The world of ceramic artist Veronika Horlik is where Katamari meets the forest

Interview with Veronika Horlik, winner of 2015's RBC Emerging Artist People's Choice Award.

RBC Emerging Artist People's Choice winner on her inspirations and the everyday joys of ceramic art

Veronika Horlik, winner of the 2015 RBC Emerging Artist People's Choice award, stands with her piece, PROUNS (SLASH), at Toronto's Gardiner Museum. (Courtesy of the Gardiner Museum)

Who is she?

On Friday, ceramic artist Veronika Horlik claimed the $10,000 prize at 2015's RBC Emerging Artist People's Choice Award for PROUNS (SLASH), beating her fellow finalists Derya Akay (Vancouver), David R. Harper (Toronto), Lisa Henriques (Vancouver) and Zane Wilcox (Regina).

The prize, now in its fifth year, is about celebrating new Canadian talent, but it also prides itself on challenging common ideas of what ceramic art can be. Horlik's sculpture can be viewed at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto through August 30 along with work by the other four finalists. If you're a gamer, you'll likely recognize it right away.

Imagine a real-life Katamari ball. It's gnarled and blackened — a toddler-sized knot of charred forest debris, or "slash" — poised as though it's ready to hurtle through space, or at least, smack into a leafy bull's eye hung high on a gallery wall. 

The Katamari ball is an obvious pop-cultural cue, but far from her biggest influence. Though she's based in Montreal, where she teaches at McGill University and runs her own studio, Studio de céramique Alexandra, Horlik spent13 seasons as a treeplanter in the Canadian North, an experience that deeply informs her art work, PROUNS (SLASH) included.

The seeds of an idea

In 2008, when Horlik went back to school for a masters in ceramics, she had to quit seasonal work in the bush.

"I couldn't run away from the city or artistic life for two to four months because I needed to be thinking about my studio practice all year round." But, she says, "those landscapes, those experiences are going to be with me forever."

She recalls what it was like to stand in a logged landscape, recently swept by forest fires. "When the treeplanters go in, you're confronted by this debris that's very jarring because it looks like ulcers, big ulcers spotting the land," she says.

"When you look at the tree stumps they seem like something that fell from the sky, rather than forest remnants. They feel very surreal."

That otherworldly devastation is mixed with vibrant bursts of regrowth, and Horlik recalls the colour as being "effervescent."

"I would take pictures and my fellow treeplanters would just be like 'Oh my god, she's taking pictures again,'" she says, laughing.

"But I couldn't help but find some beauty in it, and how the regeneration is interlocked with devastation. Nature doesn't stop."

That theme of continuous death and regrowth is alive in PROUNS (SLASH). Literal reminders of the reforestation process surround the anchor piece, an over-sized "Katamari ball" of ceramic slash. Photos of the logging process, treeplanters, and other signs of industry are printed on colourful wood panels that intersect the gnarled sphere.

That knotty texture? It's a hat-tip to the raw landscape of the great outdoors. "When you're in the woods, it's just vast. There are no walls anywhere. There are no smooth textures anywhere," Horlik says. "So in my work, even with my functional work, I strive to create an irregular texture for your hands to touch."

"To be able to live and breathe and work and eat in the woods in northern Canada is such a privilege. To know our landscape in that way, not just driving through it but living there, and working there — to have your fingers in the soil, 3,000 times a day. The silence at night, the darkness. All of it. Everything. It's something most people don't have access to."

But what's all this about Katamari?

Horlik isn't a gamer. She doesn't even play Katamari. Still, the story behind the popular video game became an unlikely inspiration. About five years ago, while studying at the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design, she was crafting ceramic spheres — not unlike the one in PROUNS (SLASH) — when a friend came by the studio.

"He said, 'Oh! They're Katamari balls!' And I didn't know what that was. He told her, and she instantly dug the concept.

For the uninitiated, Katamari is about a prince who must rebuild his universe by rolling balls across the surface of the earth. The balls pick up everything they touch, from houses to mountains, growing increasingly enormous until they are kicked into space, becoming new stars and planets.

"I love the legend of the game, it's very poetic and beautiful," Horlik says. "This idea of creating a new universe using terrestrial material is what I find kind of enchanting. To imagine that! Especially working in ceramics, I think about the material and how long it's going to be on the planet."

For the love of clay

Ancient ceramics are still with us, and Horlik enjoys how works created today become part of that lineage. But she has lots more reasons to love clay. She thrives on the process itself — the fact you need to be constantly learning new skills and concepts, from geology and chemistry to the finer points of kiln-repair. "I like being a savvy craftsperson," she says.

If there's one thing Horlik wants you to know about ceramic art, it's this: "I would love people to know that it exists! That it's existed for so long, and it's not separate from our life.

"It's not art that you need to be in some other kind of mind-frame or temperament or knowledge level to connect with. You can use it for everything from dishes to sewer pipes. I mean, our toilet bowls are ceramic. It's everywhere around us.

"I would love for people to be awakened to it."

RBC Emerging Artist People's Choice Award Reimagining Clay. Featuring David R. Harper, Derya Akay, Lisa Henriques, Veronika Horlik, Zane Wilcox. To August 30 at the Gardiner Museum. 111 Queen's Park, Toronto.