Timeless Vessels

Julie Cromwell sculpts timeless vessels that explore the materiality of clay through forms inspired by antiquity. We sat down with Julie to discuss her practice, alongside her exhibition with Sanderson at the Auckland Art Fair.

interview ART PAPER photography sam hartnett

Your forms are based on “ancient amphorae that were used for the transportation of wine and oils”. Was there a particular encounter that was instrumental in the development of your practice?  

The interest in ancient civilizations and ceramic histories has always been there. I recently watched a documentary on the discovery of a Roman ship that had multiple amphorae intact within the wreck, and found the beauty and intrigue in these vessels, embalmed with crustaceans, inspiring. 

I like working with the element of time or timelessness within the work. I hope that the viewer may consider when the work was produced, ponder whether it was from thousands of years ago or was more recent. These amphorae are my interpretation of the Roman vessels. Mine have a small, flat bottom to stand upon that I make as small as possible to offer precarious and ethereal qualities, allowing the bellowing body to be the focal point. The Roman vessels had a conical base to aid in transportation on ships, and were used in the trade of wines and oils. Within the current climate, trade has become fragile. Ceramics are also fragile to a point, so there is an interesting link. 

Throughout ceramic history, the vessel has been seen as a metaphor for the body, drawing on connections to necks, shoulders, bums and feet. The works I produce can sit as a collective reflecting on society; as well as standing as sentinels, singularly like guardian figures.

Amphorae were also at times used as grave markers. Are the concepts of time and memory important to the forms you produce? Some of the pieces have names like Revenant or Ethereal Matter or Transition, which seems to feed into the idea of something moving between spaces or realms.  

Ceramics have at times been used in funerary rituals, either to carry the dead or the ashes of the dead, or to store food or wine to help in the afterlife. My previous series of work, Shadows Within, asked questions about the life cycle. There is certainly an element of alchemy in ceramics — the transformation of matter from one state to another through displacement and movement of clay, and then through fire into permanence. The outcome from the fire is unknown, adding to the magic of the process, as some vessels may not make it out of the kiln in one piece, they might die in the process.  

Can you tell me what it’s like to work with clay? What are the processes that you use to create such delicate forms? 

My studio space is very tranquil, which is hopefully projected in the work. I am aiming for clarity of form that results in quiet, calm, reflective, pieces. It’s important in such a hectic world that we are able to surround ourselves with items that allow us to take a breath and an opportunity to pause and reflect.  

Prior to the works going into the kiln, they will sit with me in the studio for weeks, or sometimes months, as they need to dry out completely. However, there is a comfort in this period of time — the works are still intact and present, yet once they go in the kiln and they are given up to the extreme heat, there is always the chance that they may not make it out of the other side. I really enjoy this time with the work. 

I fire with the seasons and the weather. I do two different types of firings at the moment. I either fire with gas or wood. I only do my wood firing in winter as it’s extremely hot — the kilns get up to 1300 degrees. It’s a long process. The wood firing is an ancient method, it has been around since the dawn of time. There is something exciting about seeing the flame licks on the pots. They come out very toasty, ash shoots through and sits on the surface, which becomes very rich. The deep red pieces have been fired in the wood kiln without a glaze, just clay and flame. It’s fabulous.  

In hotter seasons, I tend to work with gas, but again it’s with a flame that I nurse. I sit with it from start to finish, and tweak it, turn it up, a little at a time. It’s not a process where you can leave it and walk away. I am very intimate with the vessels from their conception to the very end when I feel they are complete. Gas firing allows me to create what is called a ‘reduction atmosphere’, which toasts the body of the clay by restricting the oxygen into the kiln.  

I am quite rhythmic and methodical with certain aspects of the process, almost ritualistic in my approach. When I pack the kiln, I will leave the pieces in there overnight before I fire them. I feel they need to get acquainted with their surroundings. I get up early the next morning, while it’s dark and quiet and calm, around 4am. I light the fire or gas flame, then make a cup of tea. I watch the sun come up, the daybreak, and the birds sing as I feed or turn up the heat.  

How would you describe the way your artworks feel to somebody who hasn’t experienced being close to them?  

If you get up close to them, you can see how tactile they are. Internally, if you look down into the top, the maker’s marks are visible — fingerprints, throwing rings (the indentation marks of the fingers). It’s hard to appreciate the surface until you see them in person. They are very haptic. It’s also an experience being with them because of the scale, some of the works are about 850mm high. It’s an interesting encounter to be with them physically. 

Julie Cromwell is a ceramic artist based in Northland, Aotearoa new zealand. In 2019 she completed a Master of Fine Arts at Whitecliffe College of Arts & Design and was the winner of the prestigious Glaister Ennor Graduate Art Awards. She is represented by Sanderson.


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