Biata Roytburd is a ceramicist and instructor living in Brooklyn. She and her family came to the U.S. from Odessa, Ukraine in the 90’s and she has spent most of her life pursuing a career in the arts. Biata completed her bachelor's degree in Illustration at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. There she discovered her natural talent and passion for sculpture. She gained a reputation for her avant garde ceramics — stark, arresting sculptures that abstract the dimensions of human and animal forms. It is through these figures that she explores themes of guilt, acceptance, and seduction.
She was previously a teacher of Ceramic Illustration at Manhattanville College, where she offered hands-on instruction for wheel throwing, hand building, and glazing. She has developed a format for mastering technique in pristine craftsmanship through innovative sketching, modeling, and prototyping. She has also assisted workshops at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, and participated in sculpture workshops at the Salzburg International Summer Academy of Fine Arts.
How did you get your start in ceramics?
I was studying illustration at SVA, and during my first year of college I discovered that I had a talent in sculpture. Before that I concentrated on painting and drawing, which took me a lot of practice and hard work. The way I came to ceramics is a bit funny; I was opening a student bank account and the teller asked me what I do... I told him of my new found excitement for illustrating three dimensionally. He suggested that I check out this ceramic studio in Williamsburg where he also teaches. I did, and almost immediately began my apprenticeship at Choplet Ceramic Studio. I was addicted from the moment I laid hands on stoneware. I learned a lot at Choplet and continued to grow while working with Judy Fox, from whom I adapted a lot of my technique. I also assisted in teaching figurative sculpture with Christina Cordova at Haystack.
Does your heritage or time living in the Ukraine play a role in shaping your work?
My family and I came to the states as refugees in 1990 when I was only 2 yrs old. I am an Ashkenazi Jew from Odessa. As a child my grandmother used to take me with her to China shops in Brooklyn where she would go to buy birthday presents. The pieces she purchased were beautifully ornate - usually porcelain wares for candy, tea, etc. This is something I look forward to incorporating in my future work. My personal work mainly focuses on introspection, and meditation - a lot of self portraits.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
My sculptures live in a world of surrealism and fantasy while maintaining a sense of restraint and minimalism through the purity of the medium. While it is decorative and detailed, my aesthetic is clean and smooth. The choice in form and flow emanates movement and the feeling that the work is alive. Craftsmanship is extremely important to me, and I put a lot of care into the process. I believe this influences the aesthetic and hopefully shows the respect I have for the medium, and for those who take the time to observe my work.
Can you tell me a bit about the process? How are these works created?
I start with a lot of sketching ideas in my mind; Sometimes I actually use paper. Before I begin a sculpture, I generally try to think of any technical issues and plan those into the construction. Next is the fun part where I build my form - hollow. I do this because clay is intended for firing, so it should be even in order to retain a thickness proportional to its final dimensions. Something that is 3ft tall could be as thin as 1/2 in thick all the way around. Porcelain is also sensitive and susceptible to stress cracks, which is partially avoidable by ensuring that the clay is the same relative thickness all the way around. I use wet cloth to keep things moist and to control the drying process so water evaporation and shrinkage happens at a smooth rate. I apply any necessary glaze to my sculptures when they are green / raw. Then it is fired straight to a cone 6/7. With my functional wares I bisque fire to make the pieces more durable for a more intense glazing process. After the glazing process a luster could be applied and fired for a third time.
You have such a vivid imagination! Where do you come up with the concepts for these pieces?
Because my personal work is an exercise of introspection, my concepts are born through discovering a means to portray an emotion or event. We all have a different story and one could find many solutions to convey the same idea or one solution can evoke a million ideas.
I believe my imagination is fed by my upbringing as well as my nature. When I was very young I was encouraged to read. A lot. Literature is very important in my family, and I think this opened my imaginative nature at a young age. When my family came to the United States we were not able to take all of our belongings, and a lot was left behind. My grandmother made sure to bring a part of her library which she felt was important to pass on to her grandchildren. I'm sure she let go a lot of her belongings in order to bring those books.
My surroundings including nature, technology, and every single work of art I have observed from European sculpture to choreography by Pina Bausch, which has influenced the elasticity of my imagination.
You also teach. What is that experience like for you? Do you bring your personal process into your curriculum or do you prefer to keep the course somewhat general?
I love teaching. I enjoy sharing the knowledge I have of my craft. It also grants me the opportunity to meet some very interesting people.
I do not have a strict curriculum. At Choplet there are a wide range of skill levels and interests, so I steer my classes in the most beneficial way to provide the knowledge to best fit what my students seek. I enjoy that kind of environment but also look forward to teaching in an environment that would be conducive to a more structured exploration of clay.
Tell me about your experience at the Salzburg Summer Academy of Fine Arts.
In Salzburg I really began to harbor my technique in sculpting the figure. Judy Fox was the instructor for the course. It was three weeks, 6 days a week, and 8 hours a day. I loved it! We had a few different models and I would spend the day in a castle sculpting with a model right before me! What a wonderful experience, and Salzburg is beautiful! Judy Fox is an incredibly talented sculptor whom I did an apprenticeship with at her studio in SoHo, I was very fortunate for her to have invited me.
Your work is incredibly varied. Can you dive into the inspiration and process behind some of your larger pieces like “Rat Bitch”, “Boom” and “Twerk Meltdown”? How does that differ from smaller custom pieces like “Appetizers” and “Egg Cup”?
Boom and Twerk Meltdown are apart of my on going self portrait series. These pieces are portraits of my state of mind during a very explorative time period in my life where I experienced various romantic relationship.
Commissioned work like Rat Bitch and the Serpent are so fun to make! With these, Chef Alex Stupak would come to me with a general idea and specific installation, and let me run free. He is very good at giving artists the space to do their best work. Even though these pieces are commissions every one of the sculptures is authentic to me. It's a pleasure to be taken out of your own thoughts and brought to do something new and refreshing.
Appetizers and Egg cups are the result of commissions based on food and functionality. This really tickles my fancy because I love food and figuring out the best solution to serve and present specific dishes. It really allows me to be creative in the functional realm of ceramics. Appetizers for example are a series of serving dishes that each have a specific appetizer. The goal was to have enough room on a small dining table for every appetizer offered on the menu while still allowing diners the space to enjoy their food. Egg cups are specially designed for a person to luxuriously be able to eat their soft boiled eggs with a divot for salt and pepper.
What do you enjoy most about the creative community in Brooklyn? Any advice for other artists coming up?
One of the best parts of being in Brooklyn is that most of my friends are involved in many different fields. This is great for collaboration and the ability to get feedback from such a diverse pond of creative minds. I find that there is a lot of support and inspiration. It also grants me the opportunity to make connections not only for creativity but business as well, which is important for making a living as an artist. I have piers involved with film, photography, jewelry, music, and fine art on a huge spectrum. This makes my experience as an artist rich and well rounded.
The best advice I could give to other makers is to be involved by going to openings, music shows, performances, lectures, museums, take classes, and to not let yourself fall into a solely solitary studio life. Of course this advice is sometimes easier said than done!
Photos by Inna Shnayder