GROUND FOR MAKING

When we expect purpose and newness from modern making, our conversation with this year’s Loewe Craft Prize, ceramicist Jennifer Lee, reminds us of the importance of pure, simple craft.  

Craft is not just retrospection, nor is it simply technique. It is a trajectory that acknowledges both heritage and evolution. When the Loewe Craft Prize was initiated in 2016, Jonathan Anderson’s aim was twofold: to celebrate Loewe’s roots as a craft collective, and to elucidate the ever-changing pursuit of craft alongside shifting creative landscapes and technologies. In its still-short run, the Craft Prize has fleshed out this role brilliantly, gathering international craftsmen whose work range from precise execution of traditional techniques to almost-madcap objects that push the process of making to its limit, and countless expressions in between.

Scottish ceramicist Jennifer Lee certainly leans towards, but is not confined by, the classical. The quiet, subtle form of her vessel, descriptively yet poetically titled Pale, Shadowed Speckled Traces, Fading Ellipse, Bronze Specks, Tilted Shelf (2017), holds timelessness and modernity within the same body. It certainly affected the Prize jury, which includes Anderson himself, curator Kim Hong Nam, designer Patricia Urquiola and essayist Deyan Sudjic, enough to solidify Lee’s position as 2018’s Craft Prize winner. 

We visit Lee at her home and studio in the south-eastern London district of Peckham. Afternoon sun falls on the projects, prototypes, materials and miscellaneous items that surround us within her workshop. Lee herself is sweet and soft, filled with animation when she leads us around to point out examples or show us objects she has collected. 

The first item of discussion was, naturally, the winning vessel itself. Beyond the elegance of its form, Pale, Shadowed Speckled Traces, Fading Ellipse, Bronze Specks, Tilted Shelf (2017) is an exploration in material. Part of the clay that forms the vessel was coloured with oxide pigments by Lee herself, decades prior. These pigments create the titular specked traces and fading ellipse, a series of galactic bands that express the passage of time. Lee gestures under her studio table to point out an ample collection of similar clay, dating back to the early ‘90s. 

The reason for Lee’s use of this material expression traces back to her early days as a ceramicist. A college student in Edinburgh, she learnt the conventional techniques of ceramics and subsequently discovered a disinterest in decoration. “It was pretty alien to me,” Lee recalls, “to want to make things and add an extra surface.” Shying away from superfluous ornamentation, she experimented with leaving her work unglazed and unfired. Through this, Lee observed the temporal effects of oxidisation on the clay. While this was an accidental discovery, one that led to the signature use of pigmentation so elegantly expressed in her Prize Craft entry, Lee is now deliberately stockpiling the material, aging them for use years in the future.

Lee remarks that each step involving the clay, from the initial pigmenting, to storing and firing, can radically alter the colour. The variance in light highlights differing tonalities within the oxidised pigment and changes our perception of the resultant piece. “The colour palette has developed because of the nature of the oxides,” Lee points out, “and because of the fact that I’m using the Earth and its minerals. So, it’s because of availability but also, those colours are ones that, to me, feel right. I am pretty fanatical about my process and would start by looking at my notes and testers.” The oxides further allow Lee to change material texture itself through surface embellishment. Having experimented with various ways of staining, Lee still feels drawn to this elemental, ancient technique of pigmentation. To her, this rich, dimensional colour, inseparable from form, is an instinctual method of decorating. “When I’m thinking about form,” she says, “the colour is automatically in my head within, it is part of it.” 

The titles of Lee’s works are catalogues of their characteristics. After a pot comes into being, she analyses the completed piece, plucking out visual descriptors. Going off names alone, you can easily create multiple taxonomies of Lee’s pots, by colour, material or particular features. Paleness, shadowed speckled traces, fading ellipses, bronze specks and tilted shelves becomes separate aspects, part of a vocabulary that draws multiple narratives of technique, geometry and geological expressions throughout Lee’s corpus of work. “I often think of how objects play off each other,” she remarks, “and where you put each vessel in relation to the other. I get inspired when someone looks at my work and see things, spaces and relations in between that I may not have seen.” Standing with Lee amidst these vignettes of her pottery in progress, we are reminded of mountains and deserts, where time carves away the earth. Places Lee has visited and collected souvenirs of. Traces of rock and clay, that she raises and reforms into these beautiful objects.

We often expect designers and makers, especially those associated with the glamour of an award like the Craft Prize, to talk about their work in terms of an artistic statement against socio-cultural constructs. But at no point in our conversation did Lee refer to her practice as new or transformative. Instead, we gather that her passion for ceramics is focused on the exploration and refinement of ceramic-making itself. But through the very act of making, Lee infuses poetry and new perspectives into a well-storied art form. And as Jonathan Anderson himself highlights, craft in its purest definition is always relevant. It builds the foundation for innovation. It expands the possibilities of creativity. It leads the way for a richer, more considered understanding of what it means to make.  

Text by Qian Rou Tan