She realises, in retrospect, that what she wanted to do was create a sense of monumentality, without needing to build big, and that the porcelain was crucial for conveying an essential fragility, ‘even before you touch them’. What has become expressive are small inflections of the body and the head, almost unimaginably difficult to control in the kiln (as Philip Hughes, director of the Ruthin Centre, and a long-time admirer, comments: ‘Unless you see her working, you do not realise the level of skill’), and the articulate hands, which Curneen admits are like her own, ‘long and bony’.
Over the years she has also worked with terracotta and black stoneware, each of which enables her to explore different moods and ideas. Her primary material, however, is this fine, white, translucent porcelain, whether glazed, covered with cobalt blue transfers, or left unglazed to allow the ethereal bodies with their graceful gestures to speak for themselves. Hughes, who has mounted several of her exhibitions of her work, adds: ‘She has really found a material in which she is completely eloquent.’
In 2012 Curneen was given a Creative Wales Ambassador Award. This enabled her to travel to Dublin to investigate the collections of porcelain held by the Museum of Decorative Arts. While there were individual objects that captured her imagination – the Fonthill Vase, for instance, allegedly the first piece of Chinese porcelain to find its way to Europe in the 14th century, or the 19th-century brooches made from intricately carved bog oak – it was the collective presence of the objects that inspired her, with their histories and all that they have meant and continue to mean to us.
A subsequent visit to the Centre of Ceramic Art at York Art Gallery also impressed her with its great walls of pots, a mass of ceramic. She tried out the idea of a piece that would combine different objects with Book of Hours (part of the 2014 travelling exhibition, To This I Put My Name), a nested cluster of twigs, birds and flowers and a small head of Christ.
Tending the Fires is a work of an altogether different level of ambition. Offered the opportunity to make a single piece for Collect 2017, Curneen set about making all the individual parts that have now become this monumental work. This 2.3 metre-long panorama offers us a world blown apart, broken, jagged, dismembered.