The Uncertainty of Fragility

An Interview with Fenella Elms

Born in 1964 it is not until she turned 40 that Fenella Elms’s actively started modelling dreams on potter’s wheel. She was working as an Occupational Therapist for National Health Services then and found it befitting to create structures and patterns using ceramics as a medium. A recipient of Ceramic Review Award for Exceptional, Innovative and Challenging work at Ceramic Art London, Royal College of Art in 2011 Fenella’s work is a narration in ‘fragile permanence’.

Your journey into ceramics might have had influences of Cathy Fleckenstein and Rafa Perez however the moods you explore through your work have been unique. How did you first start experimenting with the intricate flowing structures and the fragility along with permanence as a theme?

Sculpture by Fenella Elms

I started making textural pictures, particularly plants, insects and animals around me (we keep/have kept bees, sheep, cattle, horses, ducks). I used to pour clay over sheep wool and press clay into their horns, for example, but put them together into a figurative composition. They sometimes worked but the details were most pleasing to me. The shift to abstraction came, surprisingly, after a visit to India. I have always been fascinated by elephants and, after the trip, saw that my photos were very close–up, of different areas of skin. I wanted to make a picture, but could not make it figurative and include the textural detail unless it was huge! After much thinking and playing, I decided to just concentrate on the skin – different areas indicated the job of that part of the body – the trunk deeply wrinkled for movement, the elbow stretched and worn, the ears veined and freckled, etc. I ended up with a very macabre selection of slabs of skin in clay, but it is probably more intimate than any picture would be.

Many friends and old customers frequently say that they wish I still made pictures of animals, but the process showed me how inner life impetus and structure tells a story on the outside. I enjoy making work that allows the experience of the beholder to come to life. I have people insist that I must have fished carp, am obviously a dahlia enthusiast, must like playing with mathematical formulas, or that they are repulsed by the reminder of a floor of cockroaches: the list of experiences never ceases to amaze me and they are surprised to hear that they are not my experiences, only theirs.

You refer to fragility; I like the uncertainty of fragility.

All through your career as a psychoanalyst you have been associated with work that has great scientific and social value. But the art is more relevant to your artistic self besides giving pleasure to the observers. How does this shift feel? Is it more spiritually fulfilling?

My art work would not be anything without my growth through past experiences, particularly in the NHS (our national health service) but I mourn the passing of mental health services in the NHS. When I moved out of London to Wiltshire, the decline in services was immediately obvious – outside London most mental health services are run by charities: I know many experienced and talented professionals who have gradually left and not been replaced: it is a great tragedy to our country. I worked outside London for 10 years before slowly withdrawing as the ceramics took off; I miss it and only feel sad about the loss of excellent teams and services that I was proud to be a part of.

You value the minor scars, blemishes, spots, cracks etc that is part of the whole process of narrative. Yet you are also a perfectionist when it comes to preserving the intricacy of the work. How do you balance and harmonise these two seemingly opposite thought processes? On a lighter note, have any of your errors, small or big, eventually resulted in a more appealing work of art than originally planned?

I wince at ‘perfectionist’! Certainly I don’t like complacency and continually strive to improve and develop, but if something is perfect it can’t be improved and, magically, things can only be ‘perfect’ when they are often imperfect technically but meaningful emotionally. It’s finding that illusive place beyond technical perfection.

Yes, I have masses of mistakes. The only way to survive the wave of disappointments is to realise that they are a necessary step along the way to the successes. I spend most of my time thinking, a lot of my time making experiments and a little of my time making things that get out into the world. There is a wonderful new ceramics department at the Victoria and Albert museum and I love the exhibit of a crashed pile of plates from Delft, 100’s of years old; the shelves collapsed in the firing and thank goodness they didn’t throw it away because it makes a fascinating sculpture.

I am loving the new challenges of collaborating with others: I like that many components make something together, different to the parts, and that similarly collaborations go to new places.

Sculpture by Fenella Elms

The wall hangings are not only created with great detail but some of them have this feathery form that it seems to be soft if touched. Has it ever surprised you that you are able to express such delicacy and softness with material like clay or porcelain?

Yes; the softness in appearance is a delight to me. I like the appeal this gives – to want to touch, to be confused; I like to break the tyranny of certainty! I consider work successful if it makes me want to look again, investigate my initial reading. I like this – same work, same light, just different angles.

I once read a poem of Semyon Kirsanov that I immediately recollected as I saw your work. It reads thus,

‘For that globe was just perfect / No more and no less / And the potter was happy / At such a success.
Through distant mists shining / On the planet he smiled / Then gave it to Man / Saying: “Take it, my child!
Take care not to break it / For surely, I feel / I’ll never repeat it / On my potter’s wheel!”’

What special feeling does it stir in you when you view your own creation?

I am touched by your thinking of Kirsanov’s poem; I read the perfect globe as reaching that illusive place. There’s something about the rhythm of throwing that can slide the potter into subconscious working; the more you strive the worse it becomes. Throwing really helped me to understand that the finished piece can be joyous or yuck with the slightest nuance of movement, even though there is nothing wrong with either.

I enjoy making work that allows the experience of the beholder to come to life.
Portrait of Fenella Elms

Fenella Elms…

Being born in an itinerant army family Fenella has been to eight different schools around the world as a child. This and later her experience gathered as a psychoanalyst have left an indelible mark on her mind.

Find more of her work at http://www.fenellaelms.com/

Image Courtesy: Fenella Elms