Strange yet relatable and lovable ceramic characters by Joakim Ojanen

Swedish artist Joakim Ojanen sculpts and molds remarkable ceramic characters with unforgettable expressions that appear both surprising and charming in their own unique way. Each irresistible creature has an air of nostalgia, with a specific palette and style that adds to the vintage flavor. Ojanen’s work often includes subtle elements that seem similar to our own world, but there is always something a little bit off — something a little bit extra — in his work. The character’s skin is blue or its eyes are coming out of its head. These bizarre figures are both familiar and foreign, strange yet relatable and lovable. 

Inspired by a love of comic strips and cartoons, Ojanen has created a world of characters that are full of simplistic honesty combined with the complexity of a wide array of emotions, as their expressions range from charismatic to melancholic. Although he has worked in many other mediums, Ojanen’s current body of work features his wonderful characters in 3-D and 2-D in the form of ceramic sculptures and oil paintings.

Join us in conversation as the artist discusses the relationship between his paintings and sculptures, the tactile quality of his aesthetic, and his creative beginnings experimenting with graffiti and animation. 

AMM: Was there anything specific that inspired you to be an artist? When did you begin expressing yourself through creative avenues?

JO: I got in to graffiti quite a lot when I was 14 and did that for almost ten years. When I was 17-18, I started to do animations and really liked that. I did a couple of music videos for friends and small short films. I got some jobs animating and directing, and it was really fun in the beginning, but I ended up doing more and more commercial jobs that I didn’t really enjoy. It killed a lot of my creativity. I started to make drawings when I didn’t have paid jobs and in the evenings. These drawings later turned into fanzines and so I decided to change direction and apply to art school.

AMM: When you began creating artwork, did you primarily use clay as a medium? What would you say is your primary medium today, if any?

JO: The first small exhibitions I did were mainly drawings and screen prints that were the base for the fanzines I put out. Once I started to do exhibitions I felt like the drawings and prints weren’t enough, so I started to experiment with paintings and sculptures. Today I mostly do ceramic sculptures and paintings, but I’m also trying out different materials and sizes with the sculptures. For my last show at Ruttkowski;68 I did a 2.17 cm tall bronze sculpture, which was really fun to do.

AMM: Where do you find inspiration for your powerfully unique characters? Can you discuss your creative process developing these colourful creatures?

JO: It’s a lot about trying to find personalities and feelings in the characters. I try to make the characters so you feel like they have been living a life before they get portrayed. I’m trying to give them expressions that have a contradiction and depth like real people have, but stronger.

AMM: Your oil paintings are just as fascinating as your ceramic work, as they share a similar, distinct aesthetic. Do your paintings, or perhaps even drawings, exist before your ceramic pieces, or do your characters made from clay inspire your two-dimensional work? 

JO: The paintings and the sculpture feed off each other. Usually I work with one medium for a while until I feel I need to do something else, and then I switch to the other medium. Giving myself a break from a specific medium helps me to develop my work.

AMM: Your ceramic works are very tactile, as they have lots of texture that you can almost physically feel. Do your paintings display a similar quality on their surfaces, or is this element felt purely visually?

JO: It’s hard to see on flat images, but I think my paintings are quite tactile if you get up close to them in person. I use oil paint and there are elements like highlights and shadows in them that stick out from the canvas a bit. I’ve never showed them to a blind person yet, but I think they would actually experience the work pretty well by just touching them.

AMM: The characters you create are so full of life and emotion, existing in two-dimensional and three-dimensional form. Have you ever worked with these characters in any form of animation? 

JO: As I said earlier, I have an animation background, but the animation I did wasn’t very character based. It was before I created the universe of characters I’m doing today. I’ve been thinking a little bit about trying animation again in the future, but right now I don’t have the need to do it.

AMM: Do you imagine your characters to be part of their own narrative or world? 

JO: Yes, I think my work is some sort of universe, but I don’t have any rules or narrative for it. I think it’s quite close to the world we live in, but more honest. It’s a place where people can show their true feelings and don’t hide behind a facade.

AMM: Your characters look like they could be from a vintage cartoon or comic strip. What influences, if any, do you find from these sources? 

JO: I think it’s from my childhood. When I was young, I copied a lot of comics like Donald Duck and Garfield and tried to make my own comic strips. When I was a little older, I was a big Futurama fan. That type of style has always been a big inspiration source. So then I tried to make something for myself, developed in this way…and it’s still developing. I don’t know how it will look in a few years and that is something that keeps me going — to see what will come next, I think.

AMM: Do you listen to music while creating your work? What are you listening to right now? 

JO: I have periods where I listen to different stuff. Right now, I listen to Swedish radio where they talk about what’s happening in the world, culture phenomenons, economics and stuff like that — pretty dry stuff. A year ago I was almost only listening to trap music while I was working, and a few years ago I only listened to chopped and screwed music. Sometimes I listen to audio books or podcasts. I stick to one thing I really like until I get tired of it. Right now I feel like I need something new.

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Text and interview by Christina Nafziger for ArtMaze Mag.

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