Telling Tales

 

Text for Craft Arts International article, May 2016

 

This touring exhibition of functional ceramics by Anna Noël is the first solo show of a series titled The Language of Clay: Part One. The series unfolds over two years and presents the diverse work of three, female ceramic artists to audiences across six venues. With the breadth of expression and form that clay offers, The Language of Clay is an opportunity to expose and explore these possibilities with creative practitioners, students and wide-ranging public audiences.

Ceramic pieces can have a transient fragility or a long-serving robustness. They assume a purpose or simply delight. The practice of each of the three artists whose work is being celebrated in The Language of Clay: Part One is pivotal to the ceramic genres in which they work. Anna Noël, Micki Schloessingk and Anne Gibbs each approach the medium with varying perspectives and experiences.  

Anna’s figurative work is driven by narrative and is keenly influenced by folk art and some traditional forms. Though it has far greater vitality and grace than the Staffordshire flat backs often referenced in comment about her work. Micki Schloessingk has long been wood-firing her functional pottery. Salt glazed and telling of the physical journey that has brought each piece from clay into being, Micki’s work brings people together to eat, drink and appreciate the aesthetic of hand-made vessels. Anne Gibbs considers our interaction with ceramics and use of space, with her exquisite bone china assemblages. Placement is integral to Anne’s sculptural work, and considering it alongside design practices such as architecture extends the context of her explorations. The three artists speak very differently through clay, yet the creative explorations of all of them touch on elements of humanity. 

We all enjoy a good story. Be it an intriguing myth, a local happening, or a fantastical tale, there is pleasure to be shared in the telling and receiving of stories. In her exhibition Telling Tales, Anna Noël conjures stories out of clay. From early childhood to the present day, Anna’s creative instincts are imbued with tale telling.  

As the big sister in the family, Anna would guide her younger siblings on dreamlike adventures. Props and costumes would add layers to their escapades. As Anna warmly recounts these familial scenes, it’s easy to see how this creation of tableaus decades ago translates into her ceramic sculptures today. Her arrangements of animals and people, mounted on plinths that are inscribed with carefully selected excerpts from rhymes or fables, are evocative of childhood make-believe. Though for Anna, this strong draw to make-believe persisted through youth when walks with her dog would transform into wild imaginings, and into adulthood when, still, anything seems possible. 

It is this enduring belief in possibility and potential that is the essence of Anna’s ceramic practice. What was innocently made up as a child now brings, through experience, different resonance. There is plenty that is untold in Anna’s sculptures. Anna sets up the tableau from which we can let our own stories unfold, allowing for happily ever after or a grisly end. The joy is that we have the freedom to add narrative. Anna chooses not to lay bare the stories that she has at her creative fingertips as she models the clay. Instead, she revels in the moment that she is capturing in clay. Here are moments suspended in time. Here, for this instant, is equanimity between people and beasts.  

Anna has long been fascinated by animals, indigenous and exotic, and by peoples’ relationships with animals. Growing up on a rural coastline in south Wales, with a dog at her side and free roaming cats, she has always keenly observed animals in their habitats. Agricultural animals, woodland creatures, seashore life, Anna has allowed herself insight into animal habits and characteristics. She has also found quiet companionship in animals, trust and reassurance. It is owing to her observations that she knows to take nothing for granted. In her piece Lady of Riga, the lady reclines contentedly on the back of a tiger. We know from Edward Lear’s poem, from which this work stems, that things do not end as well for the lady as they do for the tiger. For now though, they make easy companionship. 

And so it is, that Anna’s work contributes to our conversation about the rich and varied languages of clay. Anna invites our own imaginations to roam. Her work is so evocative that the skill and tenacity that underpins its making can go unnoticed. Indicative, perhaps, of the integrity of fine art and craftsmanship.