Ceramicist at Estudio Vernís
Alejandra Martínez Pina
Could you tell us about how you got into ceramics?
I studied architecture, and during my last year, I felt the need to do something creative, touch something physical far away from computers and screens. A friend of mine felt the same way, and she suggested we sign up for a ceramics course at the city hall. I ended up going with my mum because my friend couldn't attend.
Fast forward, ceramics is now my profession, and my mum still works with clay as a hobby. The craft got us hooked! I always wonder what could have happened if my friend had also turned up for that class—would she still be an architect?
Have you always been in Alicante?
I was born here and went to university here, but I always felt the urge to run away. I travelled within Europe extensively and did my Erasmus semester in Budapest. At the end of my degree, I tried to finish my studies in Korea, but that wasn't possible, and I only ended up staying there for a month.
After finishing my architecture degree, I moved in with my partner, Coke, to this little village where we live now. It's only about an hour and a half away from Alicante, but it still feels like something totally different, which is what I was after.
What would you say is unique about Alicante?
The region of Alicante is awe-inspiring. We live in an area called Marina Alta, in the northern part, which resembles Mallorca. It's green, humid and hilly. Then, as you go down to the point where Alicante meets the Murcia region, it's extremely dry—almost desert-like. It's an entirely different landscape.
What I love most about Alicante are the small-scale cities and villages and the fact that you can have both the shore and the mountains at your doorstep.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I like to wake up with the sun, which in summer is great, but in the winter, it's a bit late for a productive life. I have my tea and take out our goats, Luisi, Seymour and Mari, with the help of my dog, Mossa.
Then, I have breakfast with Coke and organise the house and the day ahead. We have a small ceramics workshop, so we split our time there. Coke gets priority in the mornings, and I take over in the afternoons. So in the mornings, I always have time to get on with other tasks, like checking emails, or I'll do some firing.
In the evenings, Coke is the one in charge of taking the goats back to the shelter for the night. We could say we work all day long, in an unhurried way, tending to both our animals and clay.
What is it like working alongside your partner, Coke?
We recently had this conversation with a couple of friends who also work together. We discussed the fact that none of our projects would've come to fruition if we hadn't been together.
It can be hard sometimes, especially considering we live in this tiny village where we only see and talk to each other most days. But the reality is that we nurture and push each other in a way that keeps us going. And most importantly, in a way that holds us true to who we are.
Your clay pieces are so distinctive! What kind of stories or messages do you hope they convey?
Our craft is a way of making something honest and necessary. We know that if someone is desperate, they won't spend €30 on a plate when they can buy them for much cheaper at Ikea, for example. But we pursue the idea of building the world we would ideally like to live in. It would be a world where every object is made by people's hands, leaving their traces in it.
How did you develop your style?
For the most part, we let the material react organically to the situations we put it through. I try to find simplicity in the process, and I abide by the limits of the clay while shaping it during the wood-firing. Both Coke and I like to think that our pieces tell stories of how they came to be and the phases they have to go through to finally end up as a plate, mug, or lamp.
Perhaps the two main things that make our ceramics stand out are the results of the hand-building techniques—we don't use machines in the process. And then, of course, our wood-firing process relies on local resources to transform the clay into ceramics.
Where do you find your inspiration?
It's probably a cliché to say, but inspiration comes from my daily life, the artistic process itself, and the natural materials we work with.
How did you come up with your manifesto? Can you walk us through that and how it reflects your values?
In our manifesto, we wanted to summarise everything that excites us about our craft. We wanted to emphasise the importance of wood-firing as a ritual and a way to use local resources as fuel instead of relying on electricity or gas.
Wood-firing also provides us with ashes, the main ingredient of our glazes. It creates an impressive result when combined with the ashes that fly around inside the kiln during the firing process. We must understand the rhythm of it all, and the truth is, there's no better way than to do everything by hand.
Lastly, we highlight the need to move away from mass production with responsibility and purpose.
Can you describe your process from conception to final product?
We design our pieces with functionality in mind. It's important for us to produce useful objects that can help us in our daily lives.
We usually create a prototype by shaping the clay freely by hand without measurements or care. Then we think about how to incorporate that particular shape into our firing schedules, and we start to measure and adjust every aspect of it to reproduce it correctly each time.
There is always an element of surprise and randomness in the final piece, but we do like to respect size and general shape.
What type of clay do you prefer to use?
We're currently using grog. Grog gives stoneware a lot of resistance to sudden changes in temperature, which makes marvels in our wood kiln. It withstands temperatures as high as 1300ºC, at which point the ash melts and 'toasts' the surface of our pieces.
You formulate your own glazes. What is that process like? And why was it important to you to incorporate your own glaze?
Glaze formulation is a whole other process, a never-ending quest to perfect it.
Our main goal when learning glaze chemistry was to find a way to incorporate the ashes left over from previous firings. We like to think it 'immortalises' each piece.
The heat transforms mud into ceramics, and the remaining ashes glaze the pieces, giving a unique finish. For us, having our own glazes was the icing on the cake—it almost completes the entire process of cutting the wood and using its leftovers.
You mention 'more clay, less plastic'—how do you hope to keep sustainably practising your art?
Steering from a conventional electric or gas kiln to a wood-fire kiln makes a huge difference. The carbon footprint is significantly lower, mainly since we use local wood.
Wood firing is also known for minimising fuel consumption and smoke. The quote 'more clay, less plastic' stands for the ubiquitous presence of plastic in our daily lives and the idea of swapping those products in favour of more durable, honest and beautiful ones, be it ceramics or other handicrafts.
We believe in consistently reviewing our processes and principles to keep improving our sustainability efforts and adapting to new challenges.
Are there any particular pieces in your collection that you are especially proud of or partial towards?
We use every single piece we've made and are proud of them all since we continuously work on improving them. But if I had to choose just one, it would be our pitcher. I made the first one in my free time. I was simply trying to create something more sculptural and not necessarily functional. It was initially going to be a vase, but as I finished it, I figured it could very well be used as a pitcher.
I made some quick adjustments and fired it at high temperatures without glaze. The result was a semi-porous jug, which was a little shiny due to the ashes that landed on the piece and melted. We now have it on our dinner table.
What is on your travel bucket list?
When I was younger, I had these grand ideas that I'd spend my youth travelling worldwide. As time passes, I'm increasingly intrigued by the place I'm already in. We sometimes know more about places far away but little about our local environment or our direct neighbours.
I want to learn more about Spain, Portugal and France and enjoy all their corners slowly. I must admit that ceramics tie us to this land, but at the same time, they make us wonder about the other ways to make them, and I'm curious to visit Asia and South America in this regard.
Has there been any place you've travelled to that's left a lasting impression?
While I was doing my Erasmus semester in Budapest, Coke was in Maastricht, Netherlands. I think about that city quite a bit. It's an unassuming spot, but the atmosphere, the tidiness and the care for design—I enjoyed it all.
Also, Korea was a shock for me. Not so much in the way I could anticipate, but the people left a lasting impression on me.
What’s next for Estudio Vernís?
We always think we should stop making new things, focus on what we are currently making and settle down a little bit. But honestly, we get bored of producing the same pieces constantly, and in every firing, we slip in some tests.
Now we are working towards using iron oxide as our only pigment since it is the safest and most abundant. Also, we’re starting to test some drawings to make a more fun collection. But everything goes so slowly with ceramics! We might have that ready for Autumn. We are making a considerable effort to communicate our process and intentions better to connect with our community and start conversations around craftsmanship.
Photos courtesy of Estudio Vernís