Phoebe Cummings – Beyond the Vessel – Q&A
What does a day in the studio look like?
I have only very recently made a studio at home. A lot of making happens on site, using clay directly in the space where it is shown. This way of working initially grew out of financial necessity as I was unable to afford a studio or the cost of firing, however, it quickly became an intrinsic part of the work itself. Over the past fourteen years I have continued to work in this way, often in very different environments; from Hawaii to the Arctic, museums to factories. Increasingly, and since having children, I try to prepare components at home that I will take with me, this has happened mainly in my kitchen and now I have a separate workspace in the garden. I tend to have a lot of plants in the studio as well as clay, it is important for me to look at the structures of growth and details of real plants, even if those I make are imagined.
What is your first memory of ceramic?
We had a set of willow pattern bowls at home, I remember my mother telling me that they contained a story. I was about five at the time and thought if we smashed the plate there would be a piece of paper trapped inside with the story written on it. She taught me to look more closely at what is written in an image.
What was your first use of clay?
I used to go to a pottery class as a child. I can clearly remember the satisfaction of making something with my hands. Our group exhibited in the local art gallery and on reflection I think that was an important experience. It was the first time I think I felt visible in society, I was aware that making gave us a voice.
What is the most challenging element to your practice?
Clay is a challenge, it is constantly changing, which is also why I am so drawn to it. Dealing with shrinkage can be difficult, it is important to understand how things break as well as how they’re made, I respond to that understanding in how I construct the work.
What is your favourite fable?
I am not sure I have a favourite, but I enjoy the way fables offer an alternative version of reality and the possibility to learn and grow from fictional stories.
What thing or person is your greatest influence?
Artist Jefford Horrigan was a visiting tutor when I was studying at the Royal College of Art. He really shifted my understanding of how I work with clay and gave me advice that I still draw on. Amongst many other things, he told me that I could make work by the side of the road if I needed to, don’t make excuses, just get on and do it. That was so important after I graduated, I declared myself bankrupt and had to find a new way of working, he gave me confidence and that push just to get on with it.
What is the relevance of myth today?
Stories and fiction have always been important to humanity, I think today advances in technology give us different experiences of reality as part of our everyday life. There is such multiplicity to who we are and how we exist and interact with the world around us, for me myth is part of that. Written fiction is often a starting point for me, writers such as J.G Ballard, Ursula K Le Guin, Virginia Woolf and W.G Sebald have been particularly significant, I see parallels between working with clay, a monochrome substance, and written language, both of which can construct vivid worlds with structure and texture. I am increasingly thinking about writing as a resting point of the ephemeral sculpture I make, considering how I might document sculpture through writing, sometimes as fictional memories of the piece. Maybe there is always an element of myth around how a work that no longer exists is retold in the present.
Are you an artist or a ceramicist?
Artist seems the simplest term to describe what I do as it encompasses a wide range of practices, but I am clear that my work is rooted in craft and specialism in ceramics. I use traditional ceramic techniques and my thinking has been shaped by a close relationship with materials and appreciation of decorative arts. The outcome of that however is usually temporary sculpture made from raw clay. The fleeting existence of the work also has a close connection to performance.
What is the relevance of ceramics today?
I think ceramics has always been relevant to humans across cultures and time periods and continues to be so. We experience it through objects for use and as an artistic medium, how we use it shifts and evolves. Our definition of ceramics is less rigid today, for example the work I make never makes that transformation from clay into ceramic with heat. Clay and ceramics touch so many areas of our lives, some we pay little attention to such as in mobile phone technology or radioactive waste management. I believe the relevance of ceramics as an artistic material today is deeply connected to relationships between body and material; physical and sensory perception. As humans I think we seek connections, and clay responds to the simple press of a finger, maybe that plays to our innate desire to communicate, in a very basic way it confirms we exist, there is action and consequence.
What is the argument for learning / honing technical skills in today’s world?
For me, technical skills give me greater opportunities and possibilities in what I make. I can choose how and what I want to communicate through making, it may sometimes involve pushing against those skills or traditions as well, but by having that knowledge of material and process I remove certain limitations. There is a great satisfaction to making and direct involvement with materials and I think it can lead to innovation across a wide range of fields.
Have we moved beyond the need to make with our hands?
I am not opposed to technology or machine production, but I don’t think it can ever completely replace making by hand. I think they offer different possibilities, individually and combined.
Why do you think ceramics is becoming popular amongst today’s youth?
Perhaps recognising a need for physical, material experience in reaction to our increased interaction with the digital world and ‘virtual’ reality.
Why do you think there is such an international vogue for ceramics today?
I think there are always waves of interest, things rise and fall, ceramics has never disappeared, there are just fluctuations in where the interest comes from, who uses it and in what way.
Who is your hero or heroine?
Name a book that everyone should read and why?
Ursula K Le Guin’s Direction of the Road would be a good start, it is written from the perspective of an oak tree. I love short stories, Lydia Davis is one of my favourite writers, brevity interests me in both senses of the word.
Why is your studio where it is and what does it mean to you?
I don’t see a studio as a necessity, the way I think and work with clay is part of who I am so that moves with me. I am fortunate to now have made a workspace at home, and I appreciate the chance to work close to my family. Over the past 14 years I have worked without a fixed studio space and I enjoy the interaction of working in different places, meeting new people and responding to different spaces.
What technological or other advances have made you able to push the boundaries of your material / practice?
In terms of how I make things I work with traditional ceramic processes and use very few tools. The internet and the ease with which we can connect to the rest of the world has enabled me to work in the way I do, I think without the possibility to work internationally it would have been hard to sustain my practice.
What is the biggest problem or challenge you see with ceramics today?
In the UK we face challenges to do with education, the closure of ceramics courses in universities over the past decade and the rising cost of tuition fees has radically changed the provision and access to ceramics training and education. However, from that new opportunities and ways of learning are also emerging which provide different models and provision. I think it is important to embrace change and opportunities.
Why do you think ceramics has endured from ancient times?
I think it is part of a primal need to create and to interact with the material world around you. It is such a varied material, it has so many differing qualities and such rich potential, it has always had something to offer, across time. I think the directness of working with clay is also important, it will listen to anyone’s hands, it rewards touch.
Who would be in your ceramics collection?
I love Gillian Lowndes work, the combination of materials, risk and yet a sense of calm. The work of contemporary artists Marit Tingleff and Sam Bakewell would definitely be on my wish list too, and historic pieces, some Palissy, Meissen and Sevres without a doubt. It would be a big collection.
What would you make if money were no object?
Time is the biggest luxury, I would love to work on a project over a longer period of time, years, and to have the funds to dedicate my time to that.
What is your philosophical approach to making?
I am more interested in the way we experience materials and objects, how they change and interact. There is a flow, and I try not to fix things or hold them still for too long, I try to allow the material a voice and agency. I think an anthropocentric viewpoint is part of many contemporary problems in the world, When I observe plants I can’t help but think what fools we are in comparison.
Beyond the Vessel exhibition page…view details
Beyond the Vessel exhibition catalogue…buy now