Featured in
Issue 223

How Clay is Connected to our Bodies

Artists Phoebe Collings-James and Julia Phillips speak to Dr Jareh Das about clay’s physical registers and the ways the material will outlive us

BY Jareh Das, Phoebe Collings-James AND Julia Phillips in Features , Roundtables | 09 NOV 21

Jareh Das Both of you work with clay as part of your wider practice. What drew you to this material and how do you engage with its malleability and other physical properties, as well as its transformation during the making process?

Phoebe Collings-James When I hear the word ‘malleable’ in relation to clay, I instantly think about the fact that it’s reciprocal. From the moment I started working sculpturally with various types of clay, I was drawn to the fact that, unlike other materials such as plaster and resin, it wasn’t a one-way conversation. You don’t just have an idea, cast something, or allow something to set, and it keeps its form. With clay, there is this constant potential for movement – even after the firing process. Reciprocity also appears through sculpting and shaping: the clay then decides how it feels about its new form, potentially shifting, cracking or remembering the other configurations that it had before.

Phoebe Collings-James, The subtle rules the dense, 2021, installation view. Courtesy: © the artist and Camden Art Centre, London; photograph: Rob Harris

Julia Phillips I appreciate that thought, Phoebe. Clay has different stages, one of them is malleability. There’s also another stage, fragility, which I am concerned with all the time, and I worry about breakage a lot once the work leaves my studio. The very malleable state when the clay comes out of the bag is where the work begins and the final pieces are influenced by the first manipulations of the material. The casts really take shape when the clay becomes ‘leather hard’. I make thin slabs that I press onto my body. When I’m taking a chest cast, I’m still breathing and moving around with the clay on my skin. I work in the studio without assistants, so I handle everything myself. I might even work on something else during the drying process. Depending on the air conditions, it can take a long time for the clay to get leather hard and while I’m moving, the clay is moving with me a little bit.

PC-J There is a deep connection between clay and the body, although I sometimes feel resistant to discuss embodiment in this way since it can feel like an essentialist cliché to talk about working with clay and the earth. The ways it resonates with flesh and bodily process or metaphorical registers are complex. Clay still can be a toxic material. I have asthma irritation because of working with silica dust. It’s still mined. That’s crucial to acknowledge.

Julia Phillips, Oppressor with Soul, In Treatment & Suppressor with Spirit, In Treatment, 2020, installation view. Courtesy: © the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, Los Angeles

JD Issues around sustainability and the environment I feel should be more prominent in conversations about working with clay and ceramics.

PC-J I have guilt about my impact on the environment because I’ve also been firing with a gas kiln. The specific way it transforms clay through the process of reduction – making it look like earth spawn or some sort of relic – is hugely desirable. However, it feels scandalous, to be honest, to be still firing up a gas kiln at this moment. I’m also thinking about longevity and degradation, where these objects we make will live in the future, and where they will exist in relation to the environment. Clay is something that will survive us, unlike other materials. I enjoy thinking about my work returning to the ancient lineages of pottery rubble that exist in our soils, rivers and ditches across the world.

JP All the materials I work with – ceramic, metal, stone – have a sense of longevity. I wonder how I can make sure the work can still be shown when I’m no longer around. I don’t really think about degradation, or how my pieces will go back into the earth, when they’re shattered on some junk pile. But I do think about sustainability as well, working with multiple layers of glazes and firing an electric kiln. I imagine a renaissance of arte-povera aesthetics in the future, driven by the fact that the earth is becoming impoverished, while there is such a huge amount of waste.

Phoebe Collings-James, ‘A Scratch! A Scratch!’, 2021, exhibition view. Courtesy: © the artist and Camden Art Centre, London; photograph: Rob Harris

JD How do drawing and the element of mark-making feature in both of your practices and the works that come out of them?

JP Drawing plays a key role in my practice, as I plan my sculptures through technical drawings. Once the ceramic parts are dry and fired, there is no editing of the shape, there is no give and take. Because of their inflexibility, the ceramic components must be fully accommodated by other materials that I use. To explain how I envision these connections and joints, I use technical drawings to work with fabricators.

PC-J I collect symbols, images and ideas by drawing them in ink on paper. These references then weave their way onto the surface of the clay. I think about the process sonically because it reminds me of how I approach sampling, taking audio from films and other tracks, as well as doing a lot of recording myself, to create a bank of sounds to work from. It’s very similar to the way I work with clay. I think about drawing more in the sense of building a library of thoughts and visions that then get translated and fucked with a bit.

Julia Phillips, Mediator, 2020, installation view. Courtesy: © the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York/Los Angeles

JD How does Black feminist thought inform your work?

PC-J Recently, my main dialogue has been with Alice Walker’s book, The Temple of My Familiar [1989]. It took me a year to read, from the beginning of lockdown until a couple of months ago. I would find myself dipping in and out, whenever I had the capacity to engage with it. The stories and the density of spiritual texture that she weaves through each of the different characters really touched me. Every time I returned to it, I was able to reach a deeper understanding of myself and my practice or to find what I needed.

JP I am influenced by the same generation of Black feminist thinkers. My work is rooted in the idea that the body is the first ground of our experiences. It is precisely this thought that brings me to the bodily and mechanical metaphors that I use in my work. This idea derives from the artist and thinker Lorraine O’Grady, who explored it in the photomontage series ‘BodyGround’ [1991]. Her claim falls into an era of Black feminist thinkers that brought up the voices of Angela Davis and Patricia Hill Collins – an era that witnessed the majority of the last century, upon whose shoulders I now stand.

Phoebe Collings-Jamess solo exhibition at Camden Art Centre, London, ‘A Scratch! A Scratch!’, runs until 23 December.

Julia Phillipss solo exhibition ‘Between Love and Loss’ is on view at Matthew Marks Gallery, Los Angeles, until 23 December.

The exhibition ‘Body Vessel Clay: Black Women, Ceramics & Contemporary Art', curated by Dr Jareh Das, will be on view at Two Temple Place, London, from 29 January to 24 April 2022.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 223 with the headline ‘Fragile Earth', alongside Clay is Theaster Gates’s Anchor, Helen Cammock On How She Lived her Father’s Ceramics and How Travel Transformed Magdalene Odundo’s Ceramics Practice.

Main image: Phoebe Collings-James, ‘A Scratch! A Scratch!’, 2021, exhibition view. Courtesy: © the artist and Camden Art Centre, London; photograph: Rob Harris

Dr Jareh Das is a researcher, writer and curator. She lives in Nigeria and the UK.

Phoebe Collings-James is an artist, as well as the founder of Mudbelly ceramics studio and the 2021 Freelands Ceramic Fellow. She lives in London.

Julia Phillips is an artist. She lives in Chicago, USA, and Berlin, Germany.