The beauty of the present moment and the briefness of existence.

Ceramic sculptor Phoebe Cummings works mainly with unfired clay. Her intricate and refined time-based installations of raw clay are inspired by the natural world and reflect its fragility and transience. We spoke with Phoebe Cummings to learn more about her thinking, her creative process, and her relationship with nature.

Phoebe Cummings - Triumph of the Immaterial,Woman's Hour Craft Prize, Victoria & Albert Museum, Symbioscene

Phoebe Cummings – Triumph of the Immaterial (clay, water ). The installation was shown at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, and was awarded with the Woman’s Hour Craft Prize. Photo Sylvain Deleu.

Video link: Triumph of the Immaterial installation at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Video link: Phoebe Cummings talks about her work, her thinking and her profound approach.

What inspires you most about the natural world?
The variation and beauty of nature is astonishing, it is never still, always becoming- even in decay.  I gain so much from paying attention to plants, insects, stones, rivers, the weather, and of course we are a part of nature, not separate to it.

You work with raw clay, which gets recycled again after each project. The decision to work with unfired clay and on site was originally driven by financial constraints, as you could not afford a kiln or studio space after completing your Master’s degree. But you have stayed with this material- and energy-conscious way of working until today. Do sustainability reasons also play a role in this decision? 
It was not the driving force behind working in this way, it was more rooted in sustainability in a personal sense, I needed to continue making almost as a personal means of survival and this offered me a way to do so. However, I feel much more comfortable working in a way that does not fix objects and materials in one form and has a lower impact on the environment. I think a lot about that now, about the use and re-use of materials. I like that this process helps sustain both me and a conscious approach to making art at the same time, without being forced. I try to find ways to re-use other materials such as armatures between projects too, and am increasingly looking towards alternative, biodegradable solutions for these aspects where possible.

What fascinates you about the unfired state of clay? Do you consider the unfired state to be more ”natural“?
I think in this state clay has a distinct voice and seems most alive. It changes so much, it’s responsive but also has agency. I also think about how water is an overlap between both clay and human bodies. I have made a number of works in humid environments, so the material is also sensed in the air. I am very interested in how sculpture has atmosphere and is perceived in non-visual ways. Perhaps there is a sense in its wet state that clay is closer to something human, whereas its transformation in a kiln under extreme heat takes it somewhere closer to rock. Within an installation of raw clay the marks of the body produced through making are always visible; finger and palm prints, the marks of gripping, kneading, pushing, there is something very direct and intimate about working with this raw state.

Art has the extraordinary potential to offer immersive and sensory experiences to an audience, and to convey messages on an emotional level. How do you see the role of your work in relation to the environmental challenges of our time and to societal changes? 
I think there is a heightened awareness across the work of both time and fragility, and the impact of our actions and care. Some works I have made also highlight endangered or extinct plants, holding up what stands to be lost. There is often a tension in the work between the beauty of the present moment and the inevitability of decay and death, it rests of that contrast of the elaborate, labour intensive construction of the pieces and their briefness of their existence.

Do you think a changed human-nature relationship is needed? And if so, do you intend to affect your audience’s relationship to nature? 
I believe the future really requires us to move beyond anthropocentric ways of thinking and acting. I hope in some small way the work might encourage the viewer to pay attention or perhaps re-attune how they observe and interact with their environment.

In your work, you often refer to historical decorative objects and their frequent fictional representation of nature. What do you think is the attraction for artists to create imaginative worlds? And how do you think your motivation differs from that of historical artists?
I think often art can provide us with alternative spaces to dream, confront our fears, imagine possible futures. Art makes us feel and see the world anew. Ornament and decorative design speak a lot about human desire, I am fascinated by how we stylise nature, and often work with patterns or decorative motifs, almost reversing design back to a three-dimensional, natural environment that feels as though it could have grown. I see everything I make as a form of fiction to some extent and am very interested in parallels between writing and clay. I also don’t see beauty as a luxury, though I think the decorative is still largely frowned upon in contemporary art.

During your projects you collaborated with scientists from different disciplines. What potential do you see in art-science collaborations for both the artist and the scientist?
For me it is so interesting to gain perspectives from other specialists working with clay and ceramics. I was really struck in all the conversations I had with scientists that they wanted to recognise also how creative and beautiful the work they do is too. I think its important for different forms of knowledge to interact and feed each other. We can help each other to see, understand, communicate and innovate in new ways.

What does “living in harmony with nature” mean to you?
For me it is about being sensitive to the environment, doing the best you can to have as little impact as possible, living with an awareness of the seasons and cycles and supporting other life forms to thrive.

Phoebe Cummings - Triumph of the Immaterial,Woman's Hour Craft Prize, Victoria & Albert Museum, Symbioscene

Phoebe Cummings contrasts her elaborate installations with their briefness of their existence. Photo Alun Callender

Video link: Phoebe Cummings – This Was Now at Wolverhampton Art Gallery.

3 Phoebe Cummings - New Art Centre, Symbioscene

Phoebe Cummings – Antediluvian Swag (clay, wire, steel). An installation for the sculpture park of the New Art Centre, Roche Court, UK in 2016. Photo Sylvain Deleu

Artist Profile
Phoebe Cummings studied Three-Dimensional Crafts at the University of Brighton before completing an MA in Ceramics & Glass at the Royal College of Art in 2005. She has undertaken a number of artist residencies, in the UK, USA and Greenland, including a three-month Arts/Industry residency at the Kohler Co. factory, Wisconsin (2008) and six months as ceramics artist-in-residence at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (2010).  Cummings was selected as the winner of the British Ceramics Biennial Award in 2011.  Recent exhibitions have included a commission to make work for Swept Away at the Museum of Arts & Design, New York in 2012 and a solo show at the University of Hawaii Art Gallery, Honolulu (2013).  She was awarded the second ceramics fellowship at Camden Arts Centre, London (2012 – 2013), was the inaugural winner of the Woman’s Hour Craft Prize and was shortlisted for the Arts Foundation Awards 2018. She was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Brighton in 2019 and is Research associate at the Ceramics Research Centre – UK, University of Westminster.

Ingrid Ruegemer

Fields of Expertise: Art, Craft, Design