The Dusty Babes Collective is an all-women group of ceramicists started in 2013. They held potlucks and made space to support members — all of whom were burgeoning artists in Vancouver. This group have since graduated to produce shows and disrupt artistic norms through a feminist ethic of collective support and rural organizing in South Surrey, White Rock and Gibsons — spaces far from their beginnings at Emily Carr University of Art + Design.
Amelia Butcher, Heather Lippold and Emily Ludington spoke with Discorder on behalf of Dusty Babes. On the collective’s origins, Butcher explains, “You can’t do ceramics in your bedroom — I mean I have done ceramics in my bedroom.” But as she, Lippold and Ludington describe, starting a collective had just as much to do with soothing the challenges of an isolated art practice outside of school as it did with finding a space to create.
Five years on, the four local collective members (there are ten in total, though some are inactive or out of province), are happily settled into a ceramics studio in South Surrey built in the ‘70s by now-retired art teacher, Don Hutchinson. The Dusty Babes found it on Craigslist — a stroke of good luck Butcher, Ludington and Lippold recount with pure giddiness. “I remember when Angela found it, she couldn’t even talk,” says Lippold, “She was vibrating!” The space was perfect, and the isolation and rurality spoke to the Babes as people, having all grown up in the suburbs.
Butcher points out, “being based in Surrey instead of Vancouver, you don’t get to be part of things like [Eastside] Culture Crawl. […] We’ve been able to take on this role of art space in the suburbs. We’ve done pop-ups in Surrey and White Rock, […] and it’s just so different to be presenting contemporary art in [the suburbs].” There may be drawbacks to being far away from Vancouver, but Dusty Babes were perhaps ahead of the curb. Butcher explains, “We’re kind of divorced from whatever scene is happening in Vancouver, but also more and more artists are having to leave the city, so it’s kind of like we’re already there.”
Ludington continues, “I think that we act as a strange little punctuation down there. When we did Comfort Show we were in a suburb, in a plaza near a Pita Pit, and we were just injecting ourselves into spaces and engaging and saying hi. It feels like less of a hustle, and more of a conversation or a presence. […] It’s kind of like a double installation, like the installation as installation.”
Dusty Babes are upfront about the importance of feminist ideology in their work. The first line you read on their website is, “We are a collective of artists / feminists / ceramicists working in our shared studio in British Columbia.” Feminism permeates the collective’s approach, though as I learn, it is fluid. They all identify as feminists, but feminism does not dominate the subject matter of their work as individual artists. For Dusty Babes, feminism is an ethic first. Butcher expands, “I feel strongly that feminism is a method; it doesn’t always have to be your subject. If you’re a female artist, you have to be free to make work about whatever you want, because men always have that freedom no matter what. So you shouldn’t be expected to be making work about being female all the time. It’s not all we’re interested in. And that to me is feminism.” Lippold adds, “For me, it’s [about] having the support and having this connective space with an all-female group. It’s been the most life-changing for me and my art practice.” Ludington finishes, “Our intention is feminist and our method is feminist and our energy is feminist. It’s both intrinsic and a byproduct, at the same time.”
The collective is hyper aware of the history of ceramics as women’s work, as something tied to the domestic sphere. At one point, they worry out loud that they might sound defensive in explaining their approach to visibility, dialogue and presenting their work, but this moment of unease is short lived. They are solid in their insistence that they disrupt this legacy through conceptual work and by confronting the history of the material. Through the presentation of contemporary art that moves beyond craft, they seek to create art that challenges the spaces they occupy as people and as artists.
Opening May 12, the Dusty Babes are taking their work to the Gibsons Public Art Gallery on the Sunshine Coast. The exhibition, titled Subject Matter, will look at, “the anecdotal, personal and cultural symbolism bound up in materials.” Exhibiting artists include Butcher, Ludington and Lippold, and fellow collective members Sam Knopp, Dana Vallee and Angela Hopkins. The show explores tension, challenging their own relationships with clay, and pushing the material of their work to its limit as a medium. As Butcher says, “ceramics is very familiar. It’s in our houses and it touches our bodies all the time. But it’s also so sneaky. It always surprises me how easy it is to make a surprising object in clay. You can really easily access the uncanny.”
This is Dusty Babes, making the unseen seen. Each artist finds their own way of breaking down misconceptions around their practices, challenging their material, and working on the periphery, individually but together. Expanding out from potlucks to pop-ups, Dusty Babes has proven the strength of working collectively, and of taking risks for the sake of art and building community.
Visit dustybabes.com for individual artist bios, links and upcoming events. Subject Matter will be on display at the Gibsons Public Art Gallery from May 10 to June 12 in Gibsons, BC.
Find a photo essay from Sara Barr’s visit to the Dusty Babes’ idyllic studio in Surrey => here.