“disorientation enables new perspectives”: Catherine Mountford

This interview with talented ceramic designer-maker, Catherine Mountford, is brought to you as part of our “chain” celebrating the interconnected work of interesting and inspiring creative women. Catherine was nominated by illustrator / embroiderer, Reena Makwana, whose interview you can read here.

Hi Catherine! Can you introduce yourself and tell us a little about your background?

Hello Kate! My name’s Catherine, I’m a ceramic designer-maker currently based in south east London.

I perhaps don’t come from a particularly traditional creative background in an educational sense. Having not been encouraged to study art for GCSE by my art teacher (as they said I couldn’t draw) after finishing my A-levels I began a self-directed discovery of creativity first by studying interior design and architecture, and then working with clay and plaster through evening classes. Since graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2015 in Ceramic Design my practice has been based from a shared studio space with other ceramicists in Parade Mews.

How have you developed your practice as a ceramic designer over the past few years?

I primarily design tableware and functional interior pieces. The range of objects I design and make has expanded over the past few years. I have developed existing designs and more importantly, to myself at least(!), I feel the pieces I am making are starting to serve my intention. This spans the spectrum of what is involved in designing a ceramic product: the lines and profile of the object, the texture, feel and weight of it in your hand, the colours and tones. For designers and makers in many media, I think there is often a hurdle you have to leap to reach a place in which the execution of a design idea matches the maker’s intention, and represents the idea itself. By choosing to limit my colour palette and tones of black, grey and blue and shifting from earthenware firing to stoneware firing, I feel my work is beginning to fulfil my intentions and ideas.

A valuable part of my practice has been aided by working with and assisting other ceramic designer-makers, artists and product designers, and art charities. By doing so I have gained knowledge in the practicalities of running a small creative business – from self promotion (which I’m terrible at) to tax returns! These things aren’t really taught in schools or universities but are so important. Taking part in trade shows such as Top Drawer has been a great way to gain feedback from people regarding the pieces I make too.

I’m really interested in the “handiness” of the practice of a ceramic designer—all of the very different things your mind and hands are doing while you work. Could you talk us through the different processes involved in creating one of your pieces?

You are completely right! Your mind and hands are constantly required to be in harmony with one another and I think that is a huge part of the appeal of making for me which stems back to the first time I sat at the potter’s wheel during evening classes: I found my mind and hands were solely focused on the clay and what I was creating. There is simply no scope for the mind to wonder on other things when making with clay. Your hands will detect things that the eye may miss and so the tacit knowledge gained through practice is literally there at your finger tips.

The ceramic work I make is slip cast so the first medium I work with is actually plaster when creating a brand new form. The model of the object is made in plaster traditionally on a lathe or sledged (a ‘free’ hand means of modelling). Both methods require using various tools including chisels, profiles, sand paper and water, very similar to wood turning methods of making. In my own practice I actually make plaster models on a potter’s wheel as I don’t have access to a lathe but I’m still using all the same methods of modelling but just on a vertical axis rather than a horizontal one on a lathe.

When the plaster model is finished, it is then coated in a soft soap solution to act as a barrier against the plaster that is then poured around it to create the mould. Once this has set, the original plaster model is removed from the mould and the mould dries for a few days. You then have the negative space to pour your liquid (slip) clay into, and this is where I add the colour. The clay then sets until the desired thickness of the wall is achieved and you then pour out the remaining liquid clay, it sets and then you remove the piece from the mould. It’s a lengthy process but once you have that plaster mould you can cast from it as much as you can! The process is a little like easter-egg making.

Once the piece is out of the mould it is fettled using various wooden and metal tools, sponges and water. It dries to a leather-hard stage and is then bisque fired in the kiln. As my pieces are glazed only interiorly (as the tactility of the fired clay is really a key aspect of the design) I then sand and glaze them and they are fired for a second time to a stoneware temperature.

You have a really beautiful and distinctive approach to transitional phenomena and liminal spaces, such as clouds and seascapes in your work. Could you tell us more about how the idea of transition inspires you?

Thank you so much Kate!

Initially the concept behind my work was born during my 3rd year at university at a time when I was travelling from London to the Midlands weekly by train to visit my parents. The blurring landscapes of rolling hills and canola fields travelling at such high speed was something I wanted to freeze-frame in my work. During the last few weeks of my final year at university my mum died very suddenly and since then this concept has developed in to capturing the ephemeral and transitional characteristics of seascapes and cloud formations. There is no question that this desire to capture these transitional beautiful displays of nature serves as a means of expressing the raw fleeting essence of life and the transition between a life as we know it and a new one unfurling.

Artists like James Turrell whose works draws upon liminal space, where the concept of where one space ends and another begins is ambiguous, have always served as inspiration to what I make. Liminal space is the threshold between one chapter and the beginning of a new one where you can feel yourself growing as an individual into the unknown. This can be an intimidating and an ambiguous time, but if we can harness this transitional period and hone in on its potential then the sensation of disorientation can serve as establishing a new perspective of viewing life as a whole, a new way of seeing our surroundings.

Last year you curated an important not-for-profit exhibition, Tactile Minds, in support of the mental health charity Mind as part of London Design Festival. Could you tell us more about the development of the Tactile Minds group and how the exhibition came about?

Tactile Minds came about from conversations between myself and a good friend and fellow ceramicist, Candy Ward, who is currently studying an MA in Art Psychotherapy at Goldsmiths University. As my mum was being treated for anxiety and depression when she died, this experience and the aftermath has driven me to want to build awareness of depression and anxiety in the wider public and to challenge the stigmas that are attached to these conditions.

Candy and I had our own experiences of the benefits of artistic expression as a means of expressing and processing mental health challenges. The exhibition came about due to our conversations around the therapeutic qualities of working with clay, and we knew of a number of other ceramicists who felt similarly. We then put a call out to ceramic artists and makers to put forward their ideas of work that would be made specifically for the exhibition in support of Mind. We were overwhelmed by the response we received and it resulted in 22 ceramic artists and makers who made pieces in response to their individual mental health journeys.

Could you say more about the range of work that appeared in Tactile Minds?

A number of artists who participated had not previously openly discussed their mental health journeys and how their ceramic practice served as a means of expression. It was fantastic to be part of such an open group of people, to share our experiences with one another and be able to create a platform for us all to do so. This resulted in work which not only highlighted a wide spectrum of experience but also the huge differences among work in one medium (clay) addressing a single theme (mental health). Individual stories ranged from living life with bipolar, acute depression, anxiety and eating disorders, to the mental health challenges encountered after being diagnosed with a life altering illness and the death of a loved one. Joe Ludkin’s One in Four utilised the Japanese method of Kintsugi which is a physical celebration of the broken — a perfect vehicle to deliver messages of strength, hope and development.

Ruth van Loen’s Rocking Cups voiced emotions that we can all relate to: sadness, paranoia, anxiety, insecurity, anger, loneliness, insignificance and mania, while Sarah Rogers’ fine porcelain sculptures expressed pent up emotions to communicate the feeling of being in the grip of negative thinking, but importantly with an underlying sense of hope.

Both when recovering from brain injury, and when dealing with the depressive phases of my bipolar, I’ve found the slow certainty of making deeply beneficial. Working with clay is often described as healing and therapeutic. Does this chime with your own personal experience?

Most definitely. I came to working with clay at a time of real turmoil, I had left an architecture degree after a year and a half and experienced a breakdown. Working again and taking evening classes in pottery really aided my recovery, I owe this material a lot! Today it still serves as a means of managing my depression and grief.

I think handmade things provide great starting points for conversations—there’s just something really powerful about the way manual processes and finished objects speak to us, and are able to tell a story. I wonder if you could say something about Tactile Minds as the starting point for a conversation about mental health, and how responses to the exhibition have begun to take that conversation forward?

I wholly agree, people are always fascinated about the process of how something is made. During Tactile Minds we held a panel discussion with 3 of the artists involved as well as Zoë Hough from Anxiety Empire and author, arts and mental health advocate Emmanuel Owusu. As far as I am aware this was the first open public discussion of the therapeutic qualities of working with clay for mental health. For a number of the makers involved in the exhibition, Tactile Minds has helped build their confidence to explore the subject further within their own practice and to speak more freely about it. It also resulted in conversations around the opportunity of running clay based workshops with Mind Tower Hamlets and Newham.

Tactile Minds has given me the confidence to run another exhibition in support of mental health in the future. At first I was nervous of highlighting something that I knew very little about other than from my own experiences and those of close friends and family. It is such a vastly underfunded aspect of health and due to the experiences my family went through with my mum’s mental health treatment it was very important to me that Tactile Minds would in some way financially aid a charity that is so integral to supporting individuals who need it. The exhibition received an overwhelming amount of support from the public who visited, the donations they made and the work they purchased, to publications and press coverage. In total we raised £1275.46.

I’m very interested in the different ways in which makers are able to express the relationship between the mind and hands – there’s a generally accepted idea that the process of making is calming or relaxing, but there are also less familiar discourses of making as mentally confounding, frustrating or magical. I wondered if that variety of mental / manual experience was important to your practice?

As much as the process of making certainly has a therapeutic quality — the rhythm of the potter’s wheel or simply sponging a handle can help steady the mind — it’s important to remember that working with ceramics is just like any other creative process. It can be incredibly frustrating. Work breaks, it can warp in the kiln or does not come out as expected, a glaze can run or blister or doesn’t appear the colour you expected. It is certainly a lengthy process. But one thing working with ceramics has taught me is patience and an acceptance of the unexpected which can often turn out for the best. Instead of unnerving me I have welcomed unpredictability into my practice and do my best to utilise it by pushing the concept further. For example, purposely not measuring stain amounts in the clay body, results in each piece being unpredictably unique. This element of unpredictability and chance circles back to what we were discussing earlier about embracing the liminal space. I think mental and manual challenges are of equal measure and importance to me in the process of making.

What’s next for you (and for Tactile Minds)?

Well there will certainly be another Tactile Minds in the not so distant future that will be held in a different part of the UK to help widen the conversation. And for my own practice, I plan to enlarge my studio, launch a new online shop in early 2020 and collaborate further with my partner, Simon, who is also a ceramicist.

Where can our readers find you and your work?

You can visit my website and my instagram here and get in touch about commissions via either of these platforms. You can also find my work at Beside the Wave Falmouth and Newlyn Gallery and Exchange.

Finally, who would you like to nominate as the next link in our chain?

Jen Leonard – a wonderful artist and muralist that paints for community-led projects.

Thankyou, Catherine, for sharing your work in this generous and illuminating interview