The Seductive Alchemy of Clay

Ebi Baralaye at the wheel

An audible gasp penetrates the otherwise quiet Metcalf Building Ceramics studio as visiting artist Ebitenyefa Baralaye 06 CR lets the handsome clay vase he’s been shaping hit the floor. “I love using the floor as a tool and being open to the unexpected,” he calmly explains to the crowd of students gathered for his wheel-throwing demonstration.

work in progress hits the floor

Baralaye examines student work
Above, gravity takes its toll; below Baralaye examines a vessel made by a Ceramics student.

A RISD alum and assistant professor at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Baralaye is excited to be back in the studio where he first learned to throw. As his hands work the clay, he presents a meditative stream-of-consciousness monologue reflecting on his creative path and offering students valuable advice about their plans for the future. “After you graduate from RISD, leave,” he advises. “Let yourself get lost in a new place that’s totally unfamiliar.”

“The why continues to change and develop and grow over time.”

Ebi Baralaye

Originally from Nigeria, Baralaye headed to New York City after graduating from RISD, where he worked as an assistant for various artists and landed a job as a potter at KleinReid. But he found himself neglecting his own practice and expending all of his creative energy on his day job. He eventually decided to “follow his bliss” (in the words of his father) and refocus on his own creative vision by earning an MFA at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan.

red sculptural piece by Baralaye
Trane (2003, terracotta and iron-oxide, 7x 7x7") was inspired by jazz giant John Coltrane.

Now a resident of Detroit, Baralaye shows his ceramics, sculptures and designs far away from NYC in such exhibitions as SKIN (2019) at Luther College in Decorah, IA; No Lie (2018) at Traywick Contemporary in Berkeley, CA; and Many Rooms (2017) at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, CA. He has also made a name for himself throwing clay on his Instagram page, which is where Ceramics Department Head Katy Schimert got the idea to invite him back to Providence.

two gorgeous porcelain pieces side by side
Bilbao (2005, slipcast saggar-fired porcelain, 17 x 7 x 7"). Photo by Richard Haynes

Baralaye began his art school studies in the Furniture Design department but was drawn to “the seductive alchemy and materiality of clay.” Working with the wheel, he says, gives him the space to think and to alternate a sense of taking control with the freedom of letting go. He likens his creative process to the way that jazz greats like John Coltrane follow and then drop a melodic line, explaining that his dialogue with material is similar to that kind of musical give and take.

Baralaye hits the piece with a blow torch
Students look on as Baralaye uses a blowtorch to fuse together two of the vessels he created. Still from video in progress by Richard Goulis

After demonstrating the effects of gravity on his first piece of the day, Baralaye goes on to create two more stunning vessels on the wheel, each with its own West African–inspired marks. He invites students to a weekend gathering at the Steel Yard in Providence’s West End, where the three pieces will become one inside a massive wood-fired kiln built by late longtime RISD professor Larry Bush.

“The why continues to change and develop and grow over time,” says Baralaye, “as do my patience and sense of discipline.”

Simone Solondz

The Ceramics department’s fall lecture series continues on November 9 with Jennifer Zwilling, curator and director of artistic programs at the Clay Studio in Philadelphia, PA.

November 2, 2021

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