Every year, York Open Studios opens its doors to a number of artists from a variety of fields, ranging from furniture, to jewellery, to printmaking. This year it played host to local artist Penny Phillips, whose unique, ceramic sculptures portray a very interesting take on a number of English animals.
Penny’s career has been incredibly varied, spanning from a degree in Film and Theatre to her more recent ceramic sculptures. “I have always had a strong interest in the arts”, she tells me, “but film mostly”. This led her into a successful career in television that lasted for ten years. Penny then went on to have children, which, she explains, left her with two choices. “I could either stop altogether, and try and get everything back afterwards, or I could find another way to be creative. Being the person I am, I would have gone nuts if I hadn’t done something, so I went to do a HND in 3D Design, which is where I found ceramics”.
Penny’s original ceramic work centred on throwing objects such as “pots” and “bowls”, which she created whilst her children were growing up. Yet this was something she never felt truly satisfied with. “I am quite an impulsive person, and I like to take risks. I hate the idea of everything being perfect and controlled, which is what it was like with the bowls”. This therefore led her into the arbitrary decision to enter a competition to go to an historic ceramic centre in Japan, with ten other international artists. This cultural experience, however, turned out to be a lot more than she bargained for.
“I was staying with a lovely Japanese family, but on the second day I was there, the mother showed me the bath tub, and said to me, ‘grandpa goes first, then granny, then my husband, then me, then my daughter, and then you. But there’s only one bath and only one set of water.’ I stuck to showers for the whole trip”.
Despite this, the experience turned out to be incredibly useful and inspirational, and changed Penny’s work completely. “The Japanese had this approach that there was no wrong way to do things”. She describes one particular incident that really stuck out to her. “There was one man demonstrating, who got up after throwing an amazing bowl, walked about three metres away from it, and just started throwing clay at it. It was so vibrant and exciting and just so not English, that it caught my imagination like nothing else. It gave me the attitude that I could just do whatever I want”.
“You name it, I’ve shoved it in clay”
Penny then made the decision to undertake more art courses that eventually led her into the animal sculptures that she creates today. Her work is now all about movement, and capturing animals during flight and action. Yet, she explains, her work also goes a lot further than this. “I decided on animals because they allow you to say things about the human condition that you couldn’t say through a human form. I don’t try and make them look exactly like the animals; they often have very human expressions. The better I get at it, the more I can do this, but I still have a way to go”.
However, Penny’s work underwent a drastic change recently, after the sudden death of her close friend. “I wasn’t consciously thinking about death, but I found myself attracted to paintings of animals after the hunt, which was such a complete and utter contrast to the work I was doing”. This sparked a creation of sculptures of dead pheasants, which, she says, she never anticipated. “I find that with art though, you do end up unconsciously expressing things that are happening to you in your life”.
Her true passion, however, lies in the fascinating textures of her work. “For me, it’s the rougher the better really”. This, she explains, goes back to her hatred of things being perfect and measured. “I felt like that was what people were telling me to do, or what I thought I should do, but that wasn’t where I was happiest”. Nowadays, however, she is constantly experimenting, using materials such as pastry or paper to create her unique textures. “You name it, I’ve shoved it in clay”.
Like any job though, Penny explains that her work has a very tedious side, filled with accounts and worries about selling enough work to continue creating. The pay-off, however, is what makes it all worth it. “There is this idea that you are only really successful if you go down to London and sell lets of things in a gallery, which is to me, rubbish. The pay-off is when people come and look at your work and like it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about them buying it, it’s about them expressing an opinion about it. I might only sell four or five pieces in Open Studios, but I’ll have fifty people talk to me about my work. And that is why I think Open Studios is so important”.
She very rarely puts titles on her work, which she believes contributes to the viewing experience. “I just want people to look at the work and get something from it, whether it’s the textures, the expressions on the animals, or the fact they happen to like hares a lot. For me that’s what art is about, looking at a piece of work and feeling something for it, without having any presubscribed idea about what you should think”.
Yet creating has not always been a smooth and simple process for Penny. “I have periods where I am very confident, and periods where I am not confident at all. There were times when I was very close to giving it all up. I never saw myself as an artist at all, because I never had the confidence to call myself an artist. It wasn’t until I got a studio in Leeds in 2010 that I seriously started to see myself like that. Now I think that if you don’t say it, you won’t believe it, so now I say that I am an artist”.
After developing her confidence, Penny decided to branch out into teaching. “I did a PGCE, but I found that when you teach full-time, you become a teacher, not an artist. It is very difficult to do both, because you become so involved with your students and wanting them to do well. So I had to make the decision to stop.” Today she teaches on a part-time basis, giving ceramic classes at her studio, as well as teaching after-school classes at a local school. “I really enjoy teaching. I find that through teaching you can learn from other people, and I think that is really exciting”.
It is obvious from the way Penny talks about her work that she has a true passion for creation. “Whenever I am away from clay for longer than a few months, I am miserable. It’s such a part of who I am that I couldn’t give it up”. And as Penny herself has stated, she’ll still be sitting there, when she’s ninety years old, just “playing with clay”.