Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.
Clay Conversations: Jane Wheeler
[ Artist Interview )
As part of our Clay Conversations series exploring our growing collection of ceramics, we interviewed Jane Wheeler whose Large Square Flask, Chalk Beach forms part of the Golder-Thompson Gift.
What has been your journey as an artist?
I am a child of mid-20th century socialist education policies, so I did a u-turn at the end of Sixth Form from being quite academic and opted to go to art school. I started with a wonderful Bauhaus-based foundation course at Great Yarmouth School of Art and Design, before going on to Corsham (Bath Academy of Art) to study 3-D design, aka ceramics (I also did quite a bit of etching).
I couldn’t afford to set myself up with a pottery studio afterwards, but found myself running my own knitwear design business for forty odd years. This actually gave me a lot of freedom to do extra things. I started painting through summer school at Norwich Art School in the 1980’s, and went on to do the part-time MFA at Newcastle Polytechnic 1989 – 1991.
I had a bit of success with very politically oriented paintings of a woman’s body, but in the later 90’s my business became quite busy and other personal factors overtook things. I moved back to Norfolk to help my ailing parents in 2000, and lost my way with the painting. I took up ceramics again due to a friendship with Norfolk potter Stephen Parry. I had lots of outbuildings in my new home, and he helped me build a gas kiln, so that I could fire reduction stoneware.
What artists inspire you?
At that point Anselm Keifer and Japanese wood-fired ceramics were probably my biggest influences. Now books about Peter Doig, Bonnard, Matisse, Diebenkorn, and most recently Andrew Cranston are in piles around the house. I would like some books about abstract expressionists like Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell. Women painters have not been written about in the same way, so it is harder to find books on them. I also find Tracey Emin inspirational and have a brilliant book about her and Munch.
What sort of techniques do you use in your ceramic work?
I made a decision not to throw and worked up my slab building technique. Back at Corsham this had been my strongest suit, and I had made a lot of square dishes with figurative designs on them, using sgraffito, and resist techniques with earthenware glazes, but strongly influenced by oriental ceramics (seen in the British Museum’s collections). I tried making softer shapes with slabs, bending them, paddling them, and sometimes allowing cracking, always using rougher grogged clays. I very much enjoyed the way reduction fired stoneware brought out the impurities in the kind of clay I was using, and produced these abstract marks.
Could you tell us about Large Square Flask, Chalk Beach?
This was made with four tapered pieces for the main flask, on a squared foot, with a thinly rolled out piece in an upside-down cone shape for the tall flared spout or neck. Quite a balancing act to get it all to hold together long enough to stiffen and be self supporting without collapsing onto the foot. The flange shape came from the cut out remains of the slab. I made a shape a bit like this for the Salt summer show at Salthouse church in North Norfolk which Simon Martin, your gallery director curated. The idea was to make vessels which echoed those used for alchemical processes, or for the evaporation of salt. The glaze was mostly china clay and barium oxide, in fact a very poisonous glaze which had I realised I probably would not have got involved with. It is more like a slip than a glaze, but it had nice qualities for sculptural work, extreme dryness and when on thin parts of the body of the pot it would run and leave trickle marks, and give a very chalky, pebbly stony effect.
You are now focussing on painting, could you tell us a bit about your journey as a painter?
From childhood I painted and drew and used pen and ink a lot. My art teacher at secondary school was very encouraging. However, during my break in the 2000’s I lost confidence in my work and starting again. A friend in Bale, where I lived, decided to start an art club in the village hall in 2015, to use it and help fund its renovation. He introduced both of us, himself and me, to acrylic paint as being more suitable for use in a non-studio environment, and I rose to the challenge.
So I was running the knit design business, writing poetry, painting and making pots. It was a bit over the top – still selling knitwear and pots in Japan and the US, and Europe. Something had to give. First I retired from the knitting business in 2017 at the age of 67. Around the same time my hands started to alarm me, the joints got enlarged with arthritis. At the same time I felt that firing with gas was very un-eco (as well as scary). I have friends who fire with wood, but that is tough physically and actually no better for the climate. Furthermore, I had made a lot of work with the same blue-ish chun glaze over crackle slip and black iron oxide, and galleries wanted that. They weren’t interested in other things, so I felt a bit trapped. Painting was new again and exciting.
What you are currently working on?
I moved to Scotland in 2020 to be near my daughter in Fife. I am fixated with the landscape and the history and geology of the place, so I am writing and painting about that. To start with my paintings were pretty abstract, I was still trying to paint the landscape, but recently figurative has almost won out again. I have begun a new body of work, partly with watercolour, and partly mixed media.
My ceramics background will always be with me as it has a huge effect on how I treat surface, whether it is scratched through layers or working on top of dry gesso and fine linen with watery paint allowing dribbles and tidemarks.