Serendipi-tea and the art of clay

The leaf and soul of Sylvie Riches

Seven years ago, art student Sylvie Riches took a class in ceramics. This year, she’s the winning potter in the AUSTCS Ceramic Cup Competition. By Adeline Teoh

When Visual Arts undergraduate Sylvie Riches showed an interest in ceramics, she discovered her line of studies didn’t offer a course. Instead of giving up, she managed to enrol in a class designed for future teachers where they were taught basic techniques for beginners. From there, the student became teacher in a chain of coincidental events she labels “serendipity”.
“I met someone through my children’s school who invited me to her place to learn throwing, building pots using a wheel. I joined her class and learnt to make small bowls. I got very lucky that at that stage – one of my fellow students told me the organisation she worked for was looking for someone to run ceramic classes for people with disabilities. I applied for and got the job,” she explains. “I learned a lot through researching projects and having to be on top of things.”
The French-born, Western Australia-based ceramicist then sought tuition from local potters including Viviana Maier, Greg CroweBernard Kerr and Warrick Palmateer, learning new throwing styles from each of them. A visit to France then accelerated her aesthetic.
“In 2017 I went to France to visit my family and to attend a few pottery workshops. I timed my arrival in Paris so I could visit a ceramics market. This is where I discovered the amazing work of Thierry Luang Rath who is as much a poet with orientalist philosophies as he is a potter,” Sylvie recalls.
She asked if he taught and was delighted to discover that Luang Rath did indeed offer workshops near Brittany, close to where Sylvie was visiting her father. It is Luang Rath’s famously intricate decorative technique that Sylvie has used on the AUSTCS cup she is making for attendees this year.



The winning cup

After hearing about the AUSTCS competition, Sylvie began researching everything from tea ceremony to cup shapes and meaning, taking inspiration from a walk with her husband.
“Themes of nature occupy a large place in the teacups in East Asian culture. Nature is also a strong element of Australian identity and is also close to my heart as I grew up in the French countryside,” she says.
“While walking in the bush, I looked for patterns in the trees, plants, leaves and flowers. I found a piece of banksia bark with these beautiful weaving patterns that grabbed my attention. My husband explained that these were the veins of the tree called the phloem, through which the sugary food is transported to nourish the tree. I thought that the meaning of this pattern would be a beautiful and poetic aspect to combine into the cups’ decoration. I wanted to think of the phloem as a metaphor for the experience of sharing tea with a friend and how nourishing it can be to the soul.”


The result is a cup shaped like a small bowl, reminiscent of East Asian culture, with references to Australian nature in the embedded pattern, which evokes networking – says Sylvie: “networking is at the heart of the seminar: it is about meeting people from various backgrounds and occupations to share their produce, experience or interests” – and tea with its leaf shape. 


“There is something very gratifying about having my work being used in a tea ceremony by so many people. The traditional tea ceremony is so imbued with spiritual meanings of harmony, it made the possibility of being part of such a ritual replicated here in Australia a very special one,” she remarked. 


As for her own tea-drinking habits, while she sometimes drinks green tea and once had a routine of making homemade chai in the morning (“that was definitely my favourite way to drink tea”), today she is more inclined to make tisanes from herbs she grows, including verbena, lemongrass and mint. 


“I also enjoy linden tea, especially as a whole dried flower rather than in a tea bag,” she notes. “I often use tea as a way to improve my health. I find drinking herbal tea soothing, satisfying and comforting.”