Artistry: Lauren Kaplan

Westport-based ceramic artist Lauren Kaplan looks to her South African roots with sculptural works that capture the essence of her homeland.

Text by Allegra Muzillo

You can take Lauren Kaplan out of Africa, but you definitely can’t take Africa out of Lauren Kaplan. Drawing from her colorful upbringing in Johannesburg, South Africa, Kaplan, who now lives in Westport, hand-molds large- and small-scale decorative vessels composed of stoneware, raku, and porcelain clays, using the African bush and its teeming wildlife as her muses.

In homage to her birthplace, Kaplan often accents her pieces with found objects from nature—twigs here, fibers there—and uses several different firing techniques to create vastly dissimilar bodies of work. Kaplan’s sculptural raku pottery closely parallels the texture of an elephant’s skin, her porcelain items take on distinct zebra stripes and cheetah-like markings, her pit-fired vessels look as if they’ve been recovered from an archaeological dig in the Kalahari, and her stoneware sculptures resemble tribal artifacts.

Kaplan’s education and interest in ceramic arts began more than thirty years ago. “I started ceramics just as a hobby and passion,” says Kaplan, who initially learned to make quarter-inch-thick slab pots from a private instructor. “I’d wait for them to dry to a certain degree and then I’d cut them up and start drawing in corners and doing curves,” she adds.

In 1997, her husband’s work required the couple’s move to Zurich, Switzerland. There they remained until 2001, when Laurence’s job took them to the United States. A home with proximity to both Stamford and New York City was important, and a friend suggested Westport for its rich history as an artist’s colony. Kaplan indeed found a home she loved in the picturesque town, and the family settled in. All was well—until September 11 and the terrorist attack that destroyed New York’s World Trade Center. Thrown for a loop like so many others, Kaplan found herself thinking, “I’m going to have to create in order to get my head out of this funk.”

She enrolled in classes at the prestigious Silver-mine Arts Center in New Canaan, where she was exposed to raku pottery, a type of earthenware produced via the traditional Japanese method of low-temperature firing, followed by removing the piece from the kiln while it’s still red-hot, and then cooling it in open air. “Every single time a raku piece comes out, I’m amazed by the result,” says Kaplan. “I refer to raku as perfect imperfection—and you can never duplicate a piece.”

Her true passion lies in the naked raku process, a derivative of the regular raku practice. Kaplan’s naked raku pieces are hand-molded and fired once, or bisqued, to remove all traces of water. She then applies slip—colored clay with the consistency of runny cake batter—to the object. The piece is fired to a temperature of roughly 1450° F in a specialized kiln, and removed (with long forceps) while it’s still in a molten state. “When you wave it around for a few seconds, any glaze on the object starts to crackle because it cools quicker than the clay,” she explains.

She plunges the hot piece into a vessel filled with sawdust, creating flames and smoke, and closes the vessel tightly. Black soot gets trapped in all the little cracks that were established between the kiln and the sawdust phases, creating unpredictable designs. “And that’s where the element of surprise comes in,” says Kaplan. “When you eventually dunk the piece in water, the glaze actually pops off. It’s -spectacular!”

Kaplan’s work is at once utilitarian and sculptural, simple and complex. And if Africa is her inspiration, the results also have an Asian feel. In fact, the Japanese department store Takashimaya chose to showcase her work alongside Japanese ceramics artists in its window at Bergdorf Goodman. “I couldn’t believe that those were my pieces, because they worked so perfectly in an Asian setting,” Kaplan says.

The artist’s multicultural background and attunement to disparate cultures informs her work, but her heart, she has decided, belongs to this country. “So many people in South Africa ask me, ‘What’s home for you? South Africa or America?’ I tell them I love coming back to South Africa for a short time, but I go home to America.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: To see more of Lauren Kaplan’s work, visit laurenkaplanceramics.com

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