• Tatiana Collier

Her Work of Heart

This article was developed for and featured in Ballarat Living, Winter 2021, produced by Provincial Media.

Ballarat ceramics artist Ruby Pilven is known for her porcelain jewellery, wrap vessels, and the joyful colours she brings to all her pieces. She sat down with us to talk about what inspires her, motivates her and how her work continues to evolve.

“It’s been in my life forever,” says Ruby, as she casually gazes around her studio. “I grew up thinking it was normal for people to have studios and kilns in their homes.”

With two potters for parents, Ruby was using clay and ceramics tools before most of us had mastered a knife and fork.

By age 7, Ruby was selling pieces at markets she attended with her mum. A few years later, she would spend school holidays assisting her dad, a University lecturer, with his summer school classes, acting as technician and showing students the correct way to use tools.

Now at age 30, Ruby is a well-known and established artist with a reputation for creating pieces using Nerikomi, a Japanese ceramic technique that is a unique fusion of colour, pattern, and form.

Literally translated, Neri means “kneading,” and komi means “into”, which aptly describes the process of mixing pigments into wet clay and integrating colour into the piece, rather than painting onto the surface.

“While working with Dad one summer, I asked him to teach me how to colour clay. I then researched Nerikomi online and began experimenting and incorporating the technique into my jewellery pieces. I developed a rather unique visual language in my colourful pieces, and people really responded to it.”

When asked why that was, Ruby’s answer is quite simple.

“I think people love my work because the colours just make them happy.

“I make things that are pretty to look at. They are joyful for me to make and joyful for people to own. Sometimes in art I think there is a belief that you can’t just make pretty things, but I do. I don’t try to deny that.”

Naturally, Ruby’s work has evolved over time. Wrap rings were the inspiration for her popular wrap vessels; and her use of Nerikomi continues to change too.

“My technique involves pressing coloured clay together into one large piece, which I then shape, and that’s a bit of a twist on the traditional art form.

“What I’m concentrating on now is doing straight Nerikomi patterns as individual segments, that I then laminate and join together. The effect is an abstract, fragmented view of nature.”

When visiting Ruby at her studio, it’s easy to see where she finds her inspiration. Nestled among the trees, on the outskirts of Ballarat, the studio is bathed in sunlight. Outside, the trees are full of Autumn tones that anyone, let alone an artist, would strive to capture.

“I definitely take inspiration from Ballarat and surrounds, this beautiful Wadawurrung land we occupy. Or the places I love to visit, such as Queenscliff.

“I often look out my window for inspiration, which means my work changes with the seasons. Or I may be walking down the road watching the sunset, and those colours will appear in my pieces.”

When it comes to artists that inspire Ruby, the response is far more varied.

“I can’t say I’m directly inspired by any one artist. I love and follow so many potters, painters, print makers and I subconsciously pick up on things I’ve seen in their work.

“For example, Tarli Glover is a Ballarat artist that does beautiful landscape paintings and sometimes when I look at my pots, I realise a section I’ve created resembles something she painted.”

Ruby’s success has grown consistently since 2014, when she left Melbourne to move home and focus on being a ceramics artist. Her pieces are distributed across Australia, to the United States, United Kingdom and Hong Kong; and she has 34,000 followers on Instagram. Of course, this level of success has taught Ruby a lot about how she wants to operate.

“I go through phases where demand outweighs supply, especially leading up to Christmas. It’s not great because it turns you into a machine. I don’t want to make mass-produced art.

“I want to be able to make the pots in any shape, and it’s ok if it doesn’t sell because it’s what I wanted to make.

“I have fantastic support from stores in Ballarat, run by people who understand how I work as an artist. I’ve learnt that these are the best people to deal with – the ones who appreciate the work and me and look beyond simply stocking the shelves.

“Overall, I think the Ballarat business community is great at supporting each other.”

More recently, Ruby has followed in her father’s footsteps, taking on a teaching role at Ballarat Grammar. Here, Ruby has found a new level of inspiration, as well as a valuable support network that helped her pull through the Covid lockdown.

“I’ve always wanted to teach, ever since I worked with Dad as a technician. Finding the job at Grammar was a dream come true. Then, when Covid started and we were in lockdown, it was so emotional and quite depressing being separated from the students. I didn’t think I’d miss them as much as I did.

“I ended up teaching Zoom lessons with my seniors and it was really quite funny, and therapeutic. They clearly enjoyed it. Even though it was a terrible time, I think having that connection with the students made me feel like I was doing something to help, because the kids needed the creative outlet.”

Although she’s there to teach and guide them, Ruby says she has learned a trick or two from her students.

“Sometimes I’ll demonstrate a technique or how to use a tool, and then the students use the tool in a completely different way – and it gives me a whole new perspective.

“Growing up around ceramics and with potters as parents, I’ve only ever seen the proper way to do things, but the kids make discoveries by accident, and it can turn out really visually exciting.”

Being a business owner and teacher places a high demand on Ruby’s time, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I juggle a busy life. I’m always working, but I love all sides of it. I love being engaged with the community through the school. I’ve met so many amazing students, and their parents. In some cases, the parents were students of Dad’s, and it’s so nice to have that connection.

“Ballarat is a great place – the beautiful landscape, the restaurants, the businesses and the people. There used to be such a belief that something needed to come from Melbourne to be any good, but it seems to have changed now.

“I just hope that people continue to support local businesses the way they have over the last 18 months. It’s so important to share that local story.”

You can learn more about Ruby at www.rubypilven.com or by following @rubypilven_ceramics on Instagram.

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