We had the good fortune of connecting with Ali Filippelli and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Ali, how do you think about risk?
Traditionally I have not thought of myself as a risk taker. I have not thought of my self as many things, and have learned that ones self-perception doesn’t often align with reality. How you would describe yourself might be quite different than how others do. Back in 2017 I had been working as Collections Assistant and Database Manager at a museum for over 6 years, I had always in my adult life been surrounded by art in my work at museums and galleries. Archiving, recording, digitizing, and always wondering what it would be like to be an artist, a maker, a creator. At 31 years I felt that my identity was fully formed by the work I had chosen. I knew people who identified as artists who had trained in school, who lived their waking moments sketching, painting, designing. I wasn’t doing that, so I wasn’t an artist. I wasn’t really happy at work, and I didn’t know what to do about it. My husband told me to do anything, try anything; don’t think about why or where it will go (he is a designer and artist by the way). I just didn’t know how. So what was the risk that shook my identity? On the eve of our wedding my husband, Kaspar, and I decided against buying a house, and a few months later we made another decision, we, both comfortably into our 30ies and career jobs, decided to take that money we had saved and put it towards full time travel. We made a six month plan, to leave our jobs, sell what we didn’t want to keep, and travel. We would give ourselves one year…which turned into two. Two nomadic years of road trips, living out of our car, hiking and camping, backpacking abroad, never planning much in advance, or knowing who we would meet or what would determine what came next. We crossed paths with so many people, other travelers and natives living so many different versions of lives, and our perception of reality and what we thought we knew was constantly being checked. I never grew weary of it, though at some point we decided to slow down. My husband started applying to artist residencies and projects that took us to New York, Washington, Mexico, and China. I photographed our trips and the residencies; I sketched out ideas in my journal. I kept thinking we’d end up living in some exotic country – fully depending on a shift like that to change my life, but not realizing that the shift was already taking place inside. At one of the residencies where I was photographing the processes of a collaboration between artists, a ceramicist, Mijanou Fortney and Kaspar, I put down the camera and started playing with clay. For lack of a better word, I was smitten. I spent as much time in the studio as I could. Absorbing as much information as I could. Taking notes, drawing out ideas, asking a million questions. When the residency was over, and we moved on I couldn’t stop thinking about it. All I wanted to do was get back there; I had never felt that way about anything in my life. After my husband and I slowly stopped moving on to new places, and settled in Portland, ME, I sought out a studio. I was pretty relentless, going every day, and when I felt ready I applied to the same ceramics residency I had been at the previous year. One month in Washington state, in a snowy canyon with full access to a ceramics studio. I am not sure if I have ever been in the exact right place at the exact right time as this. While there, I was introduced as the visiting artist in residence, often not realizing that it was me that was being introduced. I didn’t identify as an artist…I was there to learn, to expand out and grow, but was I an artist? What I realized is that I had never seen how other people might see me. As non-conforming, or risk taking, or an artist. But what does it matter? Often others see in you what you don’t recognize yet, and you can be many things at once. If we had never stopped, quit our jobs, reconsidered everything, and travelled, if we had not taken that risk, I would not be where I am today. I would not be a ceramicist. An artist. I would not know how to get here, or that I wanted to be here. I needed to leave what I thought I was behind, allow myself to be anything, in order to be what I am today. What I have learned is to try and not to overthink what I am doing. Just ask myself, am I happy? Am I fulfilled? When you look at anything too closely it can start to fall apart or stop making sense, you just need to trust that things will work out. As I started what was to be my career in ceramics nearly two years ago, this is how I was able to move forward. In another twist of fate, this Spring when I could not get to my ceramics studio, I started embroidering, I had picked it up in Oaxaca during a residency I was accompanying my husband at in the fall of 2018. I started on my clothes and then moved to muslin and cotton/linen fabrics. I became a bit obsessive about it, creating silhouettes of women bursting with flowers and cradling rocks I had found on the nearby beaches of coastal Maine. Today I split my time embroidering at home making small artworks and in the studio making functional ceramics pieces for the home.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I think what sets me apart from others is my background, my experience with collections in museums and galleries as an archivist and collections manager. I think about the history – the provenance, of a piece of art. About where it came from, how it was acquired, it’s condition, really – it’s story. You can photograph it, mark down its dimensions, learn all of its quirks, where it has been, and where it will go. I have a similar approach with my work, which is very intentional. I sketch out ideas that I want come back to, document my processes, photograph my works. In ceramics there is a lot left to chance, how the pieces will turn out in the kiln, but I usually develop my ideas on paper first. I try to remember I am still learning though, and to just sit down at the wheel or roll out some clay and see where it takes me. Honestly, it is still early on for me. Right now, I am just proud of myself. That I am doing this. That I am working with my hands, bringing my ideas to fruition. It isn’t always easy, there is a lot of doubt if you stop and think about what you are doing and where you are going with it. I spend a little time on this, but mostly I just try to get back into the studio and make. A big challenge for me is that I don’t yet have my own studio, I work out of a public studio and a friend’s garage where I have my pottery equipment stored. I am grateful for that every day though – that I have a place to go and work. You can’t let a situation stop you from doing what you love; you find a way because it will never be perfect. Or at least one day it might be, hopefully be a little easier, but you won’t appreciate that unless you’ve had to struggle a bit, to make it work. I am still in the thick of it, of that phase, but I have never been happier. I am excited that I have found a medium to express something beautiful. My brand, Little Gray Studios, right now, is still in its infancy. It is playful and soft and creative, my body of work is in it’s blue phase, even when I think I am not using blue, but by the end it is blue. Mostly my work is functional and meant to be used in the home, but I also explore forms when hand-building and get more creative with some pretty fun vessel shapes. I am half Swedish and take a lot of my inspiration from Scandinavian minimalist aesthetic and as well as Swedish folk art. When I started making pieces out of clay, I began briefly on the wheel, but then I started taking classes in hand building. That is still where I feel most comfortable, but I am working on merging the two. Maybe throwing something on the wheel and then altering it by hand, or pinching out a pot and finishing it on the wheel. Little Gray Studios is also about my embroidery, I mentioned before that when I couldn’t get into the studio during quarantine, I started embroidering. It was spring and flowers were blooming and I was foraging a bunch with my husband to try making some natural dyes at home. So I started this serious of women silhouettes and wildflowers, I just wanted to make something beautiful.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
I am still new to Portland, ME, I have been here just over a year, so I am still getting my bearings. I get everywhere on foot, bike, or skateboard, I have always done that, whether living in NYC or Dallas, TX. Portland is very seasonal so let’s start in the warmer weather of late Spring/Summer. I’d tell my friend to pack a bathing suit, a light sweater, and good sneakers to get around in, because you will want to be outside as much as possible. I live in the West End on the peninsula in Portland so first we’d go get some breakfast sandwiches from Ohno’s or The Otherside Diner, and then we’d hop on our bikes and head over to the East End Beach and go for a swim and relax a little. We could go up to the Eastern Promenade after and get some food from one of the food trucks that are set up there daily. Falafel Mafia or Mr. Tuna are my favorites, you can sit on the hill and look out over the Casco bay, Fort Gorges, Peaks Island, and all the boats sailing, it’s a pretty spectacular view. Then you could wander back through the East End, looking at all the cute houses and stop at some of my favorite shops, the Plant Office for some nice travel size succulents, get some Kombucha at Root Wild, check out a super cool assortment of sunglasses at North Optical before hopping back on our bikes to head home and refresh. For dinner I’d head to Rosemont Market on the West End to pick out some picnic food and drinks and head over to the Western Promenade Park to have a sunset picnic, maybe wrap it up with a night cap at Chaval or Bramhall. The next day I would hit repeat, if it’s a Saturday go to the lovely Portland Farmers Market in Deering Oaks Park, then get back on the bikes and explore a bit further, over the bridge into South Portland along a really pretty trail called the Greenbelt and end up at Willard Beach. Along the way you could get lunch at Taco trio, Scratch Bakery, or ice cream at Willard Scoops. You could bike a little father and get a lobster roll at the Bite Into Maine food truck at the Portland Headlight. There is so much to do here in the summer even if you don’t have a car. If your friend wants to learn how to surf, the waves here in the summer are perfect for that at Higgins or Scarborough Beach. If you want to see some of the islands you can hop onto the USPS Portland Mailboat Ferry and see some of the other islands that make up the greater area of Portland. If the weather is a little cooler in Fall/Winter (ok a lot colder), I’d say check the weather and either bring some flannel and a beanie, or every layer you own and a down coat. We’d swap out our bikes for a car and maybe do a lighthouse tour, Bug Light and Two Lights, or drive north to do some apple picking and Randall’s Farm (or any of the many other orchards) and then head to Yarmouth and out past Cousins Island onto Little John Island and take a walk on the preserve there and look out over all the tiny island that are pretty unique to coastal Maine. There are a lot of local hiking trails around the peninsula also, the Fore Rivers Sanctuary, Robinson Woods Trail, Martin Point Trail, Stroudwater Trail…or we could spend the afternoon walking around the West End looking at the amazing old houses, and then head downtown on the peninsula and check out the second hand stores. The Haberdashery for some great clothes, the Flea-For-All for vintage home goods, and Strange Maine, Enterprise Records, or Moody Lords for Records. In less than a mile stretch along Congress Street you could spend a whole day poking into these shops and treat yourself with coffee along the way at Tandem, Speckled Ax, or Coffee By Design. For Dinner you could get some take-away Korean Fried chicken at Figgy’s in the West End, Chinese at Empire Diner or seafood at Scales downtown, or Japanese at Minato in the East End, they have amazing cocktails. You won’t have even scratched the surface.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
Well there are two people. First my husband, Kaspar, who has always encouraged me in any endeavor I was interested in. We have taken circus classes, foraged for flowers to make natural dyes, and done residencies together. He has reinvented himself over many times, and we really try to allow each other to grow, in any direction. The second person I want to give a shout out to is the potter Mijanou Fortney, at the ceramics residency in Washington who encouraged me when I needed it the most. Even though I wasn’t the visiting artist the first time I went, she took time for me, seeing that I was interested. I know now it wasn’t just the clay that won me over, it was her approach to the craft and to life. She was laid back and supportive, leaving me room to explore and never feel like I couldn’t try anything. Not overly dogmatic – which sadly had been my experience in the past in any art classes I had taken.
My portrait: “Photo by Kaspar Heinirici” all other photos “Photos by Ali Filippelli”