Penny Fowler | Q&A. From draughtsperson to Portland vase
Contemporary Ceramics: Why do you do what you do?
Penny Fowler: I have always been excited by the possibilities that working with clay can offer. I love its versatility. It is always exciting starting a new piece and if I have had a holiday break from clay, I look forward to getting back into my workshop and connecting with the material and organising myself to work on new pieces.
CC: How did you first get involved in working with clay?
PF: I first worked with clay in my grandfather’s studio when I was very young and later on I did ‘O’ level Pottery alongside my other subjects.
When I went to Bristol Art College for the Foundation Course, I imagined I would study fine art sculpture but soon got hooked by the possibilities that working with clay could offer, and I then went to the Central School in London to study Ceramics.
CC: Are there new pieces or a new direction in your work that will be explored for this feature?
PF: Drawing and sketching from life is the basis of all my work. I draw both people and buildings, and I then incorporate aspects of my latest drawings in my work. I have long been intrigued and inspired by the Portland Vase and have tried to make work in a similar but modern way that plays with translucency on an opaque base. Most recently I have been using my drawings of people and carving faces on some of my work in bone china to achieve an effect like the Portland Vase.
CC: How do you work?
PF: I slip-cast in moulds that I make myself and having cast a new batch of forms I usually work on a couple of pieces at a time. I start with drawing on the leather-hard pots and then I carve into the surface, often through 2 or 3 layers of coloured casting slips.
My passion is carving. I just love to see designs developing and changing as I work on them.
My other passion is that I always aim for the decoration to fit the form and the form to fit the decoration.
CC: How has your practice changed over time?
PF: I started working as a thrower using smooth clays and turning the surfaces. The part of the process I enjoyed most was turning and getting the forms thinner and thinner, and this led me onto making moulds and casting my work with casting slips. I make solid blocks for my moulds usually out of clay, which I can then shape and make into offset forms. I colour my slips with oxides and body stains.
I now mostly work with bone-china casting slips playing with light, opacity and translucency.
CC: What images keep you company in the space where you work?
PF: I am surrounded by a mixture of natural and man-made forms – I collect skulls, stones, pieces of machinery, tools, drawings, photos, postcards from exhibitions and places I’ve visited, pictures from my sketchbooks; you name it I collect it!
My workbench has a lovely window onto my garden where I can see birds on the feeders, a variety of plants and the changing seasons.
CC: What was the first piece of art that really mattered to you?
PF: My grandfather was a classical sculptor and I loved being in his studio and going to museums with him - I spent many happy days in the V and A, the British Museum and the National Gallery with him.
I am inspired by the work of the Assyrians and other ancient civilizations and also by relief carvings on buildings and on coins.
I like walking around the City of London and other places when on holidays, sketching. I enjoy the amazing variety of architectural styles both of old and new buildings.
CC: What role does the potter/ceramicist have in the 21st Century?
PF: I think our role is to enhance and enrich people’s lives with well-made unique, individual pieces of ceramics. In these days of mass production and computer-generated objects it is essential for our well-being to have handmade and beautiful pieces around us.
CC: How does working with clay influence your life beyond the workshop?
PF: Working with clay makes me very inquisitive about the processes of making in all disciplines of creativity. It gives me an awareness of the work involved in all areas of crafts and art. I love looking at the world around me.