Trayci Tompkins — she’s modest by nature, but this passionate and award-winning ceramic artist has quietly been breaking new ground and forging new paths from her KZN Midlands home and gallery, ZULU LULU Art House. Chairperson of Ceramics Southern Africa Gauteng, Colleen Lehmkuhl recently caught up with Trayci – whom she met in 2011 – and asked her about her influences, her passions and her techniques.
Colleen: Have you always wanted to work with clay?
Trayci: I believe clay found me.. In a London Art school on my way to register for a course in photography. Instead I signed on for a 6-month course in the pottery studio and was hooked on clay from that day on. my tutor was the celebrated Sudanese ceramic artist Mo Abbaro (Abdalla), who instilled in me the need to celebrate my roots in Africa and connect with childhood experiences. He taught me the art of hand coiling pots in the traditional way.
What jobs have you done other than being an artist?
After graduating from college where I studied performing Arts and Theatre Crafts, I worked casually in the film industry shooting documentaries for SABC and low budget action movies. Only after a series of interesting jobs including an in-house fashion model, au pairing for an American race car driver and dressing up regularly as The Oros Man, did I make it into a real job in print media advertising. It was here that I learnt valuable skills in sales, marketing and advertising design.
Where do you think your creativity comes from?
I put it down to inherited genetics and a creative upbringing. My great great grandfather was Italian painter Felix Piccione. I’d give him the credit for combining his artistic genes with the feisty Irish. The combination has produced a family tree of artists, architects and musicians. I feel lucky to have been dealt a portion of that, along with a dash of good old Scottish business acumen from my father’s side.
“It’s a pleasurable feeling knowing someone wants to ‘own’ a part of my creative story, appreciates the process involved in construction or engages in the tactile end result.” – Trayci Tompkins
What are you working on currently that excites you?
After closing down our busy ceramic production studio last year, I’m back to making statement pots and vases and learning some valuable painting skills. I’m enjoying the process of experimenting again with different decorative and firing techniques and indulging in the alone time in studio.
Tell us more about these methods and the creation process
I choose to hand coil and slab my work, sometimes altering the form as I paddle them into shape. I enjoy a variety of firing effects.. from the random and spontaneous pit firing, using horse hair, onion skins, sawdust and salt to achieve results… to a more controlled multiple layering of slips and glazes in an electric kiln firing. My interest in Italian Renaissance, Medieval costuming and Cirque du Soleil always influences my work, coupled with the beauty and strength of Africa. Recently I have been experimenting with painting coloured clay slips onto the leather hard clay surface, imitating a sort of oil on canvas effect. This I combine with a contrast of monochrome floral designs and patterns carved into the clay surface. [Watch Trayci at work here]
What is an artistic outlook on life?
Being fully engaged in the moment coupled with the ability to see beauty in everything that surrounds you.
What are your thoughts on being an artist in today’s world?
Business today calls for creative thinking with ‘out the box’ creative solutions and innovative ideas. Globalization is changing our world rapidly, forcing us all to evolve with flexibility. It’s an exciting time to be creating art too, filled with complex challenges and enormous opportunities.
What role does the Artist have in society?
An artist typically plays a pivotal role in society.. Always has done. Like The Fool in any Shakespearean play, the artist holds the moral code to honesty, integrity, truth and beauty in all its guises. It’s a multifaceted role that can serve to uplift, empower, enlighten and renew.
What memorable responses have you had to your work?
It’s a pleasurable feeling knowing someone wants to ‘own’ a part of my creative story, appreciates the process involved in construction or engages in the tactile end result.
If there was one artist living or not, that you could hang out with for a day, who would that be?
Frida Kahlo.. I admire her not only for her talent, but how history has portrayed her deep rooted creative energy, vitality, spunk and gritty determination. Plus I really like hanging out in Mexico.
What do you do when you’re having a bad day in the studio?
I either leave for a ride in the forest on my horse, or stick it out and work my way through it.
It’s all about balance, which I think I’m beginning to master and really enjoy. Stuart and I divide our roles within the business quite successfully now, allowing me time to balance roles as maker | curator | marketer | teacher.
What superpower would you have and why?
Definitely the super power to sing! Somehow the non-singing Scottish gene crept in and let me down on that score. Good singers can heal any number of evils, create memories for life, repair broken hearts and uplift and unite nations.
Name something you love, and why…
I’ve always had a love for animals and tend to surround my world with them. Few of us get the time in our busy lives to really connect with our pets, so I feel privileged to be in a place to do this daily.
What is your dream project?
It would involve a lot of travel to places steeped in artistic culture and tradition.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
“If you want to be taken seriously as an artist, you need to do it every day… whether you feel like it or not” the late Errol Boyley -South African landscape painter.
What wouldn’t you do without?
I would have to say.. Love. Everything seems futile without it.
More about Colleen Lehmkuhl: Colleen studied ceramics at the Joburg Art College and built her studio after 25 years in the corporate world. She met Trayci in 2011 when UK potter, and good friend of the Tompkins, Paul Young, visited SA and Trayci arranged for him to present a workshop in Joburg. Since then Trayci and Colleen have spent many memorable hours appreciating the vast differences between town and rural life!
See more of Trayci’s work below…