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  • Shy, Richard Slee, 2013

Play and pessimism

Ceramic artist Richard Slee talks to Teleri Lloyd-Jones about his inspirations

As a child, did you make things?

Yes. My parents used to say, ‘Oh, he’s good with his hands.’ It annoyed me intensely because the rider there is: ‘He’s not very bright.’ My elder sister is very bright, so my parents ignored me in a way. That was a kind of freedom. I was quite alone as a child so I used my imagination a lot. Play is still important to me. Watching my grandchildren play is pleasurable.

Do you retain play within your practice, a joy within work?

I don’t have joy!

But humour is central in your work?

I’m a depressive and a pessimist – just look at Tony Hancock. There is humour in my work, but people think of humour as one-dimensional. Yet it’s multifaceted. Waiting for Godot is funny but it’s not a belly laugh. Play, like humour, is multifaceted.

Did you want to be an artist?

In my teens I wanted to be an architect. I wanted to be Le Corbusier. Thank god I’m not! My education was appalling – I found out too late that I’d taken the wrong A levels to get into architecture school. My father, in a particularly awkward moment, asked me what I was going to do, and in desperation I said, ‘Art school.’ I got in and it was a revelation. It was the first time in my education that I was an individual. Then I moved to London to study product design at the Central School [now Central St Martins College of Art and Design].

Why product design?

Well, the kind of art I liked there was a logic to it. I read Paul Klee’s The Thinking Eye in foundation and found it useful. But the course was so boring – not the electric kettle project again! This is the late 60s and there were magazines like Domus and Italian design was getting exciting. Ettore Sottsass gave a lecture at Central School. I remember those Ziggurat ceramics, this was something I could relate to and admire.

You moved to the ceramics course. Whose work were you inspired by then?

Painters like Patrick Caulfield and another who’s disappeared, Douglas Binder, whose show at the Whitechapel is seared on my memory. Sculptors I liked were Anthony Caro and Phillip King.

So for you, it was about bringing fine art into craft disciplines?

It was an extremely vibrant moment, but I didn’t want to be part of the club. There’s nothing worse than pottery fundamentalism.

Catapult, Richard Slee, 2013
Are there any contemporary ceramists whose work you admire?

Nicholas Rena. And Ken Price, as well, he was someone I constantly looked at.

Interestingly, they share that surface of perfection. As with yours, there’s little sign of the human hand in their work.

What did Rodin say, ‘The feverish thumb’? That’s not me. Sometimes the look of my work is detrimental because people misinterpret it as a product, thinking it must be slip-cast. But they’re all one-offs.

Also there’s the importance of colour?

The colour is to do with being ‘modern’. I do think that there is something particular about ceramic colour, I’m very aware of getting the right quality of colour.

Recently, you’ve been working in glass. How did that come about?

The National Glass Centre invited me to work with James Maskrey. He’s highly skilled. I’ve been a one-man band and the change was fascinating – understanding the other person, how they have their own handwriting and preferences. And the glass process is so quick; decisions have to be made. With clay you can wrap it up in polythene and forget about it for two weeks. To me, glass had always been abstract lumps called Wave or something, and they bored me silly. But I spent time at the Wallace Collection, with its small collection of Venetian glass, and gradually began to understand how it’s made. Before it was just a mass, now I can differentiate.

Do you go to museums for inspiration?

Early on in my career I did, but I rarely do now. I look at contemporary culture, anywhere. I go to Wickes.

Tools and DIY are a recurring theme for you. The absurdity of the useless tool.

Making and tools, yes, there’s some unconscious pull for me. It annoys me intensely how much your childhood affects you; my father had no tools, he was an accountant. He was cack-handed. That might have had some effect.