Woody De Othello Is on a Quest to ‘Simplify Sculpture’

The artist's works are currently on view in "Faith Like a Rock" at Stephen Friedman Gallery in London.

Woody De Othello, 2024. Courtesy of Woody De Othello Studio.

Working in a studio in Richmond, California, artist Woody De Othello transforms everyday objects into anthropomorphic forms imbued with a powerful sense of spirit. The artist (b.1991) has a wide-ranging practice including glazed ceramic, carved wood, bronze, ink, and oil paint, and draws inspiration from myriad sources, like the animistic nkisi of Central Africa and the Dagara cosmology of sub-Saharan Africa.  

Right now, “Faith Like a Rock,” the artist’s debut exhibition with Stephen Friedman Gallery is now on view in London (through May 19) and offers a window into Othello’s multifaceted practice in its current moment. Installed in evocative mise-en-scènes, the sculptures presented range from kneeling figures that harken to the ancient world to ceramic vessels with faces instilled with ritual or healing purposes. At other times a household object, a mirror or hammer, is transformed into a powerful cipher.  

Othello’s connection to the earth, and to clay, is at the root of the power of his artworks. He sees the medium as a site of communion with history and ancestry, in which he can connect to nature and heal the wounds of the past. Coinciding with the exhibition, we recently caught up with the artist who shared a glimpse of his works in progress and told us why he hopes to simplify ceramics.  

interior of a ceramic studio with long wood table and ceramic vessels resting upon it

Inside Woody De Othello’s studio, 2024. Courtesy of Woody De Othello Studio.

Tell us about your studio. How does it compare to other studios you’ve had? Where is it and what kind of space is it?

I’ve been in this current studio since February 2020. This is definitely the most space I’ve ever had. It’s about 2,000 square feet and located in Richmond—which is a 20-minute drive from my home in Oakland. It’s actually inside a storage facility, so it’s essentially an oversized garage with no insulation. It gets hot like a toaster oven in the summer and super cold in the winter. Working in ceramics typically means being in communal spaces, so previously it was a lot of waiting for things to get fired in the kiln, collective clean up, and whatnot. This is the first space that I’ve had to myself. I’ve enjoyed working in a shared studio environment in the past but I am grateful for the freedom I have now.

a ceramic sculpture, a vessel, showing a face with large ears, the face is upside down, and the entire vessel is a blue color

A work in progress by Woody De Othello. Courtesy of Studio of Woody De Othello.

Your exhibition “Faith Like a Rock” is on view at Stephen Friedman right now—can you tell me about that title and the works in the show? How does faith operate in an artistic practice?

Faith is huge in the way that I’ve been trying to operate in my life. It doesn’t only apply to artistic practice. It’s the main tenant in my marriage, in my relationships with friends, family, and the community in which I live. It’s the thing that’s propelling me forward. There are so many things to be down about and having faith that tomorrow will bring better days, joy, happiness, and hope is how I’m trying to navigate. That’s where faith comes in. A rock is something tangible, solid, something hard to break down so having “Faith like a Rock” is a reminder that no matter what, faith will preside and remain.

The works in the show have a devotional quality. There are a lot of symbols of hope. The birds that appear are a reminder to look up. I’ve learned that in the Dagara cosmology, birds are thought to be closest to the heavens and that in Yoruba, Osanyin is a healing deity and is characterized by a bird on a shaft—the birds signify one’s mind and the carrying of prayers to the havens and Gods. There are a number of kneeling forms that reference different African sculptures, specifically Djenne and Dogon statutes, which to me symbolize being in reverence of something greater than oneself. Hands are face up showing palms, ready and open to receive. Ears are listening intently. The paintings are lush, referencing the healing qualities of nature.

a ceramic sculpture in progress, abstract forms that are anthromorphic, almost like limbs, but with an ear and trumpet shape emerging

A work in progress by Woody De Othello. Courtesy of Studio of Woody De Othello.

What are you working on right now?

Right now I’m just getting my footing back from being in London for the show with Stephen Friedman. I’m taking things very slowly, getting organized, drawing, reading and just getting in sync with my amazing and supportive studio team. My goal for the next round of works is to simplify sculpture in a way. I’m trying to challenge myself with forms that feel novel. I’m obsessed with trying to make ceramics more transparent because it’s such an opaque medium. I’ve been asking myself “How am I able to see through that form?” I’ve also been really wanting to incorporate more wood into the vocabulary of the practice. I’m thinking about how Arlene Shechet and Theaster Gates use wood in their practices and how insanely good it looks. Thaddeus Mosely and his work is also on my mind. Really, right now I guess I’m just trying to experiment.

How do you balance ceramic work and painting? Do these practices inform each other? What can you express in each that you can’t in the other?  

It is tough to balance! Ceramics are so demanding and take up a lot of space both mentally and physically. I use clay every day, it will always be a constant. Painting usually happens in spurts and almost functions like a break for my body. It’s difficult to use both mediums on the same day. Maybe I need to create more space for that.

Painting and drawing feel like an experience that is more open for me, where I can take more risks. Ceramics and sculpture on the other hand are where I need to be more deliberate. Different shapes, colors, forms, and space become visible in drawing and painting that bleed into the ceramics.

tables inside a ceramic studio with test strips with glazing colors hanging from the wall

Inside Woody De Othello’s studio, 2024. Courtesy of Woody De Othello Studio.

What kind of atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Is there anything you like to listen to/watch/read/look at etc. while in the studio for inspiration or as ambient culture? 

In the ceramics studio, I work with three amazing assistants at any given time. It’s pretty active there, we’re normally playing music and conversing. There’s a lot of communication. We also share a wall with a woodworker so he’s often in there playing tunes, using some type of equipment, and cussing up a storm. Sometimes he plays his guitar which is really beautiful.

If I’m in the ceramics studio alone late or on the weekends I’m probably playing chill sounds like jazz, new age, or something ambient. I’ve really been listening to the Alice Coltrane The Carnegie Hall Concert album and very mellow frequencies at the moment, a lot of calming music like Foday Musa Suso, Laraaji, Emahoy but Milton Nascimento is always in the mix. I feel like that gives me the space to think although I do love podcasts so I tether back and forth depending on my mood. I paint in my home studio, which I share with my wife, so there’s always company around unless I’m working well into the evening.

When you feel stuck while preparing for a show, what do you do to get unstuck?
I take a break and get outside in nature somewhere, usually go on a nice hike or run, maybe ride my bike and make a nice meal. I try to make sure I get the proper rest and keep faith that something will turn out.

What tool or art supply do you enjoy working with the most, and why?
My hands, it’s the thing God has blessed me with and I’m forever thankful for them.

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