Home Is Where the Art Is | Open Studio

Childhood memories join brownstones, storefronts, stairways, and bridges to inspire Massachusetts potter Nicole Aquillano’s architectural designs.

By Annie Graves

Aug 21 2019


Architectural Pottery from Nicole Aquillano in Acton, MA

Photo Credit : Greta Rybus

“I can get homesick pretty easily,” confesses Nicole Aquillano. We are standing in a converted studio/garage in Acton, Massachusetts, as she continues, “I think it’s crazy, for how long I’ve been gone. But it meant a lot to me.” She turns the ceramic mug she’s holding, and I see the drawing of an angular house. The image is hand-drawn onto the clay, tinted blue, and slightly blurred. It is her childhood home in Pittsburgh, and it often appears, like a flash of memory, on the pottery she has been producing since 2012.

Bridges appear, too, alongside brownstones, storefronts, stairways. All rendered in simple graphic lines that say a lot, with a minimum of fuss. Architecture reduced to essence. Images lean and tilt across stacks of platters, tall vases, plenty of mugs, ornaments, even thimbles. They’ve caught my eye for years, populating major craft fairs, galleries, and museums. 

Clockwise from top left: Nicole Aquillano in her studio in Acton, Massachusetts; a selection of her favorite tools for etching designs and applying glaze onto her pottery; Aquillano at work, casting forms; shelves filled with finished pieces.
Photo Credit : Greta Rybus

When you see this work, it’s not surprising to learn that Nicole was once an engineer, with a degree from Carnegie Mellon (though in fact she ended up working for the EPA for eight years, writing industrial wastewater permits, she says ruefully). Yet here we are, in this airy studio off the home she shares with her husband, Sam; their little girl, Rafaela; and, soon, a brand-new baby boy. We’re edged in by the plaster molds she’s created to cast her pots, a potter’s wheel parked beside a small kiln, and every inch occupied by pottery in progress.

Clay was always a passion, from her first class in high school. Even when she worked for the EPA, she was taking classes that allowed 24-hour studio access. “I’d go to work, then to the studio every night—it was like a second job,” Nicole says. “My plan was always to retire and then do clay, because I loved it. But then I realized life goes by too fast. Now was the time.”She applied to the Rhode Island School of Design and finished the two-year graduate program in 2012, after which she began honing the atmospheric images she’s known for.

“I was looking at architecture, but I didn’t ever really think I could draw,” she says. “But I started to draw my childhood home. That’s the first thing I drew. I drew it over and over and over….”

Then, as now, Nicole etches each drawing, freehand, onto the clay, with a slender knife. It is her main tool, and it has the look of a treasured utensil. Its mate is the small natural sponge used to sop up the blue/black underglaze she applies to the surface of the pottery. As she wipes the color away, it remains in the etched lines. After the bisque firing, she applies a clear glaze that will blur the drawing, before firing it yet again.

“It took a lot of experimenting to get it to run,” she says. “I wasn’t even necessarily looking for that effect. I pulled out work that I’d fired and wasn’t happy with, so I refired it, and it ran a little bit. And I thought, Oh my gosh, this is what I’ve been trying to say! It gave it that runny look, which I always think makes it look like a memory.”

Which is what it’s all about, to “create a story you can hold in your hand forever.” Most of her custom work, she says, is for people who want a portrait of their childhood home, although she also does a lot of work for museums.

“People are really connected to place,” she says, as we walk from the studio to the kitchen. Here, she picks up another mug—one of the few that has a second color, glowing yellow. “My childhood home does really well,” she says with a smile. “This is an old, old one of my room. I always put the light on because at the very beginning, my mom asked me to.”

Rafaela is still napping, so we never get to meet, but apparently, according to her mother, she plays with Play-Doh all the time. When her daughter is sleeping, Nicole can pour out a table’s worth of molds. “I’m really happy it’s working out, because I had the most amazing childhood in the world,” she tells me. “My mom raised us, me and my two sisters, and we had a blast, and I want to give that to my kids.” There is a long pause. “So far, so good.”

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