In a move that blends traditional craft with modern technology the ceramicist Caroline Cole has created her first moulds using a 3D printer. It excitingly enables her to create a sharper and more precise structure that complements the perplexing symmetry of her intriguing and at times optically baffling vases and bowls. This new phase in Caroline’s practice has developed through an organic and personal creative progression. It stems from an early introduction to the craft balanced with a career in architecture and design.
Caroline is largely self-taught and stems from an interest in ceramics that was first encouraged many years ago at school. Caroline went to a North London collegiate school, the highlight of which was being able to escape to the art department that was run by Moy Keightley, who also taught at Central School of Art (now known as Central St Martins). In addition, Caroline was privileged to be taught by Ewen Henderson, and inspired through family friends Lucie Rie and Robin Welch. Despite wanting to go to art school she actually gained a place at University of Cambridge and conceded to her parents’ encouragement to study architecture. After graduation she found herself immersed into the world of architecture and the idea of doing art or ceramics faded.
This wasn’t the end of the story though. Within architecture she found she more often than not ended up taking on an organising role. This didn’t feed her desire for creativity so she would move offices hoping to find the right balance and to design. But, inevitably she would end up organising again until it occurred to her that it was her problem and not the problem of the architecture world. This realisation was the first step for Caroline to creatively redefine her career and ultimately saw the launch of her consultancy business Colander Associates Ltd.
Despite the continued success of her business, which is still going strong today, there was always a deep down need to be more practically creative. This continued to build and in 2007 she actively considered doing pottery again. She bought a 5 kilo bag of clay, sat in her office and produced a coil pot, similar to those she created back at school. Her children’s school fired it in their kiln for her and it worked so well that she gave it to her parents. They were surprised and delighted as they were not aware she had begun to create again. So much so that she received her first kiln as a gift from her father before he sadly died. From that moment on there was no looking back.
This rediscovered passion truly supported her creative needs and desires. It was exactly what she had been craving for, a new balance between her own personal creativity and the ‘career’. Interestingly Caroline’s career has synergy with her creative practice. Apart from the obvious architectural and engineering influences within her artworks there is a confidence and method in how Caroline creates that reflects the respect and skill she develops within her professional career. Not all artists are like this, it is interesting to find an artist who is as comfortable with a spreadsheet as they are with clay in their hands. Bucking the stereotype of an artist which in this day and age is essential. It is reflective of today’s society and the balance most artists must find within their worlds and art.
Caroline creates ‘pots’ and these pots are rarely functional. She can only produce a few a year as the patterns are so intricate and as they follow a strict mathematical formula they each take rather a long time to complete. She does get teased by friends for the fact she calls her elaborate non-functional vases and decorative art pieces ‘pots’. But for her it is all about the mixing of colour, pattern and texture ensuring the final aesthetic can stand alone rather than them needing a further label or function. But it is not just about the shape and patterns, there are other illusions and counter balances that are not initially obvious about her pots. Firstly they look so strong and solid yet are surprisingly very light and delicate. And the final, unique quirk about Caroline’s pots is that some have a Yin to their Yang: they have often been created as pairs and with ‘inverted colours’. One would be seen as the positive or host a specific colour whilst the partner piece would mirror in negative or inverted colouring. The result being that if someone buys one then, for Caroline, it is important that they have the other so they stay together. So much so that on one occasion Caroline was compelled to give the second pot to the buyer under the pretence of it being a gift for his sixtieth birthday as she couldn’t bear the fact they weren’t together.
The optical illusions Caroline creates are unique and it’s interesting to hear her thoughts on why and how these shapes and patterns are created and what is behind the alternative and challenging patterns that make them so effective. “It’s weird because I also have a potter’s wheel but I hardly use it. Symmetrical shapes are not what I am interested in. That’s why shapes like the oval are so interesting. If you start to link various ovals for example they automatically provide an asymmetrical form which is in itself interesting. By then applying a rigorous mathematical pattern onto the form you suddenly get the optical illusion and intriguing lines and patterns become a reality. I don’t just conjure up these patterns. They follow a set mathematical formula and that is as important as the original shape. The patterns are, for example, only painted by colours generated by prime numbers.”
So the way the colours appear are purely in response to the mathematics that is applied and it is this process to pattern that excites Caroline. She is very puritanical about her patterns. If, for example during the primary numbers exercise, she had put a wrong colour in the pattern then she would have had to start from scratch with a new pot. The process has to absolutely follow the pattern which, despite Caroline admitting may be a little bit anal, does offer a depth and rigour to her craft that is admirable and inspirational.
There is a certain tonal colour palette through all of her pieces. Caroline initially thought that she would be painting in muted, gentle and soft colour tones and was pleasantly surprised when bright and vibrant colours appeared. What Caroline also loves about painting ceramics is that you don’t really know what the final colour will be as the paint colour during application is completely different to after it has been fired. This mystery of creation is what entices Caroline and despite the rigorous process of development it just shows you can’t totally control the whole process. Despite this she is still fixated on the colour needing to be a good solid colour, therefore if a piece comes out and it is a little “wishy washy” then she always reapplies. This often means that most of her works are fired five or six times. This solidity and strength is important.
There is a charm to Caroline’s work in that they can stand alone without being explained, she is offering something to the viewer that does not dictate an emotive objectivity. The logic to her work comes from the balance between art and science and whereas sculpture often lends itself to having a structural formula, for a ceramicist it is unusual. It is obviously a family trait as Caroline’s sister is Sophie Arup, a collage and sculptural artist whose work has definite synergy with Caroline’s. Sophie’s work is also very repetitive, mathematical and structured and Caroline has found that they are often exploring similar paths at the same time despite working in different mediums and unbeknownst to the other.
Sophie works part time as an engineer and dedicates as much time as she can to her practice. Two years ago they decided to partner for an exhibition titled ‘Sisters’. It was a huge success and Caroline felt hosting an exhibition independently was especially rewarding and provided confidence in her own creative practice. There is no denying that ceramics are ‘en vogue’ at the moment. Grayson Perry for example has particularly helped provide an alternative perception to viewing a ceramicist as a fine artist. Caroline loves Grayson’s ceramics as each one has a strong story and although very different to her own work she hugely respects that there is an explanation to each piece and a social commentary. It is interesting that despite her own work having no social commentary, she does have a strong social indignity about aspects of the world and life. Her art works though have always stood alone as an aesthetic object – the only conversation with the viewer being the maths and the pattern. No dictation to an audience on how they should live or respond to life, instead a simple and generous invitation to purely embrace the aesthetic.
So what’s next? Caroline is looking forward to developing and firing new ‘pots’ made with her 3D moulds. She is intrigued to explore whether the shape will become more important than the patterns and will be investigating block and plain colours to see whether the ‘pots’ can stand alone as unique shapes. Or will they also need an element of patterning in order to create the optical illusion and enticing balance of art and science. Whatever the result there is no doubt that Caroline is going to thoroughly and rigorously enjoy exploring this new phase in her creative development.
Caroline Cole is the featured maker at the Bevere Gallery, Worcester, from 3 – 27 September 2016.