Into the Depth of the Surface: Maiyan Ben Yona’s ceramic art

Her first solo exhibition is at the Periscope Gallery in Tel Aviv this December.

Ceramic artist Maiyan Ben Yona (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ceramic artist Maiyan Ben Yona
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The ceramic creations of Maiyan Ben Yona look like they could shiver and undulate at the slightest underwater current even though they are firm to the touch after two days in a 1,240º kiln.
If you plan to visit her first solo exhibition at the Periscope Gallery in Tel Aviv this December (through January 2), you might take a metaphorical pair of goggles and fins and dive into a magical underwater world. Her curious “creatures,” as she calls them, look like they have just been discovered at the very bottom of the deepest ocean.
Ben Yona stretches the limits of a medium that is as old as human experimentation with earth, water and fire.
“I am constantly searching and playing,” she says.  “It intrigues me to see how far I can take the materials and create new techniques.”
Ben Yona’s ceramics studio in the Kiryat Hamelacha section of Tel Aviv, a gritty industrial area taken over by artists and galleries, is overflowing with the more commercial side of her ceramic work- vases, plates, cups, candle holders- all decorated in a panoply of colors. They are on shelves, tables, on the floor.
We adjourn for the interview to a sofa and chair in the corridor. Her dream after the army was to move to the desert and make goat cheese. This is her third year in the Tel Aviv studio.

In contrast to her multi-colored functional ware, her compelling creatures are rendered in raw black clay and delicate white porcelain, as if deprived of sunlight in the depths.
“I decided to go with no color because the minute color enters the picture, it takes the focus,” she says. “I wanted to leave room for the nuances. There is a sensation of life and movement, even though the clay is dead. There is not a drop of life in it, but people say it makes them think of something soft like fur. They want to touch it.” Ben Yona, 34, was drawn to ceramics and crafts as far back as she can remember. Her mother, who immigrated to Israel from England, still uses the clay Hanukkah menorah Ben Yona made in kindergarten.
“I feel like ceramics were always there for me,” she says. “It was clear that crafts would be a part of my life and ceramics in particular.”

Growing up in a community on a hill overlooking the Lower Galilee, Mitzpe Mikhmanim, explains her love for nature and organic forms. She credits her path to art partly to her education in a school that follows the principals of anthroposophy where basket weaving was as important as mathematics.
“Without a doubt it influenced the way I think and look at things,” she says “Process as no less important than the goal. I learned to observe, to find my own way at my own pace, not from a place of competition or judgment.” Ben Yona studied with various ceramicists in Israel, including a stint in the Israeli desert, with a teacher in Mitzpe Ramon, but earned an academic degree at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem where she now teaches while working towards a master’s degree.
She credits ceramic artist and Bezalel teacher, Irit Abba, in inspiring her right from her first year to test the boundaries of matter.
A residency at the Benyamini Contemporary Ceramics Center brought her to Tel Aviv to the Kiryat Hamelacha neighborhood where she has stayed ever since.
Her exhibition is aptly named “Into the Depth of the Surface.”

Ben Yona takes the decorative patterns that ornament her utilitarian ceramic work – lines, swirls and circles – lifts them from the surface recreating them in three-dimensional space.
It is painstaking manual labor to hand roll hundreds of tiny cones, paper thin circles and shards. Each sculpture requires a different technique.
“Some I roll, others I squeeze, some are dripped like cake decorations, some are rolled out flat like dough and then I tear them by hand into bits. Each shape requires a different technique which gives them a unique character. Each is prepared by hand, and since there are hundreds, even thousands, it takes a long time and requires a lot of patience. It’s meditative work.” Once ready the small shards are burned in the kiln. Ben Yona prepares a core in black clay into the desired shape of the sculpture and while still soft, she sticks in hundreds of the porcelain shards into organic forms. Then, it’s into the kiln again for a final baking. The sculptures, informed by but resistant to their functional origin, are a study of contrasts, black and white, massive and fragile.
“Ben Yona attempts to create a new order in the realm of decorations in which she has been working for the last couple of years and to examine what happens to the object when the shapes which were meant to decorate it exceed the surface of the object,” says Galina Arbeli, the exhibition’s curator. “With this act of disassembling and rebuilding, she changes the general shape of known objects and creates a new inviting world.” Recognized as fine art only in the past 70 years when it began to  find its way into museum exhibitions, ceramic art is still often relegated to the category of decorative art or craft. The boundaries are a matter of dispute.
Is ceramics a craft or an art? It is a question one would never think to ask a painter or a sculptor.
“I don’t like tags and labels,” says Ben Yona. “But I feel most comfortable calling myself a ceramist. Today those boundaries are blurred. At the bottom line, I’m somewhere in the middle. There is something in my work from design and something from arts. I take a lump of something and create something new.”