Marianna Massey Inspired by ancient pottery techniques, Osa Atoe hand carves and stamps her red clay pieces before firing them in a kiln.
Watching Osa Atoe at the potter's wheel in her breezy coastal studio, throwing clay to make delicate forms into stunning works of art, it's hard to imagine her former life as a musician in punk bands. But Atoe credits her edgier brand of artistry for her success. "My philosophy as a punk performer was that it's okay to make things that aren't perfect," she says. "It was less about technique, and I think having that background helped me live in the moment with pottery, rather than focusing on creating objects that were pretty."
Ask any of Atoe's admirers today, and they'll tell you pretty—or, rather, stunning—must be the by-product of her laid-back approach. Nine years after claiming her spot at the wheel on a whim with no intention of ever taking it beyond a hobby, she now has a blossoming career and has accumulated a bevy of Instagram followers (@potterybyosa). Making rich terra-cotta vessels doused in hand-mixed glazes from her garage studio in Sarasota, Florida, Atoe has found a niche for herself selling practical, food-safe wares—from coffee mugs and pitchers to butter dishes. "I describe my work as functional but decorative," she says. "It's important that everything I make can be used and can fit into anyone's home."
Robbie Caponetto Atoe's colorful clay pottery is both functional and beautiful in the home.
Much more than utilitarian, Atoe's work has flourished thanks to her distinctive signature style—one that developed organically but not entirely by accident. As the child of Nigerian immigrants, Atoe wasn't surprised when she found herself drawn to the earthen pigment of terra-cotta—a departure from the white clay used by many modern ceramists. "Looking at the land in Nigeria and the legacy of pottery there in general, it's all red clay," she explains.
While West African influences certainly find their way into her art, Atoe refuses to pigeonhole herself. Instead, she says her inspiration spans across the globe, from the meticulous hand carvings of Bronze Age European sculptures to the rugged combination of raw and glazed surfacing found in Native American pottery. For Atoe, who grew up outside Washington, D.C., it's a melting pot of international influences that feels, more than anything, like home. "Our lives as Americans are impacted by so many diverse cultural elements, from the food we eat to the music we listen to," she says. "So I feel like I'm actually making work that's very American."
Robbie Caponetto Atoe describes her work as “people centric,” fitting into everyday life more than just art galleries.
These days, Atoe's business success (her monthly collections usually sell out) allows her to focus her attention on the creative process. She even dabbles in other techniques like the practice of barrel firing, in which pieces are torched in steel barrels to yield a more rough-hewn aesthetic. Still, the artist has no plans of abandoning the "pretty" that's become synonymous with her work. "With punk, I spent so much time making music for a small subset of people," she says. "With pottery, my hope is to be more expansive. That's how I see my work operating—bridging gaps and having a more universal appeal."