Q&A: Tom Kemp
‘I’m continually studying the way the written mark is a recording of my very being, the very time I spent making that mark in all its complexity. It’s like a still clear image of an entire movie. It’s a thing, not a picture of a thing.’
Tom Kemp is a mainly self-taught artist who has quickly developed a strong following for his work by collectors all over the world. His work stems from a fascination with writing - the physical making of visual language - which has led to vast explorations of calligraphy. The discovery of the 'calligraphic nature of throwing' at a weekend ceramics course about eight years ago provided Tom with the discovery of a whole new 3D surface to work on. In a relatively short time, his voice has already made an significant impact on the contemporary ceramics scene - both visually with his distinctive approach to the medium and literally in building an impressive 150k+ Instagram following. In the movement in contemporary ceramics right now, Tom is a stand-out example of an artist using the medium for the additional properties it adds to his work. Whether 10cm or over a metre tall, each piece feels like it's at the centre of it all. Brushstrokes, thread lines, marks and throwing lines fill his vessels with so much energy and movement that you're the one that stops.
We often ask Tom to speak at events including at the opening of his solo exhibition in the gallery in March 2019 - the first artist to be given a solo exhibition at the gallery - and always find the more we learn, the more we want to ask:
Do you remember the first piece of art you created? T: Yes. It was 1990, I think. I made a large sheet of abstract letters A; just three simple, interlocking brushstrokes, repeated across the paper. It was the first unreadable piece I made that relied solely on the techniques of formal writing I’d been studying for so long.
Describe your life around the time you discovered ceramics, what led to that first weekend course? T: My mental health was in a right state and I’d just moved to London. I was in a whirl of ineptitude and ignorance, just looking for something to concentrate on which wasn’t work. A friend very kindly recommended trying learning to throw on a wheel. Around that time, about 2012, pottery was becoming popular so there were several classes. I looked online and found one close to where I was living run by Kerry Hastings at Cockpit Arts in London. She had three wheels and I attended a weekend course for several weeks. I had a barrister on one side of me and a surgeon on the other; all of us trying to make sense of this wildly rotating mud.
Have you discovered anything new about yourself in becoming a ceramic artist? T: I like being with people more than I thought. One thing about learning ceramics is that you meet a lot of people. Kilns and wheels are expensive so most people start off in a communal setting. I’ve never been anywhere close to being an extrovert but having to muck in with a bunch of strangers, all with a common purpose, always leads to massively important friendships and trust.
You have built an extremely impressive following of your work through Instagram, do you remember the point where you realised how much people connect with what you do? T: I was bumbling along very proud of my thousand or so followers for about six months when I posted my first video of writing on a small pot. In those days videos could only be at most fifteen seconds long so I had to speed it up quite a lot. With that single post I got 2,500 new followers. I think what did it was seeing how something strange was made. Seeing something unusual come to life. We all love to see how things are created and Instagram was the perfect way to show a great many people what I was up to. After that the following increased steadily and I got many more regular comments on my posts. This led to really interesting conversations about making, art, craft and meaning. I started to hear what people were seeing in my work and how useful they found the captions to understand better what I was trying to do.
How has your ceramics impacted your calligraphy? T: Calligraphy in the UK is one of those fusty crafts which hardly anyone pays attention to. It has a venerable history, of course, but not much purpose recently, beyond its own borders. I have no idea why I pursued it so diligently since the age of twelve. Something about the obsessive nature of trying to get good at any craft. Perhaps its very purposelessness. Over many years I managed to turn it into an art form for myself. Something which doesn’t try to be useful but which tries to be meaningful. I shed language and letters from my writing and ended up with a technique for recording in, as they say, exquisite detail the human body at focused work. Ceramics is a 3D pursuit so I’ve had to learn to write around curves. On a piece of paper it’s possible to see all the work developing at once. Each stroke is a result of what already exists and a cause of what is about to exist. On a vase, you only have a limited view of the growing text. This has led to me looking far less. I now find myself having to look away or even close my eyes as I write a large stroke. Feeling is the only way to get it to work properly and fully. And now I find myself doing the same even on a flat surface. I’ve also become much freer and more expansive while working with ceramics. This is definitely improving my ‘flatwork’.
How does it feel to be working between the scales that you currently are? To throw a small bowl after working on a 1m high vessel? To create a large brushstroke after working on smaller surfaces? T: It’s not straightforward. A large vessel needs a lot of time and several stages. There is plenty of time waiting for it to dry enough before the next stage and I generally fill that by making smaller work. I used to not be able to adjust to the new scale very well. It was a bit like a growing teenager being clumsy because their body is growing so fast their brain can’t keep up. But now I can more quickly manoeuvre my mindset to use a restricted set of muscles when going from large to small.
What’s been the biggest challenge in the development of your work so far? T: Learning a new craft takes a long, long time. It’s almost impossible to make good art without good craft. I’m eight years into ceramics and just starting to make acceptable work, from a technical point of view. My calligraphic work took a similar time to mature before I could even think of making art with it. The problem is, it’s the body having to do the learning. And, like changing gear in a manual car, you need to repeat the motion a great many times for it to become smooth and second nature.
You have recently released some paintings, is this something you would like to work more in? I’ve made many thousands of paintings on paper, canvas and digitally but relatively few since I became a full-time artist. There are lots of projects I am planning, though, and will be making several new series of paintings this year.
You have also just recently returned from a highly successful residency in Japan, can you tell us more about this and the effect it has had on you? The town of Tobe in South West Japan contains eighty pottery studios, mostly individual craftspeople. They have started an annual artist-in-residence programme to introduce the potters to overseas makers and for the invited artist to learn more about the local pottery traditions. I was asked to be the first artist and none of us knew quite what to expect. Over the month I was there I taught three sessions a week to six chosen potters. We discussed everything from new designs around the world to marketing and selling online. I also had time to make some new work using local materials and expertise. At the time it was a complete whirlwind, especially because the local press were very keen on sending TV crews to most events! Only now can I look back and reflect on the friendships and work, and hope that I’ve been able to contribute to a wider view of what’s possible.
What would you like to see next for your work? I am trying to make larger ceramic works, more on the scale of my body. I’ve written on many hoardings around the world, several hundred metres long, and I miss the urgency and whole-body engagement of this kind of work. The permanence of ceramic appeals to me, at the same time as the evanescence of writing. Something about the combination is driving my work but I haven’t made enough yet to know what it’s all about.