Ceramic artist Phoebe Cummings uses raw clay to create fragile sculptures of plants and nature that, much like the subjects they are modelled after, will eventually crumble in time. For our exhibition Wild & Cultivated: Fashioning the Rose, Phoebe created a delicately beautiful rose study, combining botanical accuracy with an imagined gesture or essence of flowering. We chatted with Phoebe to find out more about her work:
I have always had an interest in nature, but also in design and ornament and the way we adapt, interpret or stylise nature. My work centres around time, I connect deeply with the way a garden is never still; it is always playing with past, present and future, there are cycles and every sense is activated.
Often the work is informed by the place it is made or the theme of the exhibition, each work is a one off and usually last only for the duration of the exhibition. Often fiction or poetry can be a starting point for work, and I am increasingly interested in using writing as a form of recording ephemeral work in clay.
I look a lot at plants and also pattern and decorative arts. Sometimes I will make clay studies to understand the structure of certain plants or combine different plants into one, I also spend time trying to interpret a two-dimensional motif as a three-dimensional texture. More recently I have started painting with clay too, like watercolour, again observing plants and attempting to capture something of their fleeting beauty.
Working in the garden at New Art Centre-Roche Court in 2016 was a highlight. It was a pleasure to work so directly in a garden in spring time. The piece was a large ornamental swag based on pre-historic plants such as ferns, magnolia, club moss and pine (shown in the banner image above).
Initially working with raw clay was driven by practical necessity, I couldn’t afford a studio or kiln and this way of working freed me to work anywhere and re-use the same material. I enjoy how the material is alive in this state, it is unfixed and breathes. It also allows me to work very directly in a space where I can respond as I make. There is a significance in the raw state of the material in how it connects to our own mortality and fragility, I think the porosity of the surface also has an honesty, it is uncoated and speaks more to an essence than appearance.
The study I made for the Garden Museum’s exhibition Wild & Cultivated: Fashioning the Rose looks at different varieties of roses and is made from blends of different clay bodies producing a subtle range of earth tones. The material is held in an unstable state where it may endlessly be dissolved and reformed exploring ceramics as a time-based medium. Photographs taken by gardener Jo Thompson provided lots of inspiration, and I often work from botanical illustrations. I love roses packed with petals such as ‘Gentle Hermione’, and I am intrigued by the rose’s significance across time, in nature, design and written fiction.
I have just made work for an exhibition at Thomas Dane Gallery in Naples and am now working towards an exhibition at Galerist in Istanbul which will open on 21 April. Both draw on botanical and decorative elements and I think of all the works as forms of material performance.
I have a garden, though don’t spend as much time gardening as I would like, but it is a constant source of inspiration to observe what it does all by itself. There is an old apple tree right in the middle which currently has blue tits nesting in and the blossom buds are swelling by the day.