The word “ceramic” often invokes mental images of stately vases, glazed plates and earthen jugs. However, Justine Ferreri sculpts an entire world all her own, populated with fantasy creatures and capricious figures, created using the same techniques and materials. Every piece is infused with a sense of narrative driven by her distinctly vibrant imagination.
“People say, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’” Ferreri quips. “And I say, ‘Where the hell can you not get ideas? I have a million of them!’”
If anything, Ferreri has more ideas than she has time to cast them in clay.
Part of her unique approach stems from an unorthodox introduction to sculpture. Having no formal training, she was a restaurant owner instead. Justine’s became a mainstay of 1980s Wilmington art and jazz culture. But it wasn’t strictly business with Ferreri, as she took creative measures in an attempt to liven the ambiance of one of her locations.
“I made papier-mâché people eating in the restaurants,” Ferreri reminisces. “Then a gallery asked me to make some papier-mâché for them. From there I tried to make it in clay and I just fell in love with it. You know how you feel as though you’ve done something before in another life? It just felt so good. It’s soothing. It’s like what I’m supposed to do.”
Such off-beat creative marketing sent Ferreri down a different road, which has culminated in a 25-year-long career. She’s now in the studio as a full-time artist. “I went nuts one day and closed [all the restaurants],” she exclaims. “Now I do art for a living!”
Galleries all over North Carolina house her work, as well as others in New York, Philadelphia, Kansas, and Miami. But Wilmington holds a special place in her heart, as the root of her artistic journey, and so she maintains a local presence. “I feel blessed to travel all over the country with my work,” she adds.
Despite Ferreri’s independent introduction to the art form, her work is no less professional or thematically apt than a university-trained ceramicist. Any possible drawbacks emerging from her self-tutelage are completely bowled over by her commanding imagination.
“I don’t want to be the sculptor who makes beautiful things,” she proclaims. “I want to be the sculptor that makes interesting things—things that are provocative and make you think.”
In her 25 years of ceramics, Ferreri has conjured a seemingly endless supply of figures and scenes exemplifying almost every entry in the thesaurus for “surreal.” Multicolored mushrooms burst open at the seams, with human faces emerging, while a four-eyed snail smiles charmingly at a troupe of dancing birds clad in Day-Glo tutus with matching plumage.
A slightly subtler piece displays her love of theatricality, and shows an actor gazing heavenward, while a performance of “Romeo and Juliet” takes place within the space of her dress, open below her waist.
Another pays homage to the Japanese holiday Children’s Day, and depicts a boy riding a giant carp to the stars, where legends say he’ll become a dragon-rider once he reaches them.
All of the seemingly disparate interests are part of Ferreri’s life story. A Japanese-born American, she spent her formative years living in the festive boardwalk atmosphere of Wildwood, New Jersey. “It’s funny because I grew up in a carnival town and think my work has a carnival look to it,” she reminisces. “I do a lot of gestures that are quirky from being on the boardwalk.”
But Ferreri doesn’t settle for “quirky” or the oft-overused “whimsical.” Listening to people describe her work, she has heard everything under the sun and is ready to retort against a sideways comment. “I always have 15 words I use, like, ‘You mean it’s ‘chimerical,’” she laughs. “‘Is it quizzical?’”
However, one of Ferreri’s unconventional qualities detract from her professionalism. She devotes ample time to achieve myriad colors, textures and glazes in each piece, and often embellishes them with 14-karat gold—an element especially evident in her newest collection. Ferreri hoists herself up onto the shoulders of a giant in the annals of art history.
“It’s a take-off on Gustav Klimt’s paintings,” Ferreri elaborates. “I try to take his paintings and make them into a sculptural form, but it’s not at all like his work. The best form of flattery is to be copied, but I don’t consider myself copying. I’m just taking what he started and making it even more interesting.”
Anyone with even a glancing familiarity of Klimt’s expressive paintings will see a sense of flattery throughout Ferreri’s work. Clay men and women reach outward with yearning arms, all in gilded Viennese textures. One of her pieces echoes Klimt’s famous portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer—a wealthy young woman enrobed in golden geometry as it dissolves into a flattened background. Her hands clasp pensively at her chest as she stares wistfully at the viewer. Ferreri plucks Adele from Klimt’s flattened, gilded environment and lets her stand freely in the round. Arcane shapes fill her dress, with triangular eyes, scribbled rectangles, and gemstone protrusions, destroying any hints of monotony. With no background to dissolve into, Adele’s dress reaches out behind her and swoops up to her neck, and lends a newfound sense of depth to Klimt’s familiar flatness.
The pieces represent a step in an altogether different direction for Ferreri as she continues to reinvent herself. “That’s the most important thing about a job or whatever we do,” she explains. “Four years ago I totally changed my concept of how I do things, and since then it’s been amazing how much more accepted my work is. I sell a lot more than I used to. A lot of it is fun because I don’t even have to wear my glasses to do it anymore! I like to paint outside the line. It’s much more freeing. I used to be that person painting in the lines where everything’s perfect, but now I’m the total opposite. Even the faces were meticulously perfect; now I like it when one eye’s a little bigger.”
Ferreri’s new Klimt-inspired work will be on display at Eclipse Artisan Boutique following a meet-and-greet. “I might even bring some clay and do some demo,” she beams. “People really love to watch, especially when I make hands because I make them so fast. They’re so expressive, they’re the most important part of the body I think.”