Mayra Sergio on Coffee, Olive Oil & Pulverised Residue

Sergio is an artist who has developed many new processes through experimentation, trial and error, intrigue, looking to process grief, build belonging, and being very open to happy accidents

What interests you about crafts?

There are many levels to my interest in crafts: intuitive, conceptual and philosophical.

My interest in craft has always existed, so it is very intuitive. If I look back in my life I was always "crafts prone". Always making collages, objects, and painting from a very young age. When I started developing my autonomous practice then I began to reflect on it conceptually: the historical, and ritualistic aspects of it. Lately I've been developing a growing philosophical appreciation of it: in a time we are urged to produce non stop and in a world so full of “things” I believe there is a stubborn beauty in the time and care it takes to craft something.

You mentioned you have previously worked with brick-making and weaving, I would love to hear more about this

Often in my work, craftsmanship, narrative and performance emerge together.

I've been invested in learning different techniques, then shifting its context and expanding its meaning. Sometimes that also includes creating new tools .

For the installation “The Landscape Crossing an Ocean” I collected fragments from my hometown Rio de Janeiro: residues of natural landscape, food, religious objects, bricks, sidewalk, and more. In the Netherlands, the collected items went through different techniques of pulverization. The resulting powders were used as pigments and were silk-screened onto paper. By relocating, fragmenting, and recomposing these objects, I intended to appropriate the landscape; creating a meditative metaphor for cultural integration and social adaptation.

My graduation project, "Sensorial Shelter", started as an investigation of what brings a sense of belonging to people. As a foreigner, I started questioning how the spaces and objects around me interfere with that feeling. I was intrigued by how food carries a highly evocative power that enables one to feel ‘at home’ through the physical ritual of preparing it: its look, smell and taste. A mug of coffee can be stronger in making one feel at home than any built architecture. With that in mind I decided to create coffee architecture. So I started researching different techniques for brick making.

Based on a model I found online to make dry-pressed bricks I built a brick making machine that would suit the dimension I knew the coffee ground could handle. A lot of trial and error went into it until I had the recipe to create bricks that don't perish and are strong enough to be piled up. Whenever I’m making bricks in my studio for an exhibition, you can smell it from very far away. Most people had a very visceral response to the smell, I think most of us have memories related to the smell of coffee. But it drove some people mad as well. The concierge of my former studio said he couldn't sleep because of my bricks! To be fair to him I was making 600 of them for an exhibition.

What draws you to clay?

It all started as an issue. For my work, "Uprooting/Downrooting”, I created an installation that consists of a root system made of tubes; where olive oil flowed, being pumped up and down. The roots come out of the ceiling and reach floor level where each branch drips into different vessels that belong to various geographies and time lines. Shortly after the opening I got a call from the Museum Het Valkhof, saying that we are having a problem with the installation.

One of the elements of the installation was a big ceramic amphora that contained fifteen litres of olive oil that was being pumped into the system. Because the amphora was not glazed, its body became soaked with the oil and started acting as a membrane. Droplets of olive oil passed through the amphora’s walls, slowly but steadily sweating its content. I became fascinated with this "problem" and proposed to curator Mariel Stel that we allow this to go on and added a brass plate under the vessel to collect the sweat oil.

From that phenomena I started investigating porosity in ceramics. I was sculpting sculptural vessels with earthware and firing it very low. And that’s how I caught the clay fever! Like an obsession almost, wanting to be in the studio for hours and hours, trying things, learning.

Then I went through very hard personal times, where I didn't have either the physical or mental energy to engage with keeping up a career in the art world: all the net working, putting oneself out there, the urge to be always producing. I just couldn't do it. But going to the studio and working with clay kept me afloat somehow, kept me sane. Ironically through a hard time, working with clay made me feel a pleasure long forgotten in my practice: the sheer joy of making itself. I think there's luck in finding such an "obsession", a bit like finding love.

How do you feel that materials can help to tell stories?

So far in my practice I've investigated different crafts as storytelling devices.

I carved a canoe out of a tree trunk for the video installation “The Voluntary Psychopomp” as a way to process the grief for my father’s death. I made coffee bricks as an attempt to build a sense of belonging in the Netherlands.

Now, instead of using craftsmanship as narrative I felt inclined to become a craftswoman myself, to dedicate extensively to one craft. That demands discipline and so much trial and error.

But this is also a new freedom for me: coming from a design education with a conceptual scope, everything I created had to be justified, all the material and aesthetic choices.

Now I feel I’m exploring much murkier waters: I don’t have to justify clay as part of the concept of the work, but the work has to speak for itself, communicate more directly: to spark a feeling, a question or the imagination solely by its presence and not so much by its explanation. And there’s no recipe for that. So the storytelling comes down to color, texture, the dance between what is recognizable and what is abstract.

What materials are you currently working with?

I’m still invested in ceramic. I must say it was a bit daunting for a while. It is such an old medium, everything has been done already! It took me some time to start grasping something that felt specific to me. To feel I can add to the conversation somehow.

Right now I’m invested in creating a series of sculptures under the Trope of Paradise theme I mentioned in my email.

I’m working with a Japanese technique called nerikomi (I believe this technique has an figurative potential that hasn't been explored yet) and bringing to it elements of my cinema background*: Working with notions of cinematographic framing, storytelling and film genres like cinema noir for example.

*before moving to the Netherlands to study at the Rietveld I had a degree in Cinema Studies and worked for 5 years as a scenographer/art director at Rio.