Pushing the boundaries with clay: in conversation with artist Mella Shaw

This month, the Shipley Art Gallery interviewed Mella Shaw — ceramicist, guest lecturer, writer, freelance curator and winner of the 2020 Henry Rothschild Bursary. In our conversation, Mella reflects on her career, inspirations and progress with her latest project, Rare Earth.

Left: Mella Shaw, Blue Wave, image © Sylvain Deleu / Right: Mella Shaw, Bridges (Grey and Yellow) © Sylvain Deleu

Can you tell us about yourself and how you got into ceramics and why you like it as an art form?

I was lucky enough to discover clay when I was a kid and it blew me away from the first time I got to handle it! I have dyslexia and until it was diagnosed when I was 10 years old I had a tough time at school and was very anxious as a result — but art, and particularly using clay, gave me a safe place where I could relax, be myself and excel. Later on, I chose to go to Durham University to study anthropology but my love for ceramics was always there. In my degree I studied material culture and anthropology of art and then worked for years in museums and galleries from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge. Along the way I realised something was missing in my life and I knew I had to get back to making my own work in clay. I first studied for a diploma in Ceramics at City Lit in London and from there I went on to do a MA in Ceramics and Glass at the Royal College of Art. Once I re-found clay and put it at the centre of my life there was no going back. It really was like coming home. I am totally myself when I am making. There is nothing like ceramics; it is so malleable and varied a material to use as well as being so incredibly rich in metaphor, history and meaning. What artist wouldn’t want to use it?!

Can you describe your creative practice to someone who may not be familiar with it?

I make publicly engaged environmental work addressing the various tipping points of the current global environmental crisis. My practice is actually quite tricky to describe briefly! I use clay to make thought provoking objects and installation as I believe people are more likely to take notice of an environmental issue if they are moved emotionally. I like to use lots of different types of clay, processes and techniques in my work in part so that I can communicate my idea in the best way possible but also as a personal challenge so that I keep developing as a maker. I like to push the boundary of what is possible with the material; sometimes breaking rules, changing perceptions of how particular clays are used or trying an old technique in a new way. It took me a while to see that there are clear re-occurring themes in my work of balance, tipping-points and thresholds. I am always trying to engage and connect with an audience and often to communicate a specific idea or message. I am very interested in psychoanalysis and the human experience — how we can use art to understand and harness change at this moment of extreme tension and environmental crisis.

Mella Shaw, Saudades — Tumbling Form (detail), image © Sylvain Deleu

What is the most challenging part of your work?

There are always technical challenges in making work if you are being experimental and pushing expectations of the material — but this is the fun part and I see them more like puzzles that have to be solved. I guess the biggest challenge to me is that I currently work on my own and that can be quite isolating — though it was good during Covid as I could still access my studio!

Are there any particular artists you look to for inspiration?

This really depends on the idea I am pursuing at the time. There are so many great ceramics artists that I am influenced by though. I love the work of Peter Voulkos for its energy and materiality. I think Wouter Dam’s work is incredible — it is truly 3-D with no fixed base and this influenced me a lot early on. Since the very beginning of my career as a maker I have made work that can be placed in any orientation. This causes technical problems in the making but it is now a fundamental part of my practice. There are many other influences too: I was lucky enough to be taught ceramics by some great people — including Annie Turner and Sara Radstone both of whom making incredibly sensitive and emotive work.

How do you come up with ideas for a piece? What is your thought-process around developing your ceramic work?

My work is all about communicating ideas but how that original idea comes can be varied. Sometimes it is a single word that I am interested in, other times I am responding to an emotion, a place or it is an environmental concept or issue. Often I only have a very subtle idea and making that into a ceramic sculpture is a mysterious process. The form takes shape in the process of drawing, experimenting and making maquettes (small models) as well as learning as much as I can about the subject matter of my project. There are so many stages to working in clay but the research and development stage is the most important for me. This might involve speaking to experts, undertaking detailed analysis and drawing or simply thinking through making.

Your work explores environmental themes of balance, tipping points, fragility and loss. Are these themes closely aligned with your personal values?

Yes, absolutely. Environmental and political activism was a part of my upbringing and I definitely feel a personal responsibility to raise consciousness through my work. My dad is an entomologist (studies insects) and evolutionary ecologist and I was brought up with a deep appreciation for nature and to be inquisitive about the environment. My mum is a painter and art psychotherapist and I think they both had a big influence on me and my values. I am interested in balance and tipping points as metaphors and most recently I have been exploring these themes in the context of climate change. My aim is to make a visually engaging and emotionally arresting work that challenges people to question their own behaviour and thereby effect real change.

As part of the Henry Rothschild Memorial Bursary you are working on a new body of work titled “Rare Earth”, which will highlight the issues that are associated with mineral depletion. Is research a key part of your development process?

Yes, I will be researching in two keys ways for this project. I aim to look at the crystalline structure of the 60 minerals that are used in the average smart phone and take inspiration from these for the forms of my Rare Earth sculptural pieces. In addition to that I am trying to develop surface finishes, glazes and lustres that are made in part from salvaged e-waste. For example making a gold lustre from

gold in discarded circuit boards. It is very early days and there is still a lot of research to do as Covid-19 has prevented me from working with experts in this field as yet.

How do you think the bursary will enable you to develop your practice, and how do you see it developing over the course of the bursary?

This bursary is really vital for me to allow me to buy equipment and also materials that I need to experiment and really push the work I want to make forward. It also allows me to travel to the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences part of the University of Cambridge to do some in-depth research into the 60 minerals found in the average smart phone. I have set myself a challenging project and I am trying to stay experimental and open at this stage in order to fully explore the possibilities.

As part of your work with the Shipley, you’ll be running hands-on ceramic workshops with young people from Gateshead — what aspect of community engagement excites you the most?

I love how immediate ceramics is as a material to work with and how rich it is as a tool to explore ideas. These characteristics makes it a great material to use when working with community engagement — it is almost like having another person in the room! It opens up conversation and allows people to relax and have fun. The very act of handling clay and engaging with it to make something new can bring people together, connect them to the natural world and instil a powerful sense of achievement.

How do you see your ceramic work evolving in the future?

That’s a very tricky question. I know from experience that it is almost impossible to know where a project will take you — I want to stay open at this stage to all the possibilities. I definitely want to keep challenging and pushing myself and I hope that I will be able to show my work in more ambitious ways and reach more people.

Has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted your work in anyway? If so, how?

Yes the Covid-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on my work for this project — in particular I am as yet unable to carry out the in-depth research into the minerals at either of the two museums that I plan to use. Similarly I cannot yet collaborate with experts or with the chemistry labs I hope to be working as they have all been closed this year and will be extremely busy on re-opening.

Left: Postcard One, stoneware and porcelain, image © Mella Shaw / Right: Mella Shaw, Postcard Three, image © Mella Shaw

Do you have any advice for those who are considering about applying for the next bursary?

My advice would be to choose a project that you feel really passionate about. Not only will this enthusiasm come over to the panel of judges at interview but it is also key to sustaining your interest for two years. Your project has to have enough potential to stretch and challenge your practice. The bursary is a brilliant opportunity to push yourself forward so it is good to be ambitious.

Find out more about Mella Shaw and view her portfolio on her website or Instagram page.

About the Henry Rothschild Bursary

Henry Rothschild (1913–2009) was a leading figure in contemporary British crafts and design. The Henry Rothschild Study Centre at the Shipley Art Gallery displays over 200 ceramics from the personal collection of Henry Rothschild, founder of the Primavera gallery in London. The richness and breadth of this fantastic collection is demonstrated in works by Lucie Rie, Bernard Leach, Ewen Henderson, Gordon Baldwin and Gillian Lowndes. Henry was a passionate supporter of emerging artists whose work he believed in and the ceramics bursary continues in this spirit.

In partnership with Northumbria University the Gallery now offers the Henry Rothschild Bursary for Ceramic Artists. A series of five bursaries will be offered to early career ceramicists. The bursaries are jointly funded by Henry Rothschild’s family and Northumbria University.

The Bursary awards £5,000 to an emerging ceramic artist to develop their practice in ways in which they would not otherwise have the time or resources to do, enabling them to pursue new creative directions and ways of working. The award winner has two years to complete the work funded by the Bursary.

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