Like most ceramic artists, Bev Bell-Hughes began by making functional slipware, producing cups, saucers, pots and suchlike and selling them in markets in London. At Harrow art school, she began intuitively pinching the clay, a technique she has refined and which is in abundant evidence at her latest exhibition of 45 new works at London’s Contemporary Ceramics Centre entitled Tidal Echo.
While bringing up a family, she wrote a thesis on a subject that had long fascinated her – the relationship between natural forms and clay. When she and her husband Terry, a fellow ceramics student at Harrow, decided to up-sticks and move to north Wales in 1978, she was able to ditch functional ware and apply herself to putting the ideas in her thesis into practice.
You can almost hear the sea when you walk around the exhibits – not surprising since her work is inspired by the natural forms she sees as she walks along the coastline near her home by Conwy Bay. They might be seashells, seaweed, bones, rocks, driftwood or anything else washed up on the shore for that matter. An example of Tidal Pots, above, is directly related to the patterns left on the beach after the tide has gone out. Yet you won’t find any of these exact forms in or out of the sea.
“I do not copy anything, I don’t photograph anything, I don’t draw anything. It’s intuitive. I don’t know what the work’s going to be like until I’ve finished it. I just work into the clay and see where the clay takes me,” she insists as we walk around the exhibition.
The shapes are extraordinary, with wave-like rhythms, folds, crevices, undulations. Some are tall, like the sea stacks, above, others low with layers and hollows like seaweed. They often have sharpish edges that twist or protrude like spines. Some have a delicacy that contrasts with the hardness of the material, not an easy trick to pull off. I wondered if she saw certain shapes and patterns on her walks along the beach which inspired her works but it’s not quite as simple as that.
“I just see things that maybe are in your subconscious when you’re half asleep at night and you’re thinking about what you’re going to make the next day. Your subconscious will come up with something you’ve seen but you don’t know until your subconscious tells you that it could possibly be an idea for something. It’s not a conscious process, any of it.”
Bev Bell Hughes uses a combination of flattened coils and press moulds and then pinches the clay, manipulating it with her fingers, sensing nature’s forces until she feels it’s right. Her technique is influenced by her being partially sighted since birth. “You’re actually feeling your way around the clay and pinching it and feeling the shape with your hand. It’s more consciously done through feel rather than vision. My hands are the most important piece of equipment rather than my eyes.”
She generally uses one glaze and then bisque-fires the pieces first, adding oxides for colour. The colours bleed in subtly, or create a speckled effect, imitating nature. One of the most striking aspect of her work are the different textures she achieves by adding different bits of clay and sand to the mix.
Her favourite pieces in the show are the Reefs, as the one above. “I like the way the waves are like a continuous flow as if they’re in water. And I like the fact that it’s long rather than tall.”
This typifies the echoes of nature that Bev Bell-Hughes manages to capture, distill and refashion into sculptures in her own, distinctive style.
Tidal Echo is showing at the Contemporary Ceramics Centre, 63 Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3BF until 15 September 2018.
The images are courtesy of the artist and gallery.