When did you first start working with ceramics?
I suppose like everyone, I dabbled in pottery at secondary school, then moved away from that towards painting and sculpture, which is what I felt I wanted to do. Eventually I changed and did my BA in furniture design. After graduation I worked in furniture for 10 years or so before deciding to go back to ceramics.
The catalyst was a small cabinet I made: I used porcelain for the handles and the feet of this little box. Just getting into that process again reminded me of how much more I enjoyed that than the wood and metal I had been working with. I went into it full-time after that. It enhances my daily life. I love doing it so I don’t mind how many hours I’m here, weekends, nights, days etc. My eldest brother David had always had ceramics as a hobby and I think that connection with him also made me want to get back into it.
Did you have to re-train?
I’ve never formally trained in ceramics although I was taught briefly by Emmanuel Cooper whilst on my furniture BA course at Middlesex Polytechnic in the mid 80s. I realised early on that technical books are useful up to a point for information about firing temperatures etc but there is nothing more important than just being there with the material and making your own mistakes and working it out that way. A few people have said to me that my approach is different from what people are told they can and can’t do at college. For example, I started making moulds in the way that I had figured out myself. I thought I should get a bit more professional about it and picked up a book about mould-making. There were so many pages of the terrible things that could happen if you did this, or if you didn’t do that, or if you didn’t make sure that this didn’t happen first, that I thought that if I’d read this two years ago, I would never have even attempted making a mould. It showed me that I could stumble along and eventually come up with my own way of doing things, which has worked well so far.
Can you describe your approach to making a ceramic piece?
It depends on the object. Some pieces I hand-build – these are coiled, more traditional pots made on a non-mechanised turn-table. Then there are the pieces that are made using handmade moulds – the electric kettles, cocoa pods, gourds etc.
I have been making sculpture again over the last 5 or 6 years. I call them Grid Abstractions, sort of a soft geometry. They are made in clay, just little sausages joined together to make 3D grids climbing into space. I’ve also been making mobile sculptures using a combination of ceramics and glass. I was first commissioned by Firmdale Hotels to make these mobiles, which are now hanging in the Ham Yard Hotel in town, just behind Shaftesbury Avenue. They’ve got three of them in a row. They do look really nice. The glass elements in the mobiles are made by a friend of mine, professional glassmaker Roberta De Caro, who makes the glass to my specifications.
I am spending more time on projects like these. Abstract ceramic sculpture is what is most interesting to me right now. I will continue to build large pots and other vessels but would like to explore this further. The unknown element of it excites me.
Your ceramic pots seem to fall into two categories – the organic forms like the gourds and then the non-organic forms like the plastic bottles, the balls of string. Can you explain the dichotomy between the two.
People have asked me about that and how come they are so different. It’s never really struck me. I mean obviously it’s two very different aspects of an aesthetic –the organic and the industrial. I think I took most of it from looking round the kitchen, where you see milk cartons, blenders, coffee pots, sitting very happily next to apples and pears, pumpkins, natural things… A kitchen was my inspiration and if you go back to your own kitchen you will see all of these things do sit there together. It’s not a conflict.
Some of the industrial things came from going to charity shops. I was thinking that these are the only places where you can see some of these objects. You can’t buy them in shops any more because they are out-dated and obsolete and will disappear one day. I just wanted to see how changing the material that they were made in, in shapes that I think are amazing, would make people perceive them differently. I wanted to turn them into a bit of art. If people see them in porcelain, it changes it up a bit, porcelain being a traditional material that signals that something is important, fragile and beautiful. It’s like a signpost.
Is craftsmanship important to you? Do you see yourself as following in a tradition?
I like the idea that working with clay is so ancient and primal but I don’t like the idea of being restricted by the whole baggage that comes with being a craftsman. I like dipping into all of that and being a part of it, but I don’t want to be boxed in by the whole craft thing. I love it and appreciate it but I’m not wedded to it.
It can be very narrow, spending hours talking about glaze recipes. That’s not me at all. I roughly get the colour I want without getting too bogged down with the technicalities. And I guess that comes from not having done BAs in ceramics so I just approach it a bit more loosely.
You are obviously very drawn to making things with your hands.
That’s important to me, definitely to be in contact with the material. The material is ceramic at the moment.
Some of your objects are for display and lots of them have a function as well. How do you balance something having a function and it looking beautiful? Does the function get in the way of what you want it to look like?
I can give you an example of how my work has been evolving recently. I have been making the stacking cups for about 15 years on and off and they’ve always been vases. Lately, I wanted to make the stacking cups with the cone shape, and felt that the top could easily be closed. I didn’t necessarily need it to be a vase, which was a way of making that tiny leap into sculpture with these.
There can be a prejudice that if it’s a functional piece it can’t be art. Obviously the bowls are bowls and they are designed for that: the glaze in them is food safe, it’s all washable and so that was a prime consideration with me when I started making ceramics. That brings it to life in a lot of ways.
One reason I started making bowls and vases is that I think the table is a very important basic thing for people. I’m interested in people sitting around a table and if they are passing a bowl of fruit to each other and the bowl has a specific importance for them in their family, I think that’s hugely significant. A table full of food and vessels is a lovely thing. It promotes love. I love the idea that one of my pieces could be considered by a group of people as something that will enhance their meal or their day.
Is that something you were thinking about when you first started making bowls?
I think that was a really important thing. Certainly with the more functional pieces that we are talking about, the human aspect of them is really important. If they can enhance relations between people then that’s a good thing. I do believe that. It was quite central.
And because ceramics are handmade, it’s such an easy thing to connect with. There is a Peruvian lady who collects my work avidly. She is the president of the Slow Food Movement in Latin America. It’s the opposite of fast food, the way that everything takes forever and it’s all beautifully prepared. My mother is Venezuelan so I was also influenced by the importance of gourds in Latin American culture when I first started making my gourd bowls.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’m thrilled to have been asked by Whittard [of Chelsea] to make bespoke lighting in translucent porcelain for their refurbished store in Covent Garden. There will be some nice things there. It is hard to describe, you would have to see them. There will be a little place when you go down the stairs and there will be all these things which relate to tea and coffee – a coffee grinder, tea infuser, things like that. I originally made a few of them solid and then thought again that they should be perforated because it makes it clearer that they are made for lamps. When they are all lit and translucent I think they will work well. They will be hanging at different levels. I’ve taken moulds of things I’ve had for years so it’s been very interesting to use them. The central piece at the entrance of the shop will be a giant chandelier made of individual tea leaves in translucent porcelain.
I was asked towards the end of last year to design the lighting for the restaurant Pedler in Peckham Rye. We kept it very organic. They have lines of translucent cabbages, melons, onions etc hanging down the length of the restaurant. I think it’s been well received by their customers.
I also have some work in a travelling exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, ‘New Territories: Laboratories for Design, Craft and Art in Latin America’. The exhibition is about the influence of contemporary Latin Americans in the arts. It’s travelling to Albuquerque at the end of this year and then going to Puebla in Mexico. They are showing my Hot Water Bottle, a Milk Carton and Stacking Picnic Plates, all in cast porcelain.
What do you enjoy about being part of the Artist’s Open House?
I think it’s a fantastic opportunity. I’ve been involved for about 5 years, maybe a bit longer. Mostly I show things with Cavaliero Finn [Juliana Cavaliero and Debra Finn] at their Croxted Road address. They have been a huge support to me and I think they are brilliant curators. And the Dulwich Festival is one of the highlights of our year.
Last year I managed to persuade the owner of my local garage, Padwick’s in Oglander Road to allow me to use a part of his premises for the two weekends of Artists’ Open House. It was a shop front filled with old tyres. It was a beautiful turn-of-the-century shop front and he just had pigeon feed because he’s a pigeon fancier, and tyres and old bits of car mechanic stuff in this place. I convinced him to allow me to paint the place, redo it and use it for the two weekends of last year’s open house festival. It went really well. Unfortunately he can’t do it again because it’s his business, but it looked really good as a little pop-up gallery. I shared it with my illustrator and painter friend Phil Hankinson. This year we’re showing at my house; a different setting, so we’ll see how it goes there…