Rowena Gilbert is exhibiting in the spring exhibition at The Biscuit Factory
Our Directory Maker of the Week, Rowena Gilbert, talks to us about getting into making, what inspires her and her favourite part of the making process
Who or what got you into making?
I've always loved art ever since I was young. My father Terence Gilbert, a very established fine artist, inspired me immensely. His studio is in the family home so I grew up watching him paint. He always made me feel so proud of my own drawings, pinning them up in his studio. I believe it was my portfolio of felt-tip pictures, aged ten, that helped me gain a place at Christ's Hospital School, Horsham.
My art teacher at school was a huge collector of contemporary, fine art ceramics with works by artists such as Ewan Henderson, Gordon Baldwin, Shoji Hamada, Bernard Leach and Betty Woodman. To be taught by someone so passionate about contemporary ceramics was had massive influence on me, without me realising it then. I loved ceramics at school, but just as much as everything else - the whole spectrum of art, design, craft (and maths!). My degree course (BA Hons Three Dimensional Crafts) continued that broad approach within fine art, design and craft contexts, with the focus on material knowledge, techniques and processes. I loved working with all materials yet ceramics was always my favourite. Clay is such a special material, dug from the ground, shaped then fired to a permanence that could last forever makes it so magical and yet so elemental. It is such a malleable and versatile material, giving you such freedom to express yourself in an endless array of ways.
Could you tell us a bit about your work?
The main focus with my ceramic work is finding that perfect fusion of strong design, innovative style and spontaneous expression - that counterpoint of form, design, colour and texture. I love well-made things that hold a simple but powerful expression. I love working with a very simple colour palette but using different surface textures such as mattes and gloss, to give my work an extra depth. I also love simple but bold gestures - stylish yet artistic.
My early designs had very distinct linear or swirl layered patterns, and used a minimal colour palette of deep earthy reds, charcoal blacks and whites with matte and gloss textures. These designs were bold and contemporary - very striking in their simplicity. I then went through a more figurative period where my designs were more overtly inspired by nature: motifs of cornfields, sunflowers and seed pods peppered this collection, working with a colour palette of taupes, olives and peacock greens together with teals and cobalt blues. Now, my work has become more impressionistic and abstract, each piece a one-off design allowing me to use the pot or bowl more as a canvas capturing a unique expression. My colour palette these days is a wash of yellows, turquoises and aquamarines.
What are your inspirations?
My ceramic work above all is a celebration of the natural world. I enjoy a mix of precision and playfulness, layers and layers of clay slips are built up in a very controlled manner, and then marks etched boldly into the surface are impulsive and free. Mimicking nature, the uniform precision of the pieces contrasts with the spontaneous designs engraved, scratched or etched into their surface, introducing a level of organic unpredictability into otherwise flawless objects. I liken this thought to geology, layers of clay echo periods of time, memories; slow, controlled, ordered. The surface evokes moods, tensions, actions, reactions.
My work is informed by my travels and my coastal hometown of Brighton, where the colours of the seas and beaches provide a source of inspiration. Moods and personal experiences also influence my work in more subconscious ways. After recent travels in south east Asia, the beaches of the Thai coast provided fresh inspiration for pieces that have taken my work in a new direction. Following the trip, experiments with new colour palettes led to an unintentional spread of hundreds of turquoise blue swatches, spread out in my studio like an ocean of tiny tiles.
The Reef Series pieces are a response to this time spent swimming and snorkelling in Thailand, and convey the mesmerising effect of spending hours under the water: forms flutter across the aquamarine surface of the pieces, fish darting between corals and aquatic plants; the glaze ripples like water. The Coast Series is a response to the skylines and shores of these tropical islands, capturing the constantly changing hues and movements of these spaces with accents of waves splashing against rocks and birds in flight.
The Reef and Coast Series mark a step away from the more controlled work of past years. Natural themes still dominate, but not the figurative forms of past work; this is a more abstract interpretation. The new pieces embrace intuitive mark-making, showing that even as the work has matured, it has become more playful. I am very excited to see how these new feelings and ideas will develop.
What is your favourite part of the making process?
I have been developing my technique since my final year of university. It seems crazy to still be developing it 14 years on but that's the nature of ceramics and art. I guess it'll take me a lifetime to be truly content with my style.
The first stage is very scientific - researching and developing clay slips. All the colours in my ceramics are my own creations. Variations in percentages of metal oxides and stains in the clay body, differences in clays, glazes, firing temperatures, all affect the final colour. It takes months to finalise a colour palette for a new series.
The next stage is very rhythmic and therapeutic. I cast the bowls or vases with a certain colour clay body, then brush layer upon layer of coloured clay slips on the insides and outsides of the body. I work on around eight pieces at any one time, as the layers need to dry to a leather-hard stage before the next layer can be brushed on. Depending on air temperature and humidity, and the amount of layers I am wanting, this can take a week to a few weeks as slow drying is essential to ensure no cracking in the final stages.
The next stage is my favourite part of the making process - it's exciting, spontaneous, intuitive and artistic. Here I cut through the layers of coloured clay using various metal tools I have shaped. This method is called sgraffito, yet I’ve developed the technique I use over 14 years, so it is very different from traditional sgraffito ceramics. This is the stage where I feel I am an artist creating my vision - my coloured canvas is ready for me to be impulsive and free, evoking moods and tensions, actions and reactions..
The final stage is calm and controlled, cleaning up the piece, bisque firing, masking areas and applying different glazes before the final firing. And then, of course, there’s the magical moment opening the kiln after the final firing to see what I have created.
What are you working on right now?
I am working on two new collections: Under the Waves / Above the Stars which will be launched in May at Festival 2017 - Cameron Contemporary Art, 1 Victoria Grove, Second Avenue, Brighton and Hove BN3 2LJ.
See Rowena Gilbert's work at The Biscuit Factory Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne until 2 June, the Craft Centre and Design Gallery, Leeds until 10 June and at Festival 2017, Cameron Contemporary Art, Brighton, from 29 April to 17 June 2017.