This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
As a child, Kiara Matos never considered herself artistic. Her earliest memories in San Cristobal, Venezuela were shaped by her deference to the family of artists she was born into. Her older sister upcycled Christmas gift-wrapping into clothing on a whim, and her mother molded ceramic vases on her pottery wheel in her spare time. To Matos, these practices were a seamless and intuitive kind of magic. The ceramics studio that her father had constructed for her mother was the epicenter of the Matos home. For Kiara, the studio was a mysterious, mystical realm, one she believed she lacked the artistic intuition and skills to enter. But eventually, she found its gateway.
Matos began experimenting with clay in her adolescent years when her aunt encouraged her to make use of her mother’s ceramics studio. Smiling from ear to ear, she reminisces about her initial sense of technical inadequacy. “I had a book with ceramic vases that all looked impossible to make, but there was this coil vase that I saw. I thought to myself, ‘Okay, I can do something like this.’” The vase in question became the first ceramic piece she could call her own. However, after she graduated from high school, Matos decided to study journalism at college in Venezuela. In 1994, at the age of 19, she lived with a host family in New Haven on an exchange program to learn English. In spite of her upbringing in the arts, Matos felt discouraged from pursuing ceramics as a career, particularly given her home country’s political and economic instability. She was initially deterred by the lack of both formal crafts-based educational programs and economic opportunities for artists.
But even a continent away from home, Matos always found herself back in a studio. Ceramics offered her a means to experiment, to decompress and find balance as she pursued her degree in journalism. Midway through her freshman year, Matos traveled to Florida with a friend and visited a crafts show for ceramic artists. The show was a catalyst for her realization that ceramic art was her true calling. What’s more, the craft seemed like a feasible career in the U.S. It was an eye-opening moment, shedding light on the privileged networking and advancement opportunities of the American art world, a sharp contrast with the dearth of resources in her native Venezuela. “I was taken aback by not only the artists’ work, but the fact that they made a living out of it,” Matos explained. She secured a yearlong pottery apprenticeship under Maishe Dickman, a New Haven ceramicist, and ended her studies in journalism. Her decision was wholly supported by her family back home in San Cristobal and host family in Connecticut. “When you know where you are going, things will come your way,” Matos says assuredly, grounded in her intuition.
Once Matos completed her apprenticeship at the age of 21, she traveled back home to Venezuela in 1996 to reconnect with the design scene there, both artistically and culturally. In Caracas, Matos joined a newly formed ceramics collective called “Grupo de Turgua,” which promoted ceramics through the region. Equipped with new insights from this return to her roots, Matos moved back to New Haven in 2010 to continue her ceramics practice. Eleven years later, in November 2021, Matos opened the doors to her own ceramics storefront at 137 Orange Street. The space contains her studio space to mold, glaze, and fire her ceramics and a gallery for clients to view and purchase her work.
As soon as I open the door to Matos’ studio and step foot inside, she chimes a warm hello from the back, where she can be found working at her pottery wheel. As I walked through the gallery, Matos rushed to the sink, scrubbing clay off her hands so that she could shake mine. An assortment of dinnerware—bronze polka-dot mugs, pinch cups, and bright-colored glossy bowls— stands in an army line on shelves that run through the gallery. Affixed upon the pegged wall are pieces inspired by nature: a round, sunshine-y wall hanging with glazed heliconia, mid-century frames in green and purple hues, and coiled ceramic snakes. From all heights and angles, customers and clients can marvel at the beauty of Matos’ work, and see how the individual pieces respond to one another in a living space. The gallery greets you with striking, colorful glory.
If clay is Matos’ canvas, color is her craft, and the defining feature of her work. Every single glaze that Matos applies to her pieces has been painstakingly formulated and trialed. She adjusts the ingredients to achieve her desired matteness or glossiness through computer programming, manipulates chemical ratios, color-swatches glazes after they’ve been finished in the kiln, and repeats the whole process over until she is satisfied. “It’s an understanding of materials and what each of them does,” Matos says, revealing her intricate involvement with the granular, technical process of her work. She’s not only a ceramicist but a scientist. Matos’ mastery of color is particularly important to her as a reflection of her geographic origins: the vibrant, overgrown, tropics of Táchira. In this way, her pieces always point homeward.
As she has embraced New Haven with open arms, Matos is grateful that the city has responded in kind. “They really get what it means to build community. They really show up,” Matos says, referring both to the opening of her studio and the preceding eleven years, during which she participated in crafts and trade shows throughout the Northeast. Most of all, Matos cherishes the intimacy she has established with her customers. She makes a conscious effort to welcome new clients into her space and to learn more about them; with her regulars, she dives confidently and seamlessly into personal conversations with a sharp memory for detail. “My clients take little pieces of my heart, you know?” Matos says. “It’s difficult not to form an intimate connection.”
As she settles into what she hopes will be a permanent, physical space in New Haven, Matos believes that she has been guided by her faith, a sense of purpose and a readiness to act decisively in response. “Rightfully, there’s a lot of fear of where we’ll end up, and whether or not we’re going to make it, but people should never let their passions come to an end,” she says. Passions demand trust in the process; Matos admits that’s not easy, but it’s always possible. That trust requires leaning in. For Matos, it’s meant intuitively moving her hands around the clay to give it form and life, but also remaining steadfast and disciplined in her work. She never lets her hands come off the wheel.
Ceramics by Kiara Matos is located at 137 Orange St. kiaramatos.com