Q&A: Zuleika Melluish
"Little could beat the age-old alchemy that takes what is essentially earth and transforms it into a useful and beautiful object"
Zuleika Melluish is a ceramicist who presses flowers taken from the Welsh landscape into white clay to create 'impressions', imprints of their natural forms with a dramatic tonal contrast and intense precision of detail. Her delicate working process gives rise to a glorious interplay between the tangible texture of the marks of the flowers and the overall smooth finish.
Working closely with flowers, her method of working echoes her own relationship with nature. The sharp detail of her works almost brings the Welsh landscape, cherished by Zuleika, into the gallery; the only detail missing from this sensory experience is scent.
Enchanted by her exquisite work, we sent Zuleika the following questions to find out more:
You describe becoming completely transfixed by ceramics after your first pottery class. What initially inspired you to experiment with working in ceramics?
Z: When my children reached school age a few years ago, I felt the time had come to challenge myself to learn a new artistic discipline. I have always loved plants and planting and being at one with the soil and somehow exploring the art of ceramics and working with clay seemed a good idea.
Having worked in two dimensional media for much of my life, I soon found the three-dimensional nature of clay - the organic weight of it - compelling. The metamorphic process of turning a lumpen piece of clay into a delicate and intricate ceramic piece was intriguing. Add to that its contradictory stages of fragility and strength; the patience and pauses between each stage of making, and finally the ability to transform the surface into a ‘picture’ combined so many of my interests, that I knew it was the right choice.
The metamorphic process of turning a lumpen piece of clay into a delicate and intricate ceramic piece was intriguing. Add to that its contradictory stages of fragility and strength; the patience and pauses between each stage of making, and finally the ability to transform the surface into a ‘picture’ combined so many of my interests, that I knew it was the right choice.
Much of your work is based on flowers and foliage in Wales. How large an influence did your personal experiences there have on your work?
Z: I have always loved gardens, though I never really had the space in London to make a proper garden. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to create a perennial garden from scratch in the foothills of the Cambrian mountains. Making a garden is a long, slow process, and that, combined with its distance from my home in London, means it is an unruly garden untended for long periods of time so that nature takes over: plants self seed and grow where they will, wildlife nests and burrows without bounds. Every visit to the garden has a surprise with something new and unplanned appearing in the beds or lawns or dell. Inevitably this makes me look closely at what is growing, often initially just to identify the plants that have appeared, and then to respond with my own planting by trying to combine with and compliment what is already there. Through these observations I became enchanted with the complexity and detail in the flowers and foliage and have sought to capture both in my ceramics.
Your practice is centred around the physical qualities of flowers, with your works exquisitely presenting the tangible textures of flowers. Where is your own favourite place to get close to nature?
Z: Away from the garden, I always get a thrill in seeing plants in improbable places especially in the urban environment: Goat’s Rue curling up through the cracks in a pavement; Buddleia protruding from a bit of brick wall. I like to look at plants in the hedgerows or woods, and in roadside verges.
But the Welsh garden is my favourite place to get close to nature. It is an exquisite haven of flora and fauna and it is always fascinating when I visit it through the year with gaps of weeks or a couple of months, and watch as the garden evolves through the seasons. It is surrounded by fields, woods and hedgerows, and alongside the wildflowers, I have planted plants and flowers to attract wildlife. This, coupled with periods of relative neglect, means it teems with wild movement and noise: fat bumble bees in foxglove trumpets, flitting dragonflies and butterflies, wasps harvesting wood for their nests, frogs and newts, bats and owls, rabbit and badger, swallows and red kite.
How do you think your background in Persian painting has informed your current work in ceramics? Is there any overlap in the creative processes of these two disciplines?
Z: Persian arts turn the details of nature into controlled patterns. My interest in Mughal miniatures and Persian arts and crafts was initially a case of seeing whether I could learn the craft of detailed pattern. The miniatures are an exercise in detail: of covering a surface in intricate pattern.
In some respects, the pressing of flowers into clay, involves similar consideration of composition so that there is a unity of design. I use the same fine sable brushes to apply oxides and underglazes as I did to paint with gouache on paper. However, unlike Persian painting which to some extent idealises nature, I do like to depict plant life in all its forms: in bud, in flower, seed heads, dying plants and, of course, weeds. I have abandoned the jewel-like colour palette of Persian Painting in my ceramics, preferring a monochrome approach. This is in part because it is very difficult to render the true colours of plants with underglaze, and in part to give more emphasis to the detail, which is so often extraordinary, and does not need colour to make sense of it. I try to capture the ephemeral in something enduring and the ghostly impressions left by the flowers almost like photographic negatives, is very far from the opaque control of Persian painting.
I try to capture the ephemeral in something enduring and the ghostly impressions left by the flowers almost like photographic negatives, is very far from the opaque control of Persian painting.
Given the beautifully intricate decorative details of your work, it seems that they could equally be wholly decorative works as well as functioning pieces. How would you describe the relationship between the utilitarian and decorative functions of your work?
Z: I appreciate the beauty and intricacy of foliage and flowers, but I don’t want to dwell on the aspect of them as something too ‘precious’ to touch. Flowers are more than delicate, ethereal things. They are strong and serve a purpose in the natural world. I like my ceramics to do something similar: to capture the decorative detail and to have a function; to be handled. There is that oft-quoted William Morris phrase that says ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’ and I strive to combine both in my ceramics. That said, my walls are adorned with ceramics which work as decoration or ‘pictures'. But it is good to know that they can come off the wall and be used at the table if I wish.
Flowers are more than delicate, ethereal things. They are strong and serve a purpose in the natural world.
By Nicole Kitsberg