Sustainability, ethical practices and tackling the circular economy are increasingly important issues for designer-makers. In this interview we ask ceramicist Alison Brown about this area of her practice.
Design-Nation asked: Please tell us about your practice and how your business began.
Alison Brown: I am a multi-disciplinary artist using ceramics primarily, but also incorporating textile and metal techniques. My second life as a maker occurred after graduating with an MA Ceramics from Bath School of Art in 2018. I’m passionate about the tactile qualities of materials, sculptural pieces which can be worn or hung on the wall, work that inhabits the in-between.
DN: What inspires you?
AB: During 2020 I began creating short videos as an attempt to tell stories and provide context for what I was making, inspired by environmental concerns for the current state of our oceans and marine life.
While I was studying at Bath I became increasingly provoked to live in a more sustainable, thoughtful, kinder way, so bought a dilapidated old chapel with a derelict garden on the Devon / Dorset border in southwest England, with a view to growing our own organic fruit and vegetables. It’s a long term project, but the health benefits of eating vegetables cooked within five minutes of being dug up from the soil, rather than out of season and flown half way across the world is important.
DN: Do you address the issues of sustainability and ethical practice in your practice at the moment? What have you done and what impact has this had on your practice?
AB: I love the challenge of repurposing materials; things that I’ve found while out walking, stuff I’ve had for years that suddenly becomes exactly the right piece – it justifies my habit for hoarding! I do use new material such as porcelain which is expensive, but my methods of making ensure every scrap is used. Kilns are always fired full, and often I use surface techniques which enable single-firings. I also have a Rohde eco-kiln which helps to reduce electricity consumption.
DN: What are your concerns around making your practice sustainable and or ethical?
AB: I am hugely mindful of just making more ‘stuff’; filling the world with yet more tat. As artists I believe we should make with care and meaning. It is a dilemma for me, and yet being creative with my hands and mind is fundamental to me – I get quite ill if I can’t articulate and make real the ideas bumbling around in my head in some way. Having a purpose over this past year, reminding myself that we have to look after our seas because they are essential to our species, is one way to justify my making. We also have to choose our battles.
DN: The cycle of making is a creative act but also produces waste. Have you thought of how to reduce waste?
AB: I use found or foraged materials where possible, and every scrap of clay. There is a circularity in how I work; themes long forgotten suddenly re-emerge from a chrysalis. Remodelling old work, altering and improving, brings it to life again along with a new existence.
DN: Do you know the background of the materials you use? Where do your materials come from?
AB: The porcelain comes from Italy and has been out of production since the start of the pandemic. The iron wire I use for weaving baskets I do need to investigate. Most other materials I’ve either had for years, bought second-hand, or found while out walking. I recycle packaging whenever possible. It can be hard to evaluate the origin of every single item used but I believe we have to at least make a start to conserve our natural resources and make decisions about whether new materials are truly necessary.
DN: What would make it easier for you to change your practice – what kind of support would help you embrace sustainability and ethical making practices? And what topics interest you for future research and development?
AB: Changing any elements of my practice would involve investing time for research and consequently require funding: this is something for further investigation. For example, I could decide only to use local clay if there was a farmer nearby who was amenable, however this would fundamentally change my aesthetic and making processes. I did a considerable amount of research during my MA into environmentally sustainable practices within textiles and ceramics so I am sure sections of that will emerge again when my conscience is troubled, and at the appropriate time.