Ceramics in Lockdown: An interview with Christie Brown

Can you tell us a bit about who you are and what you do?

I am an artist and academic. I’ve been a practicing artist since the 80s and I’m an Emerita professor at the University of Westminster. I make sculpture and I’m involved with the ceramics research centre at Westminster, and this ties in with my art practice.

Have you been making art during lockdown?

Yes, I’ve been doing quite a lot of work but not at full pace. Lockdown’s given me reflective time which is very important for creative practice. I’ve been able to explore ideas for several weeks only to find I’m going down a dead end. But you just retrace your steps and rethink. It’s also given me quite a lot of new ideas. I’ve had the time to revisit detailed sketchbook journals and pick up on elements of life drawing to understand what’s important to me for the next body of work. At the moment I’m searching for new forms and the relationship between 2D and 3D. I’m redrawing old drawings and remaking some small pieces in different materials. Once you’re doing it other things happen, so you do have to listen to what the work tells you as things happen unexpectedly. I am lucky as I have a studio at home and a garden, I am very conscious of that.

Sleepover, Freud Museum, 2013, ceramic. Image by Philip Sayer.

Much of your work explores the themes of community, togetherness and relationships. Have you missed physically exhibiting and being part of an art community? Have you taken to online platforms to connect with other artists? 

The long process of making means there are long studio periods between exhibitions and projects, so lockdown isn’t hugely different to my general pace. I do use social media a little, I love Instagram as it keeps me in touch with what other people are doing in my field. I do miss networking in person but I have been using Zoom with colleagues. Zoom has been a wonderful way of keeping dialogues running. I’ve got a 3-day event with a group that I work with occasionally who I usually meet abroad to talk about philosophy and art; we were meant to be in Berlin this year so we’re doing that online.

OMG (detail) 2019, ceramic

Cultural Icons, 2019, ceramic. Image by Leila Vilarrubi.
OMG, 2019, ceramic. Image by Leila Vilarrubi.

What kind of collaborative and community projects and exhibitions have you been part of? Will you make this an essential part of your next body of work?

A lot of my collaborations in the past have been with museum collections. My Cultural Icons project formed part of an exhibition by the British Ceramics Biennial (BCB) 2019. We responded to 18th century Staffordshire figurines found at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent. Part of the exhibition was a four-month community workshop in which flat back figures were made. As Stoke-On-Trent has suffered from the decline of the pottery industry, it was a vital community project. The factories that produced the figurines were crucial in employing the people of those towns. The exhibition was about connecting current communities to their heritage and descendants who were very skilled makers. It was a wonderful project as it gave the community purpose and they loved being part of a big exhibition. My three-way project with the V&A Museum of Childhood Dream On was also collaborative. I made ceramic dolls and toys that explored the museum after hours. I think dolls, puppets, statues and figures have a life of their own and I like the idea that they come to life when you leave the studio or museum. That idea is also directly related to when you fall asleep. The exhibition included students of CAMHS Campus School Springfield Hospital creating wild creatures based on the museum’s inhabitants, which I hope had some long-term therapeutic value. Year 5 children from Lauriston Primary School Hackney also created photographs based on their own dreams. 

I can’t specifically say whether my next work will be collaborative. Projects with museums crop up every year or two as a result of conversations with people. Alongside that I have a practice that is thematic, so I work in series. It’s about a mixture of putting the art out there and collaborating but also having it in a more commercial setting. If another opportunity comes along through conversations then something may grow out of that. 

Caroline and Godfrey visit the Farm, V&A, 2018, ceramic. Image by Sylvain Deleu.
Caroline and Godfrey go to School, V&A, detail, 2018, ceramic. Image by Sylvain Deleu.

In her isolated years at her Berlin cottage during the Second World War, German Dadaist Hannah Höch found expression through her garden. The garden is now a place of solace for so many. Like Höch, have you been spending more time in nature and if so has this been artistically inspiring?

I’ve definitely spent a lot of time in the garden. I grew up in the country and I increasingly yearn for nature. The garden is a place of solace for my soul and a great comfort, but it doesn’t directly influence my art. I’ve used the animal world a lot in my art but my work is more to do with the inner world than nature. I’m thinking all the time about the world of the imagination and subconscious. I hope my work allows people to connect to their inner world and find a greater degree of self-knowledge and awareness. 

We’ve mistreated nature greatly and we’re paying the price now. We forget that we are part of nature. We have an opportunity to try and come out of this global pandemic in a more ecological way. 

Given the enforced intensity of isolation and that Carl Jung has a major influence on your art, have you felt more connected to your subconscious during lockdown? Has that been reflected in your art or ideas for future work? 

I’ve certainly have been dreaming vividly during lockdown, as many people have. Unfortunately, I don’t remember my dreams like I used to. Carl Jung is an influence on my life in general, I started to read him in my late 20’s and I was very taken with his idea of the archetype and the collective unconscious that connects all the world. I love the way he explored different religions and rituals and found connections. That has been my overriding influence, its deeply buried in the background of my life. The thing about art practice is that in several months I may realise that dreams are influencing my work. You always have to listen to what the work tells you, and sometimes the work doesn’t tell you what it is until later on. Hopefully my work allows people to connect with their unconscious, dreams and the Jungian idea of archetypes. 

We love the strong narratives to your work. Lockdown will be a story we tell that weaves together elements of chaos, solitude and struggle. Would you consider using lockdown as a theme for a future body of work?

I wouldn’t say I would be specifically responding to lockdown but the body of work that does emerge will have been developed during lockdown. It could be by then that I look back and think that lockdown influenced it. I do love story-telling and the archaeology myth around psychoanalysis. I like the idea of narratives as you don’t know where they begin and end. The 2D and 3D relationship that I’m exploring connects to theatre and story-telling, with the idea to create tableau and groups of figures with backdrops. The tableau would be like a theatre, a theatre of life. We’re all isolated yet part of the collective, that’s something that I always work with. If we can learn more about ourselves then we might function better in the collective. 

Sleepover, Spode China Hall, 2012, ceramic. Image by Joel Chester Fildes.
Sleepover (detail), Spode China Hall 2012, ceramic. Image by Joel Chester Fildes.

Words: Christie Brown and Leila Vilarrubi

About: Leila Vilarrubi is a recent Queen Mary University History BA graduate with an interest in social and art history. She is particularly interested in feminist art and overlooked, marginalised makers. Her main research has centred around German artists Käthe Kollwitz, Hannah Höch and Charlotte Salomon. She enjoys historical research, writing, interviewing and hopes to preserve stories for future generations. Prior to her degree, she studied textiles and an Art Foundation course in Brighton. She is hugely passionate about art, design and textiles and makes many of her own products. She volunteers at an art gallery in London and aims to pursue a career in the arts sector. 

About: Christie Brown’s figurative practice is informed by an interest in our relationship with objects and the significance and relevance of museum collections and archaic artefacts to contemporary art. Archaeology presents a fragmented narrative of past lives and holds parallels with the practice of psychoanalysis where layers are carefully stripped away to reveal hidden information. Her work references these archaic traces as well as the mythology, narrative and symbolism associated with clay and its relationship with other materials such as wax, bronze and plaster. She often presents her work through site or theme-specificity and her making method of press-moulding allows her to explore the nature of repetition though installation and series.