Susan O’Byrne employs richly patterned, mosaic-like designs on the surfaces of her ceramic sculptures of animals. It’s an interesting interplay of sculptural mass and ephemeral decoration. Susan studied tapestry as well as ceramics and that body of knowledge is evident in her work. Her work sets a quiet, contemplative tone.
Susan shared some information about her process, craftsmanship in general, and some of the stories behind the animals she portrays in her work.
JW: Can you share a little about your process?
SO: I begin with wire armature is made from iron-chrome, nichrome or Chantal wire (the stuff of kiln elements)
Once I’ve made a wire armature, I cover each wire with paper rods before hanging the armature from a frame. I make clay legs and attach these to the armature, and cover the whole form in sheets of a stoneware paper-clay body, much like working in paper-mâché. The paper rods allow for some shrinkage of the clay (onto the wire) during drying and when they burn away in the firing, create more space for further shrinkage during vitrification.
The stoneware paper-clay has been formulated to roughly the same shrinkage as the paper-porcelain I use as a second and modelling layer on each work before covering the forms in the patterned paper-porcelain layer.
In later years I have dispensed with the wire armature for smaller works. Instead, I make models from paper mâché or clay, make moulds, cast these in paper-porcelain slip, alter them, then add the patterns on the surface before firing.
JW: That is a unique way to work. How did you come to it?
SO: I studied art at Edinbugh College of Art, Scotland. At that time Edinburgh (ECA) was considered a more traditional art school than others, in the sense that it placed a very high emphases (and grade) on drawing in its many forms. I believe it was felt that drawing could lead students towards investigating ideas and aesthetics in quick diverse and accessible ways while also introducing students to the traditionally distinct concerns of the various principles of design, painting, sculpture and illustration. I have to admit I never cared much for painting (it was too soft) but loved line, its hardness, its expressive potential I loved paper. This led me to an interest in early and mid-20th century European and American expressionist artists like Egon Schiele and Larry Rivers, collage and mark-making. The idea of Oskar Kokoschka’s costume designs for his play “Murder Hope of Women” where nerves were painted on the surface of actor’s bodies, was a particularly influential image for me in the way it conveyed a type of painful sensitivity.
From here, I began to find ways to build, so that inner workings of the subject or animal could be traced on its surface. In much the same way as I began drawing with pencil and collage on paper, I found that I could build with wire and collage with paper-clay in 3 dimensions. At that time, I also enjoyed the unpredictability of the process. The wire armatures presented me (once covered with clay) with forms that were less contrived than I felt I could make using more traditional hand building methods.
These concerns are however less relevant to my making of late as I find myself more interested in surface and hopefully quieter /stiller forms in general.
JW: Are you using printed underglaze transfers (like those made by Isla Transfers) on your porcelain paper-clay? Or do you hand-make the patterned pieces you then transfer onto paper-clay?
SO: I refer to the patterns I use on my surfaces as a veneer because they are made from patterned sheets of paper porcelain, usually less than 1 mm thick, which cover all or most of the surface of forms. I don’t use decals but make pattered laser/plotter or hand cut stencils, and create the patterned sheets of clay by working back to front on plaster batts.
I use the stencils to first print slip onto plaster batts. The printed slip has a thickness and allows me to sometimes flood areas between the raised pattern on the plaster with other colours. At that point I build up the thickness of the clay slip on the batt (to about 1mm) It dries very quickly, and when at leather hard I can pull the patterns sheet from the batt. Because the initial printed slip has a thickness it is not just on the surface of the sheet but operates a bit like an encaustic tile offering a kind of visual depth to the pattern and allowing sanding at a finished stage without losing the decoration.
The paper in the slip grants enough strength to make these sheets very thin and also permits them to be applied to a dry paper-clay form. I make several sheets of pattern before cutting them up to collage the surface of an animal or birds. Dryer paper-clay sheets can we rehydrated with care and used months or even years after making them.
JW: What attracted you to ceramics as an art form in the first place? (vs more ‘traditional’ sculptural media or even papier mache?)
SO: I can’t say I was particularly attracted to clay from an early age, but I’ve always loved to make things I would become very excited as a child by the idea that I could make any toy I wished for from the contents of a cupboard (occasionally, I’m sure, to the annoyance of who ever owned the cupboard).
I grew up in a family of makers, by grandmother was always sewing and mending, my great aunt was an artist and made puppets, my dad built our house himself and thought me to use power tools very early on.
When I left secondary (high) school I studied for a year at Grennan Mill Craft School in Co. Killkenny, Ireland. It was a very practical course including subjects like ceramics, tapestry, weaving, jewellery, silversmithing, batik, printmaking drawing and patchwork. I loved the discipline of craft, of developing an understanding of material, what materials could and sometimes didn’t want to do and learning to appreciate the skill, patience and sensitivity involved of any craft.
I went on to study sculpture, but now realise I quickly became overwhelmed and confused by the broadness of that discipline. I knew I wanted to learn a practical skill in depth, but didn’t know where to start. I found it difficult to begin with a concept (which was the principle of the course) and then choose a material to work with.
I elected to switch schools (to ECA in Scotland) and to ceramics as a medium, initially to learn about a specific material and the skills involved in working with that material. In a sense, choosing to study in a material-based course, framed my direction for me and allowed me to investigate what I could make within a specific tradition.
I think that I was also aware of the community that ceramics attracted and enjoyed being part of that club.
Once I had some understanding of clay, I realised that I could draw on, as well as reference my interest in craft in my own practice. I believe that an interest in tapestry, textiles, mosaic, bricolage, historic and domestic crafts continues to inform what I make today.
JW: Some of your pieces carry underlying links to ancestry and family lineage (e.g., Five Sisters and a Family Tree). Can you tell me more about the background stories of your work?
SO: “Five Sisters and a Family Tree” reference my maternal ancestry, a clock making family who migrated to Ireland from the Black Forrest in 1860 (a very unusual time to move to Ireland as it was a period of mass immigration away from Ireland largely because of the great famine).
Growing up in the company of my grandmother and my grandmothers’ sisters, stories and names of this ancestry were often the topic of conversation at home. Their names were spoken often then but are less so now. The stories were however written down in my great aunt Ursula’s in written memoirs of her life.
Acknowledging the important part the ancestors and stories had in my imagination, and my identity, I chose to represent them as animals who were “exotic to me” in ” A Family Tree” (An installation of 50 ceramic animal portraits with name plates. The activity of examining and of making “new” faces, provided me with a process to discover / reimagine characters in an intimate way, while celebrating the individual lives by speaking these names again.
Needle point patterns on the surface of the animal heads represent the consistent practice of sewing and textiles among the elderly women of my family who told these stories, and how their interest in patient careful making and mending became influential to me.
The “Five sisters” from the same exhibition represented my grandmother and her sisters, as deer from the Black Forrest. Each deer incorporates a “blanket” on their surface which hopes to celebrate the individual I knew. The decoration of these deer evolved from my grandmother and her sisters needlework patterns as well as 19th century white work samplers in the collection of the V&A [Victoria and Albert Museum in London].
JW: Is it possible to take one of your pieces and discuss it in more depth and detail? The story behind the piece, ways you’ve incorporated references to that story, decisions you make along the way, etc?
SO: I often make my work in series, and while the work “Five Sisters and a Family Tree” have a very specific and personal story, some of my works were initially made and have meaning as collections or part of a collection.
I am interested in the ways animals in their capacity for diversity have been used as metaphors to order and make sense of our world. These ideas also have roots in my own childhood. When I was about 3 years old, I would hunt the house every Sunday, for a small plastic animal that had arrived (my magic) for me the find.
I soon had a large collection of plastic animals, that I loved to sort out between the tiles of the kitchen floor.
Sorting was the best part of that game and was an introduction to me to the role animals have for children in the cognition and understanding of the world. I recognise that animals, particularity pets can be a comfort to children (being similarly outside the complicated concerns of adulthood) who are learning about the world. I noticed also how the naming of animals in zoos or museums can be an aid to cognition in children and animals can personify and simply complex themes or emotions in stories. By extension I am curious about catalogues made of animals in medieval times to explain philosophical or religious teachings and how/ why they were collected in the Victorian era.
With these ideas in mind and in reference to medieval bestiaries I made a collection of 20 animals for a touring solo show. I developed my patterning technique in the creation of these animals which were decorated with designs taken from the encaustic tiles of medieval church floors. At that time, I also made a collection 100 birds of the British Isles which referenced Victorian menageries and were decorated with Victorian wallpaper patterns. The birds were displayed in labelled cabinets as a collection.
In short, I make animals but they are not intended to be direct interpretations of real animals. Instead, I aim to create animals that reference us, our relationship with and our curiosity about them. I would like my works to look as if they have been made by someone at some time in the past for some particular reason or function. My hope is that, like a museum object, they may instil some curiosity from the viewer while attempting to capture, distil and reflect a little of our own humanity.
Photographs of Susan O’Byrne’s studio are available on a blog post from the Pink Pagoda Studio.
Ben Carter interviewed Susan on his Tales of a Red Clay Rambler. The interview is here.
Susan’s website contains more examples of her work.