Mechelle Bounpraseuth’s ceramics practice is deeply rooted in history and family
From collecting scrap metal with her mother to creating work with her baby in one arm, Mechelle’s creative practice tells the story of her stifled and migratory upbringing.
- Harry Bennett
- 27 April 2020
Sydney-based artist Mechelle Bounpraseuth had an unsettled childhood; growing up a Jehovah’s Witness to migrant parents who had fled their home country of Laos, she found that the religion “stifled any ambition, creativity and individual expression.” She was actively discouraged from pursuing education, therefore “being an artist was like a dream and something not within my reality,” Mechelle explains, despite her creativity being “an intrinsic part of who I was.” Unable to “ignore it forever,” Mechelle left in her mid-20s.
“When I left and married my sweetheart, with his love and support, I realised that that dream was something tangible,” Mechelle explains, at the time making zines that explored “humour, horrible things like racism and borderline poverty” – which she had encountered growing up. Mechelle joined a ceramics course with the intent to create “functional ware.” It wasn’t until meeting an “extremely kind and encouraging” tutor who saw the potential in Mechelle’s zines and gave her the confidence to see the value in her personal work, that Mechelle decided to pursue a more artistic enterprise. “From there, I’ve expanded on my drawings by recreating them in clay,” she adds.
Exploring the diaspora she belonged to as the child of migrant parents, Mechelle explains that she uses her work “as a way to understand and process the loss of my cultural heritage, inherited trauma, childhood memories, and as a way to navigate my own identity.” This is achieved through the creation of domestic objects and scenarios that depict “memories or events” found in her past. “When I was a kid, every morning my mum and I would go to the local pool at 5:30am,” Mechelle tells us, recalling that “during these outings, I learned how to float on my back, and I even saw my first floating turd... thinking back, this pool was actually a bit of a shit hole.” Whilst they were at the pool, Mechelle and her mother would scavenge for cans – “we’d gather bags and bags of discarded cans, and I got really good at crushing them in a single stomp!” Mechelle recalls, “sometimes, I’d feel a bit embarrassed about scavenging through bins, but I knew that my mum needed the money.” After selling the cans by the kilo at the markets, they would use the money “to buy rice and herbs, and we’d have a meal together – the fruits of our labour.”
“To that end, my crushed cans work is more than it seems,” Mechelle tells us, explaining how the cans become “a marker for a point in my life, a symbol which represents what my childhood was, and the sacrifices my mother made for me,” rather than simply a quaint ceramic. Ingrained within the glaze lies a storied past, a contrast to the joyful initial exterior impression, something mirrored in Mechelle’s creative mindset. She’s anti-defeatist, taking the troubles of her past and transforming them into something utterly jubilant, explaining that “these mundane items celebrate the beauty and the grit of the everyday.” Within this expression, and alongside her own experiences, is where Mechelle finds her inspirations – describing these of “equal if not more value than a historically famous artist.”
In discussing her style, Mechelle describes the impact the environment of southwest Sydney had on her “visual literacy.” In an area “associated with low income,” Michelle was shaped by her surroundings, “from the iced cakes and pork rolls in local Asian Hot Bread shops, to the burnt-out cars in the field behind our housing commission (estate) house.” She adds: “I am very much inspired by things that are considered ugly or worthless, and often collect rubbish to remake into works of art.”
“The most enjoyable thing about my work is the actual making process,” Mechelle explains, who found the medium immediately intuitive when first using it. “Clay is a really fun medium, it's tactile, messy and kind of reminds you of poo... the process of making is a joyful thing.” What Mechelle also finds most rewarding is being able to be creative as well as be a mother, telling us “I’m able to bring my baby to the studio with me, it makes the whole process feel so wholesome because she is a part of every aspect of my life and I get to share it with her.” She envisions a future where they make work together “since children are so free and uninhibited, I imagine there is lots of fun to be had in the future.”
The first piece of work Mechelle made after her daughter was born was a laundry basket, telling us “I made it in between nursing and cradling her, she slept close by while I coiled and built this piece, bit by bit.” Not only does it have emotional significance to Mechelle but it shows the development of her practice: “I used to be a master procrastinator, but now making work takes longer... I don’t mind because I’m so grateful that we can be together.”
Another recent piece of Mechelle’s is the Heinz Tomato Sauce Bottle she “made in memory of when my family and I would gather and eat pho together,” she tells us. Having pho as a family became a tradition, a “labour of love” taking all day to make and everyone’s participation. “A little dash of soy, a spoonful of fish sauce, a bit of sugar, a sprinkle of pepper, a squeeze of lemon, and a blob of tomato sauce,” she reminisces. “It is meaningful because it is about creating cultural rituals and appreciating the labour involved in making a meal which values domesticity, and the matriarchy.” Despite sometimes feeling a disconnect with her parents, not always understanding them or Lao culture, Mechelle tells us the ceramic food she makes is made with the hope her parents understand “I watched them as I was growing up and I learned and remembered.”
A lot of exhibitions have since been postponed for Mechelle due to the pandemic, however, she expresses her gratitude for being able to stay with her family and using the time to finish off old work as well as making new work: “I’m always mindful to not let my productivity determine my value.”
About the Author
After graduating from Winchester School of Art, studying graphic arts, Harry worked as a graphic designer before joining It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in March 2020. He nows works as a freelance writer and designer, and is one half of Studio Ground Floor.