May 2021

In celebration of FOLD’s exhibition ‘Clinamen’ and the inaugural London Gallery Weekend, Lydia Gifford and Marte Johnslien kindly answered questions relating to their artistic practices and the work featured in the exhibition.

Marte Johnslien:

How did you become introduced to the work of Gillian Lowndes? How does her work influence your practice?

I got introduced to her work only about one year ago by artist and former professor of Ceramic Art in the Oslo National Academy of the Arts in Oslo, Marit Tingleff. She wrote me an email to congratulate me on my PhD exhibition White to Earth, which consisted of large-scale sculptures in steel re-enforced ceramics, and mentioned Gillian’s work as a reference. It was an amazing feeling to see Lowndes’ work for the first time, I instantly felt connected to her. And I believe the timing was important – if I had been guided to her work earlier in my process it could have been distracting. But at this point it felt like being introduced to someone who had experimented in the same area, but without us knowing of each other. It was quite an emotional encounter.

Gillian Lowndes drew inspiration from the artwork of the Yoruba which influenced her experimentation with diverse materials and the exploration of the space between craft and art. Do you see your art as a continuation of this tradition of exploration?

Gillian Lowndes was already a ceramic artist with an experimental, sculptural approach when she moved to Nigeria in the 1970’s. Her approach was always a bit unusual – she seems to have been moving on the fringes of the craft scene the whole time. I find this very interesting, and perhaps a bit similar to my own story. I come from another angle, though, from the fine art scene, but I can definitely relate to Gillian Lowndes’ continuous exploration of materials and their inherent qualities. I believe situating yourself in this site can make you fall between traditional categories of sculpture and object, art and craft, the conceptual and the material, but I think neither Gillian nor myself are too occupied with the categorization of our work. It’s more about seeing what happens when categories collide. What knowledge occurs from fusing opposites together?

Can you tell us about the technique you devised to create your ‘steel-reinforced’ ceramics’? 

Steel-reinforced ceramics is a term I’ve come up with to describe the technique I’ve been developing since 2017. Previously, before beginning my journey in ceramics, I worked a lot with core-less sculptures in mixed materials like wire, textile, epoxy and plaster. So, I decided to try to create similar shell-like structures in clay and steel. The two materials are obviously in conflict with each other – the clay shrinks during drying and firing and will crack when applied to a steel mesh. And the steel moves and collapses during firing to the temperature where the clay becomes ceramic. I felt there was a lot of potential in working with this technique where the materials define the outcome of the sculptures to a large degree. And since colour always has been a main interest of mine, I was excited to work with ceramic glazes in combination with the structural work. I am determined to master the technique and have spent a lot of time trying to understand how the construction of the steel and the application of clay impact the process. The technique continues to surprise me, and very often takes on a life of its own – both in the shapes the steel take during firing, and the way the clay supports or pulls down the steel in the same process. Once I opened the kiln, I found the tall cylinders in steel re-enforced ceramics suspended in air! Firstly, they had stretched, and then they had shrunk to the point where they lifted from the ground, hanging on the horizontal supports in the kiln. In total they had stretched about 30 cm during the firing. That was an intriguing discovery.

How do you consider scale when making the artworks? What factors influence the size, orientation and volume of the works? 

Scale is always a big consideration in my work, and I tend to work large-scale with spatial sculptures or installations. I often work in series, and for the exhibition at FOLD I decided to work with smaller objects in combination with some medium sized. I knew Gillian Lowndes’ work is rather small, and I sort of wanted to enter a conversation with her on scale! Generally, I consider the exhibition space carefully when working towards shows. I work with maquettes and architectural models and attempt to create a balanced room. It is hard to describe what this balance is made of, but I try to create the right tensions between small and large, dark and light, bright and dull, organic and geometrical, synthetic and earthy.

Can you tell us more about how your experimental work with materials and techniques leads you to explore wider questions relating to the environment? 

This is a huge question to me. And I believe the answer to it also applies to the question of why I turned to ceramic materials in my practice. Every material brings with it stories of how it connects to other elements of the natural world. And to work with the qualities of minerals and other materials means to tap into these stories and the knowledge they bring with them. For me, it inspires both the creative process and the research-oriented artist in me. We’re becoming increasingly aware that the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources depends on the use of minerals. Hence, I believe we’re at a point where ceramic artists and other material-based artists may bring their knowledge and practical experience with minerals to the table where the future gets discussed. I believe experimental use of natural and man-made materials can lead to discoveries which can teach us something about the world of elements and how we are connected to it.

Lydia Gifford:

You have previously said that the artworks are by-products of your actions. Do you feel that your physical engagement with your art- what you do to the materials is as important as the finished work itself?

Yes. For me my practice exists in the activity, actions, rituals, routines. In movement, in writing and journaling. My practice is not studio bound. What I decide is “a work” is heavily driven by my confidence to “show” something and let it out of the privacy of my practice. Sometimes I feel bolder and other times it takes longer for a thing to be let out of the material/activity cycle. I often think of my objects as plates or slides that have happened to catch evidence of the my activities. Most of the actions are lost as there was no support to capture or the support dissolved or disintegrated, re integrated in the process and buried even. I think of my practice as an ongoing thing. It doesn’t start and stop or begin and end in the “pieces”.

Your physical gestures of hanging, folding and layering fabric seem to be frozen within the cotton gauze of the paintings of ‘Curl Pressed’ and ‘Shoulder Between’. Could you tell us a little about the process of making these types of works?

Most of the materials I use go through the transformation of liquid to solid so they fix action. This interests me. Some material I leave more fluid in nature, unfixed/changing, continuing. Or I find some balance between these two states. Both ‘Shoulder Between’ and ‘Curl Pressed’ have this balance of fixed and changing/continuing. With ‘Shoulder Between’, portions are heavily clogged with hardened paint and glue, other parts of the cloth are left more unaltered in nature and continue to behave like cloth. The heavy portions at the bottom drag the cloth into a downward gesture. For me this feels like a bridge between painting (sculpture) and a choreographed moment more akin to dance. I’m trying to achieve something between fixing and allowing the material behaviour. The gesture of hanging something in space is very interesting to me. Weighted cloth has a “body” but it is still relates to the support of painting. To layer and fold brings more body and traps activity.

The paintings ‘Barb’ and ‘Season’ both use the domestic fabrics of towel and corduroy, materials that would ordinarily be close to our bodies. Could you tell us about that choice?

Yes exactly, towel has an instant resonance/connection to proximity to skin, to the private/ personal routine of drying yourself down. The relationship to skin and body continues, I find, even when it is to clogged with clay, paint and glue, Corduroy too, I grew up in corduroy, I live in it still. Cotton gauze has the nuance of bandage or swaddling, dressings. Dish cloth. I love bed sheets, I collect old linen sheets that have been repaired and patched and handed down through families. Cloth has a lots of presence for me. My mother is a sewer and upholsterer, my sister made quilts from much loved clothes that were falling apart from wear. In the same way I like to use fabrics from living. I process them- I soak, paint on, twist and sculpt with them. The fabrics I work with inspire me, their behaviours, the way they fall when soaked, how heavy they become and how I have to move in order to handle them. Different cloth has different behaviours in different conditions. I try to push the material to its limit. I might drench a certain cloth/fabric with a clay, cement or glue. I pull and pin it with nails. Sometime it breaks down. I might select a particular material because I know it won’t handle what I want to put it through, knowing it will disintegrate.