Ten Minutes: With Loewe Craft Prize Winner Jennifer Lee
“In the world of so much violence and destruction it’s very beautiful to see creativity,” Dame Helen Mirren said through tears as she announced the Loewe Craft Prize today. It was, as Jonathan Anderson put it, celebrating “real people loving what they do.” Into the Design Museum we went and up to the top floor where we entered a world of incredible craft, 30 works by the 30 finalists from around the world. Each work was magnificent, some tiny, quite literally paper thin, others huge, taking over and coming to life. It was the work of Scottish ceramicist Jennifer Lee that won the prize, something so simple on the surface, but crafted to perfection and in such an intricate process that dates years back. Her creation titled, Pale, Shadowed Speckled Traces, Fading Ellipse, Bronze Specks, Tilted Shelf (2017) is made from stoneware clay with natural oxides mixed into the clay. It is, as she told us, the most ancient way to create such things, using the technique of pinching and coiling. We can confirm that Jennifer’s work is fabulous – turns out Garth already owns a piece. We didn’t believe him either but it’s true. We at Ten Towers have an eye for prize winning beauty. So we spoke to Jennifer after the announcement to find out more about her process. We always need to know more.
ROXY LOLA: Congratulations! How do you feel?
JENNIFER LEE: Amazed. Thrilled.
RL: What did it mean to you to win this?
JL: It’s extraordinary, I don’t usually do competitions. I’m absolutely thrilled that the judges think I’m a worthy winner.
RL: What made you enter the Loewe Craft Prize?
JL: A bit of persuasion from friends and family. I think it’’s important to raise the profile of craft and it was great to be shortlisted, to even be a finalist – and to win is extraordinary!
RL: How long have you been creating these pieces?
JL: I’ve been working now for 40 years. I went to Edinburgh Art School and I met a potter in Suffolk in the summer and decided to start working in Clay. In London, at the RCA, I specialised in ceramics and I thought I would move back to Scotland but I realised the galleries and the contacts were in London and so I’ve been here ever since. I still feel very Scottish – I think once Scottish always Scottish. But I’ve lived in London longer than Scotland now.
RL: What was the inspiration behind your piece?
JL: Really the materials. The pieces grow from each other. A lot of the time I draw the finished work in order to make the next piece and then looking at colour tests. A lot of it’s to do with the way that colour oxides move from one band of clay to another and so you get halos and different effects happening with the migration of the oxides. This piece is more minimal, the piece has less colour in it. The materials used to make the mix in that Loewe piece is 30 years old. So I mixed up the clay 30 years ago and discovered originally by accident that with certain mixes, the colour and effects change over time. I actually found some clay the other day that was mixed in 1988!
RL: Wow, where do you keep all of this?
JL: Everything’s small scale, my studio is tiny. I don’t have a lot of space. The clay lives under my bench. I always have an idea in my head and then the form and colour are completely integrated. In the end I let the pot dry, before that I burnish it with an agate and that compacts and smooths the surfaces and then I leave under the plastic for about three weeks to dry very slowly.
RL: What’s your favourite part of your process?
JL: It’s a nightmare, as well as the favourite, it’s choosing the colours. Going through all the tests deciding what I’m going to make. I quite easily self-distract by getting caught up in some other amazing test, I can be pulled off my course. And burnishing is good because it’s very time consuming and very repetitive but it allows you to see it as it’s supposed to be. And then in the firing colours look quite different – so the whole thing looks rather grey and then when I fire it, it reveals what I was planning in the beginning.
RL: It comes to life. Where is the place you dream of exhibiting your work at?
JL: Ooh. I don’t know… I’ve been very lucky. I had a show in Tokyo in 21_21 Design Sight which was incredible. That was through Issey Miyake and was a dream show. The work was on water, floating. I’m just really happy making the pieces. I don’t ever dream of showing anywhere in particular but I’ll start thinking!
RL: What are you working on next?
JL: I’ve got a show in Kyoto in November this year. It’s going to be 10 or 11 pieces.
RL: Are they all part of the same story?
JL: My process is very slow, the thought process and the finished vessels are a long slow trajectory. Things change little by little through the years.
RL: What gets you in your zone when you’re creating?
JL: I listen to Radio 4, which I think a lot of self employed crafts people listen to. I get fed up with some of it. I also really like quite repetitive, amazing weaving music which is quite a lot of chanting.
RL: Do you source any inspiration from books?
JL: There’s a couple of books that I find I go back to. One is American Deserta by Peter Reyner Banham which is incredible and also Sculpting in Time by Andrei Tarkovsky. He speaks of inspiration and says you can’t talk about it, it grows inside you and begins to demand expression. I look at a lot of exhibitions and museum collections – I tend to go way back and look at the most ancient, pre-historic pieces, because the techniques I’m using are the most ancient and I use very basic materials – clay, water and oxide. The great thing too about working in clay is when it’s fired. The landscape around us is in a constant state of change, and when you’re firing clay you’re capturing a moment.
RL: What’s been the best part of the Loewe Craft Prize?
JL: Meeting the other artists. Just to be here. To be exhibiting. I’m learning all the time.