Yan Xuan, the Colby Museum’s Curatorial Intern for the 2021–2022 academic year, interviews artist E. Saffronia Downing, Lunder Institute for American Art Resident Fellow.
1. Clay appears in your work both as a sole material and as a component in mixed-media installations. What is the significance of clay in your work?
I love working with clay because of its origins in the earth. Clay is composed of tiny bits of eroded rock. People have been making things from this earth material for thousands of years. Wild clay is a site-specific medium that corresponds with deep histories of place. I forage clay to unearth stories in the sediment.
As a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I experimented with the clay I found around my neighborhood. Chicago clay is full of heavy metals. Sometimes these metals are geologic, like iron formed from residues of rock. Other times, the metals speak of human activity–lead leached into the soil from pipes and paint. Through Chicago clay, I dug into the entwined histories of industry and earth processes to understand the human impact on geology underfoot.
Recently, I’ve been making work centered around the Presumpscot Formation–a vein of blue-gray clay that runs through the midcoast region. Pottery made from this clay is called redware because of the ruddy hue of the fired ceramic. Foraging local clay has been a way to connect with the landscape as I locate myself in central Maine.
2. Landscape changes over place and time. How does the natural history of a site influence your practice?
I spend a lot of time studying entanglements between natural history and human activity. Some of this research takes place in archives, but often I research through observation. While I’m walking, I look for things in the landscape: Are there traces of industry in this topography? Are the floras indigenous to the area or are these plants from away? Do the street names reflect histories of land practices, place names, or people? My observations lead to pathways of inquiry that guide my site-specific projects.
3. In your videos documenting visits to sites of earthly removal, you included sounds of ceramics touching and birds singing. How do these acoustic aspects influence your traveling experience?
The video series Sites of Earthly Removal grew from the early days of the pandemic. Having lost access to my studio, materials, and tools, I began shooting videos on my phone while I walked around my neighborhood. The videos became a way to metabolize place-based research in a digital social-distant context. I created four short works in this series–“Thornton Quarry,” “Brick-Town Mall,” “Palmisano Park,” and “Wolf Road Prairie.” Each video explored a local site of material extraction.
I made the audio for this series with the same methodology I use in sculptural work: prospect, research, gather, reconfigure. I culled audio from online archives to build soundscapes that reflect the process of matter shifting around. What is the sound of drifting ceramic detritus? I built up layers of audio from construction noises, ceramic scraping, street sounds, and excavation to guide listeners in a remote traverse through altered landscapes.
4. Can you tell us about the process of building your career as an artist?
I’ve been drawn toward hand-making since I was a little kid. My mom is a painter and musician. In her work, mythic imagery cohabitates with the red-clay landscape of her childhood in the Deep South. My mom taught me how to draw as soon as I could hold a pencil. I always made things. I drew a lot and played in the mud in the backyard. I made a small quilt top when I was nine. As I got older, I continued to make things.
In college, I studied painting/drawing and feminist histories. I enjoyed oil painting and life drawing, but I felt like I was copying images from my mom’s paintings. I needed to find my own route as an artist. That’s how I made my way to sculpture. When I started working sculpturally, I was struck by the way materials convey meaning. I began trying to tell stories through materials rather than images.
After college, I worked at an environmental nonprofit and took ceramics classes at a community ceramics studio in Baltimore. I loved coil building clay vessels. I rented a small studio in K-Town and spent as much time as I could trying to develop my work in clay. This led me to pursue an education in ceramics at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. That’s how the pieces came together–clay landscapes, playing in the mud, material exploration, and ecological thinking.
E. Saffronia Downing (she/her) works with wild clay to create site-specific sculptures and installations. Foraging materials from local landscapes, Downing considers correspondences between makers and matter. She received her master of fine arts in ceramics from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2020, and her work has been featured in exhibitions at Bad Water (Knoxville, Tenn.), Resort (Baltimore, Md.), and The Franklin (Chicago). Downing currently teaches the course Knowledge Lab: Craft Ecologies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is the co-creator of the digital publication Viral Ecologies.