White earthenware with copper oxide, vulcan grogged stoneware, jesmonite base
H. 31 x w. 20 x d. 20 cm
About Esther Nelsen
"I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work with clay in secondary school and in after-school clubs. It was my favourite thing to do. Having completed a foundation course at Sir John Cass School of Art in 1989 (no clay), I went on to gain a 2:1 in Fine Art Sculpture at Staffordshire University in 1992. Although I studied in ‘The Potteries’ I did not work with clay at all there. I was a CGI character animator for 15 years, and that experience informs my ceramic practise greatly. However, eventually I had to return to making with my hands, and found that I gravitated to ceramics. I’m so happy to be here. "
The trajectory of Esther Neslen’s work starts from vessel shapes, acknowledges a tendency to anthropomorphosis, and moves towards an exploration of human relationships. She is fascinated with how we visually interpret emotions, even in wholely abstracted forms. It is a playful process considering scale, weight and balance, delighting in the variable properties of the clay. Traces of construction, and the textures of the material, add to ambiguities of character in the works. This focus on the physicality of her working process leads Neslen away from glazes that obscure the surface, preferring oxides and the occasional white glaze to accentuate the imperfections.
Organic forms and objects that might be body organs rest precariously against each other, creating an uneasy surreality to the sculptures, with overtones of our unbalancing environment. Sometimes appearing pillowy, or animated, these sculptures challenge our expectations of ceramics.
Esther Nelsen is a London-based ceramic artist. Her recent exhibitions include the ING Discerning Eye.
When did you first work with clay?
E: I was lucky enough to attend a youth club and they had a kiln. It was fairly unstructured, so I could just sit for hours and work out what the clay would do. I was also lucky in that my secondary school had a kiln and the teachers would let me use the sculpture room during break and lunch time. That was brilliant. I'm not sure it would be possible to get away with that now.
What first drew you to your altered vessel forms?
E: In the art library in my secondary school there was a book called Hand Building Ceramic Forms by Elspeth S Woody. She used a technique she called the extended pinch method, and she made huge sculptures of interwoven elegant forms. They were beautifully textured too. I used that technique when I was 15, and then came back to it when I was in my 50s.
When I did return to ceramics and started to draw the forms I was interested in making I immediately thought "these won't stand up on their own", and then almost immediately again, "if I balance them against other forms they will be in a relationship". Vessel forms are analogous to the human body, and I have been riffing on these relationships ever since. It's a rich seam.
Do you plan each piece in advance or do they develop intuitively?
E: I usually start with an idea of a relationship and what that might look like formally. The colours I choose are all related to the mood and desires of that character. Sometimes I end up with a piece that's finished but doesn't work in one relationship and then I might consider making something new that would work with it - but that's trickier because the clay shrinks, obviously, and you're never sure if it will be the right scale.
How important is tactility to your work?
E: Actually it's very important. I know that there is a tension in what I make, that the objects look like they would be interesting to touch but also look like they might unbalance if you do. I quite like playing with that, but all of the work can be touched and picked up.
There is a blind person in one of the classes I teach, and I have learned a great deal from them about sculpting. At various points in the making process now I close my eyes for extended periods, to focus on the sensation of the form.
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