TOAST Magazine

Phoebe Cummings Interview

ARTS & CULTURE

TOAST has collaborated with artist Phoebe Cummings to create Season, a unique installation made from clay. Season has been commissioned to celebrate our Spring/Summer theme, Elements of Materiality, and will be open to the public at Protein Studios in London, from 8th-13th March. 

Phoebe Cummings is a ceramics artist working exclusively with raw clay. Taking inspiration from the natural world, she creates beautifully detailed, site-specific sculptures – from vast, intricate landscapes to exquisitely wrought garlands of flowers. All her pieces are temporary and last only as long as each exhibition. In this way, her work defies easy categorisation, sitting somewhere between studio ceramics and performance art.

When I meet Phoebe at her home in Stafford, she tells me that while the decision to work with raw clay was born out of necessity – upon graduating she had no access to a kiln – it has allowed her to explore the material’s ability to be endlessly re-made. “Once clay is fired,” she explains, “it becomes dead, static. By not firing it, I’m not fixing it. I’m just part of the life of the material. Part of its flux and change.”

As we talk she picks up a thimble size ball of clay. “One of the things that draws me to clay is how immediate it is, how it responds to everything you do. You don’t need to use a special tool or a difficult technical process to have a direct relationship with it.” Pressing the ball of clay into her hand she shows me how the natural curve of her palm creates the shape of a petal, how the lines on her palm become the petal’s tiny veins. It is deftly done and in an instant she has created the most ornate of flower heads.

Her main inspiration for these highly complex floral forms is found in 18th century Rococo and Baroque design. “I’m interested in the decorative way in which nature is interpreted; you get this excessive ornamentation and mutability between nature and design – a naturalistic plant might suddenly morph into some sort of scrolling. There is a layer of fantasy to the nature, it is an imagined nature, and I like exploring this.”

“Perhaps the most direct influence on my work, though”, she goes on to say, “ is literature. I love the way certain writers, particularly W.G. Sebald, Ballard and Woolf, use language. Sebald creates structure with fragments, Ballard has these wonderful, rich descriptions and Woolf writes with this intense, lens- like focus, zooming in on minute detail then panning back out into a wider narrative. Their writing really appeals to me, and I feel as though language and clay share parallels. Though essentially monochrome, words create a very real description of place and materials; I think clay is the same, it can capture textures, conjure an entire world.”

Viewing one of Phoebe’s sculptures is like viewing an entire world. Hours can be lost observing the intricacies of the forms, each anemone-like tendril, each seed head, each delicate leaf. Yet there is also something poignant about the sculpture’s overt temporality and fragility. Over the course of an exhibition the viewer will see the work dry, crack, move and, in some instances, disintegrate entirely.

When I discuss this with Phoebe she describes how it is this temporality which builds an interesting tension in the work: “a lot of what I do is very labour intensive and you can see that, you can see the hours invested in it, and this gives it a visual weight, almost as though the work is describing time. Playing against this is the short existence of the piece and the fact that you’re often watching it disintegrate or fall apart. It confronts our desire to possess and contain, and our expectations of ceramics as a permanent object with the potential to last for millennia.”

It is perhaps this tension, as Phoebe puts it, which makes her work so original and so unique. While exalting craftsmanship, displaying it at its most skilled, her work simultaneously challenges the very idea of what craft is; impossible to possess, her work asks us to experience the object, rather than simply appreciate the finished thing. “I hope that my work might encourage people to rejoice in, and not mourn, the passing of time,” Phoebe says. “I think of it like the briefness of a flower – part of a flower’s beauty lies in the fact that it is fleeting.”

Interview by Emily Mears. Photography by Roo Lewis.

Watch Phoebe talk about Season:

See Season here

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