Lucia Ocejo is describing a transformative moment, when she held a Korean chawan, or tea bowl. It was some 300 years old, with uneven lines to its shape and indents from the potter’s fingers, which she covered with her own. “I felt a connection to the maker,” she says, "and, ever since then, I’ve thought of the work I do with more tactility, sometimes leaving the marks of how I made it, too.”
Lucia has just finished a mug from a collection for TOAST, with a warm pinkish-white glaze she calls ‘pearl’. When she dunked these mugs into the glaze, she held it between her fingers, leaving an absence of glaze in their place and making imprints – a reminder of where each one originated, just like on the chawan. “Maybe someone will do that with my work 300 years from now,” she says, with a smile.
Origins are important to Lucia and imbue much of her work. Based in east London, the Mexican ceramicist moved here four years ago following a sculpture degree from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt) in Boston. Pottery hadn’t been the plan, but like so many artistic careers, hers meandered this way, its turning points ignited by sparked interest. “I didn’t know Britain had such a rich history of craft when I moved here,” she tells me, explaining how she’d contacted a couple of London pottery studios about jobs on a whim while she was still living in Boston. “And I was invited to interview the following week. I packed bags quickly, flew to London and hid my suitcase behind some dumpsters. I was hired on the spot.” And the rest, as they say…
“You don’t realise how attached you are to where you come from until you’re away,” says Lucia, of leaving Mexico. For an early sculpture assignment in Boston, she was asked to bring in an item which resonated with her. Initially, she drew a blank. “I only had a suitcase of clothes.” But then she went grocery shopping and saw a pile of sweetcorn. It was September, the season for it, and in its triangular heap – all bearded husks and cobs pregnant with fat kernels – she realised she’d found her object. “Before corn was agriculturally domesticated, the indigenous cultures of Mexico based their cosmology around it,” she explains. “It’s the backbone of my country, not just sustenance at a physical level, but at a spiritual one, too. And you see it everywhere, from the most marginalised rural villages to the country’s fanciest restaurants. Corn is borderless.”
Through corn began an appreciation for Mexico that she hadn’t quite felt while she lived there, “you don’t notice things when they are everywhere,” she says. But does Mexico still inform her work? “At the moment, it’s in my palette of glazes – they’re a warm set of tones, even my whites are warm.” One such glaze, ‘turmeric’ – a golden, almost burnished corn hue – features on her miniature bud vase for TOAST. She tells me that now, over a decade after leaving Mexico, she’s incorporating other influences into her “language”, and that a major one is British studio pottery. Her influences are Hans Coper and Bernard Leach, also contemporary potter Lisa Hammond, with whom she’s currently doing a course in soda firing – an atmospheric technique in which a soda solution is sprayed into the kiln and becomes a vapour, adhering itself to the pot randomly. “The unpredictability is beautiful,” she tells me.
“Wheel throwing pottery of this sort has given craftspeople a lot more artistic merit in Britain,” she observes. “After going to art school, I felt a bit put off by the world of art. It felt loud without saying much – what was its purpose?” But with their emphasis on utility, ceramics offered a functional alternative to sculpture. In pottery, says Lucia, “there’s a direct lineage between a piece and its function… I came from a fine arts world and now I’m a craftsperson. This has changed my perception of how things should be used. Another of the pieces she has made for TOAST is an unglazed, lidded miniature pot with a wooden spoon she brings back from Mexico – a spice jar, as she calls it. It’s carved from wood from the guamuchil tree in Tepoztlán, where Lucia’s grandmother is from, a village famous for producing carved wooden tableware items.
She continues to plait together her influences in this way. The defining features of Mexican ceramics, she says, are coils and low fires – very different from the high temperatures, wheel-throwing and glaze technology of British studio pottery. Recently, she has become interested in mixes, a kind of indigenous Mexican vessel used for weddings – traditionally, with two spouts joined by a handle, but playful contemporary interpretations can have up to 60 spouts – and Lucia has explored how they might translate to the wheel. “It brought a whole new cultural body to mixes,” she tells me, “body” being the operative word, “I called the series ‘Aortics’ because everyone kept saying they looked like transplanted hearts.” The series was more sculptural, she says, than the rest of her recent work, with its emphasis on utility.
She has made plates for several Mexican restaurants in London – Kol and Cavita in Marylebone – and she tells me there is nothing like seeing people eat from them: “Working with these restaurants has been a nice way of seeing my work come full circle – the plates I made are literally performing.”
Interview by Mina Holland.
Photographs by India Hobson.
Lucia wears our Indigo Twill Easy Shirt.