How did you first connect with Erskine, Hall & Coe?
I first encountered Matthew and the gallery in 2018, towards the end of my time at Central Saint Martins. One of the things we were all asked to do as students was to approach people in the field and try to talk to them about our work. I emailed Matthew with a booklet I produced for my degree show, and he invited me for a chat in the gallery, and then bought some work from me.
What initially led you to ceramics? When did you know it was the medium for you?
While I was completing a foundation course at Ulster University, I was really focused on making sculptural work, and it was very much about repetition and lots of cheap materials - whatever I could get my hands on really.
It then started moving towards craft-based things when I started studying Fine Art in Bristol. I did a few things with wood and other materials; it was all at a very low level of skill, just playing about.
At University of the West of England in Bristol I had access to a great fabrication department, as well as a bunch of ceramics facilities leftover from the course which had closed down there, so I was playing about with metal, glass and then I started exploring ceramics.
I guess it's something of a cliché, but it was very therapeutic for dealing with things that were going on personally at the time. I just became really immersed in it and from that point I lost interest in doing other things. I then decided to try to move across to Central Saint Martins, to train on a course which was more specific.
You were brought up in Northern Ireland. How do you feel that has affected your work?
Everything I am making now is really influenced by home in Northern Ireland. Towards the end of my second year at Central Saint Martins, I began to want to make work that was more conceptually challenging.
I find the politics and history of Northern Ireland difficult, but I love it for being my home. I love it because my family is there, and because it's such a beautiful place.
The first work I made about Northern Ireland was focused on the social history of the country. But now my focus has shifted slightly away from that, with more emphasis on geographical aspects.
The history and The Troubles are still there in a sense, because it is such a huge part of the country’s history. The work is very much about home, and the places there.
I have thought about if and when my work will change - whether I’ll start exploring other places or countries. This is definitely a possibility for the future, but for now I’m focused on my home.
Whenever I go back home I always do visits to different places; it is such a key part in the development of the work. Whether it’s in the north or the south, for me it’s starting to become just one Irish landscape.
In this exhibition there are thrown pieces, and pieces made in moulds. What do you get out of both types of work and how do you balance the two?
The different processes within ceramics are really interesting. They all have certain things they can allow you to achieve and they also have their own limitations.
I only started focusing on slip casting when I was coming towards the end of university. I was really stuck in my head because all I wanted to do was throw things and it was all I was interested in.
But then I started hitting brick walls where I wanted to achieve a certain thing and I couldn’t. With using moulds and plaster I could suddenly do things I was struggling to do with thrown work. The immediacy of model making alongside how casting both captured and accentuates this really caught me.
What is the significance of landscape in your pieces?
With all the work made at university and since, I always wanted to have some kind of physical connection to the place in which the work is based. I wanted to give that narrative weight, and this is something you can really do in ceramics, especially in terms of materials. It's another layer you can add to bring the place into the piece.
Whether this is done through the use of materials, such as the granite collected from the Mourne Mountains in the thrown bowls. Or through the process of making the work, such as the chiselled pieces, which reference the quarrying of granite from these mountains.
With Dug no. 5 this form was created by cutting through soft plaster with a ‘sleán’ before making its mould and slip casting it in porcelain. A ‘sleán’ is an Irish tool for cutting turf. That process is so important in terms of the development of Ireland as a society, as it was used for collecting fuel vital to our survival. This work was about appropriating that tool.
You seem to exclusively use porcelain, sometimes incorporating unusual materials, such as the ground granite in the wheel-thrown bowls or in experiments you have shown me where you have melted down stones onto clay. What is your attraction to porcelain? And what is your attraction to unprocessed materials you sometimes pair with it?
I did not always work in porcelain. It was great at Central Saint Martins because we were allowed materials and we didn’t have to pay for them, and they had quite a good variety of materials. They had porcelain, but you had to be allowed to use it - as it is more expensive - so I guess it’s built into your head that way as something which is special. Being something precious and important, more than just its financial sense - and then they started to let me use it - which was wonderful.
I enjoy using porcelain and I enjoy the qualities it has. Part of the reason for using it is its historical importance; but mostly my reason for using it is that it is pure. It’s a canvas more than anything else - whether it’s a canvas for nothing more than the shape and texture of the piece or as a canvas for having something incorporated into it, such as incorporating granite or using turf ash in glazes. As soon as I start using this basalt glaze, it will be a canvas for that.
Can you tell us about the ideas behind the thrown bowls?
The bowls are about collecting the material, the grinding of the material and the adding of the material - all of those things are important to me. I went to Sliabh Dónairt to collect the granite - I remember taking my mum's dog with me. It's really important that I gather the material myself. The experience of being in these places and the labour of collection is part of the process of making it.
I enjoy that work for the same reasons I enjoy the chiselled work - I enjoy it for the labour.
How does the addition of ground granite to the thrown work affect the making process?
It rips and it tears.
But it gives it some strength as well, like a grog. It doesn’t necessarily always work.
I tested the additions of granite with porcelain extensively. I’ve gone up to a 50% addition, but it eventually just becomes like gravel. Some of the bowls have less and some have more. (The bowls in the exhibition have between 4 - 15% ground granite to porcelain in them.)
Before firing, the piece has slightly better wet strength and workability than a porcelain bowl; however, it is quite sharp and the granite can rip a hole through the porcelain. Sometimes if you get a big bit, and the big bit is not very happy it will split, which would be nice if it happened in an aesthetic way, but it only ever happened in sad ways.
Does the chiselled work relate to the same mountains that Sliabh Dónairt is part of, where you collect the granite?
Yes. The Mournes, a mountain range in County Down. It is super beautiful, and there is a reservoir and granite quarries. The mountains are really peaceful. They are covered in forests up to a point and then it just clears out and there are beautiful streams and pools. Once you come across one of the quarries you can’t see anything else - there seems to be nothing else.
Is the inspiration for these pieces the form of the mountain or the chiselling into the mountain?
That work was very much about the removal of material from the mountains. With the work made in plaster, the pieces are chiselled - it’s quite crude really - which is quite important because it is aggressive and exhausting.
It is the form of digging into the quarry. The forms are quite loose, I guess. I want them to be asymmetrical and have variation. But this is more about the presence that they have, rather than imitating the shape or scale of the mountain.
One of the reasons I like working with plaster is that you can work really quickly. That’s not about saving time, it's more about the work being spontaneous.
I get stuck in my head quite a lot, and I am very much an over-thinker as a person, so I don’t want my work to be over-thought. And you can be slightly less self-critical if you have less control over the work.
I wanted them to be spontaneous, and I want them to be free, and to have some level of movement within them.
So for the slip cast works, you first make forms in plaster, then you chisel, then you make the moulds for the pieces, which are then slip cast in porcelain, and then altered?
Do the moulded pieces change shape when fired?
Working with plaster and doing cast work is great because it allows you to achieve so much. It’s amazing because it allows you to make work which wouldn’t be able to work otherwise.
I find this cast work strong in its wet state - the forms can be kept relatively thin for their size and scale. This really makes them move a lot when you take them out of the mould - they change. All of these pieces are finished by hand. Their seams are fettled down, and their rims are cut down and adjusted individually.
I try to exaggerate certain aspects of it, slight changes in the pieces’ rims make such differences to them. Sometimes there is a drastic variation between two pieces made in the same mould.
They change shape and warp when they’re fired as well. These pieces are not 'strong shapes' in terms of warping, so there can be a lot of variation. There will also be variation in how they stand, depending on how they are stood in the kiln.
Can you talk about the smaller chiselled pieces, the Cut pieces?
So, the Cut pieces were very much the origin of this whole body of work. I made them at uni, and they were the first things I made, which evolved into this body of work.
The first pieces were very much like cups - they were small and could be held, like personal objects, and the whole texture was very much about the removal of materials.
The later, bigger pieces are still very much about that removal of material and mark making from that process, but they are also exploring the presence which these objects hold within a space. Much like the presence, both the mountains and the quarries possess.
The work in my degree show was about objects, and therefore not too far removed from a plate or a cup, or a bowl or vase. They were something that you can hold, something you can touch, something that you can feel - something personal, to an extent. And it was something which I very much saw as functional, whereas now the work has moved away from that.
The work now is not necessarily functional, and the iterations have become more exaggerated, drastic and chaotic. I am still trying to let go of the control of them, which is why I work with plaster and then moulds.
Could you talk about the Stratum pieces?
This is my most recent work. These pieces are about a bay - Murlach/Murlough Bay - in County Antrim on the east coast.
Murlough Bay is a special place. It’s a tiny place at the bottom of some steep hills and cliffs. It is still a really peaceful spot since the access is not the easiest. You go down this steep hill past trees battered with the sea air. It's all very dramatic.
The bay itself has an amazing rock beach, with boulders and pebbles and a little two-windowed cottage.
I would go there as a child, and my gran and grandad would take my mother there when she was younger. It's another place I wanted to somehow think about, as it’s so peaceful and still - if you go there on a really clear day you can see across to Scotland.
I am interested in the time that these places possess. They have evolved over an incomprehensible amount of time to become the places we know and cherish, which is something I find so peaceful. In some way this is still connected to the societal work that I made at uni - about how we are nothing and the landscape is everything; how the fights, politics, and individuals don’t actually mean anything in terms of the time in the real physical world and these everlasting places.
So this work is about using that idea - it is the stratum.
How do you form the Stratum pieces?
I start with a solid piece of plaster and then I chisel, first roughing the works out quickly and then gradually finessing them.
While the work should hold the qualities of the place, I don't want it to imitate the place.
I don’t want the Stratum pieces to have defined tops or bases: I want them to just be. For a while I was playing with the prospect of not showing their openings, hiding them in some fashion - but I decided against this in the end. I came to ceramics because I like the idea of things having a function or purpose - this is something I got from my mum who only buys things if they have a purpose. I like that about ceramics - that pieces can so easily be functional, in this case even if that function is ambiguous.
There are a few different ways the piece can sit, and each one will hold some difference to the next. However, these pieces will warp and change themselves when fired. This means that whichever way the piece is stood during its firing will naturally become where it sits.
Do you glaze the interiors, and if so why?
Yes, the interiors of the Stratum pieces are glazed. You can see a slight reflection of light from inside the piece - I quite like having that. And there is something about contrast as well in the piece - a difference between interior and exterior.
This is one of the reasons why I like to cast work. There is no reason why I could not make these forms in blocks of clay - and that would perhaps be quicker. However, it would be impossible to get the same interior in the piece - where also you get a softer version of the outside - which is something I really enjoy about the work.
I glaze the interiors to accentuate them, as I feel they are just as beautiful as the exteriors, and they hold just as much importance. I think it also comes from spending so much time being focused on utilitarian work before I started making this work. I definitely do not see my work now as functional, but I also never feel the pieces are finished until I have glazed them in some way.
You work in white or off-white, and the black works in the show are relatively new. How do you feel about using a limited palette?
I like porcelain because it’s pure and like a canvas. With the Stratum pieces, I have used different tones of white and a black. The work is very much about the rocks and their formation, and how they are made from these millions of things. But also how you have variation within that - and I want to reference all these variations.
When you look around Murlough Bay, it’s covered in these dark grey basalt rocks, but each is unique. The black is an extension of this. I wanted to make something which was in stark contrast to the other pieces, something which stood out. I wanted to see how it would affect the work, perhaps emotionally.
I imagine the work both as individuals as well as potentially being in groupings. You could have a few pieces from the same mould together, but it is interesting how they sit together and contrast each other.
Where do you see your work going next?
I am really happy with how the work based on Murlough Bay is going - and I want to explore this further. With the colour of the work - I may introduce some other earthy colours, either through using stones as glaze or wood firing some pieces.I'm also curious to explore different materials, perhaps bronze and glass work.
Simon Kidd interviewed by Sophia Kennedy-Wilson, 2020