Union Project Artist Highlight: Silvija Singh

Today we are highlighting a member of the Union Project Ceramic Cooperative and one of our Atrium Artists – Silvija Singh.

Silvija Singh's Hole-y CupsSilvija invited us into her studio space at Union Project, and we were surrounded by her latest work, works-in-progress, glazes, clay, and test pieces. “There is a lot packed into a small space,” she said, showing us her pieces one-by-one. The clay she use is paper clay, made by mixing paper pulp into the clay. During firing, the paper burns away, leaving a lightweight and sturdy ceramic sculpture that can be hung without installing special anchors.

Silvija’s art practice focuses on making three different kinds of work: narrative, abstract, and commercial pieces. Her commercial pieces are wall-hanging vases, an idea that evolved while searching for a wedding gift for a friend. The vases are in a shape that resembles hearts, decorated with ribbon-like surface designs, to hold flowers, love notes, and vows. Her abstract pieces are more metaphoric, especially the vessels she is working on now. Her new series “Your Cup Will Always Only Be Half-Full (But You Might Love it Anyway)” are coils of clay formed in the shape of cups, She also calls them the Hole-y Cups. Silvija purposely leaves openings in the vessels as she builds them, which gives a feeling that the vessels are formed by the movement of forces like the melting icecaps and moving crustal plates. Each of the “Hole-y Cups” has a sense of fragility, self-healing after trauma, and growth.

As intriguing as Silvija’s commercial and abstract pieces are, what moved us most during our conversation were the stories behind each of her narrative pieces. “Some narrative pieces are in reaction to things in the news that I am worked-up about,” she said, pointing to the ceramic birds that she started making around the time of the BP Oil Spill in 2010. The birds are raku-fired with a smoky and metallic-looking surface in reference to the real birds that ended up covered in oil in the Oil Spill incident. Silvija plans to cluster the birds on a wall in reflection to the growing environmental concerns.

Refugee child's shoe that Silvija found in LatviaAnother new project is about the memory and history linked to a refugee child’s shoe that she found in the house built by her grandfather in Latvia. The story behind the shoe is a story about Silvija’s own mother, who was a Latvian refugee during World War II. Latvia is on the Baltic Sea, a strategically important spot during the war, so multiple countries were fighting to gain Latvia as their territory. When Stalin took over the farms in the region, Silvija’s mother and her family fled and became refugees in a German camp for eight years. Through a church connection, a family in Colorado sponsored them to come to the United States with the condition that they work on a beet farm. After a couple of years of service, her mother’s family was free to stay in the country.

Fast forward to present day, three years ago, Silvija visited Latvia and the house that her grandfather built for the first time. In that hand-built farmhouse, Silvija discovered a small abandoned shoe – a brown leather shoe for a child around seven years old, exactly Silvija’s mother's age when she had to flee her home and country. The moment Silvija saw the shoe, she realized that it has been waiting for her for the past 70 years. Inspired, she is now making a pedestal for the shoe.

The pedestal was first imagined as a Roman column, but with further thought it has now become a project of translating photographs of the house built by her grandfather into a “House Pedestal”. The house is embellished with symbolic elements that represent the country of Latvia, refugees and their journeys into liberation. Next to the house stands a paper clay tree vessel, which comes one of Silvija’s mother memories: when her mother was a child, she would open the window and throw her candy out into the snow, thinking she was planting a candy tree. The clay tree vessel will hold candy, representing a child’s logic and perception. To accompany the house and tree, Silvija is working on some ocean pieces. The ocean is symbolic in two ways. First, refugees most often cross an ocean to find safety, like Silvija’s mother did. Second, as the polar ice caps melt, millions of people living in cities near an ocean will be displaced if the issue of global warming is not addressed soon. This sculpture is a very intricate pedestal for the shoe, but the shoe is the object that begins to tell the stories of displacement, family, and social justice.

Silvija Singh in Studio

Silvija became a member of Union Projects Ceramic Cooperative in 2012. At first she had a period of getting used to making ceramics again and of experimenting after being out of the studio for 15 years. Silvijas artwork has come a long way since re-entering the ceramics community in 2012 and at the 2016 Three Rivers Arts Festival, she won the Best in Show award with her ceramic sculptures, If Only” and What If.” By joining the Ceramic Cooperative and becoming an Atrium Artist, Silvija is able to spend a large amount of time in the studio without interruption, immersed in the creative mode. As Silvija told us, “I feel like I have been growing. Getting back to it [making ceramics], I was worried and felt out of touch, but now I am happy about it.

Union Project supports artists like Silvija through multiple artist focused programs such as the Artist in Residence, Ceramics Cooperative, Atrium Studio Spaces, Open Studio, and Visiting Artists Program. You can read more about each Union Project's programs on the website.

Interview conducted by Kevin Fernando and Stephanie Sun
Story written by Stephanie Sun