Vibrant, elegant and refined: How the UAE inspired Paola Paronetto's ceramic sculptures

Italian artist uses a technique few have mastered to craft her delicate and deliberately nonconformist pieces

Paola Paronetto says using the paper clay technique has helped her create bold and free-form ceramics. Photo: Paola Paranetto
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Gazing at the works of self-taught Italian ceramic artist Paola Paronetto, the words fragile and delicate come to mind. Comprising flimsy-looking vessels, wonky bottles and misshapen bowls, the collection seems to be constructed from painted paper and cardboard. Despite being gathered into groups, the items give off an aura of such vulnerability that one misplaced hand could crumple the lot.

But looks can be deceiving. The artist explains: “My sculptures are made from paper clay ceramic, but are actually as robust as classic ceramics. They appear more fragile because of the ‘lightness’ that I purposefully wish to express with them, which is, I suppose, part of their charm.”

For more than 30 years, Paronetto has been using the technically demanding paper clay process to create her artworks. Having spent a decade mastering its unique parameters, she now uses it to create her artfully misshapen and lopsided artworks.

Moulded into tall vases, rounded bowls and low vessels, all carry a distinctive wonkiness that is as engaging as it is precarious. This month, for the first time, she brought her work to the UAE as part of Art Dubai with an exhibition at Alserkal Avenue.

A collection of nine limited-edition pieces was created especially for the occasion, inspired by Dubai and the UAE at large.

Paronetto explains: “I’ve always had a love of the natural world, people and different cultures, and the Emirates is part of the world I didn’t know much about, so that piqued my curiosity.

“What I learnt inspired me to dedicate this collection to the Emirates. Discovering how vibrant and rich in beauty the region is has been very stimulating, and Art Dubai seemed the perfect time to express my feelings for this beautiful corner of the world.”

The pieces are presented in pastel tones of pale pink, light pistachio-grey and faded taupe, with accents of rich gold. “The vibrant and bold spirit of the region inspired me to use colours that express joy but, at the same time, communicate the elegant and refined beauty that is found in its architecture and style. The mix of these colours with gold is a combination that I feel reflects this.”

In addition to her new pieces, some of Paronetto’s past works are also be on display at the exhibition in Dubai, including a series of larger items titled The Gigantica. Those already familiar with her work will recognise the shapes used for a recent collaboration with Veuve Clicquot.

As the name suggests, paper clay is a blend of cellulose fibres such as paper pulp, hemp, flax or linen that are mixed with clay, and when fired in the kiln, burn away, leaving no trace, except for a smooth, super-thin clay finish.

The advantage of the technique is that it offers greater strength while allowing the artist to use clay more delicately. The flip side is that it is difficult and unpredictable.

The technique is well known; however, few have mastered it
Paola Paronetto

“The technique is well known; however, few have mastered it because of its complex processes and problematic results,” she says.

Those complexities meant it took the artist a decade to perfect the technique, despite studying in Deruta, Faenza and Gubbio – three Italian cites famous for their ceramics know-how. Now, Paronetto works with her own closely guarded recipes, the result of years of painstaking experimentation.

Yet, despite the difficulties involved, paper clay has enabled Paronetto to push the boundaries of her art further than she could have imagined. “For me, it was a means to an end since I wanted to create more bold and free-form ceramics, and this technique enabled me to do so,” she says.

“I am proud to say that, through many years of trial and error, I have been able to master the technique.

“In exploring the paper clay method, I made my very first bottles and the Bottle Collection was born. From then on, I never looked back and continued to find new forms and ways to apply this complex method to realise my ideas.”

Each piece is made by hand on a potter’s wheel, using a blend of recipes on the horizontal and vertical planes to add strength where needed. Thanks to this and the vagaries of the firing process – a notoriously challenging stage of any ceramic endeavour – no two pieces of Paronetto’s work are ever the same.

I view my sculptures as animated beings
Paola Paronetto

There are themes, however. Her Circo vase, for example, is bottle-shaped with ridges around the shoulder and leans off to one side, while the Tucano vase is broader and more substantial, with a triangular funnel, resembling a handleless jug.

There are wide, low bowls that seem more akin to wobbly baking dishes, while the Ninfea set is a group of three contorted bowls in differing sizes. Her best-known series, however, is the Cartocci Collection, which consists of groups of tall, elegantly wonky forms and vessels that are now sought after by galleries all over the world.

The key to her work, it seems, is that while many of the shapes are familiar – bottles or vases – in Paronetto’s hands, they are elevated into something new.

“[My ceramics] seem to be usable objects, but I’ve always viewed them as animated figures that make up a family of forms, each one expressing itself in shape, texture and colour.”

Part of Paronetto’s vision is that her pieces exist in groups rather than standing alone, which echoes a broader view.

“They are made to be exhibited in groups because, for me, they represent all living things, including people and how we dialogue together. I view my sculptures as animated beings, and I love to see their collective beauty.”

Updated: March 17, 2024, 9:17 AM