Multi-media artist Julie Alberti is the ultimate upcycler: she has a 1970s mechanical Paragon kiln in which she fires her ceramics and painted china; and she is learning to sew on a 1960s Elna – both of which she fixed up as they were not working when she bought them. Plus all her china paint pigments and the porcelain surfaces she paints on are vintage.
I couldn’t help but do a double-take and have a chuckle when I saw her painted porcelain and ceramics as her favourite subject matter is famous faces of filmmakers and actors, such as Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Walken and Steve Buscemi. If you check out her Etsy store, you’ll find all sorts of hand-painted upcycled plates, teapots, mugs …
So what’s the appeal of the famous face and some charity shop china? I asked Julie …
Please introduce yourself. What’s your background and how have you ended up where you are today?
Hi, I’m Julie! I’ve always been drawing, painting, and sculpting. I went to college for a year and a half, majoring in oil painting for a semester but decided to transfer somewhere to learn sculpture. In short, none of the schools had what I was looking for and eventually I just started selling my art online.
When and why did you decide to paint famous faces on upcycled china?
I read about china painting somewhere and thought it would be fun to try, since it was similar to oil painting. I think I just started drawing people on plates to get my painting techniques down and to see if I could make something look accurate using these materials. It eventually evolved into other surfaces like mugs and teapots.
Can you share a bit about the creative process and materials you use?
China painting is also called overglaze. It’s different from other ceramic glazes in that it comes in small vials of pigment in powder form. To make a glaze, you take a little of the powder and mix it with mineral oil on a tile. You use mineral oil so it doesn’t dry out. This way if you didn’t use all of the paint, you can use it indefinitely. When you paint on the surface, it stays wet until you fire it in the kiln. Because of this, you paint one layer at a time, so each painting I do usually takes at least four firings.
Once fired, the previous layers are absorbed into the surface, so you can paint over it with a new layer of china paint and if you mess up, you can wipe off the new layer without disturbing the old one. Another thing that’s awesome about china paint is that the colours you paint on look the way they’re going to look when fired. Other ceramic glazes usually look nothing like the results before you put it in the kiln.
As for materials, I’m inspired by looking around re-sale shops and finding a cool surface to paint on. There are so many great vintage ceramic pieces out there! The glazes themselves I bought on eBay. They’re from companies that sadly no longer exist and they’re almost all from Texas from the 70s, if not earlier. It’s cool to think how they used to be these little shops that sold china paint pigments locally. You never see that today.
Tell me about the importance of upcycling and sustainability in your work, work practices and home life?
I probably couldn’t name five things I own that weren’t already owned by someone else! Upcycling can be applicable to all parts of your life. I buy used and vintage clothes because I don’t see the point in buying something more expensive that’s made with child slave labour somewhere, but I digress. I bought my used kiln used off eBay. The seller thought it was broken but I found out through talking to them that it just needed a part replaced, which I ordered and replaced myself. My work table is a lime green 50s formica kitchen table. There are a lot of little things you can do to have a sustainable lifestyle. I basically just try to buy everything used.
How easy/difficult was it to go out on your own as an artist? What, if any, challenges did you face along the way?
To be honest, I’m still working on it! But I think the challenges artists face are similar to other professions, if you think about it.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give others wanting to do the same?
I don’t know if I’m in the position to give advice but I guess if I’m going to comment on selling your art independently, I’d say you really don’t need to spend money going to college to get a degree. Consider taking some classes independently to get some skills developed and then use them to develop your ideas. There are so many resources online and ways to learn from others how to market your artwork.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve been doing a little more old-fashioned painting lately! Also, drawing and a little bit of sculpting. I usually work in a few different mediums at a time so I have multiple things to work on. It keeps me from getting bored.
Who or what are some of your influences? What other artists, designers and creatives do you admire?
Well, in terms of china painting, I don’t know any other artists (famous or not) who actually use overglaze as their main means of colouring a piece of ceramic. But most artists I love are painters: Caravaggio, Frida Kahlo, Ralph Steadman, Dorothea Tanning, Donald Roller Wilson.
You say you’re a film enthusiast. What’s your favourite film and actor of all time?
I could give you a gigantic list but if I’m going to pick just one person it has to be Buster Keaton. The film I’ll name is also a Buster Keaton film: The General, from 1926. I have to choose Buster because he had way too many talents for one person – actor, comedian, director, writer, stuntman, editor, and probably everything else you could possibly do involving making movies. And he was amazing at all of them.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I’m a plant hoarder, mostly indoor stuff since I live in Illinois. When I live somewhere that isn’t cold I’m sure my house will be totally covered with plants, inside and out.
Have you ever had a ‘who’d have thought’ moment?
Yeah, who’d have thought people would buy dishes with Steve Buscemi on them! It’s always really cool to know that someone else liked my art enough to buy it.
Very inspiring, thanks Julie!
You can find her on Etsy here.