Ceramist Rosario Varela Lets Artistic Impulses Guide the Way

In 2011, artist Rosario Varela found herself struggling with painter’s block, so she grabbed a chunk of clay “as an exercise to get the creative juices flowing. I needed to experience manipulating a material without thinking about the outcome.” To her surprise, Varela “fell head over heels” with the medium and began dedicating a good deal of her time to studying sculpture and ceramics.

Nearly a decade since her serendipitous love affair began, Varela continues to paint as well as explore new clay techniques, choosing not to use molds to produce her wheel-thrown and hand-built decorative vessels, wall sculptures, and tableware. “Experimenting with different methods is intriguing,” says Varela, a native of Argentina who moved to the States in 1989 and works out of her home studio in Amagansett. “If I was producing the same thing over and over, I would probably die of boredom!” And although her preferred color palette is decidedly neutral—shades of black, white, bone, and graphite, inspired by everything from nature to the gesso-painted bricks in her childhood home—Varela incorporates deeper interest through techniques such as sgraffito, which entails scratching a pattern into the surface to reveal a contrasting hue.

One of Varela’s fortes is crafting pinch pots: hand-built vessels that are “instinctual and organic in nature,” she explains. The artisan begins by making a well in the center of a large ball of stoneware clay with her thumb, and then manipulating it to widen the base and form walls. She “pinches” the walls while moving her thumb upward, creating thin, shapely sides. Once the bowl reaches the desired size, she lets it dry for an hour, coats the exterior with a tinted underglaze, and allows it to dry for another 20 minutes. Next, she uses various sharp tools to carve one line at a time, revealing the clay’s natural color. “Each mark relates to the one before it, but they’re never the same,” says Varela, who favors spontaneity over set patterns.

After the piece sits for a day, it receives a bisque firing before Varela coats the interior with glaze—making it food- and liquid-safe—and refires it. “When I don’t have a specific plan in mind, I just play with the clay and see what materializes. Some of my best work has come out of an open-minded exploration of the material.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 1 2019 issue of HC&G (Hamptons Cottages & Gardens) with the headline: Poetic Poetry.