Q&A: Jo Pearl
Jo Pearl's recent project 'WhyTheFace?' stopped us in our tracks. Showcased at her degree show at Central St Martins last year, the incorporation of sculpture and animation to explore the endlessly relevant subject of human emotions was a complete stand-out, impressively skilful and thought-provoking.
Jo Pearl is a London-based sculptor working in clay. Prior to retraining at Central St Martins as a Ceramicist she worked for over 10 years as a PR and ran her own PR consultancy specialising in promoting architects and projects in the built environment.
Jo’s current artistic practice focuses on making figurative work and animating portraiture, as well as how to create public engagement with clay practice. She coils and slab builds her sculptures and has recently been grappling with questions about relevancy and what is it to be human in a Digital Age.
'WhyTheFace?' is a study of what emotions look like and feel like. A personal taxonomy inspired by Charles Darwin’s lesser-known thesis The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals in which he defined 6 emotions as fundamental to human evolution: Happiness, Sadness, Surprise, Fear, Anger and Disgust.
Jo's exploration is both figurative and abstract. It combines installation, ceramic sculpture, and clay stop-frame animated film, WhyTheFace?. A bust and animated film features a raw clay portrait of William Pryor, Darwin’s Great Great Grandson expressing the six emotions defined as key by his forebear. These facial expressions are interspersed with abstracted clay interpretations of the same feelings.
We feel honoured to be able to present part of this project within our current show 'Being Human' (6th Feb - 19th April 2020). Jo's work has quickly received much acclaim including an invitation from English Heritage to host a solo show of he work at Down House, the museum of Charles Darwin's family home - initially organised for April 2020 however, due to the coronavirus, to be postponed to a later date. Jo’s animated film WhyTheFace? hass also been selected to be included in the International Film Festival of Fine Crafts in Montreuil - organised for April 2020 however currently postponed due to Covid-19.
To say we're fascinated by this project is an understatement so we were thrilled when Jo agreed to sit down with us to answer some of our many questions about this impressive body of work:
What sparked you to decide to retrain at Central St Martins as a ceramicist?
J: I fell in love with clay about 7 years ago at a pottery evening class at the Working Men’s College in Camden. There I made my first figurative piece, a large planter in the shape of an elephant. I loved the feel of the material in my hands and was amazed by its ability to take almost any form – if you know how to handle it. I decided I wanted master the medium, as quickly as possible, and so in 2016 I started a BA in Ceramic Design at Central St Martins, graduating in 2019. I was lucky enough to live nearby, given that there are only two single honours Ceramics Degree courses left in the UK.
In what respect does your background in current affairs TV, Architectural PR and textile design influence your evolving ceramic practice?
J: I studied International Politics at the LSE in my twenties. Since then, my professional life could be described as careering, a zig-zagging journey following the gravitational pull of things that interests me. I worked on current affairs TV programmes as researcher. But I got depressed by the cut-throat nature of news, and decided I was better suited to promoting things instead. Eventually having spent nearly 10 years promoting projects for architects, I became frustrated that my clients were enjoying the creative buzz of their work, while I was merely promoting that creativity. It was at that point that I happened upon ceramics. But I realise I have always been moved by issues and riled by injustice. I think that desire to shine a light on problems and question how we are living in the 21st Century is now coming through in my ceramic work. I love the process of making clay portraits, but just capturing a good likeness is not enough for me. I notice I am most excited when my work is somehow reflecting on something that concerns me.
My current body of work, that combines clay sculpting with the stop-frame animation, could also be linked back to my time working in TV and PR. I recognise the power of the moving image to tell a story, to move audiences. Harnessing that power, while combining it with my sculpting process has been a fascinating synthesis. People think I am slightly crazy – the amount of sculpting and thousands of small adjustments that I am prepared to make to create a film. But to me, it’s all the more pleasing, I get to sculpt lots!
Could you expand more on your interest to question what it is to be human in a Digital Age, and how you use new technological practices, such as stop frame animation, to create such eclectic pieces?
J: I am now in my fifties. While the digital age has made my life significantly easier, I am also alarmed by how it impacts humanity. I have been putting these concerns into my work. Indeed WhyTheFace? responds to concerns that increasing numbers of toddlers are arriving in nursery with a developmental delay in understanding the facial expression of emotions,. Nursery teachers are increasingly having to specifically teach what facial expressions mean. The emerging science is linking this developmental delay, to an over-use of flat screen devices, instead of rich face-to-face interaction with caregivers and the world around. If hundreds of thousands of children grow up not understanding the emotions of those around them, I worry that our society will become increasingly filled with conflict. However, I did not want to preach to parents about flat screen devices, after all, like everyone, I am also pretty addicted to my smartphone. But I wanted to make a sort of whispered reminder from Darwin about the importance of understanding emotions and empathy.
Meanwhile, I am also interested in enlivening portraiture, beyond neutral poses and an idealised representation of the sitters. The combination of portraiture and stop-frame animation was a way to breathe life into my sculptures, and explore fleeting emotions.
Where did the inspiration for ‘WhyTheFace?’ derive from?
J: WhyTheFace? is inspired by Charles Darwin’s pioneering thinking about the evolutionary importance of facial expressions. Although, most famous for The Origin of Species, Darwin’s B-side hit was The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. In it, he identified six emotions as universal to humankind whether you live in Portsmouth or Papua New Guinea. I followed these six emotions to create a personal taxonomy in clay, exploring figuratively, and in an abstract sense what emotions look like and feel like in the body.
Although the work is inspired by Darwin I decided early on in the project that I would not try and make it directly about him – besides there was scant visual reference of Darwin looking other than emotionally cauterized. Instead, I focused on emotions in the ‘species of Darwin’ - his descendants, and those associated with him. I invited Darwin’s great great grandson, William Pryor, his great great granddaughter Emma Darwin, and Richard Carter, the editor of the Friends of Charles Darwin Facebook Page, to sit for me expressing the six emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, surprise, anger and disgust.
What encouraged you to combine your physical ceramics into the film medium to create ‘WhyTheFace?’?
J: My time at Central Saint Martins really stretched my thinking about the scope of ceramics and how I can work in clay. I became very excited by the materiality of clay - the fact that if it is kept wet, its shape can continue to evolve – ad infinitum. As such, it is a great medium for stop-frame animation. But I come to animation from ceramics. I choose to sculpt in natural clay rather than plasticine, that way I can kiln-fire the work at the end of the film-making process, and set it in stone. As an artist, this combination allows me to explore both the fleeting and a sense of the eternal. Plus I hate the smell of plasticine!
I guess I also like the irony of using both the digital world as well as 3D analogue realm to explore these themes. I have realised that lense-based work in film, requires a certain time commitment from the viewer – the film is about 3 minutes long. Paradoxically, my sculptures have become my ‘stills’ and can be taken-in much more quickly than the animations. This series of work is attempting to slow down the viewer’s gaze and create extra time for the viewer to mirror the expressions on display. The changing facial expressions and the slo-mo pace of the film allow the viewer time to mirror the emotions on display to create empathetic contagion.
‘WhyTheFace?’ is a powerful collaboration of the figurative and the abstract, what point of its creation did you enjoy expressing the most?
I love working figuratively as well as in the abstract. They are very different. The acute observation of the model required to translate the human form in clay really absorbs me. I get in a state of flow when I make portraits. However, working abstractly allows me to revel in the feel of the clay. This completely ubiquitous material that can be dug-up from underneath our feet, has an amazing ability to record the human touch and finger prints of the maker. My way of working allows a gestural and physical mark making to communicate a haptic understanding to the viewer about how and why the work has been made. It is so simple, and yet profound.
Did you find anything surprising or challenging about capturing a particular emotion?
To gather the necessary visual reference material to sculpt the six emotions, I took photographic ‘mug shots’ of the subjects, from the front, and both sides holding the same expression. It demands the sitter to brush off their acting skills. Sitters can find some emotions more difficult to enact than others. Interestingly Anger has proven the most tricky. We are reticent to show anger publically in Britain. Trying to capture anger in clay, I have found I need facial expressions that are more acute than just a hardened angry stare. Raging anger gives me ‘more’ to sculpt. When animating, I use a mirror, to analyse how my own facial muscles move between emotions, to see anatomically what the muscles are doing in transition. When the sitter’s expression is dialled-down, I sometimes combine what they have shared with me, with my own expression of emotions to create a more pronounced version. It is interesting how there are lots of different nuances and blends of the same general emotion. So, while my work seeks a sort taxonomy of emotions, the analysis is nevertheless open to interpretation.
You connected in with family and admirers of Charles Darwin’s to create many of the portraits, can you tell us more about their reactions to the project?
During the making of this body of work, I asked two grandchildren of Charles and Emma Darwin to sit for me. Both were enthusiastic about being involved, as they have a keen professional interest in their family’s heritage. William Pryor is involved in promoting the legacy of his grandmother the wood-engraver, Gwen Raverat. Meanwhile, the current Emma Darwin, is a historical fiction writer and recently published “This is not a Book About Charles Darwin” – that maps her journey as biographer and the conjoined family tree of Darwin-Wedwood dynasties. From my perspective, it is quite fascinating that Emma looks remarkably like her great great grandmother – nee Emma Wedwood. Both William and Emma, were intrigued by my approach of exploring their family’s history using clay and ceramics. The ceramic dynasty of Josiah Wedgwood courses through his descendant’s veins.
What is your upcoming solo exhibition 'Moving Darwin' at Down House* presenting in relation to the works shown at Thrown’s exhibition ‘Being Human’?
Both shows feature the clay animated film WhyTheFace? and a portrait of Darwin’s great great grandson. Although a linked body of work, I was keen to develop a specifically site-responsive approach to the pieces shown at Down House, English Heritage’s museum of the Darwin family home. Afterall, the Darwin and Wedgwood dynasties were closely (some say too closely) interlinked by marriage. Charles and his wife Emma were first cousins, and shared the ceramic pioneer, Josiah Wedgwood as their grandfather. It seemed natural to use ceramics as a medium to explore this linage. The six emotional portraits of the current Emma Darwin include a Wedgwood Blue porcelain head of her expressing sadness. There will also be the original raw clay bust head of William Pryor, made during the shooting of the film, that is kept damp, in suspended animation under a glass dome. The condensation on the inside of the glass suggests he might still be breathing.
*Due to COVID19, Moving Darwin has been postponed until the 2020 summer holidays, dates to be confirmed shortly.
What would you like to see next for the project and your work?
If WhyTheFace? and Moving Dawrin could also be exhibited at the V&A’s Wedgwood Collection in Stoke on Trent, it would be fantastic. I have begun talks with them to try and set it up. Like Down House, it seems like a fitting place to show the work.
In the meantime, the animation has also been selected for FIFMA 2020– the International Film Festival of Fine Crafts in Montreuil, France. It is one of just 30 films being shown, from 28 countries. I have submitted it to a number of other film festivals too. I never thought I would become a film maker when I began my degree in ceramics! But, I am determined to keep breathing life into clay via stop-frame, without losing my ceramic roots. My next body of work will be exploring hands. Not only are they a locus for emotional expression, but as a maker, I like the dichotomy of hands as tools as well as weapons. Plus of course amidst our current health crisis, they are now linked to the mechanics of contagion.
Finally, I guess a dream come true would be to be commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to represent an iconic British person through animation as well as a sculpted bust. The gallery could just project the work if space were tight, but also show the 3D sculpture, of which there are surprisingly few in the collection. It would be so exciting to sculpt a personal hero like David Hockney or Emma Thompson. No one too young. I like a face that has lived.