When I was invited by the Thrown Contemporary Gallery in Highgate to take part in its Spring 2020 group show, Being Human, I was predictably thrilled. The exhibition brings together a collection celebrating the human figure, human emotions and how we make sense of who we are. My work is showing along side that of Tom Kemp, Diane Griffin, Tom Crew, Russell Heron, Carolyn Tripp, Karina Smagulova and Unit 89. It opened on 6th March, and although the gallery’s doors have closed temporarily in response to COVID social distancing, the exhibition has entered the online realm, thanks to Thrown’s new presence on the international gallery platform Artsy. So if you fancy, you can buy pieces from Being Human, including a number of mine, or browse Artsy more widely for work by luminaries such Grayson Perry or Edmund de Waal. While it is very sad that you can’t visit the gallery in person at the moment, it’s a bit of a blast for my work to be rubbing shoulders with ‘the big boys’ online. If you do get a moment to check it out, please remember to click on the follow button under my name – every little helps to up my digital profile!
Thrown Contemporary has been amazing. Not only pulling together this lovely body of work, ducking and diving with promotional interviews, but also producing a gorgeous catalogue of the show – shown in extract here.
It was very interesting to remount WhyTheFace? at the Crypt Gallery during the London Design Festival in September. Recent graduates from Central Saint Martin’s 2019 BA and MA Ceramics programmes came together for Lasting Impressions, a group exhibition, showing a broad church of work. And how appropriate is that? The wonderfully atmospheric brick vaults of St Pancras parish church on Euston Road were a great backdrop for our work. Contemporary ceramics set against subterranean London Clay brick walls.
Click below for a walk through of my installation. The clay stop-frame animated film was projected on bare walls, sculpture dotted around the gallery space on stone stairs, and various metal and wooden plinths. It was great to see the film projected on such a large scale, filling the wall. The whole work took on a superhuman feel, resonating with my thesis work on the monstrous golem.
The exhibition had a nice write up in Domus, the Italian design magazine too. Click here to view. Or below are a few other images of my work at the show.
Here are some images from my fellow exhibitors work too..
Our beautiful cat, Emily, companion of 14 years, sadly passed away this week. The days blurred into one, as her condition gradually worsened, loosing her sense of balance and appetite. Yesterday, we had to allow her to drift into the Big Sleep. We will miss her terribly.
Thank goodness I was consoled by my wonderful friend, artist and ceramics mentor Stephanie Buttle over a drink a few nights before. A true creative, she reminded me to put the sadness into the clay. Steph suggested I make a funerary urn to place Emily’s ashes in. What could be more fitting? And another great excuse to work with unfired clay, that would allow Emily and the urn to melt back into feline Mother Earth.
Yesterday afternoon I did just that, and spent a perfect couple of hours with my daughter, who came home for the weekend to nest, condole and recooperate from the excesses of Uni. The stars seemed to be aligned as I went down into my basement to retrieve a bag of terracotta, only to uncover some forgotten clay with the perfect provenance – dug up from a depth of 25m from a construction site opposite our house a few years ago. This ‘home grown’ clay was a deep deep grey, very sticky, tricky to work with and cold to the touch. From that depth, drilled up by piling machines, it would not have seen the light of day for about 20,000 years. Primeval stuff.
The whole process felt very ancient too, linking back to the some of the earliest ceramics of human civilisation, where the passing of loved ones involved making effigies, and funerary urns to carry them back to Mother Earth or into the afterlife.
I’m not used to making ‘functional’ ware. We rolled the clay to make the base and sides of the urn, trying to ‘do a good job’ using wooden battens so that the clay was even, using a prosaic Vanish plastic tub as the form to wrap the slabs of clay around. Miscalculating the dimensions of the sides, a disconcerting, gapping hole stood there slightly accusingly. Instead of starting again to make the ‘perfect’ pot, I filled the gap with an extra slab of clay, pushing the two sides together roughly with my thumbs. The junction resembled the backbones of a spine. Uncanny.
The urn would need a lid. Why not decorate it with an Emily? We sat sculpting, trying to capture the form of Emily’s body. Together Elsa and I reminisced about Emily and then our making went very quiet. I based my little figure on a photo of the last time that she had sat drinking from her water bowl. It felt like we were making manifest our feline friend, and really conjuring her into, perhaps not life, but into existence. It was one of those beautiful moments, when a sense of peacefulness and purposefulness came together. Prrrr.
Here are a few highlights from the Degree Show, the last day of term and my subsequent graduation. I was so pleased to be awarded my degree with First Class Honours. It made the graduation celebration all the more sweet this week with my lovely Mud friends and family. Thanks to all those who have helped me on this journey. It has been very special.
WhyTheFace? my graduating project is finished and ready to be seen. After 10 weeks of work, today is the final day of installing the Central St Martins Degree Show. The official Private View takes place on Tuesday 18th June, and it is open to the general public Wednesday – Saturday 19-21 June from 12-8pm and on Sunday 22 June12-6pm. Please do pop into the show to see it. Or you can click on the Vimeo link below to see an excerpt from the stop frame clay animation, with a sequence expressing fear.
What’s it all about?
WhyTheFace? is a study of what emotions look like and feel like. A personal taxonomy inspired by Charles Darwin’s ground-breaking publication The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals in which he defined six emotions as fundamental to human evolution and universally understood, whether you live in Pinner or Papual New Guinea: Happiness, Sadness, Surprise, Fear, Anger and Disgust.
This exploration is both figurative and abstract.
An animated stop-motion portrait of William Pryor, Darwin’s Great Great Grandson, is interspersed with abstracted versions of the same emotions. Some of these gestural interpretations have been fired and are placed in the installation.
The portrait of Pryor, whose expression was changed over 200 times during the shooting of the film is left as raw clay, kept damp under a glass dome in suspended animation ready to be brought back to life. Condensation on the inside of the glass begs the question: Is he still breathing?
A cluster of fired specimens on the shelf capture other examples of the six emotions.
The work is a response to emerging scientific evidence that young toddlers are arriving in nursery with a delayed understanding of the facial expressions of emotions. This is linked to too much time spent on flat screen devices rather than in-the-flesh interactions with their care-givers.
The installation’s specimen shelf includes a ceramic ‘brain’ representing Digital Dementia, where the right side of the brain associated with mood control and empathy is underdeveloped, in comparison with the left.
Viewers are invited to enter my world. Both as a maker-space where I have created this work, but also as conceptual field.
The installation is designed to evoke a whispered message from Charles Darwin on the importance of empathy and understanding emotions. In today’s fast-paced, digitally obsessed world, the viewer is given permission to slow down and stare at the flesh of emotions. In this oneiric space they might catch a glimpse of themselves mirroring the expressions on display, emotional contagion – a shared experience of empathy.
Last Friday, my ceramic study of The Golem, took its next BIG steps.
Bin There, Done That
Having moulded the human-scale skeletal body parts during my month-long residency with Collective Matter in Bermondsey last October, I then smoke fired the work in a series of bin-firings over the following months.
The Big Reveal at London Craft Week 2019
The wonderful Collective Matter are now giving me the opportunity to exhibit this work at the Potting Shed, their collaborative space at Contemporary Sculpture Fulmer near Slough. The piece will be on show to visitors during London Craft Week on 8th May at CSF. I will also be running a workshop that day, co-creating with visitors a reclining clay Golem. This will culminate in us ‘planting’ the figure in the sculpture park’s woods, and sewing the raw clay golem with woodland wild flower seeds – clay is just as much a growing as sculpting medium, after all! To book tickets for this tour and workshop, which includes travel arrangements to and from the venue, nibbles and a glass of something sparkly, click here.
A Hanging Matter
Meanwhile, last week, my husband David and I, joined George Marsh, the sculpture park’s wonderful director, to hang my Golemic shadow puppet. Here are some pictures of how we got on. It was intense work, connecting and cinching wires so that the human scale marionette limbs could move. We deliberately put its arms and legs in tension so that the figure appears mid-stride, in suspended animation.
What will free the golem from this suspended animation? Who knows but we must be careful what we wish for ….
Faced with the startling rise of political extremism around the world I have become particularly inspired by the myth of the Golem: a powerful mythical being, made by man out of the earth, and breathed into life by magic, usually to protect a community from attack.
Over the last year, this archetypal character has resonated perfectly with my feelings of disorientation as I no longer recognise our political landscape. It has felt as though only a superhuman force will be able to sort this mess out for me. Reaching for the clay I have been experimenting with how I could make a golem, and what that would feel like.
As an archetype, the Golem represents Man’s enduring desire to ‘play god’: to create powerful beings or entities out of inanimate objects in order to protect us or fix an intractable problem. But while the myth is intrinsically hopeful in outlook it is also deeply troubling as it highlights humankind’s propensity towards ‘hubris’, an arrogant miscalculation of the unintended consequences of our creations. A warning looms: Be careful what you wish for.
I have been relishing the fact that the golem archetype is intrinsically linked to my chosen discipline of sculpting figuratively in clay, and plays to my propensity towards political activism. Having generated the work featured in this post earlier this year, I am currently returning to the shadow puppet as the focus of my month-long residency in Bermondsey with Collective Matter – the wonderful ceramic studio led by Katie Spragg and Eva Masterman. Seizing the opportunity of dedicated studio space and large kiln, I am producing a human scale golem marionette that will hopefully be exhibited in the Potting Shed gallery space curated by Collective Matter at Contemporary Sculpture Fulmer, in the coming months. Watch this space.
The last two years have been difficult. I have been hard hit by the result of the Brexit Referendum and Trump’s election to the White House. Trying to find ways to channel my political frustrations and concerns into the clay.
This week I am again taking part in an Associated Clay Workers Union (ACWU) group exhibition at Southwark Cathedral in the Lancelot Link, this time on the theme of Votive. The act of offering votives into water is used in many cultures and throughout history from early Neolithic times. Hopeful ritual acts to engender change in the future, votives are often given in dedication or as a consequence of a vow. They are a ritual performance undertaken in uncertain times and in thanks for subsequent relief.
Responding to this theme, it seemed like an ideal opportunity create a piece to express my prayers for a People’s Vote on the final Brexit Deal, including an option to stay within the EU. Inspired by a Roman chalice I saw a few years ago in the Louvre, and thinking about Janus, the Roman god of transitions who is represented on the gates of Rome with two heads facing in opposite directions, I chose to make a double portrait of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. On one level two sides of the same Brexit coin.
I reworked the chalice archetype by creating a ballot box out of their heads rather than a sacrificial vessel. Both Corbyn and May appear to me to be inextricably linked in the current political trajectory towards what appears will be a No Deal Brexit. From my perspective both politicians have been two-faced Remainers. Both campaigned for Remain, but have been been responsible for a shocking shift towards a hard Brexit. Corbyn’s lack of leadership and opposition on Brexit has been deafening. To me he appears to be aiding and abetting the UK’s exit from the EU, a betrayal to his Islington Constituents, of which I am one, and Londoners who voted over-welmingly for Remain and to young people, stalwart Remainers who he proports to represent.
Visual Reference for the Portraits
Visual Reference for the Portraits
Visual Reference for the Portraits
Visual Reference for the Portraits
Reference Images for the Portraits
Visual Reference for the Portraits
I have deliberately chosen to not fire Votive for a Vote on the Final Brexit Deal. The intension is to take the work to its natural conclusion and ‘gift’ it to the Thames at the end of the show, as a ritual offering, in the hope that my prayers come true.
The exhibition is being staged within the annual Totally Thames Festival programme, and after the show has come down on Sunday 30th September, at Midday – which is low tide, my fellow ACWU makers and I will be offering the unfired work to the Thames. It will take place on the Thames foreshore, Queen’s Walk, Bankside, in front of The Globe Theatre. The unfired clay sculptures will be placed on the shingles, and allowed to be sacrificially washed away and returned to mud by the capital’s tidal waters.
Come down if you can, to both the exhibition and the Gifting, and spread the word about the #Peoplesvote. It’s not a done deal. We demand the right to a vote on the final Brexit Deal, including an option to remain in the EU if we do not like the terms of the deal, or no deal. If you want to take action now, click here to sign the People’s Vote petition.
Although nerve wracking to stand up and talk at the Congress, it was also great to be able to share some of the insights that came out of this fascinating project. The course unit’s aim was to explore what contribution ceramics could really make to the broader society, and our project, called Compelling Voices looked to help develop the case to prevent the bulldozers being taken to this Community Garden, an oasis of green in densely populated Hackney.
In the first phase of the project we staged a public engagement workshop in the garden in which we invited local visitors to join us in making a communal sculpture expressing what we love about this place. At the same time we discussed the issues facing the garden, and recorded our conversations via microphones that we hung above the sculpture. To our delight, the clay modelling really engaged visitors of all ages, and interestingly slowed the conversation down so that people were happy to discuss at length what they felt about this Community Garden. This was a light-bulb moment for me, and I realised that clay is uniquely well adapted to helping develop ideas for public consultations for projects dealing with the built environment. It was also a vindication of the theory that making with your hands, together with others, allows for more creative thinking.
In stage two, we made campaigning vessels: deliberately eye catching urns and paving stones for the garden. We inscribed them with the local opinions about why the garden should be saved. Small and large fonts allowed the work to both whisper and shout these compelling voices. We adopted a deliberately hand-made aesthetic to fit with the natural environment of the community garden. Two of these pieces are currently on displayed at the Wedgwood Museum.
While our project has not saved the Dalston Eastern Curve Garden per se, it has formed an interesting and inspiring part of a broad campaign, which has so far been successful. Hooray for clay!
So I am quite excited about how my exploration into portraiture is developing. My latest project is a single self portrait of me expressing a series of emotions, the kind of emotions you might have during a single day. I photographed the head as it progressed through these facial expressions and then animated it into a film. Click on the link above to watch it. It is an attempt to show fleeting human emotions in clay using analogue and digital sources and technologies.
At its core, the work is based on the idea that life is made up of fleeting emotions and micro moments.
How it came about:
At Easter I discovered the work of 18th Century Austrian sculptor, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. In a state of mental breakdown, Messerschmidt sculpted 64, what have become known, as ‘Character Heads’. I was blown away by them and it rather took the wind out of my sails that a portrait sculptor had been exploring this so well two and a half centuries ago. What could I add?
The Yawn, 1770-83
Down the ages, most portraiture has been a kind of PR exercise, often representing powerful people in idealised ways, and with neutral facial expressions. Although this later point is probably based on practical considerations as sitters find it very tiring to hold poses with extreme facial expressions. But how might Messerschmidt portray emotions if he were alive today? And how can clay portraiture show the messy business of being human now?
My ideas board got me to thinking about how feelings are expressed in time. In this fast paced digital world we live in I am interested in ways to slow down the viewer’s gaze, and reconnect them with the nitty gritty of human experience: our emotions and how they ebb and flow. Hence I sculpted my emotional portrait through time, and animated it.
My intention was also to try to reboot the genre and find a way to give the portrait a contemporary twist by bouncing between the digital and analogue realms.
The work that I had done last term with Jonathan Keep using the data from the Royal Academy 3D Scan of my head, led me to understand that there are real benefits from creating hybrid digital and analogue outputs (See my previous post)
I decided to use the 3D scan of my head as the starting point for the sculpture, then work from photographs of me showing various feelings as the basis of the emotional iterations. At certain points I also wanted to include some strange Matrix-like perspectives that the digital world now affords us.
At the start of the project, I planned to decorate the head using low-fired glazes, as I have become committed to working as ecologically as possible in my sculpting work. But as the project progressed, it became clear that really the final head did not need to be fired at all. In fact firing would have run counter to the philosophy of the piece. It is the plasticity of the paper clay that that has allowed me to work and iterate the piece. Turning it into a permanently solid sculpture would not have made sense.
The film was produced using 6 still images morphed on an iPhone app, and then set to a soundscape, that I composed in Garage Band.
So my next steps:
I am thinking about allowing the head to dry out and crumble. Perhaps outside so that the weather can gradually erode it away. Perhaps in a vat of water, so that it can slowly dissolve. Or left to gently decay under this bell jar ….
What do you think my next steps should be with this head?