Linda Southwell creates porcelain sculptures based on plant and flower structures.The porcelain is pushed to its limit so that the impression of fragility is belied by the strength in the clay body after it has been transformed by intense heat. The scale of Linda’s work varies from one-off small single flowers to large scale installations.
Your sculptures are so strikingly detailed, there must be a lot of time involved in making the work, can you describe your creative process?
My creative process is constantly evolving as I try to improve and speed up what can be a very time consuming and challenging making experience. I like to work on a large scale (within the limits of my kiln!) and as you scale up the work and add more clay / weight then it’s important to get the technical construction of the shape underneath right. I sometimes coil the base forms, with supporting walls within to stop the shape collapsing, or I join thrown sections together. One of the greatest challenges faced when making work like this is using the clay at the right point in it’s drying stages – if the clay is too wet it is problematic but then also if it’s too dry. There is a high risk of cracking, so slow drying pieces under plastic helps with this, but ensuring the joins are good is also important.
The colour palette I use is really important to me. I started off as a fine artist and colour is something that can really affect your mood. I like to work with colours that are complimentary to one another so that the whole body of work I make sits well together. Quite a lot of the porcelain is coloured using stains that I mix by hand.
My sculptures are inspired by plant structures and I like to concentrate on repetitive shapes, particularly found in succulent plants such as sympervivums or aeoniums but I cannot help but be seduced by big, blousy blooms such as peonies are chrysanthemums. I am fascinated by the language of plants and how we use them to convey so much emotion – they are symbols of all kinds of life experiences from love to death. Preserving these beautiful forms in permanent material feels like a homage to the beauty of our natural world.
What led you to working with porcelain?
I wanted to work with porcelain for the strength of the finished material and it’s purity of colour. I had been working with a grogged hand-building clay, similar to t-material, and found that petals would break incredibly easily. The pieces were so unbelievably fragile. The shrinkage on these clays was about 5% whereas porcelain shrinks by around 20% and makes the material a lot stronger. There is a luxurious feeling to porcelain that also attracted me – it feels so refined and pure. After firing it is like marble, so that move away from the functional / practical look and feel of most clay bodies, to having stronger links to sculpture was what I really loved. There is always an interesting tension between craft and art and the boundaries between the two. I love the humble attitude and the simplicity of materials used by ‘potters’ but with a background in fine art I think I always considered myself an ‘artist’ not a ‘potter’.
Could you share a bit about your piece ‘The Tree of Aphrodite’ , what was the inspiration behind it?
Aphrodite was the goddess of love and beauty. The central themes of love and beauty are so bound up in flowers and our relationship with them. They are valentines gifts, we lay them on graves, we give them to friends. When you look at flowers you are as entranced as a bee wanting the nectar – how can you not appreciate how aesthetically pleasing they are? I think I am very driven by things that are beautiful – I like to surround myself with art and things that make me appreciate life. I am also a dendrophile. I grew up on a farm that had a deciduous wood which was a playground for my siblings and me. Being in and around trees is when I am at my happiest. So, I decided to create a flower tree that celebrated the beauty in the natural world. This particular piece is a little unresolved. I didn’t want the base shape to be uncovered, as I had done with previous work, and covered it with a more abstracted ‘pattern’ which I think has ended up looking more like a basket.
Your colour aesthetic is very intriguing, can you share a bit about your use of colour? How important is it within your work?
As I said earlier, colour is very important to me. I was a painter and did a fine art degree. Using colours that are calming, complimentary and subtle is really what I want to achieve. I like to create a gradual fade that mimics nature and this subtle blending really adds to the visual impact of the piece. I worked on a site specific installation called ‘Ghosts in the Graveyard’ which was situated amongst the national yucca collection at Renishaw Hall, where my studio is based. It was a hugely emotive body of work as its central premise was to raise awareness of climate change, particularly in response to the forest fires that had raged in Australia. The absence of colour in this was intentional – the bleached, ghost like yucca sculptures were intended to ‘haunt’ the real living plants.
What is your workspace like, what are your studio essentials?
My studio is in the stable courtyard at Renishaw Hall. It is a very old property with thick stone walls and a double height ceiling. It’s very calming and feels like a sanctuary. I deliver classes and experiences from there so it can feel chaotic at times with the amount of work in there, especially as I have to juggle my own work around students. It is my space and I am very proud of the business I have built. It also helped to keep me sane during the pandemic as it was somewhere to escape to.
When I first started my journey into ceramics I read a great deal about other potters and I was really fascinated by a lady called Elspeth Owen, who works in Cambridge. She created pinch pots by hand and generally didn’t remove or refine them very much so she required very little by way of equipment except her hands. It is a primitive way of working that has been repeated over thousands of years and one that serves to connect and ground us. My hands are everything. BUT, having said all that – I do love a good surform blade to refine shapes! I have a small kiln that was given to me as a thank you from an open access pottery studio I volunteered at in Oxford. I’ve had it for over 20 years and it was old when they had it. I will never part with it.
Who are some of your favourite contemporary artists at the moment?
I adore Phoebe Cummings – she is in my mind a true artist. The way she expresses herself is another layer to her work which is incredibly beautiful and poignant. Kate Malone is a wonderful maker too and I think she has inspired a whole army of people to make: she is a very vital life force. The most incredible thing I have seen recently was Rachel Kneebone’s ‘399 days’ which was at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. It was staggering in both its complexity and scale. Truly humbling.