Engineer-turned-artist gives hometown touch to porcelain objects

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All signs seemed to point home for ceramist Nicole Aquillano. 

The Beaver native now lives in Boston, creating functional porcelain tableware depicting buildings around the world. But she says she was working on a sketch of her childhood home when she received a serendipitous call from Janet McCall, executive director of the Society for Contemporary Craft in the Strip District.

“She is a native of the area and has these wonderful ideas about home and place that she expresses in her work,” says Ms. McCall, who was calling to offer Ms. Aquillano a summer residency at the society.

The 32-year-old artist has spent several months working and interacting with visitors at the Pittsburgh Produce Building, which has been the society’s home since 1986. The building’s unique angles and lines and those of nearby homes, warehouses and storefronts are highlighted in her Strip District collection. Available now through the 2014 holiday season, items from the collection range in price from $20 to $350.

While this residency is Ms. Aquillano’s first, her existing body of work is impressive. A sea of ceramic items -- some finished, others in progress -- fills the artist’s prominently located space. Decorated with carved interpretations of Pittsburgh’s authentic architecture, her porcelain platters, bowls and tumblers are indicative of the professional path she previously pursued. 

After earning undergraduate degrees in mathematics and civil engineering from Carlow University and Carnegie Mellon University, respectively, Ms. Aquillano settled in Boston. She worked for eight years as an engineer for the Environmental Protection Agency, but she says she sought something more creative.

“I felt I should really love what I do.”

Through undergraduate electives in Pittsburgh and continuing education courses at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, she developed a focused interest in ceramics.

“I like how immediate it is, how primal it is,” she says.

She followed her growing passion for the medium and enrolled at the distinguished Rhode Island School of Design. She continued to work as an engineer while she pursued a master’s of fine arts in ceramics, A year after her 2012 graduation, she quit to become a full-time artist. Stepping away from her engineering career meant sacrificing a sense of stability, but Ms. Aquillano stands by her decision.

“It’s the best thing I ever did.”

 The society was familiar with Ms. Aquillano’s work long before offering her the summer residency.Last fall, she received the Viewers’ Choice award at the society’s CRAFTED event. She was also selected as a finalist for the society’s LEAP award, which recognizes the work of emerging artists by promoting and selling their work in the SCC Store. 

The residency was established in 2013 to serve as another platform from which the society could support and promote emerging artists.

 “It came to our attention about three or four years ago that there was this tremendous talent moving into contemporary craft,” Ms. McCall says. 

The program puts hands-on craft creation directly in the society’s main space. Daily interaction with visitors encourages artists to communicate their creative process, and the gallery‘‍s setting provides artists with a direct source of inspiration.

Ms. McCall says Ms. Aquillano was chosen because her work has such a strong sense of community. The etchings on her pottery are created through a Japanese drawing technique known as mishima. She carves  architectural renderings onto the hardened porcelain before filling the crevices with a cobalt underglaze and firing her work. Though she has become comfortable with her practice, she says she was initially intimidated by drawing. 

“I never thought I could draw... until I actually looked.”

While she is now entirely focused on her craft, the influence of her past pursuit on her current artistic work remains clear. “Within my practice, I’m very organized.”

Ms. Aquillano accepts custom requests for items decorated with family homes, beloved buildings and memorable monuments. She will round out her summer residency with a tile-making workshop on Sept. 6. The event is an ideal opportunity for people interested in personally commemorating their visit to the city or conveying their hometown appreciation. 

For more information or to register for Ms. Aquillano’s workshop, visit

Mary Hornak is a former Post-Gazette summer intern.

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