By Regina Connell and Anna Hoeschen.
There are a great many pretty objects in this world. Some of them may even be beautiful or interesting, or may make you laugh or cry. But it’s rare to find an object that sets a mood, stirs up fragments of scarce-remembered dreams and infiltrates your unconscious.
Northern Ireland-based Deirdre Hawthorne’s work manages to do just that: she’s a master storyteller whose medium isn’t words, but clay. (Though she has a way with words, too: check out the titles to her pieces.)
Her exquisite sculptural vessels are ethereal but earthy. The shapes are organically simple: all the better to focus on the stories Deirdre’s telling. You acutely sense Deirdre’s inspirations: the rough, salty wind, the sharp pricking rain; the flicker of shadows and light in a lush garden; the meditative mood of early morning. You also feel them: imprints figure prominently in her work, from feathers to lace to leaves…even found objects picked up from city streets. It’s the wildness in her work thats so moving: not wild in the unfinished, unsophisticated sense, but in the sense of being primal, elemental, and integral to who we are.
Tell us about your background: how did you begin working with clay? I’d been making things since I was a very small child – drawings, paintings, mud pies, sewing, doll’s house stuff…it was fun and play, but already it was something essential to me. I have such strong memories of feeling absorbed, exhilarated, then popping up out of my own world back to reality. It seemed natural to want to go to art college, so straight from school I went to study Fine Art (at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford). It was a fantastic course for teaching self-reliance but somehow I lost that feeling of pleasure and escape and I came out feeling a bit bruised and nowhere near ready to make any kind of career in art.
So I worked in film and television as a Script Editor and became very frustrated and anxious because I wasn’t making things. I’d held on to the memory of once working with clay in primary school (in Hong Kong), plus my Mum had made ceramics at art college and I’d grown up surrounded by lots of ceramics from China, England and Ireland… So I took some pottery evening classes.
I instantly knew it was the material for me, and what I wanted to do full time.
But then disaster hit my family. Life veered off and was very tough and hopeless and I had to give up ceramics. When I did get back to evening class it was a lifeline, but it took me about 10 years to get myself to somewhere I wanted to be. I got a place on the wonderful two year diploma course at City Lit in London. At the same time I started a family and after graduation, we all moved back home to Northern Ireland. (Glad you found your way back.)
What influences or informs the materials you decide to imprint on any given design? I really follow whatever I feel like doing in that particular moment – it could be rolling plants into clay, imprinting a LEGO brick or piercing the clay with tacks. I am often drawing and photographing landscape and I pick up bits and bobs of things that take my fancy (lace, feathers, plastic toys, wooden shapes…) but I don’t make specific plans about how I’ll bring it all together. When I get to my studio, I lay all source material aside and just go with what I feel. Making is still very much play for me. It’s freedom and the pushing aside of concerns and tangible things.
All my pots are the same form and proportion – simple cylindrical beakers, as high as they are wide. I find the repetition of the building process satisfying and soothing. When it comes to the surface treatment, sometimes I do have an idea in advance. On a particular day, I might intend to roll a piece of old lace into clay, but then walking to my studio door, I’ll find a feather or catch sight of some seedpods and I’ll use them instead. Or I may be feeling unsettled and just want to rhythmically repeat some action, so I’ll imprint a little cross in the clay again and again. I often have a passion for a particular plant (lately it’s ferns), which I just want to use it over and over for weeks at a time.
What/who inspires you? Like many people working with clay, landscape is the biggest inspiration… sea, stones, shores, skies… and any kind of weathering or distressed textures… gnarled city streets, forgotten corners, dirty windows. I can find insect tracks, peeling paint or rusty metal quite hypnotic and beautiful.
Places inspire me…Everything I make is connected directly or indirectly to very specific places: places that I’ve lived in or escaped to, places of turmoil or refuge, places that hold a charge for me. Being in landscape gives me that sense of comfort and release from everyday concerns but it also brings things into focus and puts things in perspective, even things I’m trying not to think about.
However, beyond imprinting plants from a particular garden or lace from a house, I don’t really try to portray or capture these landscapes, but elements of landscape do seem to find their way into the fired surfaces of my work. The surface of a piece might have been created by pricking it all over with a little stick but then it comes out of the kiln, all I can see are wintery skies.
Landscape’s not my only inspiration – stories, poetry, films, music, visual art, a lot of which I see on the internet, all swirls through my head.
Where’s your studio? What are the environs like? How do they influence you? My studio is an old stone cottage attached to the converted mill where my parents once lived in Northern Ireland. It’s a much loved place, beside a river and surrounded by the overgrown garden that my Mum created. My work is very connected to that place and for the moment I can’t imagine making work anywhere else…. But that will have to change, and I hope it will change, as the house is up for sale… then things will veer off in a new direction.
Do you have any rituals when you are preparing to begin a project? My work isn’t project based. It mostly rolls along, one piece flowing into the next, so there aren’t any big beginnings or difficult thresholds to cross. My only ritual is listening to music while I work. Only certain music will do it for me, get me into the right zone. I usually need to be lulled but inspired and transported. Johnny Cash and Townes van Zandt are always on my studio play list but at the moment I’m obsessively listening to Elvis Perkins and Martin Donnelly.
There’s an acute fragility to your work. Does that influence the type of buyer you attract? I’m not sure… possibly. It definitely influences where it can be exhibited. It can’t be somewhere where it’s going to be handled a lot and it needs to be in a simple space. Anything too busy, and its delicacy gets lost. The work is definitely fragile but even paper-thin porcelain is remarkably strong for its thickness and I am able to send my work all over the world. I think if someone connects with my work and wants to own it, they find a safe wee spot for it.
How do you go about generating business? I haven’t got any kind of a business head but I do try and get my work seen as much as I can, mainly through my website and facebook and a little bit of publicity when I can get my act together. My husband, Leon Coole, takes great photographs of my work so I have images of every piece I make and I think that really helps with collectors, galleries and bloggers.
I have a passion for what I do, so although I’m not a natural networker, I love dealing with people who are genuinely enthusiastic about art/craft/ceramics. I was so lucky to have my work picked up early on and exhibited by Galerie Besson. Anita Besson and Matthew Hall were so gracious and encouraging every step of the way and they had such a strong and knowledgeable client base. I’m now really looking forward to showing with Matthew in his new gallery Erskine, Hall and Coe. I’m delighted too that my work is in Cavin-Morris in New York who show my work in a completely different environment, in a really exciting corner of the art world.
What about your work is hard to glean just by looking at it? What would people not know about it, just by seeing it? It’s incredibly light – almost no weight to hold – but it can be very tactile… slight changes from satin to matte to rough, traces of plants and textures to feel with fingertips.
How/why did you begin making cyanotypes? I was buying packs of sunprint paper for children as gifts and then bought one for myself too. I just loved the process straight away. I’m really drawn to low-tech materials and any kind of process that delays and transforms the original mark-making. I love setting up parameters and then allowing controlled accidents to take effect.
I started making screen-prints of my cyanotypes and printing the images onto clay with slips but that didn’t have the same magic for me so I worked out a way of doing the cyanotypes directly on to still slightly porous fired porcelain. The process has run its course for me… for now anyway. I have started making a few cyanotypes on paper again so who knows where that will lead.
What’s on your bedside table (that you’re reading?) The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto, and pile of poetry books – Rapture by Carol Ann Duffy, Ursula le Guin’s version of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching and two poetry anthologies, Poem for the Day and Being Alive.
What’s your favorite time of day? I’m naturally nocturnal and it’s hard to beat the beauty of a night lit only by a full moon. However, morning is my time to work and I do love the quiet sense of promise first thing.
What kind of movie is it? An anime or an old-fashioned non-digital animation… bittersweet, quirky but ultimately life affirming.
What 5 things define you? My boys, endless mugs of tea, lip balm, long skirts, banana skins.(If you’re wondering about the banana skins, they’re not for slipping on. I use them in my saggars to smoke fire my pots – they give the best greys and browny purples. I need so many so I’m always on the scrounge for them).
All images courtesy of Deirdre Hawthorne; photos of work by Leon Coole