Profile: Tanya La Mantia

By Regina Connell

You know that lovely, old-fashioned word “grace”? It seems to have fallen out of favor (although I’ve seen an uptick in its use as a girl’s name of late). It’s a pity, because it’s one of those lovely, rich words with a lot more going on than meets the eye.

Yes, grace means elegance in form. But also kindness. There’s favor and good will (verging on miraculous if you think of the religious meaning), and then there’s gratitude (grace and grazie/gracias come from the same root, it turns out).

All of those feelings coursed through me when I first looked at work by ceramist Tanya La Mantia. The perfectly balanced forms, astonishing texture (almost like carved paper rather than ceramics), whispers of color, and heartbreaking, miraculous delicacy made me grateful that this kind of work exists out there. You want to touch it, cradle it, care for it.

Fragile series

So who is this woman who created such amazing work? It turns out she’s an extraordinarily grounded woman living near the sea in Brighton, England, with two kids (daughter in her twenties, a son in his teens). Originally from South Africa, Tanya’s been living in the UK for 17 years (although she still maintains a bit of an accent).

What was that like, growing up in South Africa? Must not have been easy given the sanctions and all that. Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s in South Africa I felt pretty isolated. Everyone wanted to get out and travel and see the world. I came over for a long visit with my family…and we stayed.

Did you immediately immerse yourself in art or craft? Oh no! I was a mum before, did odds and ends. But I’ve always made things; done sewing, made lampshades…but nothing professionally.

How did you discover ceramics? I did a degree three years ago at the University of Brighton. I specialized in metal and ceramics and my process developed in last year of degree course. I had time to experiment and refine processes. When I did my degree show I got a lot of interest and continued producing…

And why ceramics? Actually, I really enjoy working with metal, I prefer it…but I think I stuck with ceramics because of the material I chose to work with–bone china–was so technically challenging.

Vase with Physsalis Lace Pattern

What is it about bone china? (And yes it really does include bone, mostly from animals.) Bone china has a really organic quality. It has a lovely, fine, surface quality, and the whiteness of it is just so extraordinary. It’s whiter than porcelain and more translucent. It’s technically challenging. I’m a perfectionist, so it’s a good combination.

You can cast it really fine and play up the whiteness and cleanness of it. I don’t like the traditional pottery…I really wanted to develop another avenue in ceramics. But the real challenge was to do something original with it.

Bowl-top view

How did you come up with the process? I wanted to make something lacy and fragile looking. In metal work, I made vessel forms that were fragile, vulnerable, holding things tentatively, and I wanted to do the same in ceramics. The material is fired in the kiln at high temperatures. It’s all slip cast…you have to cast a separate piece called a ‘setter,’ which is discarded afterwards, to support each piece that’s fired. When the clay is in green form there’s little plasticity so it’s almost impossible to manipulate. The slightest knock is going to show up in the firing. It takes quite a lot of control.

You talked about loving metal: any idea why? It’s easier to control than clay. You can get it to do things more immediately. You can change it. I kind of like the fire element to it too!

And what is it about vulnerability and fragility? I think it’s about really pushing the material to hold its form.

Fragile series (2)

Why do people love your work? That’s so hard, but I’d say–I’ve been told– that it’s unusual, that it’s got a strong aesthetic quality. The patterns I use have a natural form, and as we all know, they communicate universally. People can’t immediately figure out what it is.

But I will say that my work can be difficult to sell because it looks too fragile. People are too scared to touch it some times. The quality that people see and love…well it can be counterproductive in terms of sales.

Where do the patterns come from? It started out with photography and enlarging and magnifying the images and drawing over them. There’s a digital process that’s proprietary. It was just a form of research but it turned into something more.

Lilly Bowl

So talk about Brighton. Does it influence your work? Being in more of a holiday/beach community has got to have an impact. Yes I do like being out in nature, and I’m just five minutes from the beach. The life here is a little slower than it would be in London – I get to do lots of Hatha and Bikram yoga, research – but I quite like going up to London and visiting galleries.  I sometimes feel like stimulation (is) outside of the craft world. There are so many objects and it’s inspiring to see things that aren’t related to craft.

Like what? I like fashion…I quite like going to Dover Street Market in London (Ah, yes…).  I’m drawn to sculptural fashion, and edgy… and I’m always looking for things that are new. That’s the exciting thing about the creative industry and discovering new ways of doing things.

What’s your day like? Sometimes it’s long hours in the studio before a show, but sometimes it’s really cold and not a cozy environment. Other times I won’t go in for a while.

And what’s a transcendent moment? I went back to SA a while ago for the first time for a long time…I was camping in a valley by a waterfall, surrounded by mountains, really peaceful, and a sense of space that I really really miss. I think of being surrounded by nature and how eternal and vast it is. You’re part of something much bigger than all the issues going on in the world.

Physsalis Lace Bowl

What objects define you? I don’t really like objects…I’m quite a minimalist. But…gifts from friends always have sentimental value. My daughter made a wooden egg by hand…I’ve always kept that.

It’s strange that I make things because I think the world is inundated by objects…I tend to recycle quite a lot, and tend to find things from car boot sales. I’m quite aware of not being too consumer orientated. If I’m going to produce something, they really have to hold their aesthetic value. There’s just too much stuff in the world. It’s quite a responsibility as a maker…to add to all the stuff we’re surrounded by.


With editing by Regina Sarnicola. 

Photography credit: Ulla Nyeman

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