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Wendy Lawrence: elemental energy.

NATURE ITSELF MIGHT BE DESCRIBED AS THE GREATEST artist; landscapes sculpted over aeons of time by the power of ice, water and wind; glorious palettes of colour, from the richest reds of iron bearing ores to the vivid greens of new spring growth; the macro and the micro; spiritually uplifting, breath-taking beauty; geological and organic debris engaging enough to grace any exhibition plinth. It is understandable why so many artists are inspired by this great art but how can they compete with such sublime talent and say something new, rather than simply creating poor imitations of the grand master?

Wendy Lawrence is one such artist grappling with this issue; profoundly inspired by the visual and textural richness of geology. While there is no doubting the source of her inspiration; the intriguing question is what the work says beyond the material that informs her creative output.

Lawrence's ceramic work is elemental, jagged, rough hewn and volcanic. While explicitly geological, her forms are not simply imitations of her inspiration. They condense the powers that shape the land, amplifying qualities evident in the geological process. Textures and colours are intensified; choreographing elements and framing a multitude of nature's work within a single piece. When talking about her work and inspiration, Lawrence exudes a love of rocks and the natural landscape, stating quite openly the importance it plays in informing her art.

Her home and studio, in the small market town of Denbigh in North Wales, is full of collected rocks and other mineral bounties gathered from the rich and varied Welsh landscape and further afield. Her collection shows an uncanny talent for finding inspirational specimens which sit mounded on shelves in front of her work table, allowing her to scrutinize and reference their texture and form while immersed in making. Certain specimens appear closely referential, while others are simply suggestive of a direction. At times, pieces of her work appear almost more 'geological' than the specimens sitting on shelves in her studio; whatever the final outcome, there is never any denying the importance that they play in the development of her work.

She jokingly states how her studio is slowly sinking under the weight of her rocks. The collection in fact spreads itself right through her house, into the garden, where a path has been laid of pebbles that have no longer any place in the studio--stones as diverse in their visual properties as the places from which they were collected; the Welsh coast, the Sinai desert and the foothills of the Himalayas.

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While Lawrence expresses her geological narrative through the medium of clay, it was not originally her chosen creative media. Having entered art school with the intention of pursuing a career in illustration, one morning in the college clay studio changed that. She immediately found the material opened infinitely more opportunities to express herself creatively. The legacy of the shelved aspiration in illustration, still however informs her clay-work, having developed an eye trained in observing and recording detail. Lawrence's early clay pieces strived for perfection of line and proportion. It was only with growing self-assurance that she really began finding her voice--developing the confidence to 'let go', engage with the material in a freer, more direct, almost combative way and recognise the validity of retaining gestural marks. Only then did she feel she had started developing work that truly spoke her interests and intent.

In many ways the methods she employs in the making of her ceramics are not dissimilar to the energies that formed the rocks themselves. There is a boldness and confidence, captured in the powerful physical gestures of making. Large blocks of clay are almost attacked; thrown around the workbench, then beaten with large wooden mallets. The process is partly intuitive, allowing the clay to shape itself, but simultaneously controlled, with one eye on the balance and lift of the piece.

Pieces are either left in their natural beaten state, or are then subjected to erosive forces; deeply incised strata lines chiselled into the walls, textures hammered into the clay or hewn out with tools to create thick walled forms, vaguely reminiscent of ancient water troughs; there is nothing delicate about the work, just as delicacy is not a word one would associate with a quarry face. The result is sculpture with a powerful certainty, which she has used to impressive effect in both large and small-scale work.

Close to the coast and rugged Snowdonia Mountains of North Wales, where Lawrence has lived since 1999, the area is important for its mineral wealth. Numerous quarries discretely scar the landscape; granite, limestone and slate mining being the dominant activities. Consequently she is immersed in geology within her studio but also in the environment that surrounds her home.

While geology has always been her central focus, travelling has piqued her interest in culture, worship and ancient architecture. Her more recent work is becoming increasingly affected by the landscape of human antiquity. Neolithic standing stones; megalith and menhir, being a natural extension of the appreciation of raw geology. Slowly this interest has grown to embrace an appreciation of 'all things stone'; from the simplest ancient primitive marker stone, to the might and ornate grandeur of medieval cathedrals. As well as the sheer visual beauty of the stonework, what has become increasingly intriguing for her is the historical narrative encapsulated within the stone; how a naturally occurring material has been lovingly shaped, to imbue meaning and value, then has sat quietly participating in untold happenings over hundreds or possibly thousands of years. A recent trip to Machu Picchu in Peru was in many ways a pilgrimage to pay homage to the Inca stone-masters. Evidence of the beauty and wonder of the great carved interlocking stone blocks of Machu Picchu is emerging in her latest pieces.

Having spent most of her education and early years after leaving University avoiding glaze completely, developing crisp minimalist forms that required absolute control and refinement, it is intriguing to see how glaze has become such an important element of Lawrence's creative signature. Forms ooze with glaze, pooling or creeping down the forms in fat rivulets; but like her making, the methods of glazing Lawrence has developed challenge convention in every way. Her glazed surfaces boil, erupt, blister, crack, flake and sometimes are even purposely chipped or ground off, revealing an underlayer of further glaze or pigment--textural overload being the intention. Like the forms themselves, the glaze echoes and sometimes almost out-textures the original geological inspiration. Lawrence's first foray into glaze was through the process of Raku. What she actually took from this experience, however, was not any real regard for glaze itself but the spirit of letting go and the value of chance and spontaneity.

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Her glazing method involves multiple layering of glazes, saturated with reactive and eruptive materials, often applied thickly, to create richly textural surfaces that further enhance the sensation of mineral erosion. Her pieces are multi-fired in both gas and electric kilns, where she varies the atmosphere from oxidation to heavy reduction. This enables her to build up intensity on the surface of her pieces, increasing the element of chance and uncertainty that characterises her work.

In stark contrast to her personal work, Lawrence also works part-time as an artist, within a company (Craig Bragdy Design) in her hometown, producing huge commissioned murals and swimming pools for clients in the Middle East, Asia and the US. These projects often involve highly representational imagery and ornate pattern, requiring the artists to work to the exacting requirements of the clients--a different approach to the expressive nature of her clay-work. One can not help but wonder if the nature of the tighter constraints of the mural work somehow imbues a reactive creative energy.

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Balancing these two different approaches has been helped by periods spent working overseas, running workshops and participating in symposia in Hungary, Turkey, Israel and the US. These periods of time spent away from the daily routines of home and work, have been crucial; providing the opportunity for Wendy Lawrence to focus on the development of her original and distinctive ceramic work, transforming plastic clay into forms that capture and transmit the qualities and elemental power of natures geological forces.

Article by David Binns

David Binns is Reader in Contemporary Ceramics in the Northern School of Design at the University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UK and member of the International Academy of Ceramics.
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Author:Binns, David
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Date:Jun 1, 2010
Words:1408
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