Wheel of Fortune

S itting on a bench in her local home studio, ceramicist Kiara Matos explains the allure of clay. “I feel almost like it picked me,” she says. “I can’t stay away from it. I can’t stop making things.”

Her mother felt the call, too, and Matos grew up playing in the pottery studio her mother built. Her teenage years brought focus—“I decided to dive into it more seriously,” she says—while her first year in college brought inspiration. After seeing a craft show in Florida, Matos was “blown away… I dropped out of school because there was no way to study ceramics artistically” at her college. Instead, “I just looked for people with whom I could apprentice. I’ve been apprenticing ever since. I’m still apprenticing.”

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Few who have seen her work would think of her as an apprentice. Matos walks me through the finished products on her shelves, both decorative and functional. Her designs are minimal but lush with color. Juicy pinks, tart oranges and creamy greens pool at the bottoms of white bowls, scale the ribbed sides of vases and march along in grids inspired by the modernist, color-obsessed work of Josef Albers.

“Venezuela is color,” Matos says of her native country, which also serves as the inspiration behind her aesthetic: “modern meets the tropics.” The hues of Venezuela are restrained and made modern by the country’s architecture, which Matos says was built primarily in the ’50s, and is “almost Nordic, very clean.”

In addition to being beautiful, Matos’s designs are thoughtful. She has a collection of mugs with thumb-sized indentations in the sides in lieu of handles, and her vases have small openings because flowers are more expensive in America than they are in Venezuela, where she used to make much larger creations.

There are also purely decorative pieces. Smooth birds with gold-glazed beaks look so symmetrical and smooth it’s a shock to hear that she makes them free hand out of a slab of clay, which she folds “almost like an empanada.” In her human figure work, avians show up again, miniaturized, on sleek bodies and heads modeled after inspirations as far-flung as Miguel de Cervantes and Coco Chanel. While Matos sells her work, which ranges in price from $25 to $400, in local stores as well as on Etsy, she says she loves it when shoppers make an appointment with her to walk through the studio and pick what they like.

After a tour, Matos shows me how it’s made. It begins with a handful of clay, dim-colored and putty-textured, which she kneads like dough, getting air bubbles out and distributing moisture evenly. Then, she throws it onto the wheel, where, with wet hands, she pinches and molds the clay as it grows—seemingly magically, exceptionally quickly—from a squat nub to a tall, elegant vase.

Next comes the first firing in one of her two kilns, at a temperature of 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, followed by the glazing, which determines the finish and is the most time-consuming part of the job. Matos makes all her own glazes from silica and powder pigments, and even though she says she’s got her “materials and chemistry” down pat, the final product can still be a surprise. “Opening the kiln is either like opening the door of a candy store or it’s the worst day of your life,” Matos says with a laugh.

Shapely, colorful and enticing, candy seems an apt metaphor indeed.

Kiara Matos
kiaramatos@me.com
Website | Etsy Shop

Written by Sorrel Westbrook. Photos 1-4 by Sorrel Westbrook. Photos 5-9 by Dan Mims.

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Sorrel is a California transplant to New Haven. She studied English at Harvard and fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She spends her free time among her house rabbits and houseplants, looking at maps of Death Valley. She loves New England for its red brick and rainstorms and will travel great distances in pursuit of lighthouses and loud music.

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