Meet the Makers: Alice Walton
Our conversations on craft continue this month with ceramicist, John Smedley ambassador and QEST Scholar, Alice Walton
words by Will HALBERT
How would you describe your craft?
I make decorative, sculptural objects from clay and I work with white stoneware and porcelain. I make sculptural and abstract forms that explore complex and intense surface textures and intend to provoke intrigue. I work with coloured clay throughout its plastic and liquid states, aiming to highlight the meditative process of the material. In a world that is increasingly changing minute by minute I attempt to slow down, allowing my work to steadily evolve, brick by brick, pin mark by pin mark, the time I spend on each sculpture is completely personal to me.All of the colours I create are made through colouring the clays with different additions of stains and oxides. I use a mixture of hand building techniques, press moulding, slabbing and coiling.
What is your favourite part about what you do?
I think the fascinating thing about working with clay is that you can make anything you want. Your imagination is the only thing that restricts the process. I love experimenting to create different colours, mixing and blending tones to create more depth and exploring the point or pixel of repetition. I also enjoy seeing textures in my surroundings and imaging how to create them in clay.
How did you begin your career?
From an early age I knew I wanted to work with an artist practice. My mum is a textile designer and so I had been brought up in a creative home. I enjoyed art at school but really only worked with drawing and painting so decided to go to Wimbledon School of Art for my Foundation Course. With my mother’s influence, I decided that I wanted to continue exploring clay so decided to go to Brighton University to study on the Wood, Metal, Ceramics and Plastic course. I specialised in ceramics during these three years and haven’t looked back. I now live and work in London since graduating from Ceramics & Glass from the Royal College of Art in 2018. I work part time in my studio and teach ceramics at the Victoria and Albert Museum and with the UK Crafts Council.
How long have you been doing it?
The first time I touched clay was during my foundation in Art at Wimbledon School of Art in 2006. So 13 years now!
What other craftsmen stand out to you most and why?
The work of Anders Ruhwald has inspired me for quite a few years. I love how his sculptures are so confident within a space and the quality of surface is so important in his pieces. Also, I find Agnes Martin’s meticulously rendered paintings mesmerising. I try to consider her subtle varying colour pallets and meditative processes when I make.
Did anything in particular inspire you to start your craft?
Annie Turner, who was my first ceramics teacher, inspired me to make in ceramics. She was very encouraging and pushed me to experiment. She always had time to give her advice and extol her expert knowledge.
Do you work with any other craftspeople to create your products?
No, not to make my sculptures, although I do work alongside other makers in my studio. I find this is helpful to share ideas and to ask for advice.
What is the hardest part about what you do?
The hardest part of what I do to juggle all of my different day to day tasks whilst having to make sure that I know what stage of drying my sculptures are at. If a sculpture dries out too much it may crack or become too dry to finish working on. If it becomes too damp then it could flop, destroy the decorative texture that I have been working on, or not dry in time for a deadline. My busy days and days away from the studio for part time work can make this more difficult.
What makes your craftsmanship most rewarding?
I love seeing people react to my work. When I plan a sculpture, I consider the object from all angles so that the viewer can look and explore the form. Maybe the form changes from side to side to create intrigue. I want the viewer to be able to look at my sculptures from afar and to have one perception of the surface, then want to explore closer. Upon closer inspection, the surface decoration reveals layers of colours and hints at the time spent on the piece. I want to create exciting surfaces using traditional techniques in conventional ways.
Where did you learn the skills required for your role?
I studied a Foundation in Art and Design at Wimbledon School of Art. Next up was an Undergraduate Degree in Wood, Metal, Ceramics and Plastics at Brighton University, specialising in Ceramics. Finally, I studied Ceramics for my Masters Degree at the Royal College of Art.
What has been the most important learning curve for you?
I think everything I have done is a constant learning curve. Setting up my own business, graduating from the RCA and now re-inventing myself as an artist that makes sculpture. This is all new and gives me daily aims to strive for.
Have you had any major pitfalls to overcome to maintain your craft?
I think any young emerging artist can relate to the financial difficulties involved with setting up your own practice. I am from a fairly modest background, so I had to save for most of my adult life in order to afford my tuition at the RCA. For the past 10 years I’ve had to balance part-time work and my own business in order to be able to make ends meet and move my practice forward. I was fortunate enough to be awarded the QEST scholarship in my final year, which paid for a whole year’s fees at the RCA. I can’t overstate how much this has meant to me and my practice.
Has your craft evolved into other/new skills over time?
Before attending the Royal College of Art I mainly made black and white tableware. I left making colourful non-functional sculpture. I think my work has evolved over the two years of my Masters considerably, and I have had to learn and plan my processes quite differently. From the way I may build a piece to the way I would pack the kiln to fire it. I worked for three years at Brighton University as a ceramic technician so had time then to work with students problem solving with them. I think this time has helped with making my current work.
How would you describe a day in your role?
When I am in the studio I travel by bus from South to East London, leaving at 8am. I spend the hour journey answering emails and drawing in my sketchbook. Once I arrive I try to begin making early. I work best in the morning when it is quiet. I might be starting a new piece – so wedging clay, rolling or cutting sheets of clay and building with it. If I am decorating a piece, this may mean sitting and repeating a process over and over again. I may be pin-pricking a surface or cutting and rolling thin slithers of clay with a cocktail stick. I tend to work on these repetitive processes for a couple of hours at a time and listen to the radio or a podcast. I will get up every-so-often to give my arm a break. I am currently trying to teach myself to be ambidextrous so I can increase my making productivity. I leave to come home at 6pm and answer more emails or post on Instagram once I’m home.
What are the biggest challenges you face in what you do?
I think my biggest challenge in what I do is managing time. I have two part-time jobs, working at Flow Gallery in Notting Hill as well as teaching at the V&A Museum, and I have to juggle this with running my own business. I have to maintain my website and studio and make sure I am keeping up to date with exhibitions and networking events which are happening around me. I also need to make sure my work is unique and primarily stands out from other work. I do this because I love what I do but like any job there are highs and lows and things do get hard at times.
How have you stayed passionate and inspired by your craft?
I am passionate about my craft because I realise I couldn’t be happier doing any other job. I want to succeed to have a successful career but know that this will take time. I want to own a home and be able to travel and to do this I need to earn a living. By travelling and looking at my surroundings this then inspires new work. This constant loop of making, travelling and living inspires my craft and maintains my passion for making.
What made you choose this career and to work in this industry?
I have always wanted to work in a career that is creative. Also, I have always wanted to have a varied day and not to sit at a desk. I find that clay is so expressive and personally is the only material that I can react in this way to.
Do you have any plans to expand on what it is that you do?
Yes definitely. I have plans over the summer to progress some of my decorative techniques. As well as this I would like to develop my forms to become more dynamic and more directly reactive to my inspiration.
What are the main projects you are working on now?
I am currently working on my largest sculpture yet. This piece is going to be shown at Collect 2019 at the Saatchi Gallery. I am thrilled to be showing here as I always visited the exhibition when I was younger. I al-ways dreamed to show here one day.
How would your customers describe your craft?
I hope my customers find my work intriguing, colourful and unique. That’s what I’m aiming for anyway!
What are the accomplishments within your craft that you are most proud of?
I have recently been accepted into an exhibition in Milan at the gallery Officine Saffi. I was overwhelmed to have been selected as 1 of 21 artists to exhibit out of 400 applicants. The exhibition is open during Milan Art Week, Milan Design Week and Salone del Mobile.
How would you describe your business in 3 words?
Exciting, unique ceramics.
How does working with Qest support you/your craft?
Firstly, being a QEST scholar feels like I am part of a family. Everyone looks out for one another and gives advice if needed. Also, the QEST team are incredibly friendly. They support my business by offering fantastic opportunities and by creating a network which feels incredibly positive and proactive. Finally, I think being awarded the QEST Scholarship gives me affirmation that what I am doing is right and gives me tremendous confidence that I need to become a successful maker.
How would you describe John Smedley?
Excellent quality, stylish, comfortable.
Do you have a favourite John Smedley piece, if so what?
I have a John Smedley jumper which was made in collaboration with Intoart which I love. I do really like John Smedley dresses too though. They are comfortable and timeless and great to wear to Private Views.
What are you most excited about for the future?
I would like to continue to make one-off sculptures, upscaling and developing further my colour pallet and decoration techniques. I am most excited to explore how my work changes as my surrounding do, moving from an urban source of inspiration to a rural one. I hope to carry out further residencies to explore this, which will hopefully result in new exhibitions.
Find out more at johnsmedley.com/discover/legacy