I’m sitting on the floor of Beatrice’s studio which is covered by a light film of clay dust. I’ve found myself here many times scribbling into a sketch book as the two of us deliberate over big questions surrounding art and faith. Her pottery wheel squeaks and whirs as we talk.
This one’s a wonky, wonky boy.
It is lumpy, why is it doing that?
Ah, because there are bits in the clay that are slightly harder, so where those bits are its lower at the top. I don’t know if this one is saveable but it’s good to warm up with something.
Beatrice is a ceramicist working in Sydney, Australia, where unfired cups and pots line the shelves of her Summer Hill studio. Her series, Pilgrimage, was recently featured in the EXALT showcase and her ceramics can be found at the House of Hyggelig, under the sweet and clever name, ‘Beatrice the Potter’.
Bea throws a slab of clay onto the wheel, splattering grey water all over the studio. We laugh as I ask her about how she began as an artist.
I always loved doing art, but I didn’t think I was very good at it. For a really long time I didn’t consider art as a career choice, not until late high school. In terms of my art education I don’t think I was very exposed to much contemporary art, and when I realised contemporary art didn’t mean you had to be good at realistic painting or drawing, I started to think maybe I should study visual arts. It was from there that I just sort of transitioned to sculpture.
I was just about to say, you started by studying photography; how did you change from that?
In first year we didn’t get to choose what studios we wanted. I was put in sculpture, and I found I had a natural sensitivity with the 3D over the 2D. Which for me was important because I’d always thought I wasn’t skilled enough to be where I was - I am not naturally that good at painting or drawing, I’ve developed those over time, but it doesn’t really come naturally to me - whereas I found making sculptures did. And so, I decided to change my major to sculpture. Though I did still experiment with a bit of textile work and performance art.
There’s a little bit of that in your practice now as well, isn’t there?
Yeah I love performance. I think actions are a real interesting way to convey ideas in a much clearer, more succinct way, so I still incorporate that. Often it’s in conjunction with an object I have made. I discovered sculpture and started doing ceramics in third year which is really late in art school. I think it’s really interesting though, because when I discovered ceramics was when I started figuring out how to incorporate my faith into my art. It was through the process of pursuing perfection in ceramics and wheel throwing art and faith sort of started working together. The process aligned with the process of my sanctification and making an artwork about sanctification was something I was really thinking about at that time - it suddenly made sense to me, that I could use my art to portray my experiences of faith. I find the response from a non-Christian audience is much more positive if you are talking about your experience. I also think it makes better art because it is personal and emotional…
The pottery wheel squeaks as Beatrice’s foot slows, her brow furrowed in concentration, inspecting the plate in her fingers.
…and that’s the type of art that I like to make, almost poetic art.
You’ve kind of got two practices at the moment, you’ve got a functional side of ceramics but then you also have a conceptual practice. Can you explain the differences between those?
The functional side is exactly that, functional ceramics. I make cups, vases, planters, functional objects. I really love the process of making things that people can use because it then becomes involved in their life. I just love pursuing beauty - it’s like pursuing perfection but instead highlighting the non-perfect parts of it.
My conceptual practice is the work that gets exhibited. Its ideas based, conceptual art that usually revolves around my faith. It’s always about my experiences of particular events or ideas. I often reference stories and concepts from history in conjunction with the Bible and they sort of all mish-mash together. It’s always a conjunction of biblical influences along with narrative and historical ideas that sort of combine together.
Before we dive more into your practice, you said you look at your personal experiences of faith through your art, so let’s talk about what faith actually means to you.
I rely on it daily. I think my faith really gives meaning to my life. I am a very existential person and I think a lot about unseen realities and the concept of death. I do believe that there is no way this world could exist without it being created and that we’re not just here randomly. I always believed that even before I found my own faith and so for me it gives a purpose to my life. I know why I was created – to glorify God. I know that God wants to be in a relationship with me and that my purpose now is to glorify him and to spread the word about Jesus. So, it defines everything, I would like to think. I mean I know I’m not perfect, obviously, but it gives shape to everything I do.
You’ve mentioned how you speak about your faith through your work, do you want to elaborate on that? How does your faith influence your practice?
In my work I like to talk about things that are personal and meaningful to me, I don’t think you can really make art about anything else to be honest. It needs to be really important to you for some reason or another and obviously my faith is very important to me; it’s the centre of my life. It just sort of made sense, just sort of… happened.
The first work I made that was very clearly about my faith was very focused on grappling with the idea of faith – things I found hard about it or found difficult to understand. Like sanctification. I was confused about the relationship between who we are and how we live now and so I made the work, Arete, which was about sanctification. I wanted to understand how we are saved but still in progress, still being made perfect. My art helps me understand my faith.
A huge thud shakes the dust as she throws another lump of clay onto the wheel.
I also think it also helps to open people up to things other than what they can see. Talking about my experience is an effective way of starting conversations, rather than explicitly looking to tell the gospel through my art, as people don’t necessarily respond to that. But they respond to you exploring your experience, I’ve found, and if it begins conversations then I think it’s valuable. And you know, hopefully some of those conversations are with me, so that I can explain my faith to them.
Do you find that your art practice has actually influenced your faith at all?
Yeah definitely, it really helped me to see the beauty in God and his focus on aesthetics. He didn’t make the world to be completely utilitarian I guess. He did make things beautiful and that’s something that’s important to Him that we can clearly see through creation. I think that’s just a really beautiful aspect of God; that he’s not just clinical, He loves beauty and He likes to make beautiful things. That’s not something I thought about very much before I started making art.
You’ve recently been working on a series that is functional but has a conceptual side to it, do you want to tell me a bit about that?
Last year I did a research project where I explored the concept of spirit and the material aspects of what we would consider immaterial or spiritual things. The series, Breath, came out of that. In Genesis 2 it talks about how God breathed the breath of life into man and he became a living person. It’s the concept that the spirit which animates us is actually physical, like breath is physical but unseen. It is also just a reminder that we come from God. For me it’s very fitting that my first collection should be a reminder that we are God’s creatures and we have life because He gave it to us. The collection seeks to imitate the physical characteristics of breath. If you think about air; it’s immaterial, wispy, vaporous, and subtle. So, it’s a collection of white pieces that have detailing that is vaporous and wispy, with a mother of pearl glaze; which has an iridescent quality.
It’s a functional work and it’s not really more than that, but I don’t think it needs to be more than that to be important.
Do you think that Christian artists have an onus to talk about faith in their work?
I think that we have a God who creates and the purpose of everything in creation is to point to Him, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a sign that says, “God is real” or “God is good”. We have trees that are beautiful and therefore point to the fact that God is good, so I think Christian artists can pursue other ideas because they’re reshaping what He’s given us to point to him through it. I also think that if you’re exploring social issues or political work, that is also really valuable, because as Christians we’re called to help people who are facing injustice or pain or are in need, and I think that’s also really important. That’s not the way that I approach my work but it’s important definitely.
Beatrice sits back, looks up at me with hands caked in clay and sighs.
I just made another plate for no reason.
I feel like in a way it’s like a teacher. They don’t necessarily have an onus to tell their kids about Jesus.
Legally they’re not allowed to.
Exactly, but they do have an onus to glorify God in the way that they teach. Do you think that’s similar to artists?
Yes, and there’s also just a lot to be said for just being in the art world because it is a very gospel deprived area. Art is usually the leader of culture and our culture is clearly not one that is God centred.
There are a lot of people who don’t know The Lord in the art scene, so if there are Christian artists interacting with those people, having conversations, that’s also valuable because they’re often unreached. Especially because the Christian world often looks at artists with suspicion, and so there are not many of us stepping out there. It’s a very unreached people group.
Wiping clay dust from her hands, Bea passes me a plate.
That one’s a real wonky plate. But that’s alright. You can have that one.
Artist and Curator
Browse and purchase Beatrice’s ceramics at https://www.beatricethepotter.com/