Elise Birnbaum’s OATMEAL Offers Nature-Inspired Sculptural Vessels

The studio practice began in Japan and has grown substantially in Pittsburgh

For OATMEAL owner Elise Birnbaum, crafting ceramics means replicating forms; perhaps the sculptural elements of a pruned cloud tree or the soft curves of a human body. When she first opened the shop, her bulbous and tiered vessels elicited questions about their function, but now Birnbaum faces rabid demand to keep her shop stocked—a testament to her work’s originality and appeal.

“I was not traditionally trained in ceramics,” Birnbaum tells CH. “I went to school for art, but I hadn’t done ceramics since high school. And then I was working at a more corporate, art-related job, and I just needed to find something. So I started taking classes. I took a woodworking class and I worked for a woodworker in Pittsburgh for a while, and I took a metal-smithing class, and I took a ceramics class. And [ceramics] really clicked. It was a medium that made a lot of sense with my brain and how I envision things and how I like to work. It’s kind of funny, because I don’t have years and years of ceramics training, but I do have a deep background in art and sculpture-making. It all clicked really quick.”

Birnbaum’s process isn’t an easy one to replicate. Although her ever-growing collection comprises several iterations that pass as siblings, she’s eager to experiment and let a combination of new and old influences find their way into her pieces. Originally, she borrowed lines from meticulously pruned cloud trees, which she surveyed in her free time during an artist residency at the Shiro Oni Studio in Onishi, located two hours north of Tokyo.

But inspiration for her first collection of works wasn’t all Birnbaum left Japan with. “I was spending my whole day, seven days a week, either making things or hiking and biking around,” she says. “I was in a teeny tiny town and it was really tight-knit… I was super-influenced by my time there both aesthetically and culturally. It was also just nice to spend two months not thinking about selling work or anything, but just experimenting and growing.”

Experimentation proves vital to her growth as an artist and ceramicist. It’s during her “play time” (Birnbaum’s name for the hours not devoted to a specific project) that she discovers her favorite silhouettes.

“I have to really carve out time to—I always say, ‘play.’ I have to play and make new things and try new shapes and make stuff that might not be great and might not be something I can sell, but it’ll lead me to what’s next,” Birnbaum explains. Her Small Two Tiered Vessel, for instance, was born from her desire to widen the second of two rungs on the piece. Those types of shapes can be difficult, though, and playing with more daring pieces can be challenging. “If you divided my work into categories, those more bulbous ones, they are a little trickier. They are just a little more complicated.”

No matter what the form, Birnbaum’s shapes consistently elude a prescribed function. “Inherently when you’re selling ceramics, everyone’s like, ‘What is it? What is it for? What do you do with them?’ And I would say, probably in the year or two before I went to Japan, I was starting to really love the functional object that’s kind of a shape that isn’t super functional. I like the idea of a beautiful object that you could use if you wanted to, but it might not be the best bowl, because it has this lip that curves all the way and makes it difficult to clean,” she explains. “But it’s kind of come full circle, where I feel like people used to ask me a lot, ‘What do you do with them?’ and now I don’t get that as much, which I actually love. I like that they can stand on their own.”

Stand alone, they certainly do; each one boasting a sense of preciousness and rareness that conjures up images of ancient artifacts. That said, OATMEAL ceramics fit beautifully with several style interiors—be it mid-century, minimalist or maximalist.

When many OATMEAL objects stand side by side—whether for photoshoots for upcoming releases or as drafts destined for the fire—they’re undeniably impactful. Together, they harmonize and the intricacies of each are emphasized—like the differences innate to a grove of trees or a diverse group of human silhouettes.

A lot of artists go back to nature. Nature did it right; it’s designed beautifully.

When Birnbaum stumbles upon a source of inspiration, she recognizes it almost immediately and imagines how she can translate the shape to clay. Often, she’ll photograph the moment or the object and return to it once she’s back in her studio. “I wanted to make something the other day and I thought, ‘I should go back and look at these photos I took of these sculpted trees and just draw them,'” she says. “Someone created this composition in this tree. And they know it works. I can look at it and borrow the shape and tweak it to how it would work better in clay. It’s why I think a lot of artists go back to nature. Nature did it right; it’s designed beautifully.”

She also has a “little library of influences” that’s home to various photos, sketches, people and objects she finds herself inspired by. “I might be out on a walk and if I like the way a rock is leaned up against a bush or it’s kind of overlapping, I might take a picture of it or as soon as I get home, I’ll try to sketch it and guess it. It might become nothing, but it feels like collecting my little library, which I can draw from when I’m starting to make something. Sometimes you just see something, a curve or a shape. In that way, I’m definitely always collecting things,” she explains.

You’re an artist. You’ve chosen this path. Just keeping following it.

She doesn’t fret over drawing from several sources of inspiration for one object. Instead, she welcomes it, and trusts her hand and the standards she’s set for herself. Trust in one’s self, Birnbaum says, “gives you that permission” to make, to play, to experiment. “When I started making these vessels, I loved them. But at first, I wondered what would happen if no one else does. What if this is just something I love?” she says. “But I feel lucky to have people around me who tell me, ‘You have not steered yourself wrong yet. You’re an artist. You’ve chosen this path. Just keeping following it.'”

Images courtesy of Elise Birnbaum / OATMEAL