I recently came across Sunbin Lim’s work online, and reached out to him to learn more about his evolution as an artist. Sunbin is originally from South Korea but now works in Germany. Sunbin has had a number of very interesting experiences around the world, and through those experiences has worked with various media. I’ve loved perusing his work on his website, which contains samples of his work continuously from 2012 to 2021. Austere, multi-element pieces from 2012-14 that speak of engineering and industrialization have given way in more recent years to very tactile, gooey, fluid work oftentimes referencing domestic furniture.
JTW: It looks like you originally studied stage design in Korea, but then switched to ceramics. What attracted you to ceramics?
SL: Yes, I studied stage design and ceramics in South Korea. At first, I was more interested in stage design than ceramics. I didn’t want to just make a bowl, but when I was a freshman in univ, I mainly learned the basic technique of making a bowl. So I lost interest in ceramics and started to focus on stage design. After finishing my first year of university and serving in the army, I was able to experience ceramic sculpture and I’m starting to get a lot of interest in it and as I began to concentrate on ceramic sculpture, my interest returned from stage design to ceramics.
JTW: You worked as an assistant to Brazilian sculptor Jorge dos Anijos. He works primarily in metal. What did you learn from that experience?
SL: My experience in Brazil was a very special time for me. I was able to indirectly experience life as a successful artist from him and it became a valuable asset to me. I made a work in Brazil using metal and paper, not clay. I experienced something new and realized a lot while making a work using new materials there. I realized then that even the same type of work can look different if the materials are different and it was an opportunity to think a lot about the advantages and disadvantages of clay as a material.
Jorge also influenced me a lot at the time. He explained the beauty that I could feel in the imperfections and it influenced my current work a lot.
JTW: You moved from Korea to Germany in 2011 where you currently live. What prompted that move? And how are the two settings (Korea vs Germany) similar and/or different in terms of artistic culture – specifically in terms of ceramics?
SL: I had good ceramic skills when I was in Korea, but I always had difficulty in creating. I looked for a professor who could teach me well, but I couldn’t find one in South Korea. I got to know professor Jochen Brandt of IKKG (Institute for Ceramic and Glass Art, University of Applied Science Koblenz) in Germany at the recommendation of my Korean professor Suku Park and came to Germany in 2011 to study in IKKG and I think it was the best choice for me.
I think German ceramic sculpture is much ahead of Korea. The German professors who coached me had an open mind and taught me the creative process I needed in great detail and easily. When you studied in South Korea, there was no professor who could teach me the creative process so easily and in detail. I don’t think there are any professors with that ability in South Korea right now. I think there are many professors in South Korea who can teach good ceramic techniques. However, Korean professors are very lacking in creativity. Perhaps because of that, in South Korea, there seems to be a better evaluation of ceramic works with excellent technical completeness than creative ceramic works. However, unlike South Korea, Germany evaluates creative and original work better even if the work lacks completeness. I personally appreciate creative work even if it lacks perfection.
JTW: Will you tell me about your creative process? Do you plan things out in advance or work more spontaneously?
SL: Before I start my work, I collect data and sketch slowly. And I start my work by referring to the sketches, but it doesn’t make the same work as a sketch.The process of reproducing sketches into works equally hinders my creativity, because new ideas always come up in the process of working. When a new idea comes up, it changes the work.
JTW: Your work since 2018 shows an interest in furniture. Can you tell me more about that?
SL: I saw a big piece of furniture in my dream while sleeping and it felt like a sculpture to me, not furniture. After I woke up, I sketched what I saw in my dream and later made it into a work. That is the beginning of my furniture series. Perhaps one day the furniture that I saw interesting influenced me. So I think I would have had such a dream.
JTW: Generally, where do you find inspiration for your work? Has that changed over time?
SL: Inspiration for the work comes from my surroundings. I still get a lot of inspiration when I take a walk and travel. Living in Europe, I see many interesting things. Inspiration in everyday life is endless. Inspiration changes over time. Sometimes things that were interesting in the past are not interesting at all now. But there are things that were interesting in the past and things that are still interesting now.
JTW: You mention an interest in imperfection – imperfect structures and imperfect beauty. How has that influenced your art?
SL: I have been interested in broken or old buildings since I was young. In my hometown (Cheolwon), there are many buildings that were destroyed during the Korean War. I was very interested in the buildings at the time, but I didn’t know exactly what was interesting to me at the time. I slowly realized later that I was interested in broken buildings, or in imperfections that were broken and destroyed, such as Roman ruins. I was able to find interesting elements through them, these are open structures, internal spaces, surface textures.
I have been working hard on this. I can also feel imperfect beauty through them. These elements are an important basis of my work. Since then, I have been paying attention to the beauty that I can feel from the imperfections, and it still has a lot of influence on my work today. I am currently working upon the above-mentioned elements and reinterpreting interesting objects in my own artistic language.
Carol Long is an extremely talented artist working in St. John, Kansas. Her work is lyrical, playful and stunningly well-executed. Carol’s elaborate forms and surface details reflect her childhood experiences growing up around plants and animals on a family farm. Her technical proficiency reflects years as a working potter as well as countless hours she puts into each of her individual pieces.
Below is one of Carol’s sculptural vases called “Lidded Butterfly”. Following the first photo is a close up of one section of the piece showcasing Carol’s skills at slip trailing, glazing and overall design. I love the palette, too.
JTW: Will you describe your creative process more fully?
CL: Throwing, extruding, slab, and casting are the main methods.
Although it took years get over the fact that I could use a thrown form as a starting point instead of an ending, I am intrigued by the manipulation of an existing form. Producing a harmony between the visual and the structural is a thrill.
On the other hand, casting bypasses forming pieces. In some projects that is preferable. For instance, construction of a lidded box may not expand my clay experience but having the box to start with allows more time for surface design. Even so I am tempted to alter them.
JTW: Do you plan out your pieces (for example, sketching or prototyping in some way) or work more intuitively and just start building?
CL: Intuitively. A plan may suggest that I know the ending to the story. Plans are quickly changed with a push here and a squeeze there.
JTW: What are your sources of inspiration? (You mention “botanical life and hidden aspects of nature” – can you expand on that?
CL: I like to make pieces that have a visual flow of growth. Like it could change shape when you look away. Handles that reach out into negative space like a vine or a squiggle on a page, animals that are in motion, the foot of a vase that may have flapped in the wind are ways to evoke nature.
The extruded chrysalis forms take the idea of a tiny hiding place to a large vessel.
JTW: I see some references to Art Nouveau in some of your tile on IG. Almost Tiffany-glass-like. Am I off base here?
CL: You are correct. I strive for the gracefulness of Art Nouveau.
Slip trailing is the white lines between different colored glazes. It is like cake decorating and has the visual effect of stained glass, cloisonne, cartoons, and coloring books.
JTW: You also mention that your work continues to evolve. Can you sketch out that evolution for us?
CL: Through the years my style has changed from obvious thrown pieces with geometric surface designs to free and flowing forms and surface designs. I don’t mean to suggest that the later has come about by accident, like the work starts perfect and then I mess it up and call it art. It has been intentional changes to forms that I want to look effortless.
The joy in making the piece and the delight of the viewer is my goal. I look forward to my time working in clay because there is always something to discover. Clay is limitless.
JTW: What first attracted you to ceramics?
CL: It could have been little tikes electric wheel I had when I was a kid or the cattle syringe I used as a slip trailer in the mud of our driveway. I grew up on a farm and there is no end to finding ways to create in the country with no one looking over your shoulder. High school art class was the first serious experience. I had great instructors in college and I spent all my time in the ceramics lab. I’m glad I passed my other courses. I married a farmer and moved to another farm. Guess what I thought about all day driving the tractor. We had three kids. No more tractor driving. I had clay projects on top of the washing machine where little hands couldn’t reach them. When the kids went to school I became more serious and demanded more time in the studio. When I thought I saw the light at the end of the motherhood tunnel, I built a bigger studio and declared it my full-time job. Thus, thwarting any future tractor driving ideas. I got lucky when I hired a couple of wonderful employees. Then the rapidity of exploration and growth really took off. They have since gotten real jobs. Teachers! I am very proud of them. Now my daughter has taken a lot of the tedious responsibilities over in the studio so I can get back to work. She is a gem to work with. That brings us up to date. That rambled and went off topic.
JTW: Will you tell me about your use of scale? (Sometimes I think I’m looking at large vessels and tiles, in other photos it looks like the objects may be tiny.)
CL: My work ranges from a couple of inches to 26”. That just fits in my kiln.
Slip trailing designs have to be simplified on small pieces. They can get messy and crowded leaving little room for the glazes. The slip trailing designs can get very complicated on larger work. Tiles are almost always 6”x 6”. I put several tiles together for larger pieces.
Samantha Dickie is a Canadian ceramic artist, based in Victoria, British Columbia. She describes her work as “focused on abstract expressionism and minimalist sculpture within an installation practice.” A defining element of Samantha’s aesthetic is the concept of multiplicity – numerous (sometimes thousands) of individual ceramic elements that she combines into a piece or installation that exposes the viewer to the collective whole, individual elements in the whole, as well as the negative space between individual elements of the collective.
Samantha notes in her bio: “Integrating a theoretical degree in women’s studies with her broad interests in philosophy and psychology, she has become drawn to the visceral nature of rough and intentionally imprecise clay as emblematic of rejecting social pressures, often placed with particular weight on women, to strive for unattainable perfection. For Dickie, there is expressive beauty in imperfection.”
Given the scale of Samantha’s work, I’ve included photographs of a few installations and interspersed them in this article, focusing on both individual elements as well as the overall context. Additional photos of Samantha’s work are located on her website.
JTW: Much of your work involves creating lots of objects – similar forms. Has this requirement for volume changed the way you work?
SD: Multiplicity has been how I’ve envisioned my work for the last 20 years. As far as changing the way I work, I’d say that producing large-scale pieces with huge numbers of components has been an entrenched work routine for a long time now.
As you say, the requirement for volume is different than creating a smaller grouping of forms. However, as many of my forms that are in smaller assemblages are in fact large in scale individually, I am still working on them over a long period of time.
The process of creating a large-scale assemblage or installation starts with a preliminary time to experiment, resolve and plan how to execute my vision for the piece. Following that development process, is major production mode with a lot of studio time doing very repetitive work. Sometimes repetition is meditative. Sometimes it is boring. I distract myself from the monotony with learning through podcasts and audio books. I often hire a studio assistant to help keep production going efficiently as I never seem to have enough time.
People have an idea that being an artist is always creative. When I’m in a time of visioning and creative flow, it is awesome. The rest of the time my work predominantly requires diligence to simply produce. I carve out months to prioritize a large-scale project. In order to meet my deadlines, being self-employed and working from my live/work home requires setting a work schedule amongst life’s busyness if I have any hope of completing a project for installation. It’s work, work, work. Seeing a vision that takes months to create installed in the flesh is the most incredible feeling and is worth all of the effort. I love this work.
JTW: There seems to be some idea behind most of your work – an intellectual underpinning like abstraction/minimalism, feminist politics, etc. Are there any elements of your work that aren’t connected to some idea – or that you don’t understand on a logical level?
SD: Absolutely. The creative process always includes intuition as a requirement to experiment with different forms and ideas in order to find a degree of resolution with new work. At times, such as during the artist residency I just completed, I give myself intentional time to play with new ideas, new inspirations, and new forms without constraint. The place of spontaneity, as you put it, is where the seeds for new projects sprout. Most often I come away with a collection of fresh visions, ideas, techniques, forms, and approaches to installation.
As I often respond to a particular gallery space, residential commission, or corporate design, I have parameters from which to syphon my ideas and visions for a particular creative project. I like responding to a space, or design concept, or curatorial theme. When I have a crystal-clear vision for a new installation in the early hours of the morning, that vision needs to percolate over the ensuing weeks or months for the ideas to emerge that will frame the project. Most often what I create is close to that first vision; and intuition is always the guide. Because my work is often thousands of components, it takes that clear vision to be able to endure the time required for the whole project to come to fruition.
I want to have ideas ground my work. That is why I like to work with installation. It gives me the opportunity to create something that can have an embodied response by the viewer, and hopefully can be both emotional and thought-provoking.
JTW: You mention Agnes Martin, the abstract painter, as a source of inspiration. Are there other artists who have inspired you with their work, and if so, in what way?
SD: A few artists have inspired the way I approach my work. Agnes Martin and her use of subtlety. Ernesto Neto. I saw one of his hanging installations at the Guggenheim 2 decades ago and was blown away. I can see how it inspired me to want to work big and use the ceiling so that the work can float and be walked into. At the time of seeing these artists I didn’t know that they would eventually inspire directions that I take in my work.
I admire a breadth of artists such as Ai Weiwei, Barbara Kruger, Betty Goodwin, Dale Chihuly, Hans Coper (to name a few), but I can’t say that they have influenced my work.
At times, I have made work that responds to something I have seen from another artist. For example, Walter De Maria’s installation in Soho, the New York Earth Room. He filled a 3600 sq ft, 2nd floor gallery with 22 inches of dirt, 250 cubic yards of earth. It has been maintained since 1977 in that space. Incredible! It inspired my piece ‘Grounded’. Or while I was in France, I wanted to make work responding to the local surroundings. Vallauris is a historical ceramics town in south France where Pablo Picasso made his ceramic work. I made a piece inspired by a painting that included his deconstructed wheels that I saw in the Picasso Museum in Vallauris. I named it Picasso’s wheels.
JTW: You’ve done a number of residencies during your career, giving you important time to reflect. How long are those residencies, typically? Have you approached residencies with an intention to try something new, or to just devote yourself to work & thought and see where things go?
SD: Residencies are deeply fruitful times for creative exploration and production for me. Attending an artist residency is like a magic break, where I can fully immerse in my work at arm’s length from other life responsibilities.
I have attended residencies when I can over the course of my career: 3 residencies in Canada that were each three months (the Banff Center for the Arts, the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture (KIAC), and Red Deer College) before parenting became more all-consuming in my life; and 2 one-month residencies during the busy years of parenting (the Sculpture Factory in Jingdezhen, China, and A.I.R. Vallauris in France that I just finished). As my kids head out into the world, so will I for my work as much as possible. I’m already dreaming of what could be next.
I’d say that more time is better in a residency, but time is a luxury that many of us can’t carve out easily. Whatever amount of time, I dive in. I have created entire exhibitions that were proposed, received grants to create, and produced while in residency for ensuing public gallery exhibitions. I have also attended residencies with free-flowing time to experiment, to be spontaneous, to respond to the local environment, to seek fresh inspirations, to work out unfamiliar ideas and to resolve new techniques. Each time, I come out of the residency with many different things that evolve and expand my practice when I get home.
I have three concurrent intentions for any residency: explore in the studio to bring home the seeds for future projects (incorporating different ideas, forms, and techniques); make new connections and friends with artists from around the world (the best part); and make sure to explore the local area around the residency (that inspiration part is essential). Don’t just work in the studio like at home, fill the well with inspiration and connection.
JTW: Has becoming or being a parent changed your creative life? How so?
SD: Absolutely. Prioritizing parenting has changed many things for me, some good, some hard.
The downside is that in order to prioritize my kids, given the circumstance of where I live and single parenting, I’ve had to postpone some ambitions like graduate school that would have furthered my career sooner. I’m now heading into my MFA after deferring it for 19 years. That has had an impact on the trajectory of my career opportunities, but I’ve worked hard to be an artist and a single parent and have no regrets about my choices. Kids first.
On the other side, being a parent expands a creative life outside the studio and into everything. Kids hold a spirit of creativity that is lovely. Besides having part of my studio dedicated to materials for my kids to use (from watercolour paints to printmaking to soap making), I did a ton of volunteering at their elementary school with art workshops, and permanent art installations to inspire the kids in their learning environment. Now that they’re older, they come to exhibition openings with their friends, or travel with me for work. I’m super inspired to see them engaged in their own creativity, whether that’s on the dance stage, in the wood shop, or in the art studio. We all need creativity as part of our lives. Of course, they’re my best creation (and biggest distraction from my work).
Concurrently, I think creating my home for my family (a live/work/family space) brought me to the residential house design work that I do (on the side to my studio practice), where I use the spatial skills from working in sculpture and installation to create functional aesthetic spaces for people to physically live in.
My personal experience as a parent has simultaneously played large part in my work conceptually. Many of my recent installations have been created to pull viewers into an embodied experience of generative pause. My work over the last number of years is about what I am thinking about and want to feel.
As a single parent, I crave space. Space to take a moment to slow down, to notice the details, to refuel, to catch my breath. For me this pause, a suspension of time, is most easily felt in the deep backcountry wilderness, or even in the forests where I run my dogs or the ocean that is close by. The experience lying under a canopy of trees, or the starry sky reminds me of the minute detail and expansiveness that surrounds us, a life force that is much bigger than us, that pulses underneath and above, where we can sink into, feel held and then stand taller. Finding pause, through any contemplative practice, is like pressing the reset button to go back into the busyness of life, work, and parenting with a little bit more clarity and grounding.
In my work I use multiplicity to create a feeling of expansiveness in the installation by drawing attention to the spaces that are saturated between, inside and surrounding each component, highlighting spaciousness as a point of contemplative pause.
JTW: You say public feedback from viewers is important. How do you typically gather that feedback?
SD: That’s a great question. The viewer’s interaction with, and reaction to my work is the most interesting part for me. With installation, I can invoke a feeling, an association, an embodied response. I garner feedback at public openings, artist talks, online posts, and from conversations with curators and educators, and interviewers, but I also know that I miss a lot of potential feedback from public exhibitions. During COVID when I couldn’t attend public openings, I asked for feedback by email, and gratefully received some. Any gallery or artist talk that includes time for dialogue between the audience and myself has given me lots of information about how viewers receive my work. Most often what I garner is in line with the conceptual intentions behind the work. I hear people talk about how they want to interact with the work, such as wanting to touch, or move, or hear the components; or wanting to dive through, be curled up inside, or be enveloped by the installation. All responses are fascinating to me and illustrate the kind of embodied experience I am creating in the gallery, and how I can evolve the work to be more invocative. My next work will be an interactive installation where viewers need to duck underneath, step through and around the installation while being invited to move the components as they see fit.
FormaFantasma is a design studio of two Italian designers, Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin. The studio has offices in Milan, Italy and Rotterdam, Netherlands. Their stated aim is “to facilitate a deeper understanding of both natural and built environments” and to apply transformative design principles to product design and spacial design (e.g., designing environments for companies and museums). The firm lists some recognizable clients including Lexus, Hermes, Prada, Samsung and the Rijksmuseum. Objects from their projects have been acquired by MOMA, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris and others. Basically: an impressive resume.
I was attracted to FormaFantasma’s deep enquiry into materials – of course seeking out how they examined clay in particular. I found several relevant FormaFantasma projects.
In “Cromatica“, the designers investigate the attributes of subtle color variation in industrially-produced ceramic tiles. The designers created ceramic large panels in two “base colors”, two “light full colors” and two “dark full colors” using a combination of digital printing and traditional high gloss glazing. The Cromatica project essentially built on variation of color hues and values to add interest to large tiled surfaces. Two photographs provide a quick summation.
In Clay, FormaFantasma designed a collection of vases and bowls with unique, “torn-off” appearances (where the vessel was ripped off the support after being thrown). The torn-off surfaces have a jagged, raw quality that contrasts with the precisely-thrown vertical surfaces of the form, and accentuates certain emotional properties invoked by violent tearing apart action of the wet clay.
In addition to designing the vases and bowls themselves, FormaFantasma developed the production process to rip thrown vessels from the throwing wheel without distorting the shape of the vessel itself, thus enabling high-production replication of these forms for the collection.
A collection of ceramic vessels created by FormaFantasma for “Moulding Tradition” reference patterns of immigration and assimilation of people flowing from Northern Africa into Sicily throughout history. The ceramic forms of the collection reflect Sicilian “Testa di Moro” ceramics still seen in Sicily today. (Testa di Moro vessels portray either a Caucasian female face or a dark Moorish male face, recounting a traditional Sicilian legend of a Moor who fell in love with, and then abandoned, a young Sicilian girl.) FormaFantasma’s collection incorporates these deep historic and artistic traditions while at the same time acknowledging contemporary opinion that 65% of Italians believe that immigrants are “a danger for [Italian] culture”.
FormaFantasma’s website contains additional projects examining materials other than clay. Check out “Charcoal“.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is currently running an exhibition entitled “Lives of the Gods – Divinity in Mayan Art“. The exhibit examines depictions of Mayan gods on various objects: ceramics, stone, jade and shell.
Several ceramic pieces are highlighted in detail in online audio guides to the exhibit, providing interesting context to each object. In fact almost half of the audio guides to the exhibit discuss ceramic pieces, varying from censor stands, Codex style plates and ceramic vessels of one form or another.
As with other exhibitions in the collection of the Met (or on exhibit at the Met), photographs of each object (often from multiple angles showing in effect a 3D view) is available online, along with detailed background information including a description, dimensions, provenance, etc.
Jean-Joseph Carriès was an influential French sculptor and ceramicist who thrived in the 1880s and early 1890s. In his relatively short life he created a collection of expressive stoneware sculpture and functional “Japonisme-inspired” pieces, work that was inspirational to subsequent Art Nouveau ceramicists. He is credited by some for lifting public perception of ceramics from craft to a modern art form.
There are some contradictory accounts of Carriès’ background, but here’s what I’ve been able to piece together. Born in 1855 and raised in an orphanage in Lyon, France, after the death of his parents to tuberculosis, Carriès was apprenticed to Lyon sculptor Pierre Vermare at an early age. After a 2-year apprenticeship, Carriès moved to Paris in 1874 and enrolled in the sculpture program at the École des Beaux-Arts as a probationary pupil of Augustin-Alexandre Dumont. Failing tests for full admission, Carriès set up his own studio and made his début at the Salon of 1875. While working in Paris as a sculptor, Carriès created portrait busts, mythological subjects, and grimacing masks (reflecting his strong interest in facial expression). One of his best known works is Head of a Faun, ca. 1885, sculpted in plaster (later replicated in stoneware via molds – see example below).
Carriès was deeply impressed with the Oriental exhibitions during the 1879 Exposition Universelle in Paris. (Carriès was amongst numerous artists working in France in this period, notably Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet and Edgar Degas, who were exposed to and inspired by the art of Japan shown in these large exhibitions, ultimately giving rise to an artistic movement in Europe referred to as Japonisme.) Carriès was particularly struck with displays of Japanese ceramics and began studying ceramic techniques, devoting more and more time to this new medium.
In 1888, Carriès left Paris for the small town of Saint-Amand-en-Puisaye in the Loire Valley, which was home to several stoneware factories producing glazed and unglazed utilitarian pottery. A year later, in 1889, Carriès exhibited his first stoneware pieces. Particularly noteworthy were organic forms and the dripping glazes that Carriès employed, influential as examples of emerging Art Nouveau ceramics.
Carriès constructed a kiln on his property in 1891, sculpting a large number of forms that he would then mold and produce as stoneware pieces in the 1892 Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts.
Carriès sold multiple pieces from this Salon show to the French Ministry of Culture (some of these items are now in the Musée du Luxembourg and the Musée de Sèvres).
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.
My earlier post about Paul Gauguin’s ceramics has received a large number of hits. Due to the interest, I’m providing some additional, if limited, information about several other French painters who knew or worked with Gauguin and also did ceramics: Paul Sérusier, Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard.
Paul Sérusier painted with Paul Gauguin at Pont-Aven in northern France in the mid-1880s. Sérusier also made a limited number of ceramic pieces, including this one, entitled Bretonnes from circa 1885, which was in a Swiss private collection and auctioned by Christie’s in 2006.
Notes from the Christie’s catalogue state “Ceramics by Paul Sérusier are extremely rare. This example, Bretonnes, is made of moulded plaster as is suggested by the two vertical seams along the vase, and was painted by the artist. It is not glazed, which gives it a matt and watercolour-like surface.” Unlike Guaguin whose ceramic work is often quite sculptural, Sérusier’s piece here retains a traditional vase-like form.
After painting with Paul Gauguin at Pont-Aven, in 1888 Paul Sérusier founded a group of artists called The Nabis who flourished as a group until 1900, and then disbanded. Amongst The Nabis are two painters who also created some ceramics: Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard.
Also auctioned by Christie’s in the same 2006 lot is this fine example of a ceramic vase by Pierre Bonnard entitled “Petit Vase: Scène de Rue.”
Again quoting from the Christie’s catalog:
“Exceptional in technique, subject matter, and execution, Petit vase: scène de rue is an exquisite and rare ceramic from Bonnard’s Nabis period. Like his fellow Nabis, the artist had a universal interest in art. He worked in various techniques and on different supports, including screens, fans, furniture, stained glass, and ceramics. Today very few of his ceramics survive.
“Bonnard was introduced to ceramics by his dealer, Ambroise Vollard, who commissioned and owned this vase made of unglazed painted Sèvres porcelain. Vollard himself had developed an interest in ceramics after visiting an exhibition of decorative arts, and he subsequently steered his artists towards working with professional ceramicists. The ceramicist of the present work is not known – but it was possibly André Metthey who shaped the vase before Bonnard painted it.“
Édouard Vuillard’s ceramic output is more substantial, or at least I found more examples of his work online. In 1894 Louis Comfort Tiffany commissioned several Nubis painters, including Vuillard, to create designs for stained glass windows. These stained glass windows were exhibited in 1895, where a young Swiss art critic named Jean Schopfer immediately commissioned Vuillard to create a set of porcelain dishes for use as a dinner service for his upcoming wedding. Vuillard accepted the commission and worked directly on porcelain blanks in Sept 1895 in the studio of the ceramicist Georges Rasetti. Because Vuillard hand painted each blank, each piece in the service is unique. The exact number of pieces in the wedding service is disputed, but sources confirm that Vuillard painted at least 84 items and perhaps as many as 144 items. Vuillard employed three colors per piece: a reddish brown, a deep cobalt blue, and green. Two examples from the set are shown below.
Patricia Volk is a determined, courageous woman, inclined to push forward when confronted with adversity. I like that. Patricia was passionate about art as a young person, but family circumstances limited her ability to pursue the arts for almost 20 years while she worked in a non-arts career. But her determination came through and she enrolled at art college as an older student. Once there, she was courageous enough to push her process and artistic vision despite being told “You can’t do it that way.” Turns out, you can do it that way.
I’ll let Patricia fill in some gaps in the story I’ve sketched out in our discussion below. But first, here’s a video from Patricia’s website that documents her creative process.
JTW: What prompted you to eventually make the jump and pursue your passion for art?
PV: When I was young it was financially impossible for me to go to art college. My father died when I was 9 and my mother was left supporting two children so it was out of the question. Also, the school that I went to, they were only interested in producing women to work in the factories or offices until they had children. I asked for tuition in art but was refused as they said they wouldn’t do it for one person. It was only after I had come to England and fell in with a group of people all of whom had gone to art school that the idea rekindled to try for it myself. I went to adult education classes and applied to Middlesex Poly for Foundation [i.e., a “foundation year” of university level courses]. In fact, I only applied because somebody I had met at a party, who I told of my dream to go to college, stuck the application form through my front door. Getting accepted was one of the happiest days of my life.
JTW: You originally created figurative sculpture, but at some point moved toward abstraction. Will you give me some sense of how your work has evolved over time?
PV: I was doing three dimensional design. In retrospect I should have done fine art sculpture. I liked working in clay as a medium but not in the ceramic tradition of glazes and so on.
Looking back at it I think figurative sculpture was a way of my expressing my interest in form and line in a bit of a conservative way before making the big leap to break away from representational work. I literally had a moment when I thought “I wonder if it would still be me if I stopped doing heads” and I found to my surprise and excitement they were just as much “me” if not more so – it was terribly liberating.
I did feel slightly trapped in doing heads and they had stopped speaking to me. I realised that pure form was more important and exhilarating to me and it opened my eyes to different artists that have been inspirational ever since.
JTW: I believe your earlier figurative work had references to historic Catholic and Celtic iconography as well as to some more modern artists such as Giacometti and Modigliani. Does your current work reference any earlier art traditions or inspirations?
PV: I think with the lives that we lead we are influenced by everything we see. Some of it we are not even aware of. I recently discovered a very strong affinity to the work of Eduardo Chillida. When I went to America and saw ceramics there, there wasn’t the emphasis on the traditional way of using the material in “pottery”. In the Guggenheim there were objects that were dug out from under the sea several centuries BC and they were rendered with paints. Everybody thinks classical sculptural tradition is in monochrome stone or white marble but in fact in ancient times these were highly coloured. I was knocked out by the work of Ken Price from the 1970s who used painted fired clay but was 100% a sculptor. I hate labels of any kind. Why should something be labelled craft because it is made in clay?
JTW: You’re very interested in simple magical elements — “a curve that might be so right that it takes your breath away, something that’s almost like a musical note in the air”. Is this an outgrowth of your move into abstraction? Or have you always driven toward simplifying elements in your art?
PV: Yes, I have definitely. Even with the heads and the figurative work I could almost imagine them being icons. When you look at early sculpture like the Egyptians, you can see the artist reducing the emotional impact to the essence and the minimum, and that is what I try to strive for. It’s also about having enough there but not too much so that the viewer can bring something to it.
JTW: What attracted you to ceramics as a sculpting material?
PV: The fact that I’m never really satisfied with anything I do ,and clay is so flexible, if you don’t like where it is going you can change it or recycle it. I can make what I want, drill it once it is fired, and construct. I usually have a few pieces on the go at various stages at any one time. Usually I start a piece with very little idea of how it is going to turn out and that is the enjoyment. I suppose the material suits my personality, which it to keep trying, but I never want to repeat myself. Every little journey has to be different.
JTW: I get a sense of inner determination and courage, really, in both pursuing art later in life and also evolving a style of ceramic sculpture that involves painting the fired ceramic piece rather than glaze it (a more typical approach). Can you tell me more about your internal motivators?
PV: My motivation is to do something that the viewer might think would be impossible with the material and pushing it to the limits. People in college used to say “You can’t do it that way.” And I was always like: “Why not?” So that’s my bloody mindedness which is part of the equation as well. I get fixated on working out problems of construction and losing myself in the making and engineering. I can always see what is wrong with something and move on to the next one in the hope that it will be perfect.
JTW: Do you have any new projects or interests you’ll explore on the horizon?
PV: All the time. Give me the space and I will fill it!
I found this interesting online exhibition entitled “Masterpieces of Chinese Ceramics from the TFAM.” (Yes, that’s Chinese ceramics at the Japanese museum.) The exhibit is broken down into four chapters with 125 photos of examples from the museum’s collection spread across the chapter headings.
The four chapters are: (1) From the Dawn of Chinese Pottery to the Appearance of Celadon; (2) Fusion of Eastern and Western Cultures and Development of Colorful Ceramics; (3) Maturity of Celadon and White Porcelain and Emergence of Colored Glaze; and (4) Flourishing Colors and Patterns of Jingdezhen Ware.
While there are links to the museum’s website right from the story (click on an image to bounce over to the museum’s “Profiles of Works” site), there wasn’t much explanatory information on individual pieces in English either on the main online exhibit or on the “Profiles of Works” photos that I sampled. (There was some Japanese text for some pieces.) Nonetheless, the exhibit does display some striking examples of Chinese porcelain through the ages.