Christie Brown – Beyond the Vessel – Q&A

What does a day in the studio look like?

A day in the studio can look very different depending on what stage I am at in the making schedule. My press molding process proceeds in episodes: firstly, much research, drawing and sketchbook reflection as to how to realise the ideas; next, the focused labours of polystyrene carving to make new models, followed by the mess and challenge of mold- making. Both processes take several weeks and are critical but laborious. Clay and plaster mix badly so after casting it’s a big spring clean before rolling slabs and assembling sections to build a range of figures. These may relate directly to earlier design drawings or they may evolve more intuitively while building the piece. Long drying times are needed for more complex pieces. Bisque- firing, slip-painting and glazing will also take several days, maybe two or three at a time in the kiln. Sometimes there’s disappointment but more often reward. Then there are days spent packing and doing deskwork. It’s all part of the studio day.

What is your first memory of ceramic?

Not a first memory but a really significant one. After falling for the Leach ideal of stoneware pottery and a self sufficient way of life making pots in the country, I visited the top floor of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and was dazzled by the huge range of ceramic artefacts held in that amazing collection, such as English Slipware, Turkish Isnik pottery, Dutch Delftware and the spectacular Hispano Moresque plates from Moorish Spain, and I realised how much more exciting clay could be than thrown wood-fired faux-Japanese pottery, which in the 1980s was still regarded by many as the ceramic canon, despite the new agendas that were emerging with the work of artists such as Alison Britton, Richard Slee and Jacqui Poncelet.

What was your first use of clay?

I went to a night school in London many years ago and the tutor showed me how to wedge a piece of clay, cut it into small blocks and make pinch pots. I spent the next six classes pinching pots. The process was so absorbing and meditative and provided me with a grounding in understanding the qualities of the material and my relationship with it.

What is the most challenging element to your practice?

It’s sometimes difficult to match the vision with the practice, to make an object that is only half formed in my imagination into a finished object. But it’s important to allow the clay, which is a challenging material, to have its say and contribute to the vision. It’s always a dialogue between maker and material. Also I never have enough space or a big enough kiln.

What is your favourite fable?

I have always been inspired by Greek myths from a young age. Later I began to read Metamorphoses by Ovid, who documents all these stories with such passion and conviction. The story of Prometheus who modeled the human race out of clay is especially significant, as is the tale of the sculptor Pygmalion and his idealised statue Galatea, brought to life by the goddess Athene.

What thing or person is your greatest influence?

The artist Louise Bourgeois has been a constant inspiration to me, as are the animation films of the Quay Brothers who are able to visualise the dream world with such uncanny precision. When I first saw Street of Crocodiles and Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies I felt they had entered my unconscious while I was sleeping and invaded my dreams.

What is the relevance of myth today?

Myths are a constant source of knowledge and wisdom if only the post-modern global world would listen to what they have to say. They can both delight and alarm us, thrill us and warn us of dangers, and offer a sense of continuity with history and a way forward.

Are you an artist or a ceramicist?


What is the relevance of ceramics today?

Ceramics and all things clay is a constant force in our lives wherever we come from. The earth is largely composed of clay and there are countless myths of origin that revolve around this material. The transformation from clay to ceramic is a story from long ago when nomadic people began to settle and develop communities. Clay objects have been part of human existence ever since, and they are key to archaeology’s understanding of how our ancestors lived. Ceramics continues to form part of our daily lives from domestic functional objects and decorative art to objects of ritual and symbolic artworks. As a material for sculpture clay carries a range of references that are both ancient and contemporary. It feels important always to keep examining history as a way to learn about ourselves and how we can improve the way we evolve.

What is the argument for learning / honing technical skills in today’s world?

The ongoing human need for some kind of tactile hands on experience with no commercial or technological outcome offers emotional benefits and contributes to the way we experience ourselves in the world.

Have we moved beyond the need to make with our hands?

Not at all. Technology is crucial and beneficial in so many ways but making by hand provides a welcome balance for anyone who gives it a go.

Why do you think ceramics is becoming popular amongst today’s youth?

For many younger people the new technologies that have developed in the last couple of decades are simply a useful everyday asset, which has always been there in their lives. The smartphone has taken its place alongside various other convenient inventions. This one is however so radical that its possible dangers of alienation and stagnation are becoming more apparent and as a result the need for activity and hands on practice becomes more necessary and appeals to many young people as a way to reconnect with material process.

Why do you think there is such an international vogue for ceramics today?

Working with clay is an immediate and alluring process, despite the mess, or maybe because of it. Its unformed quality allows a freedom that has been recently welcomed and embraced in the art world, where new technology has became just another tool for making art, alongside all the others. Process was slowly returning as a mainstream method of art practice when Rachel Whiteread first cast beds and chairs in the 1980s, even though video was the latest trend at that time. The art world is inclined to be fashion-led however and so for the moment clay people are having their time in the sun, but it was Klara Kristalova who said she chose ceramics because she didn’t want to have to engage with “important art” and so maybe its still seen as a non-serious material with which to express the playful child within us all, as it was in the early 20th century when painters such as Gauguin made ceramics. The fine artists using clay at the moment, as opposed to the artists using clay who have been trained to use it, are enjoying this freedom and even using their lack of skill to create artworks that present this as a conceptual appropriation. Meanwhile many artists who have more skill because they began with a medium-specific training may still find themselves marginalised as a result, as if craft and skill lessen the ability to have a strong concept. But the great thing is we are having all these conversations now and that is very productive and welcome.

Who is your hero or heroine?

Louise Bourgeois

Name a book that everyone should read and why?

The recent Man Booker winner, Milkman by Anna Burns really blew me away, because it not only tells a personal story about growing up and seeking identity from a subjective angle, through its stream of consciousness heroine’s train of thought, but it does so within the context of a recent war zone, and I for one had very little idea just how tough it must have been growing up in Belfast in the 1970s. Burns is challenging the usual narrative associated with contemporary novels. This book is nothing to do with clay but it’s very stimulating. Another good read is The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollop which was written in 1875 but is very relevant in these present greedy times. I also rate Carl Jung’s autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, which was a huge influence on my own search for identity as a person and as an artist.

Why is your studio where it is and what does it mean to you?

My studio is at home for economic reasons. I have two spaces, one an upstairs room for drawing, sketchbook work and research, the other a space built off the back of the house for making and firing. I am lucky to own my house and be able to build these spaces for my work but if I could afford a larger external space that would be ideal. At home the dust of my practice creeps into the living space and the studio is never big enough.

What technological or other advances have made you able to push the boundaries of your material / practice?

Paint-on glazes!

What is the biggest problem or challenge you see with ceramics today?

The demise in recent years of ceramic courses in UK universities has thankfully resulted in a rise in small private classes, group workshops for tuition and even a Clay College in Stoke on Trent. There is little to be done in the current climate to encourage the government to offer more support to non-commercial occupations such as art and we therefore all have to build on what is left and look to the future with a positive approach. However the reduction in the numbers of BA Ceramics graduate students who possess a high level of technical knowledge and skill may unfortunately start to have an effect over the next few years.

Why do you think ceramics has endured from ancient times?

The material clay is beyond ancient. It’s archetypal.

Who would be in your ceramics collection?

Kim Simonsson, Stephen de Staebler, Daisy Youngblood, Carmen Dionyse, Johan Tahon and a few others!

What would you make if money were no object?

Firstly I would apply to the EKWC for a residency and to take advantage of their technical support and very large kilns. I’d also have a large studio where I could make big drawings to reflect the narrative quality of my work. But as I also have an interest in bronze and other materials from time to time I would take a work like My Desk from my 2012 Freud Museum exhibition and employ fabricators to help me scale it up and cast it in or plaster, but I would then maybe paint it so it looked like a very large ceramic work.

What is your philosophical approach to making?

It’s what gives my life some meaning.


Beyond the Vessel exhibition page…view details

Beyond the Vessel exhibition catalogue…buy now

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