Perhaps it is not so much of a surprise to meet with Emilie Taylor, Sheffield-city-rooted, in the medieval Abbey Barn in Somerset. Location is a signature theme in her ceramics. The young and lounging women who are etched through slip on her vessels may come from Yorkshire housing estates, or they may now come from Glastonbury, which is where we met. Taylor is about to embark on a week of workshops at the Somerset Rural Life Museum.
Photographs of the unfinished vessels she has made for her artist’s residency are fixed to the window of the room used for the sessions. They are deep-sultry-grey. This is a new body for her, “really muddy clay” which appeals for its colour and texture. The works are waiting patiently back in Sheffield for her return. The images and thematic resolutions are not yet fixed. But they are likely to be drawn from her gathering and signature repertoire: themes of modern displacement, antagonism and empowered female life. She may add, given the rural location, imagery of the harvest, balanced with that of food deprivation. These pots may juxtapose bounty, abundance; poverty and lacking. It is the sort of counterpoint that she extols. The vessels have a political job to do, directly pointing out the irony of the food bank set in the place of plenty.
But there may also be a theme of resolute organised joy here, too. For among her visits in Glastonbury, Taylor has seen circle-dancing, and admired its precision, energy and accuracy. This too is a counterpoint to the stillness of the work in progress.
Taylor is not a stranger to Glastonbury. But her previous visits have been as a festival-goer. She has gone out of her way in this project, organised by the enterprising Somerset Art Works, and with the curatorial guidance of Deirdre Figueiredo, to talk first to local groups, and these conversations have set her themes solidly in the place of the residency. They are gathered themes, not imposed on the project. She has found her imagery from the circle dancing group, the volunteers at a food bank, at a lunch for the homeless in Glastonbury. The six large vessels that will form the major output of the residency will have derived from conversations in places fraught with human kindness, social obligation and need.
As these vessels will be placed carefully in the Abbey Barn, with its coursing high roof and rafters, its soaring stone walls and spiritual ascendings, the vessels will have to be as large as she can possibly make them. This is not a place for a faint-hearted pot.
Taylor is also looking back to local ceramic history for her inspiration. In the exhibition gallery of the museum there is a wonderful collection of slipware. The foundation works here are those from the Somerset Donyatt Pottery. These lively domestic wares – cups, jugs, bowls for the kitchen table- are joined by a pleasingly functional bacon-drainer. They span centuries of common working and obligation. Many are inscribed with mottoes or speedily-drawn images of rural life. They are pots made locally and used locally, rooted in place, with scenes of the daily round. They are vernacular, unpretentious, fit for purpose, and altogether cheerful in disposition. They are joined in the exhibition by contemporary slipwares from the studio pottery context: the line of making that shows a deep tap root. There is a rhythmically-marked work by Dylan Bowen and a fine piece by Philip Elgin, who both regard tradition as a means renewal and vitality. Taylor’s task is to think about the Donyatt Pottery as a precursor to her own. The Somerset wares add a grounding perspective to the narrative of place that she is investigating. The museum as well as the local conversations offer her the research methods for her creative thinking and her technical experimentation.
Taylor has not only experimented with a new clay body. This is a site of even further risk. She wants to respond to the fluid line of Donyatt, its swooping and dancing, its vigour and confidence, with a new looseness in her own line. She wants to build into the markings of her new vessels a freedom as well as a relevant and topical imagery. These new pots have to respect the stories of Glastonbury and the ceramic forebearers with an explicit energy. They have to find a narrative that is honest to this site; honest to its strifes and experiences. She doesn’t want this to follow a ley line or encroach into “wicker man territory”. She will find an eco-feminism to put paid to any hint of rural nostalgia or false reverence for the setting of the works. She knows that the vessels, with their blackened-cranked clay must say something specific, honest and telling about the place in which they are first to be seen. The pots have to record the food bank and reflect the sanctified ground of the barn. They have to acknowledge what happens in contemporary Glastonbury and reside in the resonant Abbey-room with its embedded prayers and religious observances. The women who will dance around her pots will do so, I imagine, fierce-drawn and yearningly-felt. They will be Somerset women form Yorkshire. Taylor’s new slipwares will be Sheffield via Donyatt. They will be heritaged and contemporary, at one and the same time.
When the brief for this residency was publicized, Taylor felt instinctively that it may have been written just for her, so perfectly did the brief describe “what it is that I am doing”. She also felt that it would establish circumstances that would enable her to test out her practice and set her the challenge to move it forwards: to shift a gear upwards and to take some risks. The Taylor who placed work with the iconography of the council estate in the lake-side tranquility of the arts and crafts rooms of Blackwell in 2015 may be seen as a ceramic rebel. She is no less passionate and socially-engaged today, but the intensity of her work has been tempered by the needs of her young child. Taylor wants to respond to these new responsibilities and find a way of accommodating them, of looking at the world from where she is now.
Her new vessels will tell us something about her as an artist as well as something about Glastonbury and storied ceramic history. They will be responsible guardians of the barn, messaging rural reality, offering through her own imagined female characters a folkloric and contemporary narrative. She says that she contemplated calling the exhibition ‘May Day May Day’ with its dual meanings of workers holiday and crisis. Her vessels may themselves dance between opposites: from 17th century Donyatt domestic ware to the starkly contemporary vessel; from Glastonbury as a site of all consuming dance and music to the place where food poverty has taken hold. A place of myth, prayer, dreams and etched-anxiety.
The abbey barn will be a place to host and rest all of these juxtapositions and tensions, expressed on the surface of these commanding vessels with intensity of emotion. They are harvest pots for dispossession as well as the giddy dance of Glastonbury.
Kindly written by Professor Simon Olding – Director, Crafts Study Centre, University for the Creative Arts
Published on August 6, 2019 // Sarah Adey