Freedom of mind and heart | Sunday Observer
‘Ashes to Life’

Freedom of mind and heart

5 December, 2021

From today, December 5 on and the Galleryscapes Instagram and Facebook

Asela Abeywardena’s latest art exhibition ‘Ashes to Life’ is inspired by the story of the Phoenix rising from the ashes. After almost two years of being adversely affected by the pandemic, Asela’s latest collection is an attempt to get back on her feet or ‘rise from the ashes’ as a rejuvenated artist and wiser human being.

In an exclusive e-interview with Montage Asela said, “‘Ashes to Life’ is a celebration of that journey,” The pandemic gave Asela the time and space to re-think her priorities, appreciate nature and grow spiritually. ‘Ashes to Life’ could be viewed from today on and Galleryscapes Instagram and Facebook.

Ceramic artist

Asela started her artistic career as a painter. When she left Sri Lanka to live in Dubai, Asela thought of exploring new possibilities to broaden her artistic horizons. She joined an art school and took courses on ceramic pottery, wheel throwing and ceramic sculpture. These courses were taught by Micheal Rice and Katerina Smoldyreva who were internationally renowned ceramic artists.

The relationship she had with them inspired her to delve further into the art and science of ceramic making. Each one of them excelled in different techniques and had their own aesthetic philosophies. Asela’s interaction with them inspired her to search for her own ‘voice’ in ceramic art.

“I experimented on integrating wheel throwing and hand building whereas most ceramics artists use one or the other. My main medium was stoneware clay and I manipulated it with a variety of surface decoration techniques to create functional as well as decorative pieces. I am more interested in making sculptural one-of-a-kind pieces than multiple pieces which look alike. Because of this most of my pieces are either figurative sculptures or decorative vessels,” Asela said.


It is quite fascinating to walk through the process of ceramic sculpture and as Asela explained by walking me through how she cuts, shapes, fits, joins, molds, or otherwise processes materials, using hand tools, power tools, and machinery. She said she uses diverse techniques depending on the concept.

Conceptualisation is an integral part of the process for her as she uses her work to express herself. When a concept comes to her mind she does a write up with a basic sketch and decides how to go about the process.

“My style is usually very fragmented and I give importance to negative space. At times I throw (make) a vessel on the pottery wheel and then carve or add coils or pieces of clay to create a sculptural piece. Then there are times when I straight away build a figure using clay slabs. This is usually the case with figurative work. Sometimes I use molds to get a certain shape and then carve out or add clay. I use a varied range of hand held tools for carving and to get various textures. I use a heat gun when I need to dry the clay faster or to obtain a crackled effect,” she said.

After the clay is formed much thought has to go for surface decoration. Usually Asela uses glaze or terra sigillata to get the desired colours or effects. There are times when she experiments with integrating glass with ceramic as well. For the clay to become a stoneware (ceramic) piece it has to go through two firing processes in a kiln: the first to about 1060 degrees centigrade and the second to about 1260 degrees centigrade.

Artists use different firing techniques and kilns such as electric, gas or wood. Asela uses an electric kiln due to safety and reliability. Usually it is difficult to anticipate the final outcome until the piece is fully fired and cooled.

“There are times when pieces explode inside the kiln or the glaze gives a completely different look than the expected. A ceramic artist needs to be able to be very flexible with expectations,” she says.


Talking about the most challenging part of selecting materials for use, based on strength, colour, texture, balance, weight, size, malleability and other characteristics, Asela thinks that the selection of clay is quite challenging.

Asela says that there are many varieties of stoneware clay and what works well for wheel throwing might not work very well for hand building. Therefore, it is essential for an artist to test the clay. Selection of glazes also could be a daunting task. Test pieces need to be fired with glaze before trying out glaze combinations on the actual pieces. She usually likes to surprise herself with combining different glazes and seeing unanticipated outcomes.

Another challenge she faces is with strength and balance. As she likes to do fragmented pieces, she has to ensure that they are strong and not too fragile. Throughout her journey Asela had many instances in which the pieces broke while trying to place it inside the kiln.

“I also have to keep in mind the size of the kiln chamber when making the items. I usually draw a kiln plan of how to place the pieces and decide on the sizes beforehand. Pieces which are too thick could explode in the kiln.

“It is of utmost importance to make sure that the clay is well wedged to remove any air bubbles or impurities before the making process starts. Air bubbles could cause cracks or explosions when fired. The desired malleability depends on the respective technique.

“Usually wheel throwing requires more malleable, soft, clay whereas hand building with slabs needs coarser, harder, less malleable clay for upright structures. With experience, a ceramicist gets to know how to manipulate all these variables,” Asela said.

Her hands

Outlining her recent experience working with her hands, for her latest collection that she will exhibit with Galleryscapes, Asela tried out some very organic forms which she later integrated with natural material such as tree branches. She wanted this collection to be inspired by the textures of nature such as tree barks and rocks. So she deliberately tried to get the cracked effects and textured effects using paper clay (paper dipped in liquid clay).

Asela also tried out some new methods such as adding dried, thin, layers on to wet clay and forming them to take on weathered effects and she is quite pleased with the outcomes.

“When working with clay, you realise that your hands are tools like any other tool. It’s the heart and the mind which do the formation and the hands automatically follow the thought processes and emotions,” Asela said poetically.

Think outside the box

Asela’s entire work stems from thinking outside the box and it always enhances her creativity and also explores new dimensional shapes. From the very inception she believed in creating designs based on her own concepts.

All the concepts are based on her personal worldview, ideology and philosophy. She does not believe in copying or even resembling anyone else’s work. She starts a piece with a story she has in her head.

She believes in flexibility, so even if she sketches, after she takes a lump of clay into her hands, she lets the clay form according to her thoughts or feelings at that time. Asela dislikes rigidity or wanting an outcome exactly as envisaged at the beginning.

She’s a strong believer of freedom of the mind and heart when making art objects.

“I think creating artwork gives one the freedom which is otherwise a luxury in day-to-day life. I allow myself to be liberated from as many inhibitions as I possibly can. When I work, after a while I begin to sense the rhythm and the flow of that particular piece: it is somewhat like listening to a tune. If I listen carefully the clay guides me and the process and the outcome becomes organic as opposed to forced,” Asela said. Undoubtedly there’s a certain uniqueness in Asela’s work where each piece has its own distinct dimensional shape and textures, as she says even she cannot replicate even if she wants to.

Social media

Asela often advertises her creations and work on social media, and she believes it is a good way to connect with artistes across the world and to display the work. She gains many insights from other ceramicists who appreciate or criticise her work.

She also gets feedback from people who are art enthusiasts and she appreciates those remarks as she values how ordinary people could be affected by art. Asela believes that art is for all and not only for collectors, curators or galleries.

Though she is very happy when collectors or curators respond to her art, she is equally overwhelmed with joy when someone who is outside of the art world remarks on how a piece had moved him or her.

“I think the connectivity which social media provides is valuable for an artist and so far my art has been well received in many spheres because of social media. Recently, three curators from Miami, China, and Korea selected my work for international exhibitions after seeing my work on social media,” Asela said.

Attention to detail

Asela recalls her piece ‘Flowing and the Still’ which won the first ever Dubai Ceramic Award in 2017 as the most profound experience in which attention to detail and thoroughness had an impact on her creations. It was a piece made with a vessel which was thrown on the wheel and later integrated with a figurative form.

Asela paid much attention to combining the two techniques in a way that the overall movement or the rhythm was not disrupted. The female torso was meticulously sculpted and joined with the vessel. Then the form was carved and strips of clay were added to indicate attire. The surface was left very smooth with an off-white satin matte finish by applying a liquid clay solution called terra sigillata which is made out of very fine clay particles.

The awards ceremony was organised by the American University of Dubai in conjunction with Dubai Design Week. The panel of judges comprise Magdalene Odundo (OBE), one of the most renowned ceramic artists in the world and also the then Vice Chancellor of the University of Creative Arts, UK.

Asela never expected her work to win the first prize. When Ms. Odundo gave the reasons for selection, her remark was “This is a piece which flawlessly depicts classical as well as contemporary aesthetics. The artist has uplifted the medium of ceramics to resemble a classical medium such as marble. She has also combined the main techniques of ceramics, wheel-throwing and hand-building to create a sculptural piece while retaining elements of both techniques.”


It was from Prof. Sarath Chandrajeewa that Asela formally learnt painting. His mentoring allowed her to broaden and deepen her conceptual abilities. Instead of copying an object, Asela learnt to visualise a story or an ideology and depict it with paint on a canvas.

“I am grateful to Prof. Chandrajeewa for unearthing that ability and honing my skills,” Asela said with gratitude.

Professor of Visual Communication at the American University of Dubai and an internationally renowned ceramic artist, Micheal Rice, inspired Asela to think of wheel thrown pottery not only as functional pieces but expressive art work.

Seeing his own practice in which he used the wheel to create conceptual, contemporary art pieces which were exhibited all over the world, encouraged Asela to think of her own practice in a broader and deeper manner.

It was from Micheal that she first learnt about the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi Sabi: the art of imperfection, incompleteness, and imperfection. Eventually Wabi Sabi would greatly influence her style and aesthetics.

Katerina Smoldyreva, introduced Asela to ceramic sculpture, hand building techniques and the vast science of glazing. She understood Asela’s philosophical viewpoints and she supported her to express those through the medium of ceramics. The engaging discussions on artists and art history enabled Asela to enrich her conceptualisation and creativity.

Online platforms

Asela strongly believes that online platforms are the future. During the pandemic the brick and mortar galleries were compelled to close due to lockdowns and that gave the online platforms the opportunity to thrive.

Asela’s latest exhibition is represented by Galleryscapes, an online gallery managed by people who are passionate about art and who genuinely care about supporting artists. It’s a relatively new gallery in Sri Lanka but they have established a sought out collection and steady clientele.

“Their commitment and support is based on true human values such as loyalty, kindness and gratitude and thus it is very easy for me to relate to them. I am thrilled to be a part of their journey,” said Asela.