Moving Darwin

My first solo show – Moving Darwin, is finally opening to the public Monday 26th July – 5th Sept at the Home of Charles Darwin.

It has been quite an journey. From the germ of an idea as a 3rd year student at Central Saint Martins making work for a hypothetical exhibition at Down House, the intensity of making a stop-frame clay animation and series of ceramic works in my final term, the delight when the museum’s curators embraced the idea and invited me to exhibit in 2020, its subsequent cancelation due to COVID, to English Heritage re-kindling the project this spring which presented a new opportunity. It is now installed and ready for the doors to open on Monday.

Excitingly, the work is bang up to date. I have sculpted new pieces to respond to the current pandemic which highlights just how relevant Charles Darwin’s theories about the expression of emotions still are today. Hands up if you are struggling to understand the emotions or ‘read the room’ when staring at zoom in gallery view? Or looking at a face half-obscured by a PPE mask and wondering if that person is sad or angry? Contemporary life is challenging what Darwin knew to be true – that the facial expression of emotions are normally universally understood as they are a core constituent of how we have evolved as a species. They are a pre-linguistic language, one of the reasons we are such a successful species on this planet because we can communicate quickly, silently, and with great sophistication. What happens if we can’t understand each other’s emotions in these current circumstances?

Emotional Field – Wedgwood-inspired emotional portraits

When I first got the invitation to exhibit at Down House, I decided I wanted to develop the work further and make a new version of Emotional Field focusing on a woman. On reflection my degree show installation was completely male dominated. The current Emma Darwin, great great granddaughter to Charles and Emma, and an expert on her family’s history, seemed the obvious choice to ask to sit for me for this update. Emma came to my house in autumn 2019, and I photographed her, taking ‘mug shots’ of her front, left and right views expressing and holding the six emotions that her forebear defined as universally understood whether you life in Pinner or Papua New Guinea: Happiness sadness, fear, surprise, anger and disgust. Since then I have sculpted numerous versions, but it was not until this spring and the prospect of the show was revived that I decided to sculpt these six emotions again, this time in Wedgwood inspired colours, with the added frisson of one Wedgwood Blue head wearing a porcelain white face mask. The Jasperware colours also allowed me to make a strong visual link between the Darwin and Wedgwood family dynasties.

Abstract Fear – an interpretation of what visceral fear feels like in the body.

Another piece I have remade for ‘Moving Darwin’ is Abstract Fear – I wanted to include a gestural piece that showed what the emotions feel like in our bodies. But the only placement possible, on a marble mantle piece against a cream wall, led me to rework the original piece in delicious black clay to add to its visceral sense of menace.

WhyTheFace? Viewing Cabin

Needless to say, my stop-frame clay animation is also on display at Down House. I worked with the wonderful set designer Colin Peters to make this demountable viewing cabin, to create an immersive experience while watching the film, complete with surround sound, and a periscopic side view of the original raw clay head of William Pryor that was used during the making of WhyTheFace?

I will be on site at Down House on the opening day Monday 26th July – running a series of drop in clay emoji workshops. Come along if you can. If not, Down House makes a wonderful summer’s day out of London. You can get there using just an Oyster card, if you don’t have car – via trains to Orpington or Bromley South, and then a bus to Downe Village. Apart from seeing my work, it is fascinating to visit Darwin’s study where he penned The Origin of Species and The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, but also roam in his walled garden and green house where he studied plants, insect and animal varieties up close during his scientific research.

And finally if you would like to hear a really generous interview with me by BBC Radio Kent’s wonderful Dominic King the take a listen by clicking on the image below and scrolling to 1hr 12mins in, where I gabble on excitedly for 10 minutes.

Click on image to listen to interview – scrolling to 1hr 12mins in for start of the conversation

Funerary Urn For a Top Cat

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.

It’s a wrap and many thanks!

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.