ceramic pieces rather than in writing. I found his interpretation really thought-provoking and inspiring. 

You’ve often referred to nature’s dual traits of fragility and strength as a source of fascination. Do you sometimes find it challenging to reconcile these seemingly conflicting characteristics in your work?

Not really because I view them as coexisting naturally. Nature is marked by both strength and fragility, and I find this juxtaposition easily finds its way into my pieces. When working, I tear the clay, highlighting its delicate nature and then piece it back together, giving it newfound strength. One message I’m hoping to share is that even if the work is broken and imperfect, it has gained strength from being restored.

How did the Covid-19 pandemic affect your creativity?

Covid didn’t have the same impact in Lebanon as elsewhere because we’ve faced other, greater problems in the same timeframe, from the worsening economic crisis to the August 4, 2020 explosion at the port, which was by far the biggest catastrophe. I stopped creating art for a while after the blast and then, when I began again, I found my work was completely different - much smoother and softer. I believe this was because I was so distracted - I couldn’t bear to think of the fatalities, the injuries, the destroyed buildings and the state of the country. I found the change in my style a bit disturbing so decided to take some classes and reenergise a little, which seems to have worked. I’m now working on a new series I’ve called ‘Moons’ – flat, round pieces to hang on walls, with a lot of textural cracks, but somehow peaceful.  I think I’m returning to a way of working that’s closer to what I was doing before, but it’s not exactly the same – after what Lebanon has been through, I think change is inevitable, on an individual and broader scale.

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