“I’ve been trying to get a bright pink for 20 years and haven’t managed it yet,” declares ceramicist Sophie Cook, famous for her elegantly sculpted bottle, pod and teardrop forms. Yet there are plenty of other rich and vibrant colours to behold in her new exhibition entitled Multiplicity at London’s Contemporary Ceramics Centre.
Indeed, there’s a whole range on view that she has never shown before such as petrol, navy, burnt umber and the orange you see in the top shot which took two years of trial and error to develop. Cook uses a variety of oxides, base glazes and stains to achieve her various hues. The earthy tones were inspired by the countryside around her home on the Suffolk coast.
Like most ceramicists, she began making practical ware in the form of olive oil bottles while at Camberwell School of Arts in the mid-1990s. When her tutor suggested she make forms for their sculptural qualities alone, she never looked back. Inspired by architecture, in particular skylines and towers, she started with square-faced bottle designs which then led on to the wider-based pods and, finally, the slim, tall tear-drops. The shapes evolved organically.
Her work is highly collectible and not only by individuals. You can find Sophie Cook’s pieces in the permanent collections of museums such as the Geffrye Museum in London, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Manchester City Galleries.
She varies her finishes too. She started in matte with more shiny glazes developing later. She says she’s in a matte stage at the moment which is borne out by the higher preponderance of matte finishes in this latest show, though she admits to going through phases.
As with skyline towers, Sophie Cook’s pieces blend well when displayed together, creating a kind of rhythm and harmony. Despite her love of the creamy porcelain clay and despite having years of practice in which she makes some four pieces a day, she describes the medium as a “nightmare”.
Owing to the unforgiving nature of porcelain, after she has thrown it on the wheel, let the form dry for two days, given it a bisque firing and then a glaze firing, one in four of her pieces crack and have to be discarded. For some reason, the success rate for the 90 or so pieces for this show has been only 50 per cent. “It’s been cracking on the bottom and I don’t know why. I’ve been trying everything to stop it but I’ve no idea. They’ve even sent me new batches and I still haven’t solved it.”
I wondered whether making the same basic three shapes in a frustrating medium like porcelain might have become boring for her over the years. I couldn’t be more wrong. Her work is clearly her passion and she relishes the challenge that each of her pieces creates. With an audio book or podcast for company as she carves, she finds, as do many artists, that the whole process is both joyous and therapeutic.
“You have to be calm when you make these pieces and I’m not a calm person. If you’re not calm it won’t work because everything has to be centred and when I make a tall one I can’t breathe out. I have to be holding my breath the entire way to the top. If I breathe out it would collapse.”
So, with adjectives like exquisite, delicate, sensual and precise which accurately describe Cook’s work, you could add the word breathtaking, literally.
Multiplicity is on show at the Contemporary Ceramics Centre, 63 Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3BF until 8 February 2020.