“I prefer to stay within the realms of the vessel format, yet allow them to take on a distinctive sculptural identity. Rims, handles, form and balance are commonplace within traditional ceramics, yet I place them in a unique integrated structure which elevates them beyond their own identifiable function and so gives then another meaning. Their conclusive forms are recognised as jugs, bowls and vessels, yet they represent profound arguments concerning issues of an individual’s perception and memory of an ever-changing landscape.”
I was born in Derry, Northern Ireland and grew up near the border during the Troubles of the 1970s and ‘80s. To escape the political conflict, I often spent time roaming Donegal and the West Coast of Ireland exploring its landscapes and local amenities.
My initial work of large thrown forms was based on ancient Celtic monuments such as standing stones and stone circles. Even then I was interested in the vessel format, but with a sculptural narrative. I stayed with the vessel format because of ceramic tradition and history, even though this would make the narrative and sculptural aspects more challenging!
Later, I began to reflect more on the landscape in which the Celtic monuments were found, especially the wild rugged beauty of Connemara and Donegal. After moving to Wales in the 80s, I was also inspired by the dramatic West Wales coastline (which is where I now live). So I further incorporated geological elements, natural colours, and marks of human activity on the landscape into my vessels. This resulted in me making monumental jugs, vases and bowls with fractured surface textures, which provokes the onlooker to question the value of a vessel as a piece of sculpture.
Way back, when I started creating this type of work, I would draw and take rubbings of the rocks and surfaces whilst I was out walking looking for inspiration. These days, I find it much easier to capture these photographically, and when I get home, I print out the photographs and collage them together, so the forms evolve organically from their source.
Although, I have developed my distinctive signature pieces, such as the Ean Jug; the Rock-a-Billy Jug; the Roisin Vessel etc, I am always striving to produce new innovative forms, e.g., the Island Vessel or Ceilidh Vessel.
The majority of my pieces are hand built using a slabbing technique instead of coils, and each piece incorporates some type of thrown element. The thrown element is usually the base or the incorporated rings.
I include the thrown elements for two reasons: the first is that I actually enjoy throwing but I cannot capture (on the wheel) the nature of my source and the surfaces I want to depict. The second reason is that the incorporation of a smooth gold ring into some of my work, highlights the surfaces of the form and works as a binary opposite to the whole piece.
Each piece of work is fired between four and five times. After the standard bisquit firing, I apply a 1280 glaze and follow it up with a 1100 glaze firing, then a 1040 glaze firing, eventually ending with a 795-lustre firing. After the glazes are sprayed on, they are directionally rubbed off, to highlight the subtleties of the surface texture. Following this, the same glazing process is repeated to build up a rich vocabulary of tones and colours. The result is a unique surface, which is characteristic in all my ceramic forms.
People often ask why I use such a complex and time-consuming glazing process, rather than just using a single glaze with one firing. Trust me – if I could I would! But like a painter, I want my surfaces to represent the various colours and textures of their source. If you look at the colours of rocks, you’ll find they are not just neutral greys – they can also be vibrant reds, oranges, greens, blues and well as various other tones and hues.
My current glazing technique is the only way I know to successfully capture this sense of colour and texture.
My present work looks more intently at rock surfaces, and am interested in the erosion patterns in the rocks from seas and the washing away of river banks to reveal what’s exposed underneath.
I’m also experimenting with colour and glazes, to highlight those colours not usually expected in coastal-scapes, but can be seen if you explore more.
This past two years, I have also been preparing to run workshops and master classes in my new studio and teaching room in Cenarth, West Wales.