Finding your ethos is what Norleen Nosri, a ceramicist from Columbia, finds the pivotal point in creating true art — this sage advice came from her professor Bede Clarke at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Nosri, originally from Malaysia, received her Master of Fine Arts in ceramics in 2013 from MU. She was one of five scheduled artists-in-residence at the Missouri State Fair working in the Fine Arts Building this year.
On Saturday she was working with her assistants and fellow MU students, also of Malaysia, Eranissa Johan and Fynn Omar, upstairs in the building. The trio was working on clay bases or serving vessels that would hold her delicate porcelain tea services.
“That’s the bonus part of my sculpture, is the utility part of it,” Nosri said.
The roughness of the clay vessels, she said, gave the pieces a masculine, organic feel while the stark white of the delicate teacups and pots balanced them with femininity.
Her clay and porcelain pieces are known as “Communitea.” She believes the concept of sitting down together and drinking something forms bonds with others.
“It’s not necessarily for tea,” she said. “It could be for anything. It looks like a tea pot but its function is to serve drink — this is a serving vessel and this is a drinking vessel. I’m simplifying it more.”
She added that the pieces were “very metaphoric,” drawing on her own life experiences.
“What it means to me as a serving object, to a point this is an endless thing,” she said. “To give. Giving is an endless thing, the capacity is endless. When it’s gone, we give more. And metaphorically we all have that capacity — we are endless, this is giving and receiving.”
When she created the pieces she found that she thought of composition instead of functionality. Some of her clay bases are two- and three-tiered and the porcelain cups and pots sit inside bowl-like indentions.
She said she began working with the clay base-forms because of an exercise Professor Clarke assigned to her.
“He wanted me to loosen up,” she said. “All I’d done was work with clay on the potter’s wheel, so it was like a safety blanket or a comfort thing. So he wanted me to think about form differently.”
He gave her clay and told her to hand build something. She began by making a slab, forming it into a boat-like shape, and then she added support underneath the piece. The piece eventually became a vessel or container.
“I was enjoying it, it was my first time doing something other than ceramics,” she said.
After two months, critiques of her work were still negative. Clarke told her she was trying too hard and being “pretentious,” and that she needed to slow down. She was deflated.
“He was trying to slow me down from 100 miles per hour to 50,” she said. “When I did that the first time, he gave me a compliment. He walked over to me, and stopped and said, ‘Who made this?’ And he gave me a high-five.”
Nosri said most artists choose at least one culture and are passionate about creating art along that line.
“That culture that relates to you historically or emotionally or whatever,” she noted. “And you want to continue that tradition or take it and evolve it. But it wasn’t like that. It was, I like that, I like that, and I put it together, with no presence of purpose in the form.”
She added that Clarke helped her find a sense of purpose in her art.
When she made her first clay slab vessel she had an Epiphany.
“All of a sudden my cups and bowls and my teapots had a sense of purpose,” she said. “He (Clarke) always focused on ethos. Like, who are you? What kind of being are you, who are you? Because your own ethos can be your concept, you don’t have to go out there and find something. He never told me to do this, but he always asked me to find who I am. It’s easier to work when you know who you are and what you want to make. He was an amazing man, a superior teacher.”
She said her work is in the tradition of all countries that emphasize drinking as a way to communicate.
“In that way, I felt like it could be a fusion,” she noted.”My whole concept is to instill cohesion. To get people together and have a sense of camaraderie and I think the sets represent that. Because it’s drinking sets — it’s hospitality. If you go to my culture the first thing they want to show you is we’re good people, have a drink, in the Asian culture. Even the South in America they ask if you would like some sweet tea, and in England would you like a cup of tea?”
She said she loves the concept of people relaxing together, having a good time and having a conversation.
“In a much broader sense, it’s good for us, it’s good for the future, it’s good for our kids,” Nosri said.
She brought this concept of “Communitea” recently to the Columbia City Hall and served tea to all that were at the meeting.
“And it worked,” she added. “Under this one roof, that very night, I told the council men and women and the mayor that the whole concept of giving and receiving is perfect for the city hall environment.”
Nosri plans on hosting other “Communitea” events in the future. At present she has been accepted as the artist-in-residence program at the Craft Alliance of St. Louis and she and her husband, Chris Sharp, and daughter, Nura Sharp, will be moving there soon.
Nosri demonstrated in the Fine Arts Building Aug. 7-11; Cindy Morris, of Sedalia, was there Aug. 9-10; other artists demonstrating for the duration of the fair are Damon Freed, of Sedalia, Aug. 13-17; Janis Burgin, of Jefferson City, Aug. 11-15; Glenda Miller, of Tipton, Aug. 16-17.