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Artist Q&A: Sara Flynn

15 May 2020

We first displayed ceramicist Sara Flynn's work in the 2017 exhibition Disobedient Bodies: JW Anderson curates The Hepworth Wakefield. A number of her works are being given to us through the John Oldham and Terence Bacon bequest. Here she talks to us about her inspirations and creative process and what it means to be joining Wakefield's collection.

What was your path to becoming a ceramicist?

I went to art college in 1988 with a plan to be a painter. On the foundation course I was introduced to clay and was instantly hooked. (I would have made a dreadful painter by the way!)

What was it about this medium that attracted you?

Clay behaves very differently as it moves through the various stages of drying. Working with these changes-of-state is really exciting. It took me a number of years to learn to work with the natural dictates of the material rather than against it. Once that penny dropped the joy in making ramped-up enormously.

Did you have any particular inspirational teachers or peers?

My tutor, Roisin Collins, at the Crawford College of Art & Design in Cork. She was an outstanding teacher with incredibly high standards and remains a great friend. Passionate and tough… the perfect mix.

You live and work in Belfast. How does that context, or any context shape your work?

The key is the fact that the studio is private, shared only with my partner who also works with clay. I can work in peace and ‘play’ without judgement. Belfast has been really good to me in a personal capacity, but the environment does not influence design per-se. What shapes my work (no pun intended) is the material. Literally and metaphorically. Understanding the qualities of the material is the single biggest factor in developing new work and expressing the forms that are fundamental to make the work my own.

Are there other influences you draw on?

It probably won’t come as a great shock, but from the start I was drawn to Hans Coper’s sense of form. He was a master of combining form, volume and surface to make a single cohesive piece. I love Lucie Rie’s work too – her glazes and surfaces are incredible; some of her pieces are magic. Magdalene Odundo for obvious reasons… utterly beautiful ‘human’ vessels.

All massively inspiring.

Why did you choose early on to work with porcelain and what does it offer you that other types of clays don’t?

To my mind, it is simply important that a potter uses the appropriate clay for the forms they wish to make; porcelain does this for me. It is capable of crisp edges and precise definition. It offers a smooth white canvas which can be a base for stunning colour-response. It’s gorgeous to throw with and beautiful to scratch and scrape to define silhouettes.

But it is also worth saying that there can sometimes be a ‘snob-factor’ to porcelain – as if it is better than another clay. I do not hold to this theory. It can be a hard task-master and limits scale. It has limitation, good points and bad points… like any material. But it’s right for me for now.

What is the creative process you go through when making a vessel?

My process involves throwing an initial shape on the wheel, and then manipulating it in various ways. This is the ‘play’ part, and is full of trial and error. Most of the pieces at this stage are experimental and can look awful. This is when I need to hold my nerve. Eventually through experience and skill and a sharper eye, the successful pieces start to emerge. The finishing and refining of the work is very slow but deeply satisfying.

Do you sketch out ideas first? Is drawing an important part of the process?

I do preliminary sketches but they serve only as starting points. The real ‘drawing’ happens in 3D when I am engaged with the making process. The slow development of the final forms by cutting, pushing, pulling is a form of drawing which is the real fuel for the design (thinking) process.

You are constantly experimenting with new glazes and finishes. Can you tell us a little about this process?

I both love and hate glazing. I am totally contradictory about it. On the one hand I am unendingly excited about the possibilities of ceramic surfaces… and yet the glaze-testing and application is my least favoured element of the whole making-process. Glaze testing can eat time and offer awful results which can be demoralising. Getting the application right is crucial and I am often a bit anxious at this stage. So much can go wrong and I am annoyed at my vulnerability.

When all the testing comes together to produce the right glaze/colour/surface quality it is the absolute magic final piece in the puzzle to making the vessels ‘sing’. It is the make-or- break to my work and makes it all worthwhile when it is right. For all of my moaning about it the experimentation and testing of new glazes won’t stop.
I love it really.

How do you feel about your work joining The Hepworth Wakefield’s collection through John and Terry’s gift? What does it mean to you for your work to be shown in this context?

It’s a massive honour. To be in the company of such esteemed artists is an incredible buzz. The fact that the work will be shared and potentially seen by so many – and in such a stunning building as The Hepworth Wakefield – is the stuff of dreams. The generosity and vision (from both John & Terry and then also of course the Hepworth) behind the whole gift is a beautiful thing to be connected to.

To explore more about Sara Flynn, visit her website.