I enjoy Nicholas Lees’ work as much as I’ve enjoyed communicating with him about his art. He is an articulate man, as will be evident in this Q&A back-and-forth below. He is also a very thoughtful man, which shouldn’t be surprising given the time it takes to create each of his sculptural pieces. First, Nicholas throws a ceramic form, then mounts that piece onto a lathe and meticulously carves evenly-spaced grooves. That lengthy creative process allows ample time for reflection. The end results are Spartan and elegant, calming and strangely energetic.
JTW: Looking at a video on your website, I see you employ a lathe to carve out the negative spaces in your sculptures. How did you develop that technique?
NL: This body of work originated in a research project at the Royal College of Art in London. The rigour of the approach to generating artwork through an iterative research based approach was extremely useful to me – the most important thing was define clear questions, and in this case the question was “how can I make ceramic be only half present?”. The question had come from the exploration of ideas around transitions between 2 and 3 dimensions, cross section and solid.
In this context I had become intrigued by shadows and silhouettes as visual phenomena, and what particularly interested me was the boundary and uncertain edge of the shadow, the penumbra, and I was trying to make a material representation of this, and of the ephemeral qualities of the interface between light and shadow, matter and space. In trying to achieve a form with a ‘semi-presence’ I thought about removing half of the clay substance of the object. This took me back to an earlier generation of my work, making thrown vessels, and the fact that I really enjoyed the turning or trimming of thrown forms and working with clay in its leather hard, semi resistant state in a reductive process.
I was also aware of the use of lathe turning in making electrical insulators (forms to which my objects have a strong visual reference) and in the production of Wedgwood and other Staffordshire manufacturers since the 18th century.
It took me a year to develop the skill to do it adequately, and I have continue to refine and develop this process, and to enjoy it despite the repetition and the hours of intense concentration needed!
JTW: In the video I quickly see you saturate the carved floating bowl with what must be a pigmented solution which appears to leach into the ceramic “fins”. Again, how did you develop this technique?
NL: This technique originated in the drawings I make, of which more below. I wanted to introduce colour into a body of work which had been largely monochromatic due to its origin in explorations of light and shadow. Aesthetically I did not want the colour or surface finish to be applied and additive to the form, and for practical reasons I didn’t want to colour the whole clay body. I remembered the use of soluble metals as colourants for ceramics (a minority decorative interest as they have several problems including their solubility and issues of toxicity), and thought they might provide a way forwards. I have developed a process that uses saturation and evaporation to infuse the forms with colour. I like the fact that the movement of the colour through the form relates to what I think as the visual porosity of the forms and perception of them as being akin to osmosis.
JTW: How has your work evolved over time?
NL: It is now 30 years since I first graduated from a BA in Ceramics, and in that time I have made at least 3 distinct bodies of work. The first was a series of stoneware thrown and altered, broadly functional although not everyday, work. Alongside this I worked for another potter making slip-cast work, which broadened my skills and outlook.
After a return to education to study for a Masters some years later I then made an evolving series of abstract sculpture using a hybrid of slip-casting and hand-building process and exploring formal concerns of interaction between natural and artificial forms and surfaces and presence and absence. Alongside this series of work I spent a lot of my time working in Higher Education, something I continue to do although to a much lesser extent. The mid-career return to education and practice-based research process described above also involved me in understanding some common threads in all of my work despite their apparent visual disparity.
JTW: Will you describe your creative process a bit? Do you formulate a specific idea of the piece you want to create, perhaps via a sketch or drawing – or is your sculptural process more intuitive and spontaneous?
NL: As I guess will have become clear for the above my approach is relatively cerebral. It is also very important that I think through material and process and the act of making. I do not have an idea and then make it – the making and thinking are inseparable. There is a strong ‘felt’ emotional content to the work however, and I think that sometimes I am using a semi logical and questioning approach to find my way to some intangible aspects of what it means and feels like to be in the world and how people, spaces and objects interact. Inevitably of course my artwork is also an expression of my own experience and psychological make up, a fact it has taken me a long time to understand, but has become increasingly interesting to engage with and use.
There is a minimalist austerity and architectural quality to some of my work at the moment – here time is an important factor as some of the ‘softer’ qualities of the work become apparent with looking over time and with movement. This sense of a balance between consistency and change in perception manifested in the shifting relationships between object, light, space and body is important to me and is informed by a lifetime of looking at the same view on the west coast of Scotland and understanding that within this consistency there is an infinity of variety and that each experience of perception is unique.
JTW: Do you continually explore carving and coloring techniques? Work on your website suggests you are poking around with different materials and techniques.
NL: I have been working with a fairly tight format in terms of process for about the last 10 years. I think the limitations of this process have in some ways been a creative spur, and I have been almost surprised at how working in this way has sustained my interest, and led me to look further into the ideas behind the work and gain a deeper understanding of it. Within the possibly repetitive nature of this endeavour, I seek to explore the potential for evolution of the outcomes. Using colour has opened up a new level of exploration and variation within continuity as well as giving a new thrill of surprise when opening the kiln.
The tilting is really about giving more complexity to the visual and spatial relationship of viewer to the object – moving away from changes in the perceivable form only happening on the x/y axes, to a subtler and more dynamic interaction of perception.
JTW: You often work in sets of three. Is there some significance to that particular combination of forms?
NL: Working with multiple objects making up one sculpture is something I’m increasingly doing. Each unit of the multi piece works is usually made from multiple thrown and turned parts and this assemblage gives me a way into making larger scale works.
I have mostly made Diptychs and Triptychs and I think these resonate as historically established formats for artworks. These sculptures also give me the opportunity to focus on the interaction between forms and the spaces between them. This play with positive/negative space takes the idea of uncertain boundary of form further and also relates to the figure/ground relationship.
JTW: There is a strong correlation between your drawings and your sculpture. Your sculpture is much more consistently geometric than your drawings, in which lines frequently blur and diffuse. What makes you gravitate toward a drawing vs a sculpture on any given day?
NL: The drawings are a parallel activity to making – a way of exploring the same ideas in a different medium. I don’t really make drawings in a way that is preparatory to making, or a stage in a design process. However the drawings do feed in to the sculpture as they can give me indications of ways forward or new ways of looking at an idea or a process.
I first started making these drawings, which are also a bit like monoprints, as a way of visualising an idea to incorporate glaze in the making – something that has still to come to full fruition many years later, but is on its way soon.
One key this about drawing is that they give a completely different timescale for the iteration of idea-action-result, and so it is possible to work through some things quite quickly and the activity is in some ways an antidote to the time commitment distance between initiation and result involved in making my sculpture.
I like to have the opportunity to show drawings and sculpture together and always want to do this more to explore the relationship between the media and between working in 2 and 3 dimensions. I think you are right to some extent about the sculpture being more overtly geometric than the drawings, but the drawings also give an indication of the subversion of the strict geometry and rigidity of the form that happens in the act of perception especially through movement. The action of water on paper and ink is akin to the effect of movement around the sculptural form. This can be understood a bit by looking at a video of movement across a piece.
As to what drives me to do things on a particular day – this is mostly down to what deadline is pressing. The drawings tend to happen when I have more time and space and when I want to move ideas forward.
You can see more of Nicholas Lees’ work on his website.