“Some people think that if you’re a fine artist and you do other things that are commercial art, somehow it degrades your fine art,” said Sydney Albertini. “I find that so untrue.”
For Ms. Albertini, a Springs painter, ceramics designer, and quilter, her fine and usable art balance and “relieve each other, kind of like a good couple, a good marriage.”
Ms. Albertini’s one-of-a-kind hand-painted ceramic ware is sold at Barneys, the department stores Gumps in San Francisco and Kuhl-Linscomb in Texas, and will soon be available at a showroom in London. In December and March she mounted a two-part solo show, “Ephemere,” in New York City, first in a space on the Bowery and then as a site-specific installation at the French Institute Alliance Francaise gallery. She had a show of paintings and works on paper, “Small Works and Happy Accidents,” at Ashawagh Hall in Springs last month, and in November, she will mount a quilt show there.
Commercially, she also does package design for her brother, Justin Guilbert’s, company Harmless Harvest, whose products, including raw and organic coconut water, are sold at Whole Foods Markets.
At her house down a long driveway in the woods of Springs, the evidence of her creative drive is everywhere. A dining table protected by newspaper was covered earlier this month with squeeze bottles of ceramic paint, jars of brushes, and plates, bowls, and serving platters in various stages of completion. A patchwork quilt was still in the sewing machine on a sewing table a few feet away. In her living room, three large completed canvases were propped against a wall of shelves in preparation for a visit from a potential buyer. Behind them, shelves with scraps of fabric for quilting, sketches, and mementos, brightly colored felted wool balls and pompoms. And at the basement level, she has converted the better part of two rooms into a painting studio cum laundry room.
“People think if you do everything, you don’t do it as well,” she said. “I think you just have to be true to yourself and do whatever you enjoy doing,” and, she added, “You have to work every day in order to be surprised by yourself. You can’t wait for a muse. That’s why it’s good to have all these different things. If I don’t want to do one thing, I go to the other.”
Stacked on the open shelves in her kitchen are plates, bowls, platters, and serving ware in every possible color, all of her own design. They are the rejects, she said, the pieces that didn’t quite work or came out with defects. Her kitchen shelves are “a little biography” of her work as a ceramics designer, beginning in 1999. “I started ceramics when I was pregnant with my first son and I couldn’t do oil painting,” she said.
“I wanted to sit down and focus on little things. I wanted something without any meaning, as they say in French, art decoratif.”
People saw what she was doing and she started to get private orders for gifts or housewarming presents, “and that kind of took off,” she said. Ms. Albertini buys the bisque, or unglazed ceramic ware, from Italy, paints it with her own designs — fanciful botanicals, rustic vegetables, bold abstracts, delicate coral motifs, all signed and dated — and then has it fired by Nancy Robbins, a Sag Harbor potter. “That allows me to focus on what I know how to do,” she said. “I couldn’t do it without her. She’s a complete master.”
Before long, she began getting larger orders, like one for all the dinner and dessert plates for a really big wedding. She started selling her tableware to a few small South Fork stores and the press that came from that drew the attention of Barneys.
She’s been working with the department store for four years, each year creating a different line of unique pieces. “I love it. They kind of let me do my thing.”
“I would love to design for someplace like Target. Maybe in plastic,” she said. Already, she has had some of her designs produced in China on melamine. “I’d love to do something super cheap because I can’t even afford my own plates. That’s why I have all the rejects.” At Barneys, her dinner plates retail for $90, dessert plates are $75, and chargers are $120.
She now has three sons, Ace, 11, Zed, 9, and Neo, 4, and an unexpected career as a tableware designer.
“That’s why, when I did my show, I called it ‘Happy Accidents,’ ” Ms. Albertini said. “I really, truly believe that my life is a series of happy accidents. It’s amazing what you fall into when you just keep creating.”
Always a knitter, she took up quilting when the owner of her favorite New York knitting shop, Purl, opened a fabric store, teaching herself to sew while making a landscape quilt for her youngest son. “You want it, you have it in your mind, so you have to make it,” she said of her seeming ability to adapt her vision to whatever medium she sets her mind to.
She sells her quilts by commission.
Next up for her in quilting, she is expanding upon some of the patterns from her recent series of ceramics and painting fabrics that she will then have quilted for her. “I love the idea of folk art, tradition, things you can pass on, and things that are useful.”
That said, her artwork meant for the wall is no less important to her. There, too, she explores pattern and movement, often with a prismatic view. In some, figures, often children, tumble across a canvas or through a series of canvases, the arc of their movements frozen in millisecond intervals. She described her paintings as “very small narratives of a moment, where you see the beauty, but you can’t fix it, you can’t put your finger on it.”
Recently, she started working on paper, which was, she said, “a complete revelation.”
“Paper gave me a sense that if I screwed up, it wasn’t so bad. I loved it.” Her December show on the Bowery featured large-scale charcoal and oil drawings on paper, and at the French Institute, again working on paper, she had the opportunity to do an installation that allowed her to explore “a movement from start to finish. It showed me that I could really work on a large-scale room.”
No matter what she’s working on, Ms. Albertini isn’t one for crisp edges and refined finishes. “I love that home touch, when you can see that something is handmade.” Her work is driven not by what she thinks will sell, but by what moves her. “I did this piece or that painting or this quilt because I had to do it, even if I never sell it. It keeps me sane.”
She tries not to take herself, or her art, too seriously. Every time she finishes a big show, she goes back to her work and seems to produce “something really ugly,” she said with a laugh. “I like to take risks, to push myself in a new direction. It’s all about traveling from one point to another.”