As a lettering artist and studio potter I work in clay, handmade paper and driftwood from the Thames, but my primary structural medium is words. Working with text is a way to examine how the light shows through, how materials and processes are given meaning by thought and language, how the physical world is brought to life by words.
I am not yet so lost in lexicography, as to forget that words are the daughters of earth… (Dr Johnson’s Preface to the Dictionary.)
So in my work I begin with the text, and use lettering as an architectural framework for the design, both mapping device and entry to the volume enclosed. The marks on the surface lead the eye to the inner space contained, the meaning within – not only within the vessel but also implicitly or metaphorically within the planes of wall panels or the layered textures of paperworks, or the volume of an artist’s book.
Setting a text or poem in this way gives both an immediate visual apprehension, and a slower, more contemplative reading which can lead to an enhanced awareness of the text and its relation to the form. I liken this process to that of setting poetry to music, with the same implication of translation and reinterpretation, and the same kind of engagement of text to form.
Each text inspires a different form, or physical means of expression: sometimes the words will suggest to me the containment of the vessel, the cosmic transformation of the fire, the circling flow of the throwing process. Other texts suggest the light-bearing transparencies of paper, or the spiralling sequence of the pages of an artist’s book, or the dual-natured, transitional form of water-carved driftwood, holding the letters within the grain, waiting to be revealed.
When working in clay I use white stoneware, throwing on the wheel or handbuilding; I often combine reclaimed or found materials (such as Thames driftwood) with the clay, in constructions like banners and panels, and I sometimes use paperclay. I also work with hand-made recycled cotton rag paper (Khadi), which in its turn has qualities closely related to the clay – with this I make artist’s books, contemporary illuminated manuscripts and paperworks, which also have formal references to my work in clay. It’s all connected.
I like to include chance elements contributed by the firing, or by the quirks of found materials, as well as the inevitable changes and patina contributed by time, and I like to allow themes to emerge in a sequence of related works, rather than prescribe too much. These groups of works become collections, which I like to exhibit together, ideally with a site-specific relationship to the venue.
When working on clay, I decorate with underglaze oxides with a brush, freehand onto the raw dried clay. I sometimes use 9ct gold lustres, and some pots and panels are glazed with a clear feldspar glaze. – sometimes I like to leave the clay bare. I fire works in clay to 1255° with green electricity.
When working with found materials and handmade paper I paint with watercolour and acrylics combined with natural pigments and raw materials – charcoal, beeswax, salt, sand, driftwood, linen, ink – and I use an unconventional lot of mark-making tools – wooden peg, clay shard, slate fragment, flint, feather quill – my favourite lettering ‘pen’ is a little driftwood stick picked up on a beach of the Thames in London.
Liz Mathews Potters’ Yard London 2013