Finding yourself through ceramics

Former South Philadelphia resident Lisa Naples’ artwork is showing at an exhibit called “Using The Sun To Fly North” at the Clay Studio through Nov. 15. Photo by Jim Greipp of Pau Hana Productions.

Lisa Naples remembers fondly of living in South Philly and working as a resident artist at the Clay Studio. It was just the beginning of her impressive career of shape-shifting ceramics and teaching the ways of creating beautiful artwork.

Decades later, she has returned to the Clay Studio at 139 N. 2nd St. for a solo exhibition, which runs through Nov. 15.

“Thirty years ago I had a studio there on the fourth floor as a resident artist,” Naples said. “The staff they have right now is working so diligently with their hearts and minds together. It’s really a great group of people running the place … It’s like returning to the mothership in a way.”

Naples recalled 30 years ago, living in a tiny row home in the Italian Market neighborhood and being constantly ingrained in the diverse cultures the South Philly had to offer. 

“I loved being in a place where people communicated with each other,” she said. “It all felt very real. What I want to be more than anything is to be closely knit with the community again. The big cost of moving away was the intimate intertwined sense of community.”

Naples, a Bucks County native, moved to Doylestown three decades ago after her five-year inner-city experience. She transformed her barn into an art classroom, where she teaches workshops in ceramics. About two years ago, she found herself at a crossroads after her marriage had ended and her daughters moved away. Naples contacted her old friends at the Clay Studio and pitched an idea for a solo exhibit, despite not knowing exactly what she would create.

Lisa Naples potter, sculpture. Photo by Zave Smith

“I found myself at the end of a really long marriage and feeling very disoriented,” she said. “My kids are independent and successful and have moved away. When I had searched my heart for what I needed, I knew I needed an anchor point out on the horizon that I could use as a fulcrum because everything was shifting and I didn’t have anything to stand on. So I reached out to (the Clay Studio) in 2018 and they understood. They couldn’t have been more supportive.”

From that moment, a new exhibit and a new chapter in Naples’ life was born. She worked tirelessly to produce the exhibit “Using The Sun to Find North,” which can be seen at the Clay Studio through Nov. 15. In addition, tours with the artist occur on Saturdays from noon to 1:30 p.m. Each half-hour tour is free but by appointment only and is limited to four people. 

Former South Philadelphia resident Lisa Naples’ artwork is showing at an exhibit called “Using The Sun To Fly North” at the Clay Studio through Nov. 15. Photo by Jim Greipp of Pau Hana Productions.

The exhibition includes two series that explore the theme of someone navigating when finding themselves disoriented and with no compass or map. One, called “Impermanence,”  is a six-piece collection of hares coming into form. The 13-piece collection of plate paintings titled “Wayfinding” tells a story of a red-tailed hawk having hit her mid-life and fallen out of the sky. This series tracks her progress as she faces choices that will decide the quality of her remaining days. It was metaphoric for how Naples viewed her own life at that point.

“It’s about a hawk that falls out of the sky, flat on her back, exhausted,” Naples said. “She’s given this choice that she can either risk everything and go with the reality of what’s happening to her as her talons are split, and her beak is dull. The legend says that if she goes up to the highest mountain and pulls out her feathers and talons and smashes her beak on the rock that she’ll be restored and everything will grow back fresh and new. It’s a choice. She doesn’t have to do that. She could just live out the rest of her life.” 

Naples’ work is featured on the cover of the November 2020 edition of Ceramics Monthly, a national publication, where she talked more about her inspiration for the exhibition.  

“As I got to the end of making that series of work, It was so clear to me that I had something that felt special to share,” Naples said. “Something about how you bring ideas into form. It’s so fun to just dream all the time, but to actually bring them into form is the risky part and that’s when a lot of people quit. Because it’s really hard. You have to learn to abide with yourself. That’s what this show is for me. It’s closing a chapter and turning the page to the unknown.”

Naples said she’s not exactly sure where she will go once the exhibition closes but her ceramics art center will follow behind her. She’s considering moving, but staying in the Philadelphia region, upon returning from the highest mountain with new feathers and talons.

“It feels like I’m closing a chapter and simultaneously starting a new one by having such a powerful show. I’m very grateful for the work that was able to come through me over the last two years. It feels like the strongest work I’ve ever made. If they hadn’t said yes, this work wouldn’t exist.”