Creating in COVID: Leili Towfigh ’88

By: Grace Talusan

After her ceramics studio closed for the foreseeable future, Leili Towfigh ’88 posted a soundless video of a time before COVID-19, her hands shaping clay into a simple vessel. As time lapses and the potter’s wheel spins, Towfigh carves a pattern into the clay walls. Her repetitive motions are calming, even reassuring.  

Ceramics is a community-based art where practitioners often share resources such as materials and a kiln in a studio. While they work, they also share of themselves. “I’ve connected with people on a very deep, soulful level,” Towfigh says. “There's nothing like sitting across from somebody at a wheel while both of you are throwing your pieces. The types of conversations and relationships that can develop in the context of a community ceramics studio are rare.”

Because Towfigh could not work physically amidst her community of fellow artists in the studio, she did what creative people so often do: she found a way. From home, she continued her practice of photographing something new every day. She painted. She planned for the future and reflected on the past, revisiting videos that she initially made at the ceramics studio in order to study her technique.

Towfigh opted to share those on Instagram, finding them oddly satisfying. Thousands of followers agreed. “I think one reason why people respond so positively is that we want to see transformation. We want to think that change is possible in ourselves and in society, and seeing it in a pot is just a little echo of that possibility in life,” Towfigh says. “People wish they could change themselves or their environments like that.” 

Towfigh has continued to post time-lapse videos of her artistic process, from coloring porcelain to throwing clay to painting glazes onto bowls, platters, and vessels. Those looking for relief from the barrage of news in the early days of the pandemic saw unexpected beauty in her hands shaping earth into art. 

“My audience has told me that my timelapse videos have been good for their mental health. Making ceramics has aided my mental health, too,” Towfigh says.

She grew up with immigrant parents in a home that encouraged art along with other subjects. “I’ve always made art,” Towigh says in a recent video interview. Between caretaking for loved ones and working at her family’s company, Rakks, which designs and manufactures architectural shelving, she spends equal time on several art practices: ceramics, painting, photography, filmmaking and designing jewelry. From her time at Commonwealth, where she studied art seriously, through college, where she did not formally study art, she has practiced in these same mediums. She points to the paintings and photographs hanging on the wall behind her, references her ceramic pieces, and says, “They all kind of look like each other. You can tell I made them.”

Towfigh describes her father, who recently passed away, as equally a scientist and an artist. Recalling his passion for protecting the arts in schools, she remembers his saying, “Art should be the last to go, not the first. Art influences how people think and solve problems. You need creativity in all your endeavors, even if you're not an artist.” That sentiment lives on in her work and worldview.

She believes the practice of making and being creative should be open to everyone. “Art making is part of life that everybody can access,” she says. “Nobody should feel excluded. It is such an important part of the human experience.”

Making ceramics has also reminded Towfigh about faith and how to let go. “The instant that I try to control the outcome of something I’ve made, the clay says, ‘That's not going to happen.’ It will spin and throw itself off the wheel, or blow up in the kiln,” she says. “This process keeps you humble.”

Author and educator Grace Talusan is the recipient of a U.S. Fulbright Fellowship to the Philippines and an Artist Fellowship Award from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. She is currently the Fannie Hurst Writer-in-Residence at Brandeis University. Her first book, The Body Papers, is a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection.