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Back to the Land

Katie Spragg talks to Grant Gibson about nature and telling stories

There’s a fin de siècle feeling as I catch up with Katie Spragg at the ceramics and glass department of the Royal College of Art. The graduating show has finished, a handful of students are packing their pieces away, corridors that had recently been teeming with visitors are empty and doors can be negotiated only with a security pass. In one of the larger spaces Spragg has asked photographer Sylvain Deleu to shoot her porcelain pieces of grasses and weeds before she has to leave. It’s a curious sensation because while the atmosphere might be a little doleful, it also signals the start of a new career for the young artist. 

Selecting one student from what was an excellent graduation show is invidious, but there was a wonderful immersive quality to Spragg’s pieces – not least in the beautiful stop-motion animations showing her work sprouting and swaying in the breeze. ‘I was really interested in capturing that dynamic quality of clay,’ she tells me. ‘There’s almost a sadness that when it’s put in the kiln it becomes so static and so frozen.’ 

Katie Spragg's graduate work from the RCA. Photo: Sylvain Deleu

Spragg’s name, if not her current work, may well be familiar to visitors of trade shows such as CRAFT and Pulse. Having studied on the (old) Wood, Metal, Ceramics and Plastics BA at Brighton, she had carved out a reputation making small-batch production work that was also sold in places such as Liberty, Paul Smith and London’s Fashion and Textile Museum. It might have seemed a brave move to give that up and head back into education. ‘It was stuff I was making over and over again and I got bored,’ she explains. ‘It wasn’t the way I wanted my practice to go.’ Having spent too long on her own in the studio, she was keen to work around other people again and, besides, she wanted to push herself. 

During a graduate residency at the V&A, she’d become acquainted with Matthew Raw and Amy-Jayne Hughes and witnessed how the Manifold generation’s work had developed during their time at the college. Subsequently, she wanted to see if it had the same effect on her output. ‘My expectations have definitely been met,’ she says, in a quote that you fancy could find its way into the RCA’s prospectus next year.   

Her final pieces stemmed from the dissertation she wrote, entitled Landscape: A Place for the Imagination, which was, she says, ‘all about the connection between story-telling and the natural world’. This in turn had come from a college trip to Iceland and a camping holiday to the Brecon Beacons with her sister at the end of her first year. ‘I was interested in the traces that we leave on the landscape, so I was looking at cairns at the top of mountains or desire lines that had been walked into the ground. Clay will take a mark in the same way the land does. So that became the starting point of this body of work.’ 

Each porcelain blade of grass is made individually, rolled out with a piece of dowel and stored in a Tupperware box with wet plaster. The base is a grabbed piece of drier clay, ripped from a bag ‘so that it looks like a clump of earth’. Initially she made a patch of grass, which, she says, ‘went on to become many, many patches of grass that I’ve made over the past year’. Meanwhile, film became a vital part of the project. ‘It’s something that’s sort of been in the background as one of my interests for a long time. And having the resources here to be able to do it was really great. I had a lot of support with the lighting and study space, working over the road in the moving image studio.’ 

She started with an app on her phone, she says, ‘just experimenting and seeing how I could make clay behave and record that’. And along the way she learned about stop-motion animation too. ‘When I first started I would move the piece an inch each way and I thought that would be fine,’ she remembers. ‘Then I went and spoke to the animation tutor and he said I needed to be doing 12 moves a second… I’m a really impatient animator.’

The manner in which her physical work and films were presented was also a vital part of the project. In one piece visitors could take a seat in a deckchair and watch a screen above them; another was inspired by the coin-operated binoculars that you used to get at the seaside – both were made by her partner who happens to be a woodworker. Just for a moment it transported you away from the hubbub of the rest of the show.   

Now, out in the real world once again, Spragg has a bunch of things on the slate. There are orders to fulfil from the show; she’s exhibiting a piece at the Corinne Julius-curated Future Heritage at Decorex during the London Design Festival; and there’s a month-long residency at the Scottish Sculpture Workshop. This is definitely just the beginning. 

Decorex International, Syon Park, Brentford, 18 to 21 September.



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Katie Spragg at Walthamstow Marshes. Photo: Camilla Greenwell