Nestled in the Catalan countryside near Teyá, the studio of artist Berta-Blanca Ivanow is a tranquil retreat where she paints, sculpts and develops ideas informed by the local landscape and the body. Shelves are filled with rows of ceramic L-shaped pieces, each with a different glaze—like miniature bookends waiting to be chosen. Across the light-filled room, a table displays fired pieces that nestle together in milky-white clusters, and these organic forms are echoed in the paintings that hang from the ceiling and line the walls.
The Barcelona native studied in New York and London before returning home, where she works using organic materials including sand, ash, natural pigments and clay sourced locally from the oldest deposits found in Spain. Drawn to the material for its receptivity to her emotions, Berta-Blanca moulds experimental pieces, often echoing human forms, womb-like and imbued with an elemental flowing energy, “like androgynous creatures created from the crack, the porosity, the boiling mud, the polychrome of oxidation, the evanescence of smoke... these are the traces and signs that give them meaning and soul,” she says.
Berta-Blanca’s earthy connection to nature is what drew us to her. For our season of Rewilding, she developed works for the TOAST Autumn Winter campaign, sought out locations and stepped into the frame as both artist and muse. We speak to Berta to learn more about her process.
Tell us about your background.
I grew up in Barcelona, went to study in London at Central Saint Martins and later on I flew to New York for work. I also spent some time in Florence and now I am back in the Catalan countryside, where I settled my atelier.
You have assisted and been taught by abstract painter Pat Lipsky and sculptor Barney Hodes in NYC. How did these experiences inform your own development as an artist?
With Barney Hodes I learned clay modelling and how to observe the human body and translate its volumes into a figurative sculptural piece. His classes were made up of a very disparate group of students of all ages and nationalities in the basement of the Art Students League. It was a classroom lit by a time-worn skylight, surrounded by sculptures of other students on large wooden bases of peeling blue. The walls were covered with layers of plaster used for the molds. It was a place with history; so were the maestro's teachings, full of wisdom and patience.
Pat Lipsky on the other hand was a tougher woman. With her, we analysed composition, color, format, arrangement and sensations of the paintings each of the students created to the millimetre. It was not just about free expression, it was always accompanied by subsequent observation and criticism to reason all the decisions made. During those talks she spoke to us about the great masters of Colour Field painting from America. Many of them were fellow artists and art critics like Clement Greenberg, with whom she was close friends.
I also had the pleasure of assisting both artists, working with them in their workshops. There I created huge metal structures for Barney to mold his large sculptural pieces or stretched cotton duck canvas so that Pat could paint, because her wrists were injured from so much manual work. I remember she always told me that women in the art world were not valued. In her career she never felt the same respect that male artists received.
You also trained in sculpture at the Arts Academy in Florence and La Bisbal d’Empordà—how did this time help you develop as an artist?
In Florence the teaching was very academic and was combined with long visits with art historians who walked us through Galería Accademia & Uffizi and taught us about the work of Pontormo, Michelangelo, and Brunelleschi. Bisbal d’Empordà is where I started to create works that were non-figurative, sculptures that arose from my imagination. There I learned ceramic construction techniques and chemical formulation of glazes with a woman in her eighties who had been experimenting all her life. I also met Josep Matés, a potter who built two wood-firing kilns and had the chance to learn about his smoked finishings techniques for ceramics.
Describe your studio to us.
I walk through a wild flower field where l can gaze at the sea. Hidden by the sunlight, the horizon line blurs with the sky and water creating a continuous blue. My studio is a white cube, inhabited by reeds, roots, logs that are weather worn by the ocean, mud, sheep’s wool… a sacred laboratory, a space with no time, my refuge.
How would you describe your artistic approach?
My performative routine is deeply rooted in exploration, triggered by my fascination with the behaviour of matter and decomposition. My work sprouts from multiple combinations of the four elements: the unprocessed earth, the ritualistic fire, the ephemeral air we breathe and the water that nourishes us.
Tell us about your work for our Autumn Winter 2021 TOAST campaign. What was the starting point and how did it develop?
I received a beautiful dossier entitled Rewilding, full of references of the artistic practice of women such as Jagoda Buic, Valentine Schlegel, Paulina Olowska… all of them embraced a natural equilibrium and aliveness that is created when the human ego relinquishes control. My aim with this project was to honour what is here, surrounding us, what can be reused and reinvented. I started collecting entwined branches from the vineyards which reminded me of Haiku poems, short, poetic and precious. I translated those gracile gestures into a big interwoven tapestry that filtered light, creating intricate patterns that printed new textures on the clothing.
I also worked with fallen leaves. It was spring and some trees were renewing their foliage. I depigmented the leaves to search for their skeleton. Its delicacy spoke to me about vulnerability, that fragile moment of nudity, where the body feels light and tender. I created a pastel-coloured gradient line of leaves, which later on were photographed coming out of my chest, where the heart beats.
Can you tell us about the sculptural pieces you created and the symbolism of the drawings you painted in the volcanic landscape of La Garrotxa and Mediterranean seashore?
I never do sketches, I always rush to capture my ideas in three dimensions. Therefore, the drawings always come after the sculptural work. The large sculpture weighing 60 kilos and two metres in height is about motherhood and pregnancy. A sphere that houses life inside. The piece is developed from a protuberance that unfolds, a being that multiplies. The drawings are from sculptural works that I have created over the years. Sculptures that have elongated necks to listen to the heartbeat of the earth, volumes that show their intricate roots and expose its bowels, vital structures which disentangle its parts to show its essence, forms that intertwine and look deep inside themselves, timid shapes that hint at each other.
How does nature inform your practise?
Lately, I tend to go towards the exclusive use of natural resources. Nature offers us infinite materials that are there at our disposal, materials that guide us through different paths and teach us about ourselves. For me, Earth is an archaeological paradise, full of buried ancient treasures or newly hatched seeds fallen from a millennial tree, all in constant creative movement. My job is to merge my practice with the game of the ecosystem. An artistic symbiosis.
There’s a femininity that flows through your work and the human form reveals itself in each of your pieces—could you explain why this is important?
The word femininity connects me with the curve, a caress, evolution, the connection with intuition, the creation of life. All these sensations navigate through my practice and intertwine, manifesting themselves in ceramic pieces, wool tapestries, two-dimensional etchings, and written thoughts.
What does a working day look like for you?
The day begins with a walk by the sea or the mountains with my greyhound, Anubis. There, I meditate and think about what I will do in the workshop. Other times, at dawn I start the firings, which can last up to 13 hours. I try to take a break at noon to distance myself from the work and adjust to the drying times of clay. In the afternoon I continue until the sun goes down. During summer nights, I gather with friends to do raku firings, a Japanese pottery tradition celebrated originally for tea ceremonies.
How does the environment impact your work and do you try to work with nature rather than against it?
My ulterior motive is that all the work I create can inhabit the land and merge with it or even decay. Perish and fuse with the earth as we humans do. I am currently working with orchids and a ceramic piece that time and growth are shaping. I am interested in self-generating art, in communion with nature.
What to you is the most important thing to translate into your work?
Each work of art is an investigation into wild, primal and organic worlds where the medium establishes a route and the unadulterated gesture forges its fate. The denouement is an open, penetrable and meditative object. Sculptures that embrace, encircle and wind around each other, bend over, stick sharply and disappear. Prints that inhabit a fantasised world of implicit eroticism and ambiguous sensuality. Paintings that blur the boundaries between figurative and abstract and embody a fluctuant in-between state. A compendium that depicts materiality as a metaphor for psychological transformation.
What other projects are you working on?
I’ve recently returned from Senegal, where l had the pleasure of sharing my passion with a group of women ceramists from a little town in the south called Thionck Essyl. Pepi de Boissieu along with an NGO called Foundawtion organised an arts festival called Sambun, which means ‘fire’ in Diola. It has been a revealing experience, getting to know their traditions, dances, rituals, rhythm, unconditional love. There, the conception of time is different, they are established in the present and the experiences become eternal. It is a community that I will continue to be in contact with because it has nurtured and opened my mind. Things in the West that we struggle to obtain—peace of mind, respite, acceptance—there are inherent, pure life.
Interview by Andie Cusick.
Photographs by Tea Sirbiladze.
Berta-Blanca T. Ivanow created artworks for the TOAST Autumn Winter campaign, which was shot by Iris Humm in the Catalan countryside and surrounding coastline. Shop our current collection including the Organic Cotton Linen Workwear Shirt Berta-Blanca wears in her studio. Find more of her work on her Instagram.