Sara Flynn by Sebastian Blackie
How artists locate themselves within a wider community of practice may bring insight to their inspiration as well as some of the imperatives that sustain them. Sara Flynn belongs to a generation of Irish ceramic artists who are confidently engaging with an international audience and whose work stylistically is far removed from the rustic traditional crafts, which are often closely associated with tourism and in Ireland are charged with a particularly powerful cultural/national identity. It is then surprising to learn that Flynn is not from the city but works in picturesque rural isolation on the very western edge of Europe. As many Irish have done she looks westward to the future, her work and life style being a measure of how heterogeneous craft practice has become. Her pots are not emblematic of a rural idyll nor in any conscious way are they influenced by the visual landscape in which she works. There is however a relationship between Flynn’s vessels and the place she chooses to make them. It is not a topographical relationship but the quality of solitude that supports focused reflection so necessary for some kinds of art practice.
Flynn’s work reveals some of the characteristics of Hans Coper’s work; a potter she has greatly admired throughout her ceramic career. There is an obsessive passion for clay’s unique qualities, a sustaining fascination with the “thingness” of vessels as abstract forms largely unrelated to utilitarian pots which serve our bodily needs. Coper’s famous thought that he was: ”like a demented piano tuner seeking the perfect pitch” is an appropriate way to understand Flynn’s practice relaying as it does on just a few key element.
All Flynn’s work is thrown porcelain. With modernist concerns such as truth to material and process we are used to ‘read’ how things are made. We are familiar with the ‘vocabulary’ of construction with resistant materials and reductive processes such as carving or the results of casting with liquids. But the use of plastic or viscous material with its shifting identity is encountered less often in our daily lives and the aesthetics of displacement seem more mysterious, Flynn’s exploration of form is not confined by the wheel but develops often asymmetrically from the rhythms of throwing, the line of the rim often being particularly important. The soft clay forms are squeezed, indented or pinched to enhance fluidity and establish an individual identity. Flynn’s creativity is focused in the act of working with plastic clay; any subsequent work is at its service.
Glaze has an interesting effect on the form. In recent years Flynn has reduced her range of glazes and predominantly works with a rich black whose pearly sheen is reminiscent of the surface of freshly thrown clay. In both form and surface then the finished work, in actuality hard and dry, evokes its soft, wet past. This glaze seems to hold light neither absorbing it as the colour black often does nor refracting back in a mass of highlights as many glazes do. It creates a certain distance, an ‘otherness’ but intimacy also evocative of the solitude in which they are made. Flynn often glazes her pots all over or a different glaze is used for the inside surface as a simple, but dramatic, definition of their vesselness.
The modern art pottery movement has been dominated by aesthetics that can be directly attributed to the Far East. For Flynn this is clearly not the case. Her visit to China representing Ireland at the Fu Lee International Ceramic Art Museum seems to have had no effect on her practice. Her lack of deference to any particular historic movement may reflect a general desire for independence from the past: Irelands historic culture, the strictures of Catholicism or the long but troubled relationship with the countries nearest neighbour. The Mexican potter Gustavo Perez faced with similar issues of contemporary artistic identity in the face of a powerful, partly shared, heritage said of his relationship to the artists of the USA: “We may not know exactly who we are but we know we are different”. Flynn’s work has a certain Scandinavian sensibility although this has not been intentional. It is interesting that it was to Scandinavia that Ireland’s policy makers turned for inspiration when seeking to invigorate the countries crafts. It is a tenuous connection that may have influenced the reception of her work but does not explain her motivation. For that one must return to the clay and seek out that which is shared by potters from every culture: The joy of forming something out of undifferentiated lumpen matter. The athletic confidence in haptic skill. Trust in intuitive, submersive, engagement, producing the freshness of personal discovery. It is work born from process and nurtured by love.
Sebastian Blackie is an artist, writer, teacher and Professor of Ceramics at the University of Derby