Interview with The Biscuit Factory 2016 October

Housed in a former Victorian warehouse The Biscuit Factory is the UK’s largest art, craft & design gallery set in the heart of Newcastle’s cultural quarter

Rowena Gilbert Interview The Biscuit Factory Art Gallery, Newcastle 2016

How and when did you first discover your artistic talents?

I’ve always loved art ever since I was young. My father Terence Gilbert, a very established fine artist, inspired me immensely. His studio is in the family home so I grew up watching him paint. He always made me feel so proud of my own drawings, pinning them up in his studio. I believe it was my portfolio of felt-tip pictures aged 10 that helped me gain a place at Christ’s Hospital School, Horsham. My art teacher at that school was a huge collector of contemporary fine art ceramics. To be taught by someone so passionate about ceramics was a massive influence to me (without me realising it then). I absolutely loved ceramics at school but just as much as everything else, the whole spectrum of art, design, craft (and maths!). So I guess my artistic talents come from living and breathing art since I was a child, completely ingrained in me!

What’s your favourite technique and why?

I have been developing my technique since my final year of university...seems crazy to still be developing it 14 years on but that’s the nature of ceramics and art! I guess it’ll take me a lifetime to be truly content with my style. As my technique is a constant continuation, I can’t quite answer this question, but can describe the four stages to my technique, and tell you I thoroughly enjoy each stage as they encompass different aspects of maths, design, craft and art.

The first stage is very scientific: researching and developing clay slips. All the colours in my ceramics are my own creations. Variations in percentages of metal oxides and stains in the clay body, differences in clays, glazes, firing temperatures, all affect the final colour. It takes months to finalise a colour palette for a new series. The next stage is very rhythmic and therapeutic: I cast the bowls or vases with a certain colour clay body, then brush layer upon layer of coloured clay slips on the insides and outsides of the body. I work on around eight pieces at any one time as the layers need to dry to a leather-hard stage before the next layer can be brushed on. Depending on air temperature and humidity - and the amount of layers I am wanting - this can take a week to a few weeks as slow drying is essential to ensure no cracking in the final stages.

The next stage is exciting, spontaneous, intuitive and artistic. Here I cut through the layers of coloured clay using various metal tools I have shaped. This method is called sgraffito yet the technique I use has been developed by myself for over 14 years so is very different from traditional sgraffito ceramics. This is the stage where I feel I am an artist creating my vision: my coloured canvas is ready for me to be impulsive and free, evoking moods and tensions, actions and reactions... And the final stage is calm and controlled, cleaning up the piece, bisque firing, masking areas and applying different glazes before the final firing. And then the magical moment - opening the kiln after the final firing to see what I have created.

What inspires your work?

My ceramic work, above all, is a celebration of the natural world informed by my travels and my coastal hometown of Brighton, where the colours of the beaches and the flora and fauna of the nearby South Downs provide a source of inspiration. Moods and personal experiences also influence my work in more subconscious ways. After recent travels in South East Asia, the beaches of the Thai coast provided fresh inspiration for pieces that have taken my work in a new direction. Following the trip, experiments with new colour palettes led to an unintentional spread of hundreds of turquoise blue swatches, spread out in my studio like an ocean of tiny tiles.

The Reef series pieces are a response to this time spent swimming and snorkelling in Thailand, and convey the mesmerising effect of spending hours under the water: forms flutter across the aquamarine surface of the pieces, fish darting between corals and aquatic plants; the glaze ripples like water.

The Coast Series are a response to the skylines and shores of these tropical islands, capturing the constantly changing hues and movements of these spaces with accents of waves splashing against rocks and birds in flight.

What’s the most challenging aspect to working with ceramics?

Constantly negotiating the temperature and humidity of the air to prevent my clay layers cracking. The way I work with layer upon layer upon layer of coloured clay is the most frustrating and difficult process to perfect, and constantly goes wrong, yet I love the effect when it goes right, so my struggle continues.

How has your artistic style changed over the years?

My early designs had very distinct linear or swirl layered patterns, and used a very minimal colour palette of deep earthy reds, charcoal blacks and whites with matt and gloss textures. These designs were very bold and contemporary; very striking in their simplicity. I then went through a more figurative period where my designs were more overtly inspired by nature: motifs of cornfields, sunflowers and seed pods peppered this collection, working with a colour palette of taupes, olives and peacock greens together with teals and cobalt blues. Now, my work has become more impressionistic and abstract, each piece a one-off design allowing me to use the pot or bowl more as a canvas to capturing a unique expression. My colour palette these days is a wash of yellows, turquoises and aquamarines.

Describe your studio / work space.

I’ve been in a large shared studio in Brighton since I graduated from university in 2002. It is in a huge old industrial building that had been converted into spaces catering for various different creative businesses, workshops and studios. I share my studio with three ceramicists, a ceramic conservation restorer and a painter. We have high ceilings and huge windows looking north of Brighton to the South Downs. It’s such a great studio!

What’s been your career highlight?

My highlight is the ceramic work I am producing now, I feel I have established myself as a very technical maker and yet am freeing myself to be much more intuitive and artistic. I guess this is the start to me feeling like a true ceramic artist.

The best piece of artistic advice you’ve ever been given?

An artist gave me this quote when I was young. It doesn’t seem to have any concrete authorship, yet that doesn’t bother me, it’s such an inspirational quote I have had it pinned to my wall ever since and recite it regularly.

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues forth from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

What’s the best thing about being an artist?

The freedom to express yourself, and spending all day covered in clay! I love clay so much, it’s so magical yet so elemental. I feel slightly like an alchemist as well as an artist.

What can we expect from your new work at The Biscuit Factory?

My Reef Series and Coast Series mark a step away from the more controlled work of past years. Natural themes still dominate, but in a more abstract interpretation. The new pieces embrace intuitive mark-making, showing that even as the work has matured, it has become more playful. My colour palette has exploded into “tropical”!