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From the past into the future; From Renaissance art into contemporary ceramics–The work of Leah Jensen

From the past into the future; From Renaissance art into contemporary ceramics–The work of Leah Jensen

An artist’s work is often experienced in waves. The first wave is simply taking it all in–both visually and sensorily. Here, the viewer forms his first impression unaided by any information from the maker. Then the next wave hits–an insight into why and how that piece of art was created, and a window into the mind and hands of the maker is created.
Understanding Leah Jensen’s work is a classic example of this layered and sequenced experience. 
 Primavera, by Leah Jensen. The process of creating this piece from Renaissance art is seen above.

Primavera, by Leah Jensen. The process of creating this piece from Renaissance art is seen above.

At first glance, you marvel at the precision and detailing of her carved porcelain vessels–wondering how the beautiful and complex web of cuts was created, and if any digital tools had played a role. A second wave arrives, and you realize that a painstaking, self-made process lies behind each handmade vessel; that there is nothing arbitrary about the abstract geometric patterns you see; and that Leah’s work is imbued with deconstructed fragments of art, and via it-history.

Through her distinctive technique, we learned, Leah takes visual and constructional cues from Art–especially Renaissance paintings. The result is that her work is rich and laden with meaning. Despite being clean-cut and contemporary in its form, its tendrils stretch back in time, thousands of years into the past.

Leah's work also carries with it rich contrasts in material and texture. Bringing together charred and cracked wood (as charcoal), with pristine porcelain, are among the many contrasting combinations of materials embedded in objects made by her.

Here is our recent interview with Leah–a resident maker at Cockpit Arts in Holborn, London. Through this conversation, we talk about the materiality, process, and inspiration behind her exquisite work. Trailing alongside this conversation are glimpses of Leah's process, through stop-motion animations created by her.


MD: Leah, your work brings together ceramic and wood crafts, as well as art–in the form of Renaissance paintings. When and how did you arrive at this union?

Leah: This is something that began while I was at university, studying Contemporary Crafts. We were taught multiple techniques as part of the program; in a wide range of materials, and we were encouraged to experiment. I started to use porcelain, and like many others working with ceramics, I fell completely in love with it. 

At different stages in my life, I have been obsessed with a particular colour or combination of colours. At University–in my early 20’s–the colours were black and white. With this in mind, I decided to create the greatest possible contrast in both colour and texture, while using porcelain as my primary material. I considered what would be the opposite of porcelain–a material that was dark, rough and dirty– and charcoal emerged as the perfect match. 

I had admired the unique tones achieved from burning wood for a long time now. With this combination of materials (porcelain and burnt wood), I was also drawn to the idea of creating a subtle feeling of discomfort in the viewer–one that would more than likely only affect other makers. After all, burnt wood is dirty to the touch–would it not tarnish the clean, smooth surface of porcelain?

 In Leah Jensen's  Renaissance Vessels , we see the pairing of carved porcelain with burnt wood. Seen here is the pattern mapping, and final vessel, based on  Madonna of the Quail.

In Leah Jensen's Renaissance Vessels, we see the pairing of carved porcelain with burnt wood. Seen here is the pattern mapping, and final vessel, based on Madonna of the Quail.

MD: Your making process is unique: You map paintings onto the surface of clay vessels, and then carve into them to create faceted porcelain forms. Tell us more!

Leah: For a few months, I had been developing the ability to carve into clay in a distinct geometric style, I was enjoying the increasing complexity and precision, but I still felt like something was missing: I needed a deeper narrative to my work.

 Around this time I happened to read an article about the relationship between mathematics and art during the Renaissance period. The article revealed artists’ preliminary drawings and calculations, and I was fascinated. I can’t say how the idea for the pattern-mapping developed from there; It just seemed like the most obvious step forward for me. 

 A series of drawings by Leah illustrates her process, and the steps she follows–bringing deconstructed Renaissance paintings into faceted ceramic forms.

A series of drawings by Leah illustrates her process, and the steps she follows–bringing deconstructed Renaissance paintings into faceted ceramic forms.

Today, the sequence I follow flows like this: Once I have my hand-built vessel at hand, I apply images of a painting onto the unfired clay surface. I then use pins to pick out points within that painting which I feel are key to the layout–they might be facial features, negative space created by limbs or the corners of buildings. Once the paper and pins are removed, I am left with a network of pinholes, which I then join to create my carvings. The irregular intervals in each piece pose a complex challenge and test my carving ability. At the same time, these points are dictated to me in a very sporadic way, which I don’t feel I would have been able to achieve as effectively by any other means. 

MD: Leah, you challenge digital fabrication in some way, by creating complex forms that would appear to be 3-D printed, but are handmade instead. When did this contradictory relationship with digital forms of making begin?

Leah: This is not something I had put any thought into until I showed my work in public for the very first time; people asked me about 3D printing, about the software and machinery I was using. Initially, I was shocked, and a little bit disheartened. I even considered altering the appearance of my work to show that it was handmade. 

Ultimately, I decided to embrace the fact that the vessels looked machine-made, as well as play around with this idea. That is when I began using the phrase ‘anti-digital,' as a way to immediately draw people's attention, and make them question what they are looking at. 

The endurance of making each piece is critical to me; each piece usually takes between 120-180 hours to carve–the same action repeated over and over again. So, despite being fascinated with 3D printing, as of now, I find little enjoyment in using digital techniques in my work. 

There is something too important and therapeutic for me about making things with my hands that I couldn’t imagine giving up. 
I love the smell of juniper when you sand it; I love the sound that porcelain makes when I am carving, and I love losing track of time while painting.

 The painstaking, handmade process behind Leah's anti-digital works.

The painstaking, handmade process behind Leah's anti-digital works.

MD: Beyond this geometry lurking within Renaissance art, what inspires your work?

Leah: I really like playing with contrast, putting odd combinations of materials and mismatched imagery together. With my ceramics and wood vessels, I like clean lines and simple forms, as there is already so much detail; Whereas my other work is far more chaotic and rambling.

There are many creative people in my family, and I often find that their work has unknowingly influenced what I’m doing. Growing up, I was in awe of my mother’s sketchbooks–I loved the way she put colours and textures together. I was 9 when she started attending ceramics classes, and I’m sure that is when the seed was planted for me. 

MD: To what extent does the nature of the materials you work with–clay and wood–determine the final form of the vessels you create?

Leah: As anyone working with clay will know, porcelain is a very temperamental material. And the techniques I use push it to its limits. This has meant that I have been a little restricted in terms of scale. Therefore, I have been testing many different types of porcelain to see if I can find something tougher that will allow me to make larger works.

 Leah works with different kinds of clay and porcelain, seeking a material that will allow her to make larger, but equally detailed works.

Leah works with different kinds of clay and porcelain, seeking a material that will allow her to make larger, but equally detailed works.

I have also experimented with a Grogged stoneware clay that turns black when it is fired. Both these clays have such different and rewarding qualities, but nothing exceeds the incredible level of detail that can be achieved with porcelain. I also love the transformation of wood when you scorch it when the surface starts to crackle and craze.

MD: Are there other materials you would like to explore and work with?

Leah: I constantly think about and use different materials in several projects that I do, separate from my pots. I love experimenting, and I don’t think of myself as a ceramicist alone. 

However, with the vessels, I have so many ideas that I still want to test within clay and wood, that there isn’t any space to incorporate other materials at the moment. I haven’t thought about using glazes yet as well; it is an intimidating and exciting territory.

MD: What are you working on right now?

Leah: At the moment I am working on a series of vessels that will be shown at The New Craftsmen as part of London Craft Week this year. All the paintings I am using for the pattern-mapping technique, have been chosen from The National Gallery in London because I wanted to be able to study them first hand.

MD: How has being at Cockpit Arts helped develop your studio and business?

Leah: This is the first time I have had my own studio space, and it has been an unbelievable experience so far. Just 18 months ago, I was working from my mother’s tiny spider infested shed in chilly Cornwall. To be able to have everything I need, in a well organized, warm environment with ample space, has made every aspect of my practice and business so much clearer and more efficient.

The one to one sessions with the business development team at Cockpit Arts have been vital for me, making sure I’m grounded and heading in the right direction. Also just having another perspective is so valuable as well, as many makers often spend a lot of time in their own heads. The other makers in the building have such wide-ranging practices, so I also feel very fortunate to have a network of people I can discuss making with, something that I have missed since completing university. 

MD: Thanks so much Leah, for speaking with us, and sharing your journey and process with us!


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