Nastia Calaca on her charming animal sculptures, and the joy of teaching others and building a creative community

If you're a fan of ceramic art and love to discover new sculptors, then Nastia Calaca is about to become a highlight. The Ukrainian artist crafts charming, "fanciful" animals that wouldn't impress a stern zoologist but would raise a smile.

We first came across Nastia's work on Instagram, where she works under the name, Calaca Ceramic Art, and shares her weird and wonderful creatures: frogs, pandas, giraffes – although each has elements that you wouldn't normally associate with them. And they're often adorned in dapper attire.

Now based in the Netherlands, Nastia also runs an open studio in Haarlem where anyone can see her art and then create traditional or contemporary pieces of their own. We were curious to find out more about her artworks, her inspirations and her process.

Firstly, can you tell us more about these gorgeous sculptures?

Well, some of my creatures may not be immediately recognisable because their looks often differ from an "official" description. My panda bear might get a tail, a giraffe could sport a designer pattern on its back, or you could even see a cat with extra digits.

Given my somewhat misanthropic nature, I usually prefer portraying animals to people. Since I draw inspiration from people around me, my creations tend to resemble someone passing me on the way to the studio, a stranger at the bar, my family member, or that one guy who unwrapped his candy at the opera.

We love them. Talk us through your style.

My ceramics resemble 3D illustration combining the ordinary and whimsical, both every day and unexpected into singular creations. My works have already made a home in the United States, China, Sweden, England, Netherlands, and Ukraine. While some of the characters in my bestiary have been reproduced a few times, each one lives their own independent life subject to their character, mood, and ambitions.

Some are buff; some are somewhat shaggy, they have been known to grow longer legs or slim down. Despite my best efforts, some take acting lessons on the side. As soon as their faces take shape, we lock eyes, starting a silent conversation arguing about the size of their butts, the number of legs, or their future owners.

And then my work is done! The newest addition arrives, wagging its tail, humming a song, and looking forward to faraway lands of an exciting adventure. I always send them off with best wishes for the happiest life in their new home. They are omens of good luck, prosperity, strong health (and if you ask nicely, they might even clean your house while you sleep).

And you're showing others how to create them, is that right?

Yes. In 2013, using my MFA in Decorative Arts and Ceramics from the Kyiv State Decorative Art Academy, I opened a teaching studio where anyone could see my art. And then create traditional and contemporary ceramic art pieces of their own: it's the first of its kind.

I then moved to Haarlem in the Netherlands and recently set up the same kind of studio at Cultural House. I welcome all lovers of joy and beauty, whether beginners in search of a new hobby or professional artists who wish to extend their skills and try new medium of self-expression.

It is a joy to discover and foster people's hidden skills and talents. Ceramics is a unique medium that allows everyone to get something out of this world – just imagine, that for a couple of hours you can make a nice cup or a funny creature from a piece of mud, using only your bare hands.

You must feel so fulfilled?

Yes, I feel fortunate. And my students often become good friends, too. Sometimes we even stumble into a partnership. For example, some of my favourite sculptures have acquired compelling backstories written by a former student. My creatures are always on the lookout for new projects and commissioned pieces, especially when they push me to develop as an artist.

I mean, who hasn't dreamt of illustrating a book "drawing" the whole narrative using ceramics? So if you just happen to be a children's book writer or a publisher, I would gladly illustrate your book with custom sculptures.

As a teacher and community artist, it has been my goal to explore the local art scene and take part in different cultural fairs and events. I would also be glad to find my art agent and representative, so I could entirely focus on the creative process.

It sounds like you've made a creative community in Haarlem. How have you been coping during the current crisis?

I would say quite well working in my studio. Cultuur Huis in Haarlem provides 22sq metres in the historical city centre with an unbelievably charming view. Though my creative community is not yet as big as in my hometown, I am doing my best trying to attract, meet with, chat, teach and learn from a lot of beautiful and talented people around me. It will take some time for it to reach the same size. For me it also means starting over, building everything from scratch, making a good impression, dealing with the local art scene and finding my place in a new environment.

Have you managed to stay productive?

I have been incredibly productive. The relaxed version of the Dutch lockdown cleared the crowds off of the streets and incidentally my head as well. It has been an excellent chance for a recharge and a refocus. I got an opportunity to focus on my work, preparing for the upcoming exhibitions and art fairs.

I also re-evaluated my work priorities: spending more time sculpting and less time teaching large groups. The individual approach can be bespoke tailored to each student and produces higher quality (and not quantity) work.

Quarantine has taught me not to spread myself too thin and to value my time more.

Did you always know you wanted to work with ceramics?

Honestly, since childhood, I have always dreamt of becoming an illustration artist – creating intricate illustrations, reinventing beloved book characters, writing new versions of my favourite stories. But one day, I unexpectedly stumbled upon ceramics. We unconditionally fell in love and have never parted since. Living in the hi-tech world of flat screens and omnipresent plastic, you could, of course, say that picking dust and mud as daily tools might somehow seem silly. Perhaps it is. Ceramics delivers a childish joy and excitement, like when your parents allow four-year-old you to jump in a puddle.

Those childhood personas and illustrations morphed into the teapots, potholders, and little decorative statues. They started their life as flat images on printed pages but then came to life as real and alive as I had imagined them. As a fan of studio Laika and Tim Burton's cartoons, it is still my dream to be a part of projects like this.

Do you have a favourite character? Can you tell us more about them?

Every piece I create is truly unique; even the copies I make on-demand are different from the original. Each one has a mood and character of their own; some gain a wee bit of weight, some get a few new charming little wrinkles, and every one of them hopes to be loved and cared for by their new owners.

By working exclusively by hand-building and hand-painting techniques, the final result always produces a surprise: occasionally something or someone really far from the original idea.

So it is a massive gap between the character's birth where somewhere deep in my head, the idea takes hold during an unexpected event. I might be chewing a warm croissant in a cafe, or having a dentist appointment, or trying to have a proper eight-hour sleep to follow the various steps to grow him/her/they from a sketch to a finished sculpture.

In truth, being a strict and demanding artist who prefers planning, discipline, and structured work to the chaotic stereotypical way of doing things, animals in suits was furthest from my mind. One day, I was working on a custom sculptural portrait, and during the last stage (with the whole sculpture nearly finished), on a whim I decided to replace the head of a charming blond woman with the head of a reptile and put a slug as a pet instead of the pug dog requested. I had no intention to surprise my client, but that idea just popped up without any warnings or any logic or explainable reasons. I loved it, they loved it more, and a new collection was born.


Get the best of Creative Boom delivered to your inbox weekly