Photography / Editorial / Print

As featured in Unfolded Magazine Issue 11

Contemporary art met the traditional world of ceramics. If at first glance unusual, the pairing of ceramicists at Villeroy & Boch and celebrated typography artist Ebon Heath, join to create 100 unique works of art, in a project entitled Second Glance. The project, which we got to see at the London launch, is an extension of Villeroy & Boch's time honoured tradition of working with artists and placing this in a more modern context. Ebon tells us he was initially "intrigued by trying something new with Villeroy & Boch. It was very unexpected and not what you would think of my work, from the 3D structures." It was a challenge and allowed him to play with new materials, creating the LoopArt collection, which is described as a 'symbiosis of tradition, trend and contemporary current.'

Describing himself as somewhat of a nomad, Ebon tells us, "Half of the year I'm based in Berlin, the remainder in Bali, Indonesia for silversmithing and casting, and Brooklyn is still my home where I go to hustle." His home is where the artist first emerged. Having studied grapic design at Rhode Island School of Design, he reminisces how he saw Calder's Circus as a child, and for him, when he saw that aged five at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, "it really transformed me as an individual and I would always be more focused towards the arts."  Parallels can be drawn from Ebon's typographic ballet performances and aside from Calder, Graffiti was a massive influence. He notes that "you don't see it aesthetically in my work," but growing up in the 70s and 80s in NYC, "it was unavoidable, it was everywhere." With a commercial graphic design background, Ebon describes how "for me it is about the science of graffiti, the science of the MC. Graffiti is about vandalism and UPs, for me, my work is about taking your time and being methodical. I was the kid who was studying all the graffiti guys. I did my little bits, but I would never consider myself an graffiti artist, but more of a graffiti nerd."

"The kick in the ass" in describing his fondness for typography, "Is how graphic design, formerly was all about graffiti - so how do we take graffiti and apply it to Bauhaus and post-modernism. All these other things that kids weren't thinking about, but it was already there." Looking at the individual characters, and all the other characters surrounding the letters, we can see the love of language, the love of type, the love of form and a love for the sound of words. He recalls listening to jazz as a young child, his dad is a recording engineer, "so I was in the studio a lot, there is a beauty in words and vocabulary. The lyrical aspect of it, when you read prose - when you remove the musicality, what is retained?" 

He has a broad ranging body of work, encompassing graphic design, fashion, typographic mobiles, spatial installations, jewellery, and performance art, however, "for my generation and those below me, I don't think we need to define ourselves in these limited roles as designer, or sculptor." He describes having, primarily a language and "the notion of once you have a confident language, creativity is a faith and a religion, more so than a hobby." There is a clear vision that Ebon has with his work,"I think if your language is confident, you can apply it to a skateboard or T-shirt or installation and so on. I don't think you have to be in these barriers of a product or gallery world. Whatever can push your language further is what excites me."

The language of his work is very much geared to expressing the content of word, but also giving the viewer the potential to find their own understanding. Of the Villeroy & Boch collaboration, he says there is something very classical about working with ceramics. On closer inspection of the LoopArt, we see the rich history of the Mettlach based company retained but modernised, with the colours and imagery creating a vivid display. It indeed takes several 'Second Glances' to decipher their origin, so abstracted the imagery is. The typographic mobile, another of the Second Glance works, glazed with the LoopArt pattern, certainly caught our attention. The poetry associated with the creative process is "a literal script to the process of this collaboration," says Ebon and the 166 individual ceramic letters, when viewed in 3D, do make an immersive visual impact.

Second Glance by Ebon Heath

Words dance inside eyes
Imagination sings out loud,
awakening slumber time
When first impressions touch  
Anxious phoenix dreams, that
reveal surprise petals.
Blooming on Second Glance

From simply viewing photographs of the typography, it is very much a 2D organic shape of words or poetry projecting from the centre of a mouth perhaps, however, in real life, in 3D, we see there are more layers, constructs and intersections. For Ebon, there is "a design sensibility in my brain. Right now I feel my work is much more about engineering sculptures and I've created these 3D grid systems that are basically harnesses, like an energy, whether it comes out in the shape of a stripe, cone, line or circle. Basic geometric shapes that I have as grids. Same way you have traditional graphic design for a magazine, you have theses grid structures." It emerges that the transition from "two dimensional type to three dimensional type is really based off the same principles but now I'm the client."

We see patterns in the mobile pieces, like shells of ancient creatures in his work, even helical structures of DNA, perhaps, "The big thing I'm into is sacred geometry and how the spiral of the hurricane Sandy that hit New York, for example, is similar to the same spiral in Pythagorean theorem, golden means or ratio to me is really exciting. My work definitely takes on that same sense of mathematics."

What of the traditional book and digital sphere? Are they not another physical representation of the language? "Books are the best way to read word," but his work is "not meant to be read in a literal sense, it is meant to be felt, it's not linear. Words are confined to a page, almost like a jail and we bastardise them, we use them and spit them out."  Words exist in all languages and are even discarded over time. Ebon has an appreciation for the intricacies of words and revels in the complexity of constructing a story or poem. "If you look closely at the details of our words, maybe that will also open up our eyes and make us look at our own lifestyles or even the petals on a flower," pointing at a flower in the room "I'm intrigued by looking at the smallest stamen on a flower. Finding the detail, the molecular structure of it all." 

You have to "listen with your eyes" says Ebon, it is like how you would react to someone you think is a "gangster on the street, but take away the layers and he is really a sweetheart." In searching for the meaning behind the visual poetry and in reference to Villeroy & Boch, it is about "awakening the company", formed in 1748, from its "slumber". Re-branding and reconnecting the company with the arts, the result of which, is an interdisciplinary collaboration, whereby Ebon likens the phoenix to "burning it's old self and emerging from the ashes, anew." The process may have been a interesting learning curve for both, a remix, the outcome of which may see new ventures. Over the years, Villeroy & Boch has won many design and innovation prizes and most recently, the Red Dot Design Award 2012.

Change and transformation for an artist and indeed a global company is a positive thing and Ebon leaves with a few parting words, "I deal with word association" and sometimes "I love the silence of not understanding," perhaps because, in the effort to visualise the invisible, "I have such crazy language dreams." Where those words may lead or what changes may arise, is another journey.

Interview and main portrait:
Nardip Singh

Other images supplied by Parker Hobart, © Villeroy & Boch
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