Nuala O’Donovan Ceramic Art: Visible In Patterns

A Conversation with the Ceramic Sculptor

Teasel Standing, Sculpture by Nuala O'Donovan

Nuala O’Donovan delved into the mystical world of patterns and geometry found herself merrily lost among the treasures of ceramic art. Her knowledge of three-dimensional design helped her differentiate between the everlasting and the ephemeral.

She chose nature as her teacher. Every now then she creates ceramic sculptures inspired by the elements of nature and tinted with the sparkles of her own imagination. She leaves her audience gazing at those beautiful creations in sheer amazement.

Galileo Galilei in The Assayer (Il Saggiatore) wrote that ‘(The universe) is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures.’ Nuala’s sculptures are apt reproductions directly from the pages of that macrocosmic book.

Perhaps it is not surprising that you turn to nature for drawing inspirations for your work, nature, after all, is the greatest innovator. But the elements you look into, for example, fractals, and infuse them into your ceramic sculptures are quite unique. Tell us something about your love of fractals and geometric shapes inspired by nature.

My work combines regular geometry and pattern with the characteristics of irregular patterns and forms from nature.

I try to convey the energy of living forms in my work. All living organisms have a pre-determined form because of their genetics / DNA but it is the life that causes the variations in the form. The form that I refer to is both physical and psychological.

I suppose it is the evolution of the living form that really interests me and the evidence of the events of the life lived which leave their marks.

I use regular or classical geometry as a set of constraints when making decisions about the overall proportions of the piece, this refers to the idea of a predetermined form. The patterns that I use as a starting point are usually from forms that would be classified as ‘regular’ and can be used as examples to illustrate the principles of classical geometry. The introduction of the principles of Fractal geometry into the pattern is an attempt by me to replicate the principle of a ‘response to random events’ within the piece. The pattern and form are a record of the ‘life’ of the piece while it is being made, but the ‘life’ of an artwork continues beyond the artist’s studio. It is re-contextualised in exhibitions, private collections, and like all objects carry the marks of its owners as well as the maker.

Coral Surface and Structure, Sculpture by Nuala O’Donovan
Coral Surface and Structure

How do you research for your projects that stem from such wide range of inspirations from Banksia plant to the animal phylum of Radiolaria? Is the thematic selection based more on spontaneity than careful choice?

The starting points for all of my projects are three-dimensional patterns in natural forms. The patterns have a function and are part of the structure of the natural form. All patterns in nature are functional and that’s a very attractive trait for me when I am choosing a pattern to experiment with; the purpose of a pattern or form.

What I do with the patterns is take them apart, either physically or through analytical drawings, and re-assemble them using the principles of fractal geometry.

So the answer would be careful choice.

Did the experience, both culturally and environmentally, you gathered through your travels worldwide help in any way in the evolution of your art? You also completed a full circle in one way when you returned to Cork City after spending quite some time outside Ireland. How big an influence Cork City has been in the making up of the artist in you?

Travel challenges me to look at everything with fresh eyes. One can never assume when one is in a new place or culture. It may be only small differences but they are often important and they make you think about everything that you see and do.

When I travelled to Australia particularly I was amazed by the flora, this is not the aspect of the Southern hemisphere that’s publicised so much. I had never taken very much notice of natural forms before then and art based on nature hadn’t interested me, probably because the forms were so familiar. The plants were so unfamiliar, perfectly adapted to their environment and weather cycles that to me they were almost abstractions of plants, minimized to be purely functional forms. It was their functionality and strangeness that interested me. It prompted me to look again at the plants that I would have considered familiar. Everything is different when you look closely.

I don’t think that location has very much influence on what I do, but having time does. I live in a small and very accessible city, which means less time used up in commuting etc. It’s a port and has always been very outward looking because of that, I think living near the openness of the sea influences me but I don’t know how.

Teasel Grey Faultline, Sculpture by Nuala O’Donovan
Teasel Grey Faultline

Is there a project that created a greater amount of obstacles for you than usual and thus on completion has also given you greater satisfaction?

I find that pieces that present the most challenges take a longer time – in particular trying to find a solution to the problems – are the pieces that turn out to be the most interesting. Maybe because they demand more time and I end up ‘living’ with them for a couple of years before they are resolved.

You have extensively researched with ceramics and expressed the beauty of patterns and geometry found in nature through that. Has there been any other form of art that also captured your imagination?

I’m really interested in and enthusiastic about most materials. I love working with glass and metal in particular, they were the materials that I started in. Each material dictates it’s own way of working and suits different forms. I like working in porcelain because of the infinite possibilities of the forms and the seductive qualities of the finished material, even when unglazed. It changes with the quality of light, just as cast glass does. Porcelain is also a very quiet material to work with so working with it is almost like a meditative process. It gives you time to think.

Apart from ‘Radiolaria’ where you used colour to separate the internal complexity from external intricacy most of your work has been monochromatic. Have you consciously shunned experimenting with colour and focused more on the form?

Form was such a challenge that I decided to work in one colour. Colour separates the form and distracts from it, people perceive colour in different ways and bring their own preferences so I felt that it would be too distracting. I have used colour in some of the pieces in order to provide a focus for the viewer rather than separating the form. Colour also changes the qualities of the material. I have made some work in stained black porcelain but it looked more like a metal piece rather than porcelain. That was interesting in itself.

Not only have you dared to venture outside the common realm of functional everyday forms most of the ceramic artists satisfy themselves to, you have ventured into patterns that are even irregular in nature. What would be your suggestion to young learners from any walk of life to think ingenuously and continue doing so even when they grow up?

I think that you have to follow the ideas that really interest you. I am interested in pattern and form and found a material that suited what I wanted to achieve. I wasn’t influenced or particularly concerned with what other people had done unless it was something that I could learn from. The most difficult thing for me was deciding what I really wanted to do. Being honest with yourself is the most important thing.

Peoples’ priorities change as they move through life, social / career / financial. Most people will change careers two or three times at least. Sometimes I worked in jobs that I didn’t enjoy but I think that I learned something from every experience. I feel very privileged that I work now in a career that I really enjoy, it’s important to keep looking and learning.

Radiolaria Grid, Sculpture by Nuala O’DonovanRadiolaria Grid, Sculpture by Nuala O’Donovan
Radiolaria Grid

How would you define your work which for us is an ode to nature as you capture the poetry of the earth painstakingly and successfully?

My decision to research patterns and forms from nature stemmed from my interest in the narrative quality of irregularities in patterns. I don’t find perfection interesting, the history of a scarred or broken surface is what fascinates me. The evidence of a response to random events visible in patterns in nature is the testament to the ability of the living organisms to recover, to respond, and to continue growing and changing. It is the imperfections in the patterns caused by a unique experience that are evidence of the life force in living organisms.

Portrait of Nuala O’Donovan

Nuala O’Donovan

Nuala is from Cork City, Ireland and has completed a BA in Three Dimensional Design at Middlesex University, UK in 1994. In 2008, she received an MA in Ceramics from Crawford College of Art and Design, Cork.

Nuala loves studying Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, On Growth and Form by D’arcy Wentworth Thompson, anything by Margaret Atwood, Annie Proulx and loves listening to Johan Johannsson, Bach, 70s Disco, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Elbow, Christy Moore, Ella Fitzgerald, specifically Adele and Snowpatrol at the moment. Her holidays are best spent in Italy. She finds herself blissfully happy over a good portion of cake and chocolates after a sumptuous meal with mouthwatering dishes of fish.

Find more of her work at her website.

Image Courtesy: Nuala O’Donovan