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The making of a Turbulent Vessel: From a flat surface into a sculptural artwork

Have you seen the creation of a one-of-a-kind artwork? Or how a painting can come alive in a sculped form?

My first visit to Babs’s studio was meant to be an eye-opening experience for me as a first-time viewer of Babs’s creative process.

Babs was sitting at her desk next to a brightly lit window, in the process of making an artwork, a Turbulent Vessel. She immediately started explaining to me the background and inspiration of her vessel and its creative process, and I readily took a pen and paper to note down all the forthcoming information. 

Image 1: Babs in her studio

The name “Turbulent Vessel” came to be in 1998 at Babs’s exhibition “Turbulent Vessel, Keramiek/Ceramics 1991-1998” at the Stedelijk Museum. The museum’s curator at that time, Marjan Boot, wrote in the catalogue of the exhibition that “Babs’s pots are wild and full of motion, and they are always colourful and busy. Perhaps the best description is “tempestuous“, because it implies so much - from playful to impetuous, from animated to unrestrained, from swirling to turbulent.” This is the first time this definition appeared and, by taking a closer look at Babs’s vessels, it is easily understood why they were named so.

Even before that, Babs’s artworks had an inherent movement, further reinforced by the words of Garth Clark, a gallerist in New York. Garth Clark came to know about Babs when she was still studying at the Rietveld Academy and in 1987 he presented her first solo exhibition in his gallery. For the exhibition catalogue “Interior Dances”, he wrote about the deep tension present in Babs’s work. Reflecting on a photograph of Martha Graham (American contemporary dancer), captured in a particularly tense moment during her performance of “Lamentation”, Garth Clark perceived Babs’s vessels as a series of “interior dances“ He believed they encapsulated the search for freedom of movement within confined spaces, embodying the dynamic interplay between exterior and interior. To Garth Clark, the vessels mirrored the essence of dance—sometimes deliberate and sensuous, other times intense and agitated. Rhythm and pattern slowly gave way to a mutual respect. They embody motion and life, key themes in Babs’s work, from when she was a dancer.

Image2: Martha Graham “Lamentation“

But that is one side of her artwork. The other is that they are not simple vessels, but vibrant and dynamic artworks influenced by abstract painters like Kandinsky, Klee, and Rothko. Babs’s fascination with textiles also shines through in the way she manipulates the porcelain, mimicking the gathering and draping of fabric. She was inspired in creating this technique by observing the way Italian Renaissance artists painted the clothes of their subjects. Another example of inspiration is the painting by Matisse “La Femme au Chapeau”, from which Babs did an artwork in 2017 with the same name. She pays as much attention to colour, line and form as her incurring sense of movement in her work.

Image 3: La femme au Chapeau, Henri Matisse

Image 4: La femme au Chapeau, Babs' inspirational artwork

To create this Turbulent Vessel, she told me that she starts with porcelain clay, Babs’s preferred medium because of its clear white surface. This gives her the ability to draw on the porcelain with natural (like iron, cobalt, copper etc) or synthetic pigments. This way she creates her own palette in a way that closely resembles that of a painter’s. After mixing the pigments with the porcelain, it is time for colour tests. Babs makes many of these tests by rolling out different coloured slabs and then combining them into intricate. After feeling happy with the results, she starts cutting pieces from these thin sheets and keeps the rest under a plastic cover to keep them moist. 

Image 5: Colour tests

Image 6: Rolled coloured slabs

A plaster mold is set upside-down on the work surface, covered by a textile to prevent sticking. Babs takes the cut pieces and drapes them over the mold to start creating the base of the vessel. She continues adding pieces until the plaster mold is no longer needed and thus removed. The next steps of the creation of the vessel are built up by hand. Little by little, using various tools, she methodically melds the connections of the slabs, sculpting them into a cohesive whole.

Image 7: Making the base of the vessel on a plaster mold

Image 8: Babs melding the connections of the slabs

The vessel is fired several times, with the very first firing called “Bisque firing”. This firing is extremely important since it transforms the vessel into a porous state ready to receive the glaze. After the “Bisque Firing” is done, the vessel is then painstakingly sanded on the inside and the outside. This step is very delicate and time consuming since it must be done by hand slowly. The first glaze firing is done by gas reduction firing, a very important step to determine the basic colours of the pigments. By using this technique to reduce the oxygen in the kiln, the glaze colours will change and become enhanced. This way, Babs can achieve some of the most difficult colours, especially the copper red. In subsequent firings with oxidation and reduction, Babs is able to further manipulate and change these colours. She thereby creates painterly effects with colour gradations that blend and shift like a watercolour painting. By using layers of glaze to adjust the transparency and opacity, she creates subtle shifts in colour and texture. 

Image 9: The kiln

Each piece feels alive, filled with personality and emotion, because it undoubtedly reflects the soul and vibrant spirit of Babs! 10

On to the next stop of our journey in the life of Babs! (づ ◕‿◕ )づ

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