Beautiful Freaks: an interview with ceramicist Sophie Woodrow, by Amelia's Magazine
Bristolian ceramicist Sophie Woodrow makes hybrid porcelain figures that are as beguiling as they are bonkers.
Have you ever caught sight of something out of the corner of your eye and mistaken it for something quite different, even otherworldly? Like the tatty old dressing-gown casting long, black shadows on your bedroom wall, or a flashback from that dream you had when you were seven, half remembered and so much more monstrous for not being quite complete? My first ever nightmare involved Worzel Gummidge and Punch, of ‘Punch and Judy‘ chasing me around our old house to the sound of sit-com laughter. I think I may have downed one too many Sodastreams that day, but if, like me, you’re familiar with that weird, slightly disturbing sensation and find it just a little bit addictive, then you are sure to love the work of Bristolian ceramic artist Sophie Woodrow.
Since graduating from Falmouth College of Art with a BA in studio ceramics, she has refined an intricate labour-intensive technique. Each piece is hand-built, involving coiling, incising and impressing to create a delicately textured surface. The hybrid creatures she creates explore Victorian theories of evolution. They represent a kind of ‘Sliding Doors’ moment in natural science; They are ‘what ifs’, of the ‘what if an owl made a baby with a grizzly bear, a reindeer, a Dalek or a mahogany writing table?’ variety. The resulting objects bask in ambiguities, they are not quite visitors from another world, the visual language she uses could not belong anywhere other than 21st century England, they’re more like unseen elements of this world, or a dream world that approximates this one.
The stillness of Sophie’s figures reminds me of the Booth Museum of Natural History in Brighton, where my A level art class were taken to draw stuffed crows ‘cavorting’ in enormous glass cases. All those glaring, orange-glass eyes gave me the heebie-jeebees. Sophie’s figures have hollowed out cavities where their eyes should be, lending them an even spookier blankness, but at the same time they are almost homely. They’re a little like something I might find perched on my Great Aunt Doris’s mantelpiece, if she’d recently gone a bit mental and started draping her ornaments with my jewellery collection, or sticking them down with big lumps of Plasticine ‘just in case’. Looking at them I can almost hear the ticking of the great, big grandfather clock in her hall. Tick, tock, tick, tock…
I stumbled across Sophie’s website completely by chance, whilst researching a blog about Made 10, Brighton’s forthcoming design and craft fair (read my listing here). I was quickly glad I did. Her work spoke so strongly to me that I felt compelled to get in touch immediately and ask her about it, and this is what she had to say:
Describe your work in 30 words or less:
Delicate, bright white porcelain portraits of animals and otherworldly beings, inspired by the contact point between the natural world and human culture.
Why make hybrid ‘might-have-been’ creatures?
I make ‘might have been’ creatures as an expression of the delight and odd reassurance I take in knowing that I can never make anything as strange as the real thing.
What attracts you to working in clay?
At first I was attracted to working in clay because, along with drawing it’s a very fundamental means of making art, and I wanted to make actual things not representations. Along the way I have found it to be a more complicated picture, and have adjusted to all the historical and cultural baggage that clay carries with it.
What inspires you?
I am inspired by my love for the beauty of the natural world, and more particularly our relationship to it. I am fascinated by the representations that people have made of animals throughout the ages, what they say about them and their times, their sense of themselves in the world, their strengths and vulnerabilities. My influences come from museums and anywhere I can see art objects, tools, fetishes, toys, weapons, any object that has an interesting history.
What process do you go through to make a piece of work?
My making process is very laboured, but I try to keep the initial visualization of a piece very unedited, I try not to search too hard for an idea and just look at it out of the corner of my eye long enough to pin it down, so that all I am generally doing in the studio is the physical making process, I’ll have my ideas elsewhere, on my bike, hoovering, thinking about something completely different.
What was the last thing you drew?
My studio is littered with pages of tiny thumbnail sketches of my animals, it’s a visual record of where in the world everything is, which gallery or shop, otherwise I forget.
What do you listen to while you work?
BBC 6 Music is a godsend, as my hands are always too covered in clay to change CDs, and being crafty and not techy, I haven’t worked out how to use my Ipod. Radio 4 is good too, until you realize you’ve just listened to a half-hour programme about the history of the sprocket.
Name three contemporaries whose work you think we should check out.
At Collect this year I coveted all the jewellery in Galerie Rob Koudjis, especially the gorgeous work of Gemma Draper. Being a ceramicist, I’m ungenerously critical of my genre but have recently seen and loved the work of Claire Lindner. Fellow Bristolian Aaron Sewards draws such sad, exquisite little drawings it makes me want to cry.
What’s coming up for Sophie Woodrow?