At sunset on November 1st 2016, friends and family of the Metabolic Studio gathered around a fire pit on the Moon, our pet-name for the Studio’s first “undevelopment” project, to commence the overnight firing of over eighty olla pots. This ancient vessel tradition—which goes back millennia in the South West through the making traditions of the Anasazi Native American tribe—has been reanimated at the Studio as it continues its long-term practice of making objects from the land. This “by hand” or “a mano” division of Metabolic Studio’s multi-disciplinary practice, embraces narrative traditions of passing on knowledge and skill.
The fire pit has been set up in one of five sixty-foot circles dug into a former tow yard from which the tarmac and industrial base layers have been removed. During the excavation of this particular circle, which would have been part of the LA River’s floodplain, strati of clay was found. It is likely that the clay is made of the living things that have decayed and been compressed by landfill over the last century. Metabolic Studio’s ceramicist, Alex Tanasi, joined the team to help explore the means by which clay dug out of the contemporary industrial corridor of the city could be repurposed to hold river water and activate a return of function to what was the floodplain of the LA River. Alex Tanasi has joined Metabolic Studio after fifteen years at Venice Beach’s historic Luna Garcia pottery, where clay was prepared in the traditional by-hand way. The clay has been painstakingly processed to be usable by us—screened through wire mesh numerous times to remove rocks and stones, and to evenly break down the earthen particles. Once the silty soil has been rehydrated, it is kneaded or “smashed” to bond the rice grain-like particle plates of a clay, and produce the consistency that is pliable but holds its form. The folding or “wedging” of the clay removes air bubbles and it is left to dry enough to be easily worked by hand.
In early 2016, Lauren Bon and Alex Tanasi set up a ceramic studio within Metabolic Studio and trained the whole team to make ollas. Starting with a flat base, each novice maker staggered coils of clay to create the “belly” of the olla, then tapered the coil to create a long neck that ensures minimal water evaporation once in use for land irrigation. Clay has a way of showing you what shape it wants to take, and each participant brought their own imaginations and dexterity to the process, creating unique versions of this historical vessel form. In August and September 2016, Metabolic Studio contributed four daylong workshops to the ‘Current: LA Public Water Biennial’, open to anyone interested in making their own olla pot. In the four classes of urban farmers, artists, conservationists, and city officials brought their creativity to the project and added to the growing collection of ollas.
Metabolic Studio friends and family gathered at the Moon on November 1st to help with the firing of the ollas. With a single firing at a relatively low heat, clay holds its structure but maintains the porous state that allows for the water in a filled olla to gradually leech out. A filled olla waters the tap roots of the plants it serves over the course of 1–3 weeks, depending on the olla’s size and the plants’ thirst. The ollas will eventually be part of the distribution network of cleansed LA River water. A few will soon be buried on the Moon site, as a trial project for the irrigation systems of Bending the River Back Into the City.