When you are a Gabrielle and you meet another Gabrielle, there is usually an instant connection. Gabrielle Silverlight and I met when we were both doing a market together. I kept eyeing her playfully modern clay pieces from the across the room. When we finally got to talking and realized we share the same first name I was instantly smitten. For this interview, I got to visit Silverlight in her beautifully sun-drenched loft space, that serves as both a work and live space for her and her husband. I loved seeing how her work was so effortlessly sculpted into her life. It was great to see her sketches of a new collection and talk about her artistry over tacos:
First things first, when you were little what did you want to be when you grew up. Did you ever think you would start your own business?
I’m sure I had moments of imagining myself to be something else when I grew up but I was always a creative kid and into art. I grew up in a creative family - my mom, grandmother and much of her family were visual artists and my dad and his brother are professional musicians. It was always a part of who I was growing up and once I got into high school I began focusing on painting and knew that I wanted to go to art school. I don’t think I ever thought of it in the way that I would be starting a business but knew that I would always want to find a way to create and hopefully make a living that way.
Before you worked in clay you trained and work in a number of other mediums, tell us about that and how that work helped inform your design process.
I've always been interested in working in different mediums. I studied glassblowing at Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, the program was also very sculpture focused and many of my pieces combined different materials, though I didn't do much in clay at that time. A year or so after graduating I moved to Philadelphia and got a job working at a fine arts bronze casting foundry and worked there for the next 9 years. I was able to cast my own sculptures there and started making more work in bronze, combining that with glass and getting more into glass kiln casting at the time. I mostly worked in the wax department and realized I enjoyed that part of the casting process the most - more so than metal working etc, I liked the more hands-on-ness of sculpting with the material. Then I started exploring making jewelry and naturally started to think about combining the bronze with other materials like clay since I really like the juxtaposition of contrasting materials, i.e. smooth shiny metal with the sandy, earthy textures of some clays. At that point, I thought about how I could translate some of my glass and bronze sculptures into ceramic or at least add some elements of ceramic into them. I tend to have many ideas at once and since metal casting can be a long process, it typically took me a long time to complete a single sculpture and I wanted a material that was more immediate - although I should say that working in ceramics is by no means a quick process! That being said, it can require equipment that is less complicated to set up and frees up the dependency on someone else's facilities and being able to be more independent in that way appealed to me. I then attended a ceramic hand-building class that a local artist was offering at her studio which enabled me to explore some of my ideas, from there I was hooked on clay. I loved the process of working with my hands on the material, the (relative)immediacy of the results and the endless possibilities of what you can do with and how you can get the clay to look like. I began to learn more about clay on my own in my studio, bringing my pieces to be fired at local places with cooperative kilns or friends' kilns until I was finally able to get my own.
When you first started your brand, what were your intentions?
My intentions when starting my brand are pretty much the same as they are now - to make beautiful and unique functional sculpture. The one difference from then to now is that when I first started my brand I went under the name ZOLA, I wanted a little bit of separation between my fine art work and my functional and decorative work and liked the bit of anonymity that came with working under a name other than my own. As I continued to explore and develop my work I came to realize that the separation didn’t exist for me anymore - I see it all as sculpture, whether functional or not. When I decided I didn’t need that separation and that I as an artist am my own “brand”, switching to my own name felt like a way of solidifying all that for myself and my work.
Walk us through the process of making a new collection, what inspires you and what is your process like?
Inspiration comes from many places for me. I’m very interested in making functional sculpture because I think it’s amazing that a piece of art can have the power to elevate the energy of a space just by its presence alone and a functional art object can do the same and possibly more so by elevating an everyday experience too. For example, drinking a warm beverage out of a beautiful mug can make one more present at that moment. I like the idea of using an object like my incense catchalls to help create a moment of quiet or even personal ritual. With my Wall Vessel Sculptures and other pots, I intend for them to stand alone as sculptures but also to take on another character by giving a plant or flowers a space to live in, thereby creating their own relationship with the vessel which goes back to the idea of combining different materials. I view my jewelry as sculpture that you can wear or art to carry throughout your day and believe that carrying beauty can feel empowering. I find inspiration in nature by observing plants and coastal landscapes. I look to artists and art movements of the past, architecture, and geometry. In my head, that's all swirling around, but drawing specifically from any one source has not been my approach and mostly come up with new forms and designs from exploring a shape, patterns or color combinations and experimenting or meditating on those ideas while also being open to letting the clay and process guide the results. It's in that mind space that something will just click and I'll get this feeling that an idea is either working or not and have learned to follow that intuition. I think it's there that I find my personal voice for my work.
You have your ceramics in some of my favorite shops, which are all over the US. Tell us what it is like to run your wholesale business and your relationships with boutiques?
I’ve been so happy to work with some great boutiques that support small businesses that are truly interested in exposing the public to art and fine craft. Some are really dedicated to sharing the story of the makers and what goes into the process of the work that they carry, which is really important in a world of fast fashion and goods as it gives people a much better understanding and appreciation of what goes into handcrafted work. It’s also inspiring that a lot of the boutiques are women-owned small businesses and creative people themselves.
What has been in like running your business out of Philly? I feel that Philadelphia has a very strong ceramic maker community, what has it been like to be a part of that?
Philadelphia has been great in that it is a city that has provided me with space that otherwise might be hard to afford or come by in some other major cities. It also has a vibrant community of artists and makers not just in ceramics but all different mediums. I’ve had the fortune to meet and befriend a lot of talented folks that are running their own creative businesses, which is both inspiring and also wonderful to have the support of a network of people that I can turn to whether it be for technical process questions or business advice.
You are both an artist and businesswomen, tell us what that is like and how you balance both the creative work with the running your business?
I’m always striving to find that balance! I’m trying to be more strict about how I delegate my time and figuring out how and when I work best. Like many artists, doing the administrative tasks, answering emails and anything computer related is not the most fun for me. I know that in order for me to be the most productive I need to block out sections of time in my day that are dedicated specifically to those tasks and have learned that morning is the best for those things. It’s hard to balance when there are many things that need to be done but all have the same priority and being more strict with scheduling my time seems to help and not let everything start to pile up. All that can of course get in the way of the creative work and it’s not easy for me to resist stopping to work out a new idea when I need to be doing my taxes or finishing up a wholesale order, so I’m always trying to squeeze it in between everything else but usually it simply means sacrificing my social life to find the time.
You currently have your studio in your home, what is it like to have this work and live space?
In some ways I love the space I’m in right now - it’s an open loft floor plan with the living space on one side and me and my husband Brian’s studio on the other (he owns and operates a guitar pedal business - smallsound/bigsound). It’s cozy and sunny and full of plants and I get to be around my two amazing cats all day. I don’t have a problem having my workspace so close to my living space because my art practice intertwined into my every day feels natural because I’ve never been a strict “now it’s work time, now it’s other time” person. It’s also nice to be able to easily take a break to make lunch or dinner or have a cat snuggle break and also be able to have everything readily available when an idea strikes late at night or if a ceramic piece is drying and I can go back to working on it after dinner. That being said, Brian and I jokingly call it our “limbo loft” because we bought a house here in Philadelphia with an adjoining studio space that will serve as both a workspace and showroom for our businesses. A lot of work needs to go into it so we’ve been in a long process of renovations but are hoping that by next year it will be finished. Although I really enjoy my current space it is not ideal for ceramics because it’s small, I have to be extra careful about making dust (since there is no proper ventilation set up right where I work) and my kiln is temporarily set up in the basement of the house we’re renovating so I have to very carefully drive all my work back and forth to be fired. I’m ok with it because it is temporary and have the new space to look forward to!
Tell us about some exciting new things you are working on, whether it is a new collection, something new you are trying with your business or even an idea you want to explore in the coming year.
The new house and studio is definitely something I am very excited about - not only to have the workspace but because the particular property we own also has the possibility of being a space that can be used to connect with our community. Other than that I’m excited about the new pieces I’ve just started to release and I’m hoping to find some time to focus on some one-of-a-kind and larger scale works also this year too.