Based in Sydney, Australia, Ebony Russell is a ceramic artist whose work occupies that unsettled and distinctly feminine intersection between ideal and autonomous womanhood. Pastel coloured piping and beaded embellishments give her sculptures a romantic girlish prettiness, though golden tears and embedded thorns pose a subtle contradiction. We spoke to Ebony about how her work offers a sanguine hope to overcome these contradictions and find her own identity with and beside the innumerable women who inspire her daily.
This collection is part of a group exhibition entitled Teetering on the Brink: Femininity, Inheritance and Disaster, presented by Claire Oliver Gallery from now until 11 May 2024. Situated in Harlem, NYC, the gallery focuses on platforming underrepresented artists otherwise neglected by the traditional art canon. Like the title suggests, Ebony’s works are concerned both with the societal and personal experience of femininity, and the traumas and disruptions that occur within this reality.
Rose Crown, Porcelain, stain, galze and gold lustre, 2023
What was your earliest introduction to art, in any medium, that inspired you to create?
Creative women raised me. My grandmothers, aunts, and my mother made everything and were so talented. It was magical watching them create and I was given a real sense of honouring the handmade through their skill and creative output. I always wanted to make things beautiful and redesign spaces. My earliest memory of creating is on visits to my grandmother's house. She would set me up with bunches of plastic flowers and artificial foliage and give me this barren garden bed covered in red scoria rock to create in. I would design my own garden more like a crazy installation. I'd be at it for hours. I have two photos of me in the garden with my grandma and I cherish them, especially now that she has passed.
What drew you to ceramics, specifically porcelain, as your primary artistic medium?
As early as kindergarten I remember loving anything 3D, malleable, and tactile – any material that I could manipulate with my hands. In primary school, sculpture was always my first choice. I loved any opportunity I had to work with clay.
I grew up in the Australian Otways in Southern Victoria where I had a lot of exposure to ceramic artists either as my art teachers or adult friends. Thanks to them, I was able to continue using clay outside of the classroom. It became my passion and focus. I decided in my mid-teens that I wanted to continue to study ceramics after high school. I aspired to pursue a ceramics degree and eventually become a qualified high school art educator. Prioritising my passion for ceramics, I focused on gaining entry into a tertiary art programme. Ultimately, I opted for a Bachelor of Applied Arts at Monash University, specialising in ceramics.
I didn't begin working with porcelain until I returned to university in my late 30s to pursue a Master of Fine Arts at the National Art School in Sydney, after many years in Arts Education. It was almost by chance that I started using porcelain but in doing so, a profound transformation of my work began.
Porcelain became the pivotal element that bridged my artistic intentions and expressions. It was the missing ingredient I had been seeking. Its resemblance to sugar, both physically and metaphorically, played a crucial role in the direction my exploration took. Working with porcelain as a sculptural medium connected me to centuries of historical context and immersed me in the Western world's rich narrative of porcelain production.
Who are some of your inspirations – artistic or otherwise?
Whether told through art, film, or fiction, women's stories have always been my main source of inspiration.
I’m eternally inspired by the women around me - from my two daughters to my friends and family.
Their lived experiences, decisions, and personal journeys consistently influence and guide my creative process, informing the choices I make in my artistic pursuits. Reading Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women was like holding up a mirror. The secret lives of women - we all have a story and most of us will never share it beyond our closest friends, the way the three women in this book did.
A standout inspiration is Margaret Atwood. Her debut novel, The Edible Woman, changed my life—I've read it every year since 1998. It allowed me to imagine another future and made me question my choices. Each time I read it I re-examine what the hell I'm doing! It's good to check yourself.
What does a typical studio day look like for you?
Time spent in the studio changes depending on what stage of production I’m in. When I’m in making mode, it's all clay prep, testing, and mixing clay. Then, I move on to sketching and developing the ideas. Making sees me working on multiple artworks at a time. Building my sculptures very slowly allows time for contemplation and further development of my ideas.  I listen to music in the studio and occasionally podcasts and audiobooks. Firing the work is the last stage of the making and can be a tense time. In ceramics, we spend so long making works and then throw them in the fire and hope we get it right.
The end stage is the photography and all the admin that goes into having an art practice—like answering these questions! It can be solitary and I spend a lot of time alone, so I really appreciate that I have a studio that is shared with other artists. At Experimental Ceramic Studios in Sydney, we all have our own private room but share the communal space and have the opportunity to work collaboratively and support each other.
Could you expand on how your work engages with the notions of femininity and girlhood?
My art is deeply personal, reflecting my journey through life as a cisgender woman. Themes of femininity and girlhood are recurring motifs in my work, and I draw from my own lived experiences to create meaningful narratives.
I'm intrigued by the interplay between gender norms and societal frameworks, particularly how they manifest in my experiences.
Mirrored Kingdom: Grande Cake Crown, Porcelain and glaze, 2022
While much of your work is overtly feminine, gilded in pastel hues, ruffles and bows, you also make some darker sculptures that seem to stand as vaguely threatening shadows. I’m wondering what this contrast is symbolic of?
Navigating the world as a woman is fraught with contradictions, pitfalls, and conflicting messages. It's a complex and often unfair experience that can be incredibly confusing. I've long grappled with conflicting feelings regarding my attraction to feminine ideals and my simultaneous aversion to them. Fairy tales are poignant examples of this internal struggle. My work speaks directly to this dichotomy.
My work may be pastel, pretty, and pink, but the closer you look, you will see that it also contains razor-sharp thorns, fistulas, and orifices and is often on the verge of collapse. Some people see this, and some can't see past the pretty. The darker sculptures are just a more obvious reference to what is always present in the more subtle works.
Your work is featured in an upcoming exhibition entitled Teetering on the Brink: Femininity, Inheritance and Disaster. How does your work speak to this title?
Insert America Ferrera’s monologue from the Barbie movie here.
It's the perpetual dilemma of womanhood. An ongoing process of permitting myself to release the expectations imposed on me, both externally and internally.
The constant struggle to fulfil these expectations while staying true to myself and finding fulfilment in life has always been a conflicting battle. It feels unattainable, unsustainable, and often impossible. Despite positive societal changes, it's still not good enough.
My work and this exhibition give me a space to explore this.
There seem to be a lot of fantasy and fairytale references in this collection. Could you talk about what these mean in their artistic context?
As a child of the 80s, I was raised on Disney fairy tales and enchanted by the allure of Princess Diana. It was a decade of fantasy cinema and I adored every magical moment. My teenage years coincided with the rise of third-wave feminism, although I didn't fully comprehend its significance then. Looking back, I can see how this movement subtly influenced my thoughts and actions during adolescence, defining who I was and who I wanted to be.
In The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit writes, “Disenchantment is the blessing of becoming yourself.” Once you become disenchanted, you can never go back to believing. How do you reconcile the love of fantasy with reality? There is no happily ever after, and using my childhood collection of figurines, Barbie accessories, bonbon-yari, and cake toppers is a cathartic way for me to expel these demons and false gods of my youth.
In your professional life, how is your experience as a female artist different to that of a male artist? Do you ever feel forced to ascribe to a certain performance of the female artist?
I can’t comment on what it's like to be a male artist or how my experience differs. Being an artist is hard for everyone.
I am often questioned about how I simultaneously manage to be an artist, mother, and wife. I have been asked if my husband is happy with the amount of time I spend in the studio or how I will manage to complete an MFA while raising children.
As a female artist, I often feel pressured to express gratitude for the support I receive—as if I should be thankful for being allowed to pursue art. There's a sense that being an artist is a privilege granted to me, almost like it's considered a mere hobby rather than a professional pursuit.
How would you try to subvert that characterisation?
I think the most effective way to challenge entrenched patriarchal norms and stereotypes is to liberate oneself from their constraints and persist regardless. While I am fortunate to have a supportive partner and family, my abilities, achievements, and determination as an artist are mine alone.
Mirrored Kingdom, Porcelain and glaze, 2024
Do you approach your art with a sense of feminist responsibility? What is this responsibility?
I wouldn't necessarily describe my approach as driven by a feminist responsibility. Instead, since my artwork is deeply autobiographical, I tend to center on my feminine experiences.
I aim to create art that explores shared experiences and raises awareness about gendered aesthetics, labour, and long-held notions about traditional craft.
More personally, how do you make sense of the conflict between rejecting stereotypical femininity while still maintaining some sense of what it means to be a woman? Rejecting hegemonic femininity, on what grounds do you construct a shared identity and understanding with other women?
It's about defining one's own sense of femininity on one's own terms, rather than conforming to external stereotypes or expectations. This involves self-reflection, exploration, and ongoing negotiation of identity. My work helps me to do this.
By embracing diverse expressions of femininity and recognising the intersectionality of gender with other aspects of identity such as race, class, and sexuality, women can forge connections and foster a sense of community grounded in authenticity and inclusivity. I believe this shared understanding is the foundation for collective action and the pursuit of social change.
What are three contemporary women artists we should know?
I’d love people to see the vibrant ceramic community in Australia. One of my favourite groups is the Hermannsberg Potters - Arrarnta Artist of Central Australia. Their sculpture is so distinct to Australia and their strong connection to the country while also sharing their stories and culture.
I’d like to mention 3 female Australian Artists here who’s practice captured my attention Louise Meuwissen who works with textiles and found materials to make intricate embroidered paintings, sculptures, installations, and wearable art. She transforms components of costume and dress into objects imbued with uncanny psychological and spiritual resonances. Her work employs DIY methodologies and craft techniques to blend post-consumer materials—high and low—with time, care, and attention.
Hannah Gartside who works across kinetic sculpture, installation, and quilt-making. Characteristically sensual and poetic, her works transform and in some cases animate, found fabrics and clothing and ephemera to articulate experiences and sensations of longing, tenderness, care, desire, and fury.
Lynda Draper who is a contemporary Australian artist who primarily works in the ceramic medium. Her practice explores the intersection between dreams and reality, shaped by fragmented images from her surrounding environment, recollected memories, and interest in talismans from ancient cultures.
Finally, do you have any interesting projects planned for the rest of the year?
In May, I will have a solo exhibition of my Canyon series at the New England Regional Art Museum in Armidale, New South Wales. Then, I’ll focus on creating a new body of work for a solo exhibition at Artereal Gallery, my Sydney gallery, in early 2025.  I also plan on residency opportunities in the USA and China for 2025.
Diamond Dancer, Porcelain and stain, 2020