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Southern Makers: Osa Atoe

Southern Makers: Osa Atoe
Written by Boyce Upholt | Photography by Marianna Massey

Southern Ceremonies

Early in her career as a potter, Osa Atoe sold a batch of flatware to the Ace Hotel in New Orleans. She would visit the rooftop bar and delight to see citrus stacked atop her plates. These days, though, she doesn’t sell to restaurants. As a single potter working by hand, she can’t produce at the volume required. And restaurants need dishes that are cheap enough to be replaced when broken. “That’s not really what this is for,” Atoe says. Instead, she envisions her work as serving the modern at-home diner.

Atoe lives with her husband, Joey, on a quiet street in Baton Rouge; a student at Louisiana State University, Joey heads home most days so they can eat lunch together. But these are almost always informal meals. “A lot of the time we eat out of our laps,” Atoe says. “Very rarely are we setting a table with place settings.” She makes an oversized mug, for example, that is suitable for a big cup of coffee, but also for a meal of spaghetti to eat in front of the TV after a long day. In this modern age, she says, “a lot of people don’t have time for place settings anymore. I end up making pottery for that.”

Atoe had a former life as a punk rocker in Portland, Oregon, but moved to New Orleans in 2009, seeking a more settled life. She found work in a coffee shop, and one of her colleagues was taking pottery classes. Atoe signed up, too. She became obsessed immediately, heading home after class to spend hours watching YouTube videos of potters at the wheel. Now, working from a sunny garage studio in Baton Rouge, Atoe is a full-time potter, selling via her Etsy page and at art shows in Louisiana and in Austin, Texas.

Despite her humble eat-at-home aspirations, Atoe creates pottery that is elegant and distinct: striking terracotta with simple geometric motifs and pastel glazes. A few years after she got started, Atoe visited Nigeria, where her parents are from. She was familiar with Nigerian red-clay pottery traditions—which have some overlap with her own style—but as the plane descended, she saw a web of red-dirt paths. The form, she saw, is rooted in the land.

Her own pottery reflects a more peripatetic life. Atoe took her first pottery class in 2013, as a 34-year old. She had moved to Louisiana four years earlier. “I wasn’t really all that impressionable,” she says. “I already had a fully formed idea of myself. Part of me thinks that I’d probably be making this kind of work no matter where I lived. I think it’s more an expression of who I am internally rather than my outer world.”

There is just one piece on her Etsy store she considers locally inspired: an elegant, shallow bowl with scalloped edges. Given her home base, Atoe decided to dub these gumbo dishes. “And truth be told—in my kitchen, I use them for, like, everything,” she says, from pasta to rice to breakfast.

An anthropologist once asked Atoe if, given her Nigerian roots, her work preserved African culture. Atoe studied sociology in college, and that training kicked in: “I was problematizing that so much,” she says. “Like, what is African culture? There are so many cultures in Africa.” She notes that when it comes to labels, we tend to simplify, rather than acknowledge the full diversity within any given term. “I was born and raised here, in the United States,” she says. She’s spent her life exposed to a jumble of cultures. “I just think it’s silly to essentialize me in that way.”

“I’ve looked at Japanese Bronze Age pottery. I’ve looked at Anglo-Saxon pottery from a similar era.” These all have similar geometric motifs. So, too, do local Native basket-weaving traditions. Atoe claims influences that are West African, Ethiopian, Greek. “I’d rather just call it American,” she says. “Because that’s what America is—a mutt culture.”

Her intention—to make beautiful pottery that is suitable for a dinner eaten out of your lap—requires a careful balance. At $50 for a mug, or $125 for a pair of plates, this work is an investment, in both Atoe as an independent artisan and in the value of a seemingly mundane moment in one’s life. Around a third of Atoe’s orders are gifts, she says, which allows the act of eating to become a moment of connection. The carved texture of the clay in a hand is a tactile reminder that this is not a commodity bought off a shelf at Walmart, but an object created by another human being. So bowl in lap, TV flickering: it becomes a ceremony. These busy days, no matter our background, that’s something we can all use.

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