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Jenny Southam Creative Ceramist

September 13, 2021

Jenny Southam gained a Fine art degree and a Post-Graduate Diploma at Bristol Polytechnic (now UWE), specializing in work in bronze. She now lives in Exeter and creates her terracotta, individually hand-built figurative sculptures from her home studio. I fell for her fabulous work last year and have wanted to introduce her here to my readers ever since. I’m very happy to say that we recently managed to make it happen.

What are your first memories of making art ?

I remember that my mum kept scrap bits of paper in a brass coal scuttle box on a hearth, which was my go-to place for raiding and drawing on in my very early years. When I was five we moved to a house which had an area that we called the ‘clay patch’. My brother and I played here for hours and would dig up this white clay to make things out of. Once we made a large collection of Egyptian-like artefacts out of the clay and grass there, and organised them into an exhibition. I loved all manner of crafts as a kid, in many materials. Every time I went to the local library on the Saturday I would always bring back a book on some craft activity.

Let’s talk knitting patterns.. where did this lovely idea first originate ? We’re you or your relatives a knitter previously ? I love the idea of the film company possibly using them too !

I’ve collected vintage knitting patterns for a few decades now, just for their quirky imagery. But it was only a couple of years ago that it came to me that I could use this imagery as a starting point for my own figurative ceramic work. They are a very individual and unusual historical phenomena in that they show models, obviously showing off the knitwear, but also set often within a scene or environment, either indoors or outdoors. This might be a garden or park, an art gallery, cafe or a living room.

They sometimes have props; for example an umbrella, a drink, balloons, a horse, a bunch of flowers, and also the inevitable pipe for smoking. They create fascinating tableaux within which a possible narrative unfolds. I previously created narrative ceramics anyway, but these wonderful pamphlets provide rich source material for further exploration.

My mum would knit us all jumpers and cardigans, although there were six of us kids and so she never had the time or resources to be very experimental with her knitting. They were functional and hardwearing. I would have given my eye teeth for a nice synthetic shop- bought school cardi rather than a rather chunky home-knit! One day recently I was made aware that an American film company had bought a small series of my ceramic busts (head and shoulders), based upon knitting pattern models, and that they wish to possibly use them in a forthcoming film based on the ‘Wool’ trilogy by Hugh Howey. Very exciting news, although having read the first book I’m not exactly sure where these little people would fit into this dystopian setting. There is very little directly to do with actual wool. Watch this space!

I see you use sketchbooks to draught out your ideas first. Do you always work in this way and does it help you ‘see’ your sculpture in a 3D form by working intially in 2D ? Do you ever work straight from an image in your mind or do you always prefer to sketch the ideas first ?

In fact I usually dive straight in to making the clay sculptures directly either from my imagination or more latterly straight from the knitting patterns themselves. I might make a series of small maquettes first, before more ambitious pieces. I am too impatient often to makes sketches, collages or paintings first, although when I do give myself permission to play two-dimensionally I enjoy doing them hugely. I feel that I should be working in clay all the time, which is ridiculous really, as in fact I feel that my clay work benefits from the process of initial two-dimensional interpretation first. What I would love is a dedicated painting/ drawing/ collage studio that I can go and immerse myself in at any time and not have to tidy things away in between times. But I guess that’s the same for many of us.

What are your favourite pieces to presently make and why ?

I must admit that I’m a bit of a butterfly and like to have a period of making, say, large cats, and then have some time making small narrative pieces, and then my Knitting Pattern Folk, and then maybe making some stock for galleries. In truth I would want to be making all of these things all of the time, as I love making them all; but that’s not feasible. I am extremely invested in the Knitting Pattern Folk however. I feel that I have only scratched the surface of all the many possibilities that they offer. I love their ‘staginess’. The theatricality and nonsensicality of the tableaux produced. Each figure I make seems to have their own personality which moves me somehow.

What would be your fav and least fav part of the making process and why ?

My favourite part of the process is the handbuilding. Constructing something out of a lump of clay is both an easy and a very challenging thing to do. I’m always amazed when I go to ceramic fairs and see the most astonishing variety of creations that once started as muddy stuff dug out of the ground. It has such a history to it as well, and I love to see artefacts that were made and used, or given some purpose tens of thousands of years ago.

So I like to make my figures and animate them with some personality or inflection which I feel gives them an emotional resonance. As to the least favourite, I sometimes find applying colour to them difficult, and I can dither around a lot before I know how I am going to approach it. I used to work in bronze before I turned to clay, and the monochrome qualities of this medium proved much more straight forward. But actually in answer to your question glazing has to be one of the most exacting, yet boring processes to carry out.

Are your figures all hollow inside and if so what ‘tricks of the trade’ to you use to help ensure they remain upright ?

The small figures are usually solid. A rule of thumb is never to make work that is thicker than an inch or else they might blow up in the kiln due to thermal differentiation. I sometimes go a bit thicker than this but make sure
that I take the temperature of the kiln up and down slowly to accommodate this. Bigger work I make hollow, and tend to roll out slabs of clay and piece them together. I use good old fashioned scrunched up newspaper to fill in the forms to stop them caving in, and the odd wooden block to prop elements up until they are dry enough to take their own weight.

I’ve read that some of the inspiration for your work comes when you are gardening. Are there other times when ideas pop into your head for suitable new pieces to make and do you have to jot them down there and then, to
keep them from slipping away ?

Many of my earlier works were concerned with the domestic rituals that we carry out. For example; giving a haircut or planting seeds, making a bed or talking to a friend. This early era coincided with renting an allotment; the potential of which excited me hugely and so the idea of growing things became important within my work. As I work on one piece, I always get ideas during the making process for more possibilities and variations. So ideas evolve and I will jot/ draw the ideas as I go, or else, like dreams they might easily evaporate!

Are there any future creative lines that you are thinking about and can share with us today ?

I had a run a few years ago of depicting narratives based on some personal family stories. I would like to return to this area and explore some family history in a visual way.

Who or what would you say are your modern day influences ?

It depends how modern we are talking about here. I am a huge fan of Mid-Century European Modern. In fact I want some time to read through the posts you have written here on Fishink Blog about artists from that era. But I particularly enjoy English, Italian and Northern European art and design. If you are wanting more recent influences, there are a large amount of extremely talented ceramicists producing incredibly exciting work that I very much admire. But I’m a bit of an old fashioned gal and tend to be more influenced by seventeenth century English flatbacks and slipware, and Greek and Roman sculptures than contemporary work.

Where do you see your work going in the future ?

Hmmm. Interesting question. I feel extremely privileged to be able to make ceramic work in the first place. All I really have on my horizon is to continue making and creating; either in clay, or in other media. And also to keep
pushing to make it go forward; to keep it fresh and developing. I’m not much good at talking about my work, but feel that if the work speaks to people, and enriches their life in some way, as it does with mine, and continues to do so, then I’ll be happy. The other thing that I would like to do is collaborate with other makers. Working in a studio can be a solitary business, and there are several people that I would love to work alongside to explore various ideas.

I recently visited the Ruthin Craft Centre in Wales amd saw these pieces of Jenny’s work up close. Such a great experience ! Many thanks Jenny for making the time to contribute to Fishink Blog. I’m sure many more new followers will be as excited about your work as I am, don’t forget to follow Jenny over on Instagram @jennysoutham I for one, look forward to seeing what new folk emerge from your creative thoughts and knitting patterns.

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 14, 2021 1:14 am

    Lovely work, great to discover new artists!

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