In Conversation with Christine Cummings

Ceramic artist Christine Cummings makes characterful animal sculptures. Here she chats about her path to becoming a full-time artist and about her pig, Jezebel, who used to eat toast for breakfast!

Was your work affected by Lockdown?

I did a lot of work. For the first two days I wasn’t sure what to do because my workshop is at my parents’ farm and I didn’t want to be around them. I have a friend who helps me in the workshop and I didn’t want anybody there, near my parents (in Lockdown). So I came home, and we’ve got a bar in the garden, which is fortunate, so I took to working outside, in the bar! I thought all my work would just drop off a hill because I work with galleries so much, and nobody knew what was happening really.

 

I offered to do mini-versions of people’s dogs …

But then I put out an offer on my Facebook page to make mini-versions of people’s dogs and it just went nuts. Within a couple of days I had about 120 orders. I designed it so that I could make the mini-dogs, buy small boxes from the Post Office, pop them in and post them to the customers once a week. I could make about 10 a day – it’s just Blue-toothed from your brain to your hand! You get used to doing it. I don’t always make 10 a day, and having said that, some people are still waiting for theirs!

 

How do you start the process?

It’s the same as when you were at school, working with Play-Doh, to be honest. I’d start with a bit of scrunched-up newspaper, then have a piece of clay and wrap it round the newspaper, to keep it hollow, because it has to be a hollow form. When you fire the kiln the newspaper fires out. It’s best not to be there when the kiln’s firing because it really smells!

You have to make sure the clay is at the right level of dryness to be able to work on. It can’t be too dry otherwise you wouldn’t be able to stick bits on; and it can’t be too wet or else it’ll just collapse. Clay is quite a forgiving medium. It’s not like working in wood – if you take a piece off and it’s wrong you can’t put it back on again. With clay, a bit of vinegar can help (although it attracts a lot of flies in the workshop!). Vinegar is very sticky, so if you add it to the slip you can stick things back on.

 

How did you get into making animal sculptures?

I’ve always had animals around me. My Mum and Dad are arable farmers, but we always had a lot of animals on the farm – ponies, donkeys, and then they bred pigs as well. There were a lot of pigs about – and that’s what I started making in the first place. I only made pigs to begin with. I always had animals around. When I was little I used to spend my pocket money on Wades and Whimsies, and Beswicks (pottery animals) and things like that. I collected them before I started making them, so it seemed like a very natural thing to do.

 

Did you do pottery at school?

No. The pottery teacher wouldn’t let me do pottery at school. She wouldn’t have me in her class – she said I was a bit boisterous! I didn’t do ceramics, but I did do art and enjoyed that. The only O’ Level I got was art. So then I went to art college, but I had to do a BTEC to get on a Foundation course. While I was on that I did a lot of ceramics, and it went from there. I specialised in Ceramics at Lancashire Polytechnic.

 

Tell me about your pig, Jezebel …

My final year and final show at Lancashire Poly was all pig studies, and I got a distinction. After that I carried on to the £40 a week government scheme and work on my parents’ farm to supplement it. I spent a lot of time looking at pigs! I used anatomy books, but I also studied them from life. They are very similar to humans in many ways!

Then I bought my own pig, Jezebel. I just enjoyed being around them. She was a great pet, and it was good to have my own model. She was in the workshop all the time with us so I could study her, and there was never any doubt about the anatomy of a pig then! She loved being a model. She was great – she’d sit and eat toast with us.

Then I moved on to goats, and we had a pair of goats. I’ve been lucky to have the models around us. I do like studying animals from life. I do go to a lot of wildlife parks too, to study animals there. I have drawing days, and go to meet friends who are makers too. We’ll all go and draw and compare notes at the end of the day.

 

Is sketching an important part of your process?

I sketch to get to know the anatomy, though I won’t always make the animal necessarily in the pose that I’ve sketched it. If an animal’s moving about you have to be quick, drawing it. You have to study it. I do look at photos as well, but I prefer working from life, if I can. You get a bit more of the rawness that way. I can’t with polar bears, nor always with commissions of people’s dogs.

 

You do a lot of dog commissions…?

Sometimes the owner brings the dog to meet me. And it helps if the owner sends me a lot of photos. I do a lot of dogs; I’m not as good at cats. I like Siamese cats because they’re quite angular, but an everyday cat is a bit like a big fur bag so it’s quite difficult to see. I send the owner photos of work in progress, so they can say if they’re not quite sure about a bit. There is a line. You can’t have too many comments or it takes away from it being your own work – you need a balance.

 

How do you keep a consistent style for galleries?

I have a range I sell to galleries – a standard range. I’d press-mould the bodies so I ended up with the same shape so they could re-order the same, otherwise it’d be so varied. Then I’d hand-do all the legs. The mould is made out of plaster. So, I make the original and then the plaster mould. The moulds don’t last too long though.

So, for your fox on the hill, I’ll have moulded the hill, as that’s a nice round shape, then popped newspaper on the top and hand-done the fox and all the marks round the hill. I do enjoy the mark-making round the hill. Some are starting to get quite abstract, some aren’t. The mark-making has evolved. Social media has changed it so much because you’ve got an audience there all the time. You don’t have to wait for it to go to a gallery. You can put it straight on your Facebook or Instagram page and get feedback from it straight away. Some people prefer more abstract, and others more realistic. I do have a lot of dog lovers on my Facebook page and I make a lot of dogs.

 

What clay do you use?

I use earth stone for hand-building. It’s a good strong clay, and expensive. If I raku fire, that’s a big temperature shock, so it has to be able to withstand that. It’s about judging the type of clay for the size of the piece you’re making. You don’t want too much grog (chunks of clay) in it, or you can’t get the finer details.

 

What’s involved in raku?

It’s biscuit fired – that’s the first firing and you end up with a plain beige colour. Then you apply your glaze. Put the raku kiln outside, and take it up to 1,000°C. You take it out at 1,000°C using tongs or a shovel, into the air, and the air temperature attacks the glaze. You can hear it going ‘ting’, ‘ting’, ‘ting’ and that’s all the crackles, all the marks on it. Then you put it into sawdust, or any combustible material. It slowly smoulders, and the smoke picks out all the lines in the glaze. It’s a hot process. I have been on fire! Don’t wear padded shirts is a good tip, when you’re doing raku. You have to wear a mask and big gloves. It’s very smoky, but it’s a good effect.

 

Do you ever use a wheel?

For six weeks at college. I did enjoy it, but just didn’t go down that route. I have a friend who throws pots for me – he suggested he throws them on the wheel and I decorate them, so I’ve been drawing on them, which I’ve really enjoyed doing. That’s a little diversion at the moment. I should be making other people’s dogs, really. It’s domestic ware, so I end up with plates and bowls and things like that.

 

And for a piece like my Fox on a Hill…?

I’d have decorated your fox while it was still ‘greenware’ (before it had been biscuit-fired), biscuit-fired it, then fired it again, and put glazes on. I use underglazes for flashes of colour, and a porcelain slip, which is just porcelain mixed with water. If it has a big shiny patch on it (it does!), then I will have put a transparent glaze on it and oxides. That all adds depth, like you’re doing a painting.

 

How did you first get into galleries?

The very first one was called the Fenwick Gallery in Northumberland and I was at a show in Penrith called Potfest. He approached me and took most of my stand home with him. That was probably 25 years ago and I still deal with him now; we’re good friends now. I do a trade show in Harrogate called The British Craft Trade Show. You stand there with all your work on display and the galleries come round to you and place their orders.

 

Short questions:

What’s more important to you, touch or colour?

Colour.

 

Favourite slip?

Porcelain. Because of the thickness it goes on, and the feel of it.

 

Favourite medium to work in?

My favourite clay…? Paper clay. It has paper fibres in it and is quite strong. Nice to play about with.

 

Do you have a favourite sculpting tool?

Yes, and I brought it to show you. It’s a little stick that I’ve carved, shaped and sanded. That’s it. I do lose them. I’ve had a lot of them over the years. If I sit down to make and I haven’t got one of those in front of me, then I can’t cope. I like a wooden comb as well.

 

Family pets or farm animals?

Equal.

 

Big or small?

Both, but I do make little maquettes too.

 

Quirky or realistic?

Quirky.

 

Sketchbook & planning or go with the flow?

Going with the flow, if I’m making. I like the sketchbook as something in itself. I’m doing more sketches and paintings – people are buying paintings off me now, which is great and has turned into a separate thing really.

 

Any marks that feel distinctively you?

The whole process is about making the same series of marks. If I want to introduce new marks I have to do that consciously. Sometimes I do think, it’s time I shook it up a bit! For some of my own work, I’d like to go a bit more abstract in my marks, but obviously, the people whose pets I’m doing don’t want that.

There’s gallery work, there’s commission work, and then there’s work just for myself, messing about – and in that I’d like to be a bit more playful in my mark-making. I’ve been using ceramic pencils and enjoying that. They’re just pencils that you can fire and put glaze over.

 

Best thing about working in clay?

How forgiving it is, and how playful it is. You can go off on tangents with it.

 

If you weren’t a ceramic artist, what would you be?

I actually don’t think I’d be employable as anything, to be honest. I wanted to look after animals when I was little, but other than that, no idea at all. I don’t think there’s any other option.

 

What does being able to make art mean to you?

It’s all I know. It’s everything really,  and it’s actually one of the only things I want to do. If I go on holiday, and don’t make anything for a little while, I get really itchy fingers. I just want to make things and I always draw when I go away. Apart from family and friends it does mean pretty much everything, really.

 

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