Agalis Manessi is part of 'Home from Home' at Contemporary Applied Arts until 4 November
Our Directory Maker of the Week, Agalis Manessi, 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 grew up on a Greek island where we had no art education at school. When I was about five my father took me to a local pottery where two brothers with no hearing or speech were producing terracotta kitchen wares and flowerpots. I was amazed at how they were shaping these out of an amorphous lump of clay.
Later on after I finished school, at a time when tourism was expanding and I was wondering what direction to take, I met someone who told me about foundation courses in England. The idea of trying out different art disciplines and processes appealed and I ended up at Hammersmith School of Art where one of the infamous Bonzo Dog Do Dah Band members was my tutor. We used clay for sculpture but as there wasn’t a throwing wheel at the college he suggested cutting out pot profiles from card, decorating them and rotating them on a record player so they looked three dimensional. It must have had the desired effect because I went on to study ceramics at the Central School where I was taught by many wonderful people like, Gordon Baldwin, Eileen Nisbet, Dan Arbeid, Walter Keeler and Gillian Lowndes; it was a vibrant department with many inspiring makers passing through.
Could you please tell us a bit about your work?
I have been making ceramics for forty years and started off working with porcelain and sgrafitto. In the mid-eighties after a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum I discovered Italian and Dutch tin-glazed wares. I was attracted to their rich painterly palette and range of graphic styles. It seemed to offer me a gentler way of creating painterly compositions across the surface. The formative experience seeing forms emerging from the plastic clay continues to inform my making. Softly modeled figures and animals, coiled vessels and vases, pinched and coiled bowls and platters are my chosen vehicles. Once dipped in the tin glaze, the works become like primed canvases, animated through a painterly and intuitive approach. I strive for a poetic mastery through pictorial representation and a freshness of palette in which the painting belies the difficulty of the process.
What are your inspirations?
The work lies within the tradition of maiolica and celebrates this rich historical medium through diverse influences ranging from the Italian Istoriato dishes to the simplicity of humble folk wares. Both forms and painting are inspired by portraits and animals depicted by a variety of Renaissance painters such as Pisanello and Gentile di Fabriano, Flemish masters like Lucas Cranach, English artists Edwin Landseer, George Stubbs and Christopher Wood, and the Fauvist work of Maurice Dennis and Franz Marc.
I particularly enjoy the work of the contemporary painter Peter Doig, his gentle fluidity and veiled use of colour creates a poignant atmosphere, also the way in which Paula Rego draws from a range of literary sources to develop powerful narratives in her paintings. My subjects are re-imagined from observations of paintings, frescoes and tapestries in museums and churches, as well as characters derived from literature and encounters in daily life.
What is your favourite part of the making process?
I enjoy both the making and the painting equally. The re-imaginings are not intended as literal copies, the clay as it is formed in the hand has its own soul and it is as though I encourage it to emerge through repeated manipulation. The glazing and subsequent painting is a drawn out process. Once dry, subjects are lightly sketched across the surface with a soft pencil and then the application of colour begins. This is a favourite part of the process; the surface primed like an absorbent canvas ready to receive the washes of oxide and stain.
Knowledge of how the colours will be transformed through the firing process is essential and intuitive; it creates a tension of anticipation. The application of colour, explores a harmonic palette through which painterly expression will be revealed. Returning to familiar and favourite subjects and sources, like Franz Marc’s Dog lying in the snow, is akin to the musical tradition of -variations on a theme by…
What are you working on right now?
I tend to work in cycles. I have just started a group of portrait dishes based on paintings in the National Gallery and other museums I have visited during the year. Alongside these I have been experimenting with a new collection of modeled sculptures, a fusion of two animals within one form.
Most recently, I have completed a collection of pieces for the exhibition Home from Home at Contemporary Applied Arts. The show features twenty five ceramic artists whose cultural inheritance originates outside England and have come to live and work in the UK. A film with interviews with the makers will be shown at Ceramic Art London 2018.
I am also just completing a group of pieces for a group show at Galerie Handwerk in Munich opening at the end of November.