Cambridge Open Studios 2015 - Helen Martino

Today we meet with Helen Martino, whose unique ceramic works have a strong illustrative language.

Helen Martino

When did it all begin, working with clay?

At school I could always be found in the art room, but there was only painting and drawing available, so when I went to art school at 16 I thought I wanted to be a painter. In those days when doing a foundation course you got a chance to try other disciplines and the first time I tried clay, throwing on the wheel, I knew that was what I wanted to do. The mystery of clay is that it's so basic and yet so versatile. It feels gorgeous and it's a great excuse to be in a mess. It is amazing that from the same material so many different things can be made.

Teaching foundation course ceramics at CATS (now CSVPA) reminded me of the endless possibilities of clay. It was a pleasure teaching at this level as the students were perhaps choosing ceramics for their career, and it was liberating for me to see how students broke the rules that I had been taught and yet things still worked. It was because of teaching that I went on a hand-building course in Aberystwyth with John Maltby, whose work I really admired. This was a moment of change of direction in my work. 

Helen Martino Vessels

It was very interesting to hear that after having formal training in making vessels, throwing pots, that it was a big leap to 'have permission' to make purely decorative works.  
I was trained first at Farnham, followed by the Central School of Art in London, so my first 20 years as a potter was making functional things on the wheel. But learning to hand-build with soft sheets of clay brought new possibilities, and I was led gradually in the direction of sculpture. I started with vessel forms but changed and distorted the perspective so they looked as though they were 'drawn'. The vessels still held water so were still functional as well as sculptural, but it took me several years to understand that sculpture with no function could be a valid concept for me, although It was still 'pottery' in that the surrounding surfaces enclosed an empty space like a pot.

Helen Martino, Yes Let's

Initially the sculptures were birds moving and communicating together, then I started exploring how people communicated and intereact with each other, and I now often include them within an abstracted landscape. A frozen moment like a still from a film.

Do you enjoy collaborating with other artists and makers, and what do they bring to your practice? 

I enjoy and get a lot out of working with other people and have collaborated several times with Nadine Anderson, willow artist. Most recently we did a project for an exhibition at Cambridge Contemporary Art for the anniversary of World War 1, called Peace and Conflict, where after much discussion, planning and cross fertilisation of ideas, my porcelain flower elements were integrated into abstract willow constructions made by her. I find discussing ideas and the challenge of combining materials is stimulating and helps to extend my practice.

Helen Martino Studio

Twice a year my colleague Val and I go to each others studios and work together for five days. These five days twice a year are a time of research and renewal. We don't work on anything for a particular purpose, but just explore new, potentially interesting ideas. She lives deep in the Welsh countryside and I live in the city so either way it takes us out of our comfort zones.

The work that people can see at your Open Studios has a very strong illustrative feel. What inspires you?

I go to lots of exhibitions and do life drawing with Mohammed Djazmi, which all feeds into my work, as does going to films, reading books and having fun with friends and family.

Swimmers Tiles

I feel my work is very much involved with everyday life and the people I see and do things with, such as the swimmers tiles which were inspired by going swimming with the grandchildren, or the sofas where friends chat together and picnics in the country and the dappled shade of summer.  Such endless possibilities.

Which artists/makers have had a big impact on your style and practice?

I don't like to be bored so periodically I sign up for things that will extend and maybe change my life. Following the success of the John Maltby mentoring, I signed up to go back to the Central School of Art in London for a year, just one day a week, under the guidance of Rob Kessler, to investigate surface design and decoration and some of the new techniques that had been developed since I was a student. He was an inspiring tutor, sending me off to exhibitions and museums, to look at artists and works that he thought might be relevant to me alongside the more practical aspect of playing with surface. I made wall pieces based on the poetry of Lucy Boston and also dinner plates playing with the concept of blue. His input on our weekly mentoring sessions was invaluable and guided me with insight towards the unknown.


Your practice incorporates a lot of different printmaking processes. What is it about print that appeals?

A few years after exploring the knew-found knowledge I gained from Rob Kessler, I felt I would like to go further with the idea of surface and printmaking, so started an MA in Fine Art printmaking at Anglia Ruskin. Dealing with the whole idea of working flat without three dimensions, plus all the new techniques was a challenge indeed! I learnt a lot about myself and about printmaking techniques and concepts, and have since been able to use some of these printmaking techniques on the surfaces of my ceramic pieces. They are a great addition to the painted surfaces I used up until then.

Happy Couple

Sometimes they are to create a textured surface in the soft clay, whilst at other times they make coloured patterns by mixing copperplate oil with oxides and printing with lino onto leather hard clay. At other times I use digital print and decals either on their own or in combination with lino. It is this layering up of surfaces, often at different stages in the development of a piece, as well as reversing the narrative usually shown by the form of the sculpture on the surface itself, that is part of the excitement.


How often do your fire up your kiln?

I fire my glaze kiln about once a month as it takes this length of time to make enough work to fill it. I like this. As I make a series of pieces in one narrative over the month, I can see changes as I make things, paint them, and after they dry and get fired for the first time. When they come out of this first biscuit firing there is another chance to develop the atmosphere of a piece. A clear glaze will give a feeling of brightness and joy, but perhaps another piece of work will work better in a matt glaze that will give a softer calmer feeling.

As there is a month's work that is being glaze fired at once in the kiln, firing day is stressful, partly exciting but partly nerve wracking, so I keep watch over it. The work is stoneware, gas fired to 1280c and takes between 10 and 12 hours to fire and 24 hours to cool down. At the opening of the kiln there are more decisions to make. Are some of the sculptures alright as they are or would some pieces be good with lustre or enamel decals? This is yet another chance to develop the underlying feeling of each piece, though this will mean a further firing at 750c. Then comes the final assessment. Excitement  or disappointment or as expected? I often take pieces upstairs into the house for a few days to see them in a different context and get used to them before deciding yes or no.

What kind of clay do like to work with, and what colour palette do you enjoy?

Since changing from throwing to hand-building I have had to change the sort of clay I use. I now use Earthstone white clay, which is a technical development that makes it ideal for hand-building and a pleasure to use. I use it in slabs whilst it is soft and flexible and this gives me the freedom to push it into distortion and exaggerations. This in turn gives movement to the finish piece, whether it is to depict the effect of wind on a person's hair, or a tree, or the rocking of a boat on the sea.

The whiteness of this clay is like using a white paper when painting; it makes the colours brighter. So it's great for my joyous pieces but I do use a brown Earthstone too when I want colours to be darker and more sombre. I guess when you see my work there is a bias towards blue. This is a very ceramic colour which I suppose is equivalent to black in printmaking. It can be dark and dense and rich but it can also be light and ethereal.


How important is it to you to have feedback about your work?

I find it really useful to get feedback so I try to give myself the opportunity to talk with visitors about the work (now that I mainly show and through galleries) by doing open studios, and like to hear what a piece is, or is not, doing visually or emotionally for them. I do sometimes get interesting and often moving letters and emails from people who have bought my work in a gallery telling me why they bought it, and the galleries themselves can be very helpful too giving feedback on what they think and what they overhear in their gallery.

Helen Martino ceramics

Apart from Open Studios, where is your work sold?

I show now in galleries all over the UK, one in Belgium and one in Holland, and it all keeps me happily busy and energised.

I feel lucky to have known from so early in my life what I wanted to do and so lucky that what I chose should be so full of endless possibilities.

Do you have any special projects coming up? 

Yes. October 11th and 12th I am taking part in an event called Innovations in Ceramic Art in the Guildhall in Cambridge with makers from all over the country. I am showing wall installation pieces that up until now I have only exhibited in Belguim, so I am looking forward to making new work for this that will play both with perspective and light and shadow. Another exciting challenge.

Also in October I am showing my figurative work with Anglian Potters in the Ferini Gallery in Lowestoft.

In November preparation for Christmas exhibitions will be reaching a crescendo. Cambridge Contemporary Art will include my figurative work in their Christmas exhibition and I will have an open studio too.

You can visit Helen in her studio on weekends 2 & 3

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