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Phoebe Cummings photography by Sylvain Deleu.
8th November 2017

Crafts Council: Q&A with Phoebe Cummings

- words by Laura

We caught up with the newly awarded Woman’s Hour Craft Prize winner Pheobe Cummings last week.

Ceramicist Phoebe Cummings builds delicate sculptures often from raw clay. Her recent pieces have centred around bountiful arrangements of flowers, with buds and petals that are mind-blowing for their complexity and the manual skill behind them.

Born out of necessity when Phoebe didn’t have access to a kiln, her process means that the clay remains alive, drying, moving and cracking – quite at odds with the permanence of the firing process. “Craft for me describes the deep connection to material and process,” explains Phoebe. “Although the outcome of my work may be sculptural, craft is embedded in everything I make and the way I think.”

Recently Phoebe has pushed her practice to new places – seen most distinctly in two Crafts Council exhibitions this winter. Shown as part of the Woman's Hour Craft Prize, which runs at the Victoria & Albert Museum until 5 February 2018, her piece Triumph of the Immaterial adds water to her oeuvre to create a fountain that causes the raw clay to disintegrate over time. For A Future Made: British Craft – The Miami Edit, which opens in December, Phoebe will exhibit films of her sculptures alongside remaining fragments – the first time she has experimented with photography to capture the essence of her ephemeral work. The Miami Edit is a project co-organised by the Crafts Council and The New Craftsmen. 

Given Phoebe’s ubiquitousness over the coming months, which also includes exhibiting at the Craft Council extravaganza Collect in February 2018 with Joanna Bird Contemporary Collections, we caught up with her to talk about the intricacies of unfired clay, and how she goes about selling such an unconventional medium.

Phoebe Cummings - Antediluvian Swag (clay, wire, steel) approx. 180 x 100 x 40cm, New Art Centre, 2016. Photograph by Sylvain Deleu.

How ‘old’ are the techniques and processes you use?

I use a combination of handbuilding and sprig moulding techniques. The processes are quite traditional but the outcome is usually temporary, which is often unexpected for a material that has the potential to be so permanent. Often I construct in a different way than I would if I had to fire things. The ephemeral nature of the work makes it in a sense performative, the focus is on the experience of the object and what remains is a memory and documentation of a piece.

What has been your experience of being involved the Woman’s Hour Craft Prize?

I really enjoyed having the chance to make the work. Triumph of the Immaterial was a piece I had been thinking about for a while, and I am already thinking about how it might develop in future work. It has been great to have so much attention and discussion of craft in the widest possible sense through the media coverage of the prize.

You first came across the Meissen Fountain, which inspired Triumph of the Immaterial, as the ceramics artist-in-residence at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2010. What struck you about the piece then?  

The fragments were beautiful, their broken state meant in some ways the details were revealed even more. You were not overwhelmed by the whole, they were a curious and wonderful. Since seeing those fragments in 2010 I had thought about creating a dissolving fountain. The Meissen fountain was based on classical mythology – the Triumph of Amphitrite – so it also informed the title of the piece I made. I was interested in the way the original fountain was quite performative, it was made for the occasion of a wedding and would probably have run with rose petals in the water which would have added another layer to the sensory experience of the object.     

How did you go about making Triumph of the Immaterial? Did the addition of water create any extra considerations?  

The form in some ways was dictated by the need to build up the piece entirely from clay to allow for the material to dissolve, unlike other pieces I couldn't use an armature to support the form. I also had to create a plinth for the work to sit on that could contain the water and pump. A challenge has been dealing with the long run of the exhibition, and how to pace the flow of water and of course how to document and tour the work after the show at the V&A.

Phoebe Cummings - Antediluvian Swag (clay, wire, steel) approx. 180 x 100 x 40cm, New Art Centre, 2016. Photograph by Sylvain Deleu.

You work a lot with unfired clay, what appeals to you about the material in this in-between state?  

For me, at this stage it is most alive, it changes, shrinks, hardens, cracks. I love how directly I can work with clay, mostly just using my hands and I like the possibility for objects to enact their own performance.

How much can you predict how your work will change over its lifetime? Are your ever saddened when a piece starts disintegrating?

I can estimate to an extent from past experience, but there are always variable factors and often I am trying something new. This is the first piece I've made with running water. I am never sad about the disintegration, it is part of it, and often I am learning from how it reacts in its environment.

Whereas a lot of craftspeople make beautiful objects for galleries or collectors, your work is at odds with this model – it’s ephemeral, even destructive. Has this proved a challenge?

It doesn't easily fit into a system of selling objects which has shaped the kind of commissions I have been involved in. It has tended to be more within public institutions or residency programmes, where the objectives are less commercially focused.  

Phoebe Cummings - After the Death of the Bear, (clay, steel, polythene) 5m x 7m x 3.5m, British Ceramics Biennial Stoke-on-Trent, 2013. Photography by Sylvain Deleu.
Phoebe Cummings - Detail from residency studio (clay) V&A, London, 2010. Photography by Sylvain Deleu.

What are you most looking forward to about British Craft - The Miami Edit?

I’m showing a framed photograph of the piece Antediluvian Swag made at New Art Centre, Roche Court, in 2016 and a small collection of fired fragments from the piece. It will be a new context in which to expose my work and also it is only recently that I have shown any photographs and fragments of a work beyond the existence of the piece. Preparing the work has forced me to address how I might present the documentation of a temporary sculpture. I have never really dealt with printing, framing and so on so had to find new companies to work with and resolve solutions for how to present work in this format. I am interested to see how people respond to the work as documentation rather than the actual installation.

What are your working on at the moment and what have you got coming up next?

I am planning towards various projects coming up over the next two years. I will be showing work with The New Craftsmen and the Crafts Council's A Future Made – The Miami Edit and am working towards a commission for the Victoria Gallery & Museum University of Liverpool, curated by Rose Le Jeune which opens 19th Jan 2018.

To find out more about Phoebe’s work visit her site or read an in-depth profile in the November/December issue of Crafts magazine.

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