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When he was 3 years old, Ahmet Ustunel would pull the caulk off of the windows in his parents’ home in Turkey and make shapes from the material — usually animal figures that he would try to mimic from the multiple pets that his grandmother kept in her garden. His parents fostered their son’s new hobby by purchasing clay from a local shop for him to mold.
That same year, Ustunel permanently lost his sight to retinoblastoma, an eye cancer that attacks the retina.
Now 30, Ustunel continues to create shapes from clay and plaster. He can be found four days a week at UCSD’s Craft Center where he molds mugs, jars, pots, cups and masks from clay or porcelain. It takes more than two weeks to completely finish one of his projects from start to finish.
Ustunel has been throwing, trimming, glazing and firing faster than normal over the past month as he is one of 30 artists participating in “Fun-A-Day Art Show,” hosted by ArtClash! San Diego, a local branch of a Philadelphia-based art collective. The event challenged local artists to create art every day during the month of January.
The participants will feature their work at a multimedia art show at this Friday, Feb. 18 at Space 4 Art on 15th Street. The 30 artists in the free show include sculptors, painters, animators and musicians.
Ustunel is excited to challenge a common perception of beauty being about what you can see.
“People think art is all about visual beauty,” he said. “I want to emphasize that art is touch. Museums never let you touch anything, and I want to show that art is so much more.”
Ustunel plans to require viewers at Friday’s event to feel his pottery before they look at it. To enhance this sensory experience, he has been creative in achieving a unique texture among his pieces.
One life-size mask that he made looks as if it is made entirely of seashells. He says his inspiration for the piece came from asking himself, “What do I like to touch?”
The first step in a potter’s process is called throwing. It requires the artist to sit at a potter’s wheel for two to three hours molding the shape of the piece as it spins. When he throws, Ustunel uses objects such as plastic knives, forks, or broken blades from a household fan to create patterns within the clay. He then must let the wet clay sit for a few days in order for it to become firm enough for him to trim to achieve its final shape.
After trimming, the object requires two weeks of shelf time to dry.
“It’s a waiting game,” he said. “I learned the hard way that if you put it in the kiln too early it will blow up. It happened to me a lot.”
Though Ustunel sometimes asks for others’ opinions on color choices for his pottery, he says that he doesn’t need to be able to see in order to know if he’s satisfied with what he’s created.
“I know when I’ve messed up because it’s all about touch,” he said. “If there’s a crack or bump where you don’t want it, you’ll know. That’s why I like clay, though, because you have a chance to fix it. Sometimes I choose to keep the mistake in the piece. It makes it more interesting.”
Ustunel hopes one day to use his degree from San Francisco State University to become a special education teacher. Until then, he spends his time making art and sharing his passion with students at A Reason to Survive, a nonprofit arts center in Liberty Station geared toward children facing major life challenges, and the Blind Community Center of San Diego.
For Ustunel, it’s easy to see the deeper incentive in making his art.
“It’s a lot like meditation,” he said. “It’s soothing. If you move your hand at the wrong time, it messes up the whole piece. While you’re doing it, you get to not think about anything else.”
Please contact Amy Smith directly at Amy.Smith@voiceofsandiego.org, 619-325-0525, or on Twitter @amysmitherines.