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Interview with Jane Muir

Can you tell me what you do?

I’m a ceramic artist. I left college in 1992 and have been working ever since. I’m a self-employed artist working on mainly figurative ceramic pieces for galleries and exhibitions.

How did you first get into ceramics?

I used to do quite a lot when I was at school. We had pottery classes. And then I did O-Level and A-Level and then a diploma course, which you could specialise in either ceramics or jewellery. I think you did a little bit of both for a while, amongst other things and then had to decide which one you wanted to specialise in. So I specialised in ceramics and then went on to do a degree course and then an MA. I studied for quite a long time.

What was it about ceramics that really appealed to you?

I think it took a while for it to really appeal. I suppose once I’d found various skills then the appeal became greater. When I initially started, I think I could have quite easily have gone into graphic design. So the ceramics I did tended to be quite flat and I’d decorate the surface rather than build more three-dimensional pieces. Gradually as I built the skills up and was taught more, then the drawings translated into three-dimensional pieces. With clay, I suppose it’s the way that you can manipulate it and produce characters fairly quickly. It depends sometimes on how I’m feeling. Sometimes, it doesn’t work very well, other days it does work. Then there’s also the glazing, I love the glazed surface, which is something I’ve worked on for a while.

Where do you get your ideas?

Childhood memories have always been quite present and things that I had as a child, say toys, books, television programmes I watched, all that kind of 70s imagery I think is still quite apparent in the pieces. I suppose it changed a little bit when I moved into London. I travel on the tube and watch people. So I note different patterns and characters, for instance businessmen with different patterned shirts and patterned ties.

Do you sketch them?

Not as much as I used to. I think maybe I will make little doodles and notes of ideas but now I tend to go straight into the clay and work out the forms as I’m modelling.

Describe your process of working. How worked out are your images before you start working with the clay?

It’s quite well planned and also you have to be because with the certain pieces, say for instant one of the ones with the birds on their heads, I’ll have to roll out a slab and leave that to dry for a certain amount of time before I can construct it into the body. If you try and do it straight away, it will just sag under it’s own weight.

Can you tell me about the birds. Where do they come from?

People often ask me and I’m never terribly sure other than I’ve always been interested in nature and grew up in a fairly rural area. I’d always be outside drawing and observing. I like to combine nature and the human figure. To me it just seemed an obvious way to do it, having the birds in conjunction with the figures.

The face looks quite similar across the pieces. Is there a particular person or a character that they are based on?

Not so much with the smaller pieces but the larger ones, people do ask me. I’ll show you a photograph of my father and I think that’s where the inspiration has come from with the larger ones. You can see very much the likeness. I’m so pleased I’ve still got this photograph because when people see that they automatically say that it explains everything! I don’t think it was conscious but it is very clear to me now.

I don’t know if my father saw the connection. I’m not sure that he every really understood what I was doing. He was quite conventional. It was my sister who suggested that I went to art school. He sent me off for interviews with British Telecom. I failed all the aptitude tests, luckily. I came back and my sister said, well why don’t you try art school. Although he didn’t really understand, my father was proud of me for where I got and where I am.

How have you developed the glazing part of your ceramics?

We used to have glazing technology lessons at college, a lot of which went over my head. When you start experimenting and making them up yourself, you start to realise what different things do. It’s chemistry really, what different materials add to certain glazes. I do still experiment. At college I started making little figures, I call them the little men and the little ladies, to test glazes on rather than having test tiles. I still make those and use them to experiment with glazes and test new ones. Now I have a palette that I’m quite pleased with and use over and over.

You know the ingredients of each particular colour that you use?

Of my particular glazes I do. I’m not good enough to say, for instance my friend Lorraine, you could go to her and ask her what to add to make a certain glaze if you wanted to make it whiter for instance. She would be able to do that. I’m not that technologically advanced but I know enough to please myself with what I’m doing.

How much of the process is left to chance in terms of colours. Do you welcome chance things happening?

Usually with me, it would probably be misfiring in the kiln. That’s the only chance really. The kiln could overfire and then you get a completely different colour, if you’re lucky and things haven’t actually stuck to the kiln shelves. Sometimes you open the kiln and think that’s not quite what I expected but you get used to it or other people come in and say that they think it’s gorgeous. But because you had a certain idea in your mind you aren’t so sure. That’s the only chance really.

I’d like to experiment more but also I don’t want to harm my kiln. I lose quite a few kiln shelves as it is already, I’m not a terribly conventional or careful potter. It’s an expensive process having to replace those. I’ve kept a piece in my studio where the ladies are all welded to the shelf because the glaze ran.

There is a lot of humour in your work. It makes you smile.

It’s a quiet humour I think which engages people. I have a lot of people coming back and saying that they are pleased that they brought a particular piece because they look at it every day and it makes them smile. There’s a lady who takes her group of little men on holiday with her. She sent me a photograph of them in France! People feel a connection with them.

There is another lady who brought one of the birds for her husband and she said that it’s really nice, it’s on the side board next to the front door and you can hear him when he comes in from work, where the door opens, he’ll hang up his coat and put his briefcase down and come in and say ‘hello bird’ every evening. I do enjoy that side of it.

How do you expect your work to be seen when people own them?

I’ve been quite surprised by some pieces. I made a few pieces that were metal, there are metal workers in one of the other arches here and they made me these big crinoline-type skirts and I made the top of the body, female bodies, and they were meant to go in people’s gardens so they could grow flowers in them, so they would have a big flowery skirt. I sold one of them and the lady must have a very big living room because she said it was in her living room with house plants growing up the skirt. I hadn’t really expected that.

I like the fact that they can go indoors or out. People have said that with the larger flowers it’s been nice when they’ve had those in winter and everything dies around them and they’ve still got these little spots of colour in the garden.

How long have you been involved in the Artists’ Open House and what you like about being part of it?

I think I might have been involved for 10 years or so! What I’ve enjoyed is being at Ingrid Beazley’s house, which is a lovely place to be for the weekend. It’s nice to be there with Ingrid and Tom and meeting the other artists. I’ve made good friends from sharing their house with other people. It helps if people can see my work in a domestic setting or in a domestic garden. Not everyone can visualise the pieces in their homes. That helps a lot.

I love talking to people about the work. I don’t have that if I just show through galleries. It’s nice to see people’s reactions, they come in and start smiling, even laughing sometimes. I don’t get that if I just have work in galleries. So that’s a big part of it.

What do you like about living and working in South London?

My workshop in Peckham is the thing that was the main draw, because the space was so lovely. I’m really lucky to have been here for such a long time. I like to work on my own because I like to concentrate but I do get lonely. Luckily enough there are other artists next door.

I like that Peckham is so varied. One way it’s all gentrified and the other side is completely mad. I quite enjoy that, though I did prefer it when it was a bit less gentrified.

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