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Figuratively Speaking

Shelley Wilson


Today I want to talk to you about my work around the fragmented figure. I want to share with you the journey I have taken away from the ceramic world, and explain the reasons for that departure and how this was hastened by the lack of serious critical voice within that world. My voice is an attempt to redress this and should be seen as a voice from the outside looking in.

My work combines the three disciplines of ceramics, sculpture, and photography. In figure 1 you can see that I am exploring expressive forms of visualization, experimentation, and interaction between materials and subject matter, taking inspiration from the physicality and psychology of the human form. My concerns are with the complexities of the mind and body and how they interact. Perhaps more importantly I am searching for, and attempting to categorize and present, a ‘reality’ beyond the scientifically measurable.


Skill and technique are of immense importance to me but it is the intellectual process that is expressed through these that motivates my work, and this is where my passion lies. That process begins with the human figure, whether whole or fragmented; it is what is going on beneath the skin’s surface that interests me. I see the psychology, emotions, and physicality of the person not just their body.

The idea of fragmentation is not new and not exclusive to sculpture and ceramics. Fragmentation is of great significance to me and to all of us because at a very basic survival level we are programmed to recognize a face or a figure from the simplest clues or fragments. Two dots combined with a further horizontal and a vertical line will indicate a face, add a torso, legs, and arms in just four lines and you have a figure.

The best-known and oldest example of this has to be the Venus of Willendorf – a faceless figure with a voluptuous body, huge hips, and generous thighs ending in really tiny feet. There is no face but it is thought that the elaborate hairstyle indicates that she is a symbol of maturity and fertility. It could be argued that significant parts of her have been selected or fragmented, certainly defaced, in order to demonstrate to the palaeolithic viewer something important either to the artist or to the society. Picasso’s and Braque’s fragmented art form known as cubism was perhaps the most influential movement in twentieth-century art. As you are aware, cubism was an attempt to render three-dimensional forms on a two-dimensional surface in a radical way – by breaking up the columns into flat angular facets or planes that implied multiple simultaneous views of the object. Rodin was famous for his fragmentation; his working practice was to use an arsenal of different hands and feet to express the emotions in a sculpture. Today we have Damien Hirst literally dissecting animals, making three times life size anatomical models, and Gunther von Hagens, the Austrian performance anatomist. This way of working also allows me to leave out significant areas such as the head which will remain visible because of my treatment of the form and what I am reading from the person who inhabits that form.


The ceramic figurative sculptures (fig. 2) are intended to be the evidence of the person(s) after, for want of a less emotive word, the spirit has left – the husk, the house, the dwelling. The form presented to me records the life of that person but is not life itself. The method of production is crucial to this. I pinch and model the clay as thin as I can in order to make it vulnerable and as ‘hardly there’ as possible. Although the ‘husk’ is so thin the form it describes is solid. However, if the spectator chooses not to follow the intellectual thought process behind these sculptures and wishes to see the piece as a ‘piece’ then I feel it will stand alone and work on all levels.


Clay model sculpture is a more solid way of working and cannot be used in the same way as ceramics but the thought process is exactly the same, that is, looking beneath the surface (fig. 3). It is this quest that brings me to photography. The solid three-dimensional form which I will often dissect can then be dismissed through the lens of a camera which records and becomes the work itself in a two-dimensional form (fig. 4). This form is then manipulated to be re-created into a three-dimensional form once again. Those original emotions, physicality, etc. that I was releasing in the three-dimensional form are now once again trapped behind the sheets of glass in a two-dimensional/three-dimensional loop. This can be seen as a reference to the cubists but I feel that their endeavour lay in a slightly different direction. A further important aspect of the process is to destroy the original clay sculpture, which leaves many people confused and uncomfortable. This process can also be explored through the casting method (fig. 5) and here I usually work in wax which has an eerie quality close to that of flesh.

This brings me to one of my photographic installations, The Invisible Body (fig. 6), which was the result of a collaboration with David Hopkinson. His research is in trying to locate the genes that are responsible for facial features and, given my mixed race background, gave me the perfect opportunity to explore the interaction between myself and my immediate family at a given moment in time. The use of photography to record the modelled busts was an attempt to suspend the figures in space, to give the feeling that the spirit is both there and not there and thereby accentuating their transient nature and the vulnerability of life itself (fig. 7).



For the first three years after my graduation from Camberwell in 1992 I exhibited with Maureen Michaelson Gallery and Maggie Barnes – European Ceramics. While exhibiting at the BDC Art Fair ‘95 my art received a lot of national media attention and it was through this that the collaborations with the scientific world began. I had already realized that I didn’t fit into the ceramic world as I couldn’t be pigeon-holed either by my art work or by my philosophy. The box appeared closed for artists exploring new areas of investigation. It felt to me that the ceramic world was uncomfortable with what I had to offer and I sensed that it needed to stick with what was familiar and were unprepared to push the boundaries. Through my exhibit at the art fair I was invited by the Wellcome Trust to delve into their expansive art and historical archives and select a piece of artwork or subject matter to be inspired by (figure 8). I chose phrenology, the popular Victorian science. My slant was to explore how we order, categorize, and prioritize women on either side of the ‘body ideal’. This has led to working with the scientific community for the past nine years and away from the ceramic world. The result has been collaborations between various scientists and myself, culminating in a series of exhibitions showing at diverse venues such as the Science Museum, the Royal College of Physicians, Whiteley’s, and a number of art galleries. One of the topics I have explored, with my scientific partner, Arthur Crisp, the eminent psychiatrist, won the Wellcome Trust Sci-Art 97 competition with our entry Female Puberty and a Search for an Identity (fig. 9). This dealt with the psychological dilemmas of the sufferers of anorexia nervosa, whose fragmented notions of their own bodies created for me a wealth of material and a healthy respect for the struggle they were experiencing (figure 10).



I do regret that I could find no place in ceramics as I think, and this might sound arrogant, that ceramics would be a much richer place if the ceramic world not only included but welcomed and enjoyed artists like me who wish to take a broader view. To my mind there seems to be a self-imposed creative restriction that keeps ceramicists working within their comfort zone. The craft and skills involved in ceramics is in itself vital and valid but I feel that the ceramic world is failing to take up the challenge to push beyond this level and use their amazing skills to explore the realms of thought, philosophy, spirituality, physicality, morality, ethnicity, and so much more. In other words, to bring ceramics towards the concerns of the fine artist where there is a wealth of academic criticism that pushes the artist to examine and expand their art. My contention is that ceramicists are working within a comfort zone and a hold a cosy attitude towards their work which not only limits but maintains their work, however skilful and beautiful, as ‘little sister’ to the grown-up artists. To my mind, what is needed here is a body of serious critical writing against which the ceramicists can sharpen their perceptions and push their thinking past skill and technique to a realm that will set them among the biggest and best in the entire art world. But where is this body of serious writing and is this an argument that is at last taking place in the public arena?

For me what drives criticism is enquiry and uncertainty; the answers are unknown at the outset and possibly on arrival too, at which point an assessment has to be made in order to proceed, quite possibly in an entirely different direction. This requires critical faculties. Failure to reassess and make changes would automatically result in remaining static or going in all directions but the most promising one. Exploration is vital to the way I work. There are no guarantees as to where I will end up. Without being prepared to reassess or criticize I would not be able to continue the journey into the unknown. Where would the great explorers have been without an ability to assess and make changes? So if you accept that critical faculties are essential components of any exploratory event then it follows that the comfort zone will make no such demands beyond that which is already established.

The gap in available critical writing will never be filled unless there is a demand, or maybe I should say while there is no economic benefit to the publishing world. But will there ever be a demand so long as those in ceramics remain in their safe lagoon of skill and technique while fearing the waves and cross-currents of a wider enquiry? Maybe what is missing is the willingness to engage in critical discussion, which has to be the fertile soil from which these critical theories grow. If my own experience is anything to go by I think there is a lack of both discussion and instruction on academic writing in art schools. I would have really welcomed a greater loading on group criticism and discussion and more tuition on the written word. In putting this talk together I found no difficulty in researching and assembling the information; the difficulty arises around the expression and delivery. Some recognition of this seems to be happening to some extent, as Emmanuel Cooper chaired a symposium entitled ‘Re-Thinking Clay’, which gave fine artists and ceramicists the chance to discuss their heads off! He would like to hold more of these but is constrained by lack of funding.

Writers who do address ceramic theory seem to divide into two camps. In the one camp I find the practising ceramicists like Edmund de Waal. His first degree is in English, where, incidentally, there is a wealth of literary criticism, the discipline of which he has brought to his critical writing around ceramics. In the other camp I find non-makers who are purely academic – art historians and research fellows. Now, art historians and research fellows gain points and therefore receive funds from their written work, so I feel it is justified to consider that economics must play a big part in their output. Critical theories and art history always seem to be written by the same names: Edmund de Waal, Tanya Harrod, Paul Greenhalgh, Moria Vincentelli, Tessa Peters flag up time and time again. Of these writers, the makers appear to be male whereas the researchers are non-makers and mostly female, so might we also have a gender issue here? Of the two issues I feel economics must play a large role in controlling what is and what isn’t written or even discussed. Just think of Emmanuel Cooper’s symposium and how lack of funding is limiting the number of symposia he is able to hold. I also notice that Edmund de Waal’s article ‘Speak for Yourself’ appeared in the Ceramic Review and was subsequently on the Interpreting Ceramics website. Interestingly I understand that there is funding for this website and no payment for articles whereas there is a nominal payment for the articles in the Ceramic Review. I further notice that Jo Dahn will be running a workshop with the same title, ‘Speak for Yourself’, in September. While I am pleased to see discussion opening up I am concerned that opportunities for discussion are limited by the available funding. This could lead these discussions to become self-supporting and mildly incestuous, inward-looking and in danger of being used to maintain the comfort zone instead of pushing the participants to new levels.

There is already a huge pile of books covering skills and techniques in ceramics and, at the other end, a smaller pile from academia. It isn’t the quantity but the quality that concerns me. Jo Dahn said there was a gap in the middle. Emmanuel Cooper questions whether it needs filling. As he said during our interview, ‘It is the changing role of function that needs to be addressed.’ Whatever your view it seems self-evident that there is a great need for discussion.

It isn’t all doom and gloom. Twentieth Century Ceramics by Edmund de Waal is an excellent book and an easy read. It addresses how ceramics reflect and reach the wider artistic enquiry. Five Hundred Clay Figures, published by Larks Books, is full of photographs of some really beautiful work. I feel it missed a golden opportunity, however, for the only text that accompanies this book is the five hundred words on the inside cover sheet and the fifty-word text from each of the artists illustrated, which is minimal and not always present. Only a few of the artists are making meaningful literary statements around their thought processes, while others merely report on the process of making, which, according to Emmanuel Cooper and Richard Slee, means that the work lacks intellect and becomes ‘decorative and domestic’. Felicity Aylieff, writing for Ceramics Review, gave The Figure in Fired Clay by Betty Blandino a mixed review. She considers the wide remit of this book can only give an overview of the subject. However, she does point out

Less successful is the section on contemporary ceramics examples. Here there is an increased reliance on the bland technical description and reference to the wider context.

This might relate directly to the fact that there is almost a dearth of writings around contemporary ceramics for Blandino to draw on whereas other periods proved to be a much richer vein.

Does this mean that ceramicists are not capable of an intellectual approach to their work? Emmanuel Cooper and Richard Slee both agree that there are very few contemporary ceramicists who have something to say about the human condition, but on the whole figurative ceramics leaves them cold. When I interviewed Richard Slee for this talk he mentioned to me that he had come across a German figurative ceramicist called Christina Doll and found her small porcelain figures very contemporary and just exquisite. Another example he gave me was of Phillip Eglan, whose figures in my view are sublime but who is now concentrating on vessels. Richard Slee seems to think ‘he has too much talent for his own good’. Why does someone with so much to offer restrict their talents to the domestic? (Interestingly, Tessa Peters told me last week that he is returning to the figure.) I can only suggest that the answer once again lies in economics. I guess the vessels sell well. So it isn’t lack of skill and technique, but is it a lack of intellect that keeps the ceramicist as ‘little sister’ ? Again, Richard Slee says that there are many artists with enormous helpings of skill and technique whose work remains average. Others who seem to lack skill, etc. can produce sublime work (admittedly outside the ceramic world). Someone who is combating this is Director Koos de Jong, who has taken artists from outside ceramics into his European Ceramic Centre, resulting in some exciting works from artists such as Tony Craggs.

Throughout my research for this talk I have found a tussle going on between the intellect and economics. There are other issues but I believe they only contribute to the one limiting factor of economics. For instance, ceramics are grossly underpriced; each piece after all is unique and so is an art form, whatever the standard. So is there a snobbery here around its domestic origins and the baseness of the materials used? This would succeed in keeping the price of the artefact down but should it also keep down the artistic enquiry?

To sum up, I would like to know, where does this leave us? As far as publications go I feel very strongly that while ceramicists limit themselves to skills and technique they are in danger of being sidelined to the hobby shelf in W. H. Smiths, which is exactly where you will find Craft Magazine. As it is funded by the Craft Council it should take its rightful place in the business and industry section. Here I have to ask, just who are these people writing for? They seem to be targetting an average to low intellect and do not seek to expand the artistic enquiry. I want to know, how could this writing be revved-up a gear to do just this? To address this expansion of the artist’s quest I hold that the monograph of an artist at a particular period of time or retrospectively is an ideal vehicle for this higher level of critical writing. Another ideal publication that could include critical analysis is the exhibition catalogue, which might then become a valuable reference book for the working ceramicist.

An up-to-date or daily critical discussion could be held in the form of an electronic forum at one or several universities. This could be run on a low budget with minimal editing and an instant up-to-date discussion on contemporary ceramics or any other art form. This is not an all-inclusive list and I am sure there are many in this hall who could think of any number of other ways of publishing critical views.

I ask you, who will do this quality writing? Leaving it to the academics and art historians will inevitably limit the view to the narrow confines of available funding. In the 1970s we had Peter Dormer who owned a design shop but was neither a maker nor an academic. He was an excellent independent writer, much respected across the ceramic, architectural, and craft worlds. He was a ‘lone star’ in a fairly dark sky. Sadly he died in 1996. A writer of equal stature is Alison Briton, a ceramicist highly regarded internationally as well as at home. She writes extremely well at a high level. She does write papers for conferences but these are not easily available to the broader arena. A book from her would be very welcome!

Furthermore, who will they be writing for? Richard Slee maintains that the quality of applicants applying to ceramic degree courses across the country has fallen dramatically over the last few years. He says that it has reached such a point that there is no longer a selection process at many art colleges; there is no interview. It’s as if they say ‘Yes, hello mate, come in, make yourself comfortable – there’s the wheel – if you want me I’ll be down the pub.’ You get the point, which basically is that few if any of these students are likely to require an intellectual approach in critical writing if they require criticism at all. So what does the future hold?

Richard Slee feels that there is a plethora of courses filled with anyone who’ll take them up. Surely this is another case where funding is the issue – each student is seen as a cash cow? Emmanuel Cooper was saying in his talk with Brian Sewell that in the 1970s artists moved towards ceramics exactly because of this lack of criticism or theoretical writing and because it was trendy. Now it seems that ceramicists are leaving for the same reason. This is not new – Jacqueline Poncelet left for the same reason in the 1980s. As a lesser mortal, I moved away from ceramics because there was no place for me to grow and no body of critical writing against which to sharpen my perception.

So will it be down to the art historians to document the demise of ceramics? If there is a lack of quality ceramicists coming through, for the reasons Richard Slee gives, who will be making anything worth writing about in the future?

I feel strongly enough about the situation to raise the issue and stimulate awareness of the circumstances and create a damn good old-fashioned barney. Maybe I should be more circumspect and academic and say ‘create a discussion’. So come on, let’s discuss now – over to you.



Aycliffe, Felicity, review ‘Fired Clay/Blandino’, Ceramic Review, 201, May/June 2003, p.58.

Blandino, Betty, The Figure in Fired Clay, London, A & C Black, 2003.

Cooper, Emmanuel, ‘Ends & Beginnings’, www.interpretingceramics.com, no. 2.

Cooper, Emmanuel. Interview with the author for Fragmented Figure Conference, 31 May 2005.

Dewald, Gabi, ‘Too Cosy – Ceramic Magazines as Family Reports’, Symposium Global Support and Inter-Change of Ceramic Art.

Five Hundred Clay Figures, USA, Larks Books, 2004.

Perry, Grayson, ‘A Refuge for Artists who Play it Safe’, The Guardian, 5 March 2005.

Peters, Tessa. Interview with the author for Fragmented Figure Conference, 20 June 2005.

Slee, Richard. Interview with the author for Fragmented Figure Conference, 2 June 2005

Waal, Edward de, ‘Speak for Yourself’, Ceramic Review, 182, March/April 2000, pp.32-3.
Also published in www.interpretingceramics.com, no. 5.

Waal, Edward de, Twentieth Century Ceramics, London, Thames and Hudson, 2003.


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Figuratively Speaking • Issue 8