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studio tour, british ceramicist interview

Meet the Maker: Beccy Ridsdel

by Camilla

The argument about what is art and what is craft still rumbles on, while Beccy Ridsdel’s work sits somewhere between the two: many of her pieces are conceptual but the theory that underlies them is elegantly played out through functional, beautifully crafted ceramics. We talk to Beccy about the origins of her work, and trace her relationship with clay back to a childhood spent drawing, painting and making in her mum’s studio…

Have you always been creative? 
I’ve always had something creative on the go – my mum and Gran taught me to knit and crochet as soon as I could hold the tools to do them and I’ve always customised my own clothes too. I was always drawing and painting and getting mucky in Mum’s workshop making little things from clay and plaster.

You mention your mum, who is a ceramicist. Do you think it was inevitable that you would end up working with clay?
I do think it was inevitable, although I didn’t realise it for quite some time. I trained as a jeweller first, which is great since I now have all those skills and they come in handy if I need to make some small metal pieces to add to my ceramics.

dawn ridsel, circus elephant sculpture, ceramics

A selection of ceramic works by Dawn Ridsdel, Beccy’s mum

How did you master your craft? 
I think I learned ceramics almost by osmosis since mum has been working with clay in one form or another for as long as I can remember. When I went to college I didn’t really do much ceramics (although I enjoyed it), preferring jewellery, but when a job came up working part-time in the ceramics department I jumped at the chance. It was a steep learning curve (a basic working knowledge can only get you so far) but soon I was able to answer the students’ questions and by the time I was studying for my degree I was hooked!

How do your pieces develop? 
I generally start with an idea which I work through in my sketchbook. Sometimes my work has a lot of theory so I try hard to get the message across in the simplest way, but also in a way which is elegant or interesting or beautiful to someone who doesn’t know the full story. I’m not in favour of impenetrable art that needs a full artist’s statement to understand it, but I do like to make work that has a little more story if people are happy to find out.

sketchbook ceramics, beccy ridsdel

Beccy uses her sketchbook to draw out ideas for pieces

How do you use your sketchbook? 
I find sketchbooks are very important. My work is very unlikely to look exactly like my drawings which are more like cartoony biro sketches than technical drawings but they are brilliant for working through my ideas. I draw the way I do because I often find I need to get a lot of information down very quickly, I then go back and add colour or pattern if I need to. I write myself notes all the time too, alongside my drawings – “what if I…?” or ‘should this be more….?” – because it helps me to think differently about my work and gives me new tangents to work from.

I’m fascinated by your Under the Surface collection. Can you explain the idea behind it?  
‘Art/Craft’ was originally an installation set up as an interrupted laboratory experiment. Traditional ceramic domestic ware was laid out on a table. To the left were stacks of intact plates, mugs and jugs; in the centre a surgical experiment was taking place – the ceramics were being dissected, like an autopsy, to find out what they are beneath the surface. To the right was a huge pile of discarded dissections. It’s evident by looking at the cut surfaces that the ceramics is craft through and through – but the scientist has kept on trying. This work forms part of an exploration of the differences between art and craft, and ceramics’ relationship to them. After a lot of research I realised that despite the best efforts of many ceramicists, in most people’s minds working with mud is pretty much always seen as craft, and therefore somehow lower than art. This work is a wry look at this attitude.

under the surface, surface pattern ceramics, sculptural bowl

Beccy’s Under the Surface series explores the idea of ceramics being dissected to find out what they are beneath the surface

What is it that draws you to ceramics over other art forms? 
I’m not sure. I love using very white clays because they give such a wonderful canvas. I like the immediacy of clay – even though the drying and firing can take a long time, you can come up with forms and see your ideas take shape relatively quickly.

Do you see yourself as a designer/maker, a craftsperson or an artist? Do you think there is a distinction? 
That’s a really hard question! I think a little of all three at different times. I’m sometimes an artist who always uses crafts techniques. I often like my work to have conceptual elements but it is really important to me that it’s really well made too, and also designed to work if need be.

Are there any artists or designers that particularly inspire you? 
My favourite artist is Rebecca Horn. I first saw her work at the Tate Modern 15 years ago and was fascinated. Then in 2011 I was lucky enough to have a piece in an exhibition with her entitled ‘Night Scented Stock’ at the Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York.

cooling tower jugs, beccy ridsdel

Beccy often takes unloved or ‘ugly’ things and encourages people to take a second look – such as these jugs inspired by industrial chimneys

What else influences your work? 
I have a real fondness for ugly things! For instance, my chimney jugs are based on factory cooling towers and I did a series looking at the lives of barnacles. I think ugly things have a beauty in their own right if people only look at them in the right way. I’m currently studying wind turbines, which cause the same sort of reaction in people as power station chimneys. Some people love them, some people hate them.

Where do you work? Can we have a studio tour? 
I share a ceramics workshop with my mum at her house in York. It’s set in a lovely garden and is separate from the house, so it’s a really great space to work from. It only has windows on the sunny side so it gets lots of light.

beccy ridsdel studio, dawn ridsdel, garden studio ceramics

Beccy works from a light-filled garden studio in York which she shares with her mum

What are your three favourite tools? 
I use a scalpel, a needle tool and cartridge paper a lot in my work. A scalpel and long needle are the only way to get the precision cutting I need for my plates and curls of cartridge paper are brilliant for supporting the clay as it’s drying while being flexible enough to move with the clay as it shrinks.

What’s the best thing about being a maker? 
I love those times when you’re in the workshop on your own with Radio 6 playing, trying out something new.

Have you got any exciting ideas for the future? 
I’m working on something new involving wind turbines. I think it might have something to do with the blades but I’m not sure yet, the bare bones of the idea are still taking shape. I’m also sending some work for an exhibition at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft next year, and I’m very excited about that!

Find Beccy’s work in her Folksy shop >>

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