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This month's feature......

Nicole Aquillano,
Artist in Residence, Contemporary Craft

When Nicole Aquillano was a little girl growing up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, her home was filled with her mother’s collections of eclectic items. “My mother was always gathering random things that reminded her of her past. From an early age, I was aware of the connection between objects and memory,” she says. Today, Aquillano, as Contemporary Craft’s summer Artist-in-Residence, takes those early seeds and transforms them into works in ceramic that invite memory, evoke the human yearning for intimate connection, and suggest the consolation of home.

Boston is now home for Aquillano, where she lives and works in the Fort Point section in a rehabbed industrial space called Midway Studios, which houses several artists. She spends her days working in her first floor studio and lives upstairs with her husband and cat. “It’s really kind of a reclusive existence,” she chuckles, “but it’s been great for my work.” Aquillano took a circuitous route before arriving at this life of artistic solitude, a path that began in Pittsburgh in a dual degree program at Carnegie Mellon University and Carlow College (now Carlow University) in Mathematics and Civil Engineering. She took advantage of Carlow’s clay program to study art as a minor, and always dreamed of pursuing the life of an artist. She explains, “I was always looking at architecture and patterns. Even when I took my first engineering job, I continued to do ceramics and drawing as a hobby.” A position with the Environmental Protection Agency took her to Boston, where she continued to take art classes at the Massachusetts School of Art and Design. “More and more, I realized I needed to be an artist. I just had to do it,” she recalls. In 2010, she took the leap and enrolled the MFA program in Ceramics at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).

While at RISD, Aquillano brought her eye for design and pattern to her thrown pieces. “I would look at architecture with my engineer’s eye and see the forms, then use the repetitive lines, dots, and patterns as etchings on my work,” she says. It was during a class critique that a visiting artist suggested that she etch the specific forms she was referencing on her work. This began her characteristic style of etching buildings and built landscapes on her functional pieces. It was a slip-casting class that turned Aquillano to her method of using hand-made molds and porcelain slip to create the functional pieces upon which she etches. She recalls, “I loved the process. It was dependable and made it so much easier to get the exact form.” She uses her drawing expertise throughout the process, starting with a careful blueprint of the finished shape that she translates to a paper template. Using the dimensions of the paper template, she carves the shape in plaster then creates a mold form. (See http://nicolequillano.com/process/ for a step-by-step example of the process.) Once the piece is cast, she etches the design into the leather-hard clay, covers it with under glaze, wipes it clean and fires the piece.

Aquillano’s focus on “place” is central to her stay at Contemporary Craft this summer. She was asked to translate Pittsburgh’s iconic Strip District to her pieces. Originally the city’s wholesale grocery receiving area, the section has developed into a vital retail and residential mecca as well,  section has developed into a vital retail and residential mecca as well, while retaining its industrial origins. Contemporary Craft occupies space in the Terminal Building, a blocks-long structure with rows of loading docks used to off-load tractor-trailers of fruits and vegetables. The space is currently part of a major renovation of the area and at the heart of a controversy over rehabilitation vs. restoration. Aquillano is creating a line of tableware that features the unique architecture of the entire district, drawing attention to the importance of buildings and infrastructure in the creation of memorable and meaningful space. “I am very drawn to the bridges,” she says, “and especially that wonderful church along Smallman Street.”

Aquillano’s tenure at Contemporary Craft this summer has been a welcome homecoming for her and has given her a chance to revisit not only the physical spaces in her hometown, but the concept of home in her memory. She explains, “I am always drawing my hood home. For my thesis show at RISD, I did a study of my parents’ house. Since then, I keep drawing and re-drawing it. But since I’ve been in Pittsburgh, I haven’t drawn it.” The re-working of memories embodied in spaces and structures is at the heart of her work. Having an image etched and fired in ceramics addresses the human need to connect, to be rooted – much as a child scratches his initials on his school desktop: “I belong here.” Her Strip District series has been well received by Pittsburghers and tourists alike at the Contemporary Craft shop, speaking to this very impulse. Aquillano offers custom pieces, through her website, based on photos provided by customers. The resulting pieces are special encapsulations of memories for the buyers.

Aquillano is the first one in the door each day at Contemporary Craft and usually the last one to leave, spending her time creating and talking with visitors. “It has been nice to have some action during the day, in contrast to the quiet of my Boston studio. It’s good to share my process and to talk to people about it,” she says. When the cool autumn weather settles in and Aquillano returns to her Boston home, she will have left memories of Pittsburgh with many who have seen and purchased her work. And, she will take new ideas of home and belonging with her, to create new connections in fired clay.


Visit Nicole Aquillano’s website, at www.nicoleaquillano.com