York Art Gallery’s latest Special Exhibition, ‘Bird in the Hand’, showcases an unusual concept: the commemoration of the dead and simultaneous celebration of the living through the medium of ceramics.
Eve Bennett, the ceramicist behind the range of objects displayed in the exhibition, which intends to illustrate the relationship we have with birds, says that the clay birds “act as a commemoration of the memories I have of my mother who passed away whilst [I was] at university. I have found the last few years to be a particularly poignant time, and this has been reflected throughout my studies.”
Bennett’s exhibition dramatically tells the tale of the time when her mother inadvertently killed her uncle’s birds by leaving the gas stove on.
Despite the tragic aspects which are instrumental to her work, Bennett recognises the element of humour used to create a nostalgic, bittersweet discourse amongst her sombre overtures: “I don’t wish my work to be morbid or contrived, yet at the same time it is a very touching story which I hope a lot of people can connect with.”
Bennett confesses her “real love” of ceramics; she sees this inclination as developing “the expressive and energetic nature” of working with such a versatile medium.
She continues: “I chose to work with paper clay mixed with porcelain. This reinforced the clay and made it more durable, and better for stretching, tearing and twisting. Although it seemed difficult to work at first, I soon found that I could perfect the consistency by adjusting the formula.”
She pithily asserts that she found the “benefits to be amazing”.
She adds: “I also tend to stick to a very muted palette in order to communicate the sudden death of the birds.”
Taking inspiration from museum archives, private collections and craft practitioners, Bennett finds that her “ability to be creative is affected by external influences and my environment. I therefore seek inspiration during my design and development stages… I seek out work that represents social history or personal stories, as these things motivate me.”
She can prioritise one particularly overwhelming influence, however: “My all time favourite is Eric James Mellon… Mellon’s sympathetic use of watercolours and the way he translates this onto the ceramic surface with his ash glazes is interesting… I am particularly interested in the way he draws directly onto ceramics, which he gives the term ‘Free Fall’.” She sees this style as one she aspires to emulate; but Bennett maintains: “I must stay true to my own passions.”
Whilst Bennett’s fascination with ceramics is fundamental to the narrative of her work, she remains dubious about how the use of paper clay, and the themes she attempts to represent through the medium, is received by her audience.
“I get very mixed reactions,” she admits, “I enjoy listening and watching people’s bemusement as they approach my work… I like the element of surprise [and the change] from utter horror to laughter as the story unfolds.”
Despite the bemusement she may evoke in her viewers, Bennett still continues to assert that she hopes “to connect with the viewer in order to celebrate my mother and father.”
Inevitably, in completing her work Bennett feels that she has taken a personal journey through her own memories and family stories: “The subject matter I have chosen to represent has at times caused strong emotions and I have found the whole process somewhat cathartic.”
Thus, to what extent is her work mainly biographical?
She acknowledges that “each body of work is based around a different group of family orientated memories” which focused on the relationships she has had with respective family members.
Bennett still sees this intensely biographical influence as an active component in communicating with her viewers: “This gives the viewer a brief insight into the love and affection my family has instilled in me, while also allowing them to create their own memories based around the pieces themselves.”
Bennett concludes on a pensive note, believing that her “memories will fade and distort as time passes”. However, her atypical artistic direction serves a greater, more eternal purpose for her:
“My ceramics will remain unchanged. They will serve as a lasting impression of my family for many years to come.”
Photographs courtesy of Paul Reed and Eve Bennett.