Clare Twomey - Why I Create

Exploring the inspirations and attitudes of artists working with clay and ceramic, featured in Vitamin C
Clare Twomey photo by Trent McMinn
Clare Twomey photo by Trent McMinn

For Clare Twomey, clay is a material ‘deeply embedded in human existence’ that has enabled communities of yesteryear to perform the ritual functions of drinking, storing, carrying and sharing precious contents. Today, that familiarity extends to the mass-produced: most of us have purchased, touched or broken kitchen tiles, museum shop trinkets and commemorative coffee mugs. Clay, then, is a democratic material, a fact Twomey exploits by staging viewers’ direct encounter with it to prompt rumination on such social and cultural processes as exchange, consumption, memory, preservation and desire. Here, the Vitamin C: Clay and Ceramic in Contemporary Art featured artist tells us why she works in the medium, what particular challenges it holds for her and who she thinks always gets it right.

Who are you and what’s your relationship to clay and ceramics? I am artist. I have been an artist from the moment I can remember, when I found my way to art school it was great to have that validated as a real place in the world. Clay was part of that journey, working with many materials is what artists do, explore, fail, fly and try again. Clay was a material at art school that was all about material possibility, endless possibilities. I am still exploring what clay can bring, communicate, be. 


Manifest: 10,000 hours, 2015 Installation view, York Art Gallery, UK - Clare Twomey - photo York Art Gallery
Manifest: 10,000 hours, 2015 Installation view, York Art Gallery, UK - Clare Twomey - photo York Art Gallery

Why do you think there’s an increased interest around clay and ceramics right now? Clay right now is about being at the centre of things you can mould, be part of. Clay as a material is known to us all, domestic, architectural, social - all of these things are now of importance. Clay has a strong relationship to touch or implied touch this being a direct route to expressive languages and control. There has been an explosion of small to medium sized maker spaces arriving for clay, from 1-hour access desks to short courses. This availability and common language of touch is making clay the go to material to access things other than digital.

Clay has in its history the potential to transform, not only material but engagement with others and yourself in a reciprocal dialogue with material. I think we are craving that material relationship. Clay can include you in that without the assistance of teams of producers to make it happen. 


Monument, 2009 Found ceramics Installation view, mima Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, UK - Clare Twomey - photo Dan Prince
Monument, 2009 Found ceramics Installation view, mima Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, UK - Clare Twomey - photo Dan Prince

Ceramics is sometimes regarded as decorative, rather than fine arts. Does the distinction bother or annoy you? The terms of ceramics are broad and they all have people and hard won practice at the root of them, this debate of terminology of identity is understandable. You work hard for a thing you believe in, you want to make sure it has a place in the future; great, but I don’t buy into the oppositional stances placed before this material as a motivation for my practice. Surely the role of the artist is to explore and expand the world not to reduce it to a fixed position. As an artist I can offer challenge and demand from the times in which I work through the art works I make. The distinctions for the works I undertake are about reach, depth and purpose.

It might be that the terms of decorative or fine might be useful platforms for all kinds of artists to feel they have a clear idea of identity, that must be celebrated. In real terms do these terms give leverage to the art made with clay? They might, these terms may well be part of the assertions that make the artwork truly radical, but it will be the artwork that does that work - not the rhetoric. For others who use clay I know this question would be answered differently but for me the thing you are making is central.

Forever, 2010 Installation view, Nelson Atkins Museum, Kansas City, Missouri - Clare Twomey - photo Clare Twomey Studio
Forever, 2010 Installation view, Nelson Atkins Museum, Kansas City, Missouri - Clare Twomey - photo Clare Twomey Studio

Whose work in this field do you admire? Picasso and Josiah Wedgewood, both luminaries of their times, both of them endlessly productive, eager to learn to do more. Nearly every museum in the world either has, had or will soon have a Picasso plate or bowl in its collection or on display. The back of the plate displayed as equal to the front. How amazing, Picasso the artist who spoke of the truths of war to the humble plate has openly shouted out loud - my hand is your hand - in this common material and its utilitarian role I will join you. In many ways the huge amounts of clay material tests in the Wedgwood archive tell a story of a man and his battle with material. In that archive there is a real sense of Josiah wanting to solve a problem. His use of industrialized clay making became the income to many and the skills of many. He provided housing and stabilized community for hundreds of workers. Josiah Wedgwood in his role in the Lunar Society that sought change, good change for society also addressed the difficult issues of the industry. 

There is also a stack of plates made by Liam Gillick. They were made in Albisola in Italy - the home of the futurists and clay artisans. The plates were made while Liam Gillick was at home in NYC and the artisans of Italy used their heritage skills to respond and deliver Liam's vision. The plates are sharp well designed, they fit well together in a stack and when you encounter them they do not speak of the world of hard edge design they speak of the rich surfaces of clay and the depth of centuries of knowledge delivered in this contemporary work. The reason I love this work is it makes me curious, it makes me hopeful and the richness is sublime.

What are the hardest things for you to get ‘right’ and what are your unique challenges? My unique challenge is the large scale nature of the work that I choose to make, this can only be truly addressed in its place of display. A lot of time is given over to trailing the ideas and the materials to ensure when I install the work it does really deliver the ideas I have been working with. I work in an amazing space near the Thames Barrier in London but it never really prepares you for the reality of the place where the work will be delivered. Even though I spend a great deal of time and experience working on this there is always a challenge a surprise to consider during installation.


Vitamin C

What part does the vulnerability of the material play in things? Is it an attraction or a distraction? Vulnerability and transitional ideas are key to a great deal of the work that I make. Impermanent is powerful and it is a key part of many of my narratives around the time based, action based works. It is this sense of experience rather than harnessed permanence that allows me to approach difficult subject areas and allows others to be open to those ideas through artworks.

Is how you display a piece an important element of the work itself? Do you ever suggest how something might be displayed? It is important, many of the works being site-specific lend themselves to those conversations. The collectors who have taken ownership of the works I have made are really excited about our dialogue of display. I think part of the invitation to live with the art is to know it and how it might take on a personal role in a collection. 

What’s next for you, and what’s next for ceramics? Next for me is Factory: The Seen And The Unseen, my ceramics factory at Tate Modern which opens on September 28. In the factory you will be invited to join the production line where you can use the skills of clay production to make objects. The factory examines skills and labour, it examines the terms in which we form exchanges at work, with ourselves, and with others.

Clay and ceramics have in recent years been elevated from craft to high art material, with the resulting artworks being coveted by collectors and exhibited in museums around the world. Vitamin C: Clay and Ceramic in Contemporary Art celebrates the revival of clay as a material for contemporary artists, featuring a wide range of global talent selected by the world's leading curators, critics, and art professionals. Packed with illustrations, it's a vibrant and incredibly timely survey - the first of its kind. Buy Vitamin C here. And if you're quick, you can snap up work by some of the artists in it at Artspace here.

You May Also Like



Phaidon is the premier global publisher of the creative arts with over 1,500 titles in print. We work with the world's most influential artists, chefs, writers and thinkers to produce innovative books on art, photography, design, architecture, fashion, food and travel, and illustrated books for children. Phaidon is headquartered in London and New York City.
Read more