Contemporary Art

The Ephemeral Magic of Raw Clay: Artist Interview with Phoebe Cummings

Marga Patterson 15 January 2021 min Read

Phoebe Cummings (b.1981) is a British sculptress-ceramics artist working primarily with unfired, living clay in its raw state. She creates time-based installations that are extremely detailed, delicate, and multi-layered. Phoebe’s exquisite clay sculptures pulse with an irresistible energy as they gradually shapeshift over time shrinking, cracking, breaking, or sweating, falling to pieces and turning to dust. They are transient and temporary, reminiscent of the cycle of life. We spoke with Phoebe Cummings to unravel the ideas behind her work, learn about why she is so fascinated by raw clay, and how she blends intuition with active material to create ephemeral masterpieces.

Phoebe Cummings, Antediluvian Swag
Phoebe Cummings, Antediluvian Swag, raw clay, wire, steel, approx. 180 x 100 x 40 cm, 2016, New Art Centre, Salisbury, England, UK. Image by Sylvain Deleu/Artist’s website.

 artist Phoebe Cumming
Portrait of the artist Phoebe Cummings by Camilla Greenwell, 2017. Artist’s website.

Early Years

Can you tell us about your background?

Originally, I was born in Walsall, quite close to Birmingham in England, then, later on, moved to Staffordshire, which is where I live now, again.

How did you become interested in making art?

As a child, I always used to make things and always wanted to be an artist. I can’t remember ever wanting to do anything else. I used to go to a pottery class when I was about seven, so that’s where I first worked with clay. The town where I grew up was a center for leatherwork and each town in the Midlands tended to be connected to a particular material. Staffordshire is connected with the ceramics industry. I probably wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I think the whole place was shaped by materials and making in some way. There was certainly always that sense that people made things.

Were your parents supportive of your creativity and your desire to become an artist?

Yeah, they were. My mom had an interest in art so we would always go to museums. My dad was a school teacher and really loved music. I’m not entirely sure where the desire to become an artist came from. No one in my family worked in the arts. It was quite instinctive really. They were supportive of what I wanted to do, I think my Dad understood that creative drive.

Where did you attend art school?

I did a BA at the University of Brighton. It was a craft program working with wood, metal, ceramics, and plastics. You tried everything and then specialized in two materials. I did ceramics and metalwork. By the end of that, I knew I definitely wanted to pursue ceramics. I then had a year out, before doing an MA in ceramics and glass at the Royal College of Art. That’s when the clay really took over.

Phoebe Cummings, detail of Nocturne
Phoebe Cummings, detail of Nocturne, raw clay, wire, steel, 2016 AirSpace Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent, England, UK. Image courtesy of the artist. Artist’s website.

Art and Inspirations

What inspires you and who are some of your favorite artists?

The most direct inspiration often comes from other places…certainly the natural world, looking at plants, looking or thinking really closely about materials. Also, writing, mainly fiction and poetry, feeds so much into the work. Language and structure feel very close to making sculpture; building and revealing information, there is a crossover there. I also look a lot at ceramics, particularly historic ceramics.

I’m really fascinated by 18th century design and decorative arts, particularly the carvings of Grinling Gibbons and the fantasy botanical drawings of Jean-Baptiste Pillement. Strange and ornate objects from the Baroque and Rococo Periods. The sense of materials and objects performing in the work of Fischli and Weiss has had an influence and connections to nature in the work of Richard Long. I love the paintings of Agnes Martin for their quiet beauty and sensitivity. I also really like her writing. The sensuality of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work remains a huge inspiration. The work that I love the most is often very different to the work that I would make myself.

Phoebe Cummings working with raw clay.
Phoebe Cummings working with raw clay. Image by Sylvain Deleu. Artist’s website.

Raw Clay Sculptures

How did you choose clay as your primary medium?

Clay was this material that I kept coming back to rather than always knowing that was what I wanted to do. Whatever ideas I had, clay had something to offer, it was always a way of thinking things through. Clay is so varied, in one sense it is a simple, basic material, but equally, it is complex and has so many capabilities at different stages. It is many things at once. I really like that about it.

What kind of clay do you work with?

Buff stoneware usually because it’s very cheap and easy to handle.

You prefer not to fire your clay pieces, but leave them in a raw state. Why?

Initially, it was a way to keep making without a studio or kiln, but I quickly realized that what the clay offered me in its raw state was much more than I gained from firing and the traditional way of working. It introduced ephemerality and performance into the work. What I make is usually part of a wider environment. There are changes as I’m making it, it is much more of a dialogue between me and the material, rather than me forcing the clay to become something, there is a material agency; the clay pushes back.

Phoebe Cummings, An Ugly Side,
Phoebe Cummings, An Ugly Side, raw clay, wood, wire, polythene, approx. 3m x 2.5m x 3m, Compton Verney, 2019. Image courtesy of the artist. Artist’s website.

Survival, Rewards and Challenges

Aside from art making as a means of survival, what else do you do?

I also work part-time at the University of Westminster as a Researcher and Lecturer in ceramics. I teach clay across departments, including traditional ceramic techniques as well as experimental and conceptual explorations of clay. As part of the Ceramics Research Centre – UK we explore the relationships between clay, culture, and society, my research and practice are closely intertwined.

What have you learned from working with unfired clay? What have been some of the challenges and rewards?

I think being able to keep doing it is the biggest reward. The endlessness of clay is also a reward, it can just keep going – be one thing, dissolve, and then become something else. I really enjoy that about it. I’m continually surprised. Every time I do a project, I learn more, clay is always teaching me things.

Often, the challenge is connected to making such delicate things, I can very easily break them as I work. Some days, I break more than I make. Learning how things shrink and crack has also been a really important part of the learning process. Understanding how things will naturally break apart helps inform how to construct a piece.

Phoebe Cummings working in the studio
Phoebe Cummings working in the studio, 2020. Image by Alun Callender. Artist’s website.

Process and Studio Work

You tend to make work on site. Can you share a bit about your process?

Usually, I have a loose plan, most often it starts with a site visit to get a sense of the place. Quite often, the work might be connected to the history of that place. After visiting, I will then make a proposal, a rough sketch combined with material sketches, as well as showing images of previous works to the museum or gallery. It is never planned absolutely. It’s an intuitive process to an extent, I can never know completely until I’m there doing it. Usually, I have a fixed period to install, so the work is also partly dictated by time.

Generally, things are done alone. There is a lot of hand work that I can only really do myself, though I can have help pressing components from molds. I’ve worked on a few projects linked with universities where students have assisted in making the work.

What does your studio practice involve?

I never really have a routine. My studio practice is definitely not daily, it still feels very erratic. I take bits of time when I can. It varies; the closer I get to a project and installing it, the work becomes very intense, maybe 12-hour days of making. In between, I’m always reading, looking, and thinking where it might go next. When I’m in the studio, it’s usually working with clay and more recently clay paintings, but other than that I don’t really draw.

Can you share more about the clay paintings?

Often its light washes, a bit like watercolor, almost on the edge of not being there at all. I’m interested in how it can maybe translate some of the same qualities, a fleetingness, but without the object. I’ve always felt that I’m not really good at painting and drawing, but I really enjoy painting with the clay.

Phoebe Cummings working with raw clay.
Phoebe Cummings working with raw clay. Image by Sylvain Deleu. Artist’s website.

Ephemerality and Touch

Why are you interested in ephemerality versus permanence?

It’s so human, everything is constantly in this state of flux, so maybe it’s strange to try and fix an object. Enjoying the experience of the object rather than being concerned with holding onto it or how it can be fixed as a commodity.

Do you allow viewers to touch your work?

It’s funny, actually, I spend so much time thinking about the sensory experience of the work, but then I realize I’ve never done anything that actually invited touch. Touch is so present in the work, you see all the fingerprints and traces of the body in the clay, there’s that sense of touch.  Maybe that’s somewhere to go next year…

How has Covid-19 affected or informed your work?

Ordinarily, I’ve always made work for a particular purpose. There’s usually an exhibition or a place that drives it in a way so that’s been really weird. While I’ve been at home, I’ve still felt that I need to make things without having anywhere for it to go. It has affected the scale of the work. I’ve been making very small things. In some ways, it’s been nice to work slightly differently, but I’m definitely missing having a place to ground the work because that feeds so much of what the work is. I’m spending time looking at things and observing the changes in my garden, so it’s been kind of a gift as well.

Phoebe Cummings, detail of raw clay from residency studio at V&A London
Phoebe Cummings, detail of raw clay from residency studio at V&A London, 2010. Image by Sylvain Deleu. Artist’s website.

Do you have any upcoming projects or exhibitions?

At the moment, not really. Lots of ideas and a few potential things, but nothing concrete. A few things I will try and apply for.

Not making art doesn’t feel like an option. It’s a way of being in the world and making sense of things. It’s a real privilege to be able to do it as a job.

Phoebe’s work reflects the fleeting beauty of the natural world and reshapes our experiences of looking. Through observations and altered sensory experiences, we can appreciate the changes in her raw clay designs as they transform and evoke new feelings. Evolving and breaking down. After all, everything is temporary.

You can view more of Phoebe’s work at the following links:

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