With her experimental approach to design, nothing is quite as it seems in ceramic artist Sara Moorhouse’s colourful world…
In Cardiff, a building is shaking. Fragile ceramic bowls tremble and rattle. One inches dangerously close to the edge of a shelf but Sara Moorhouse slides it back to safety with a well-practised hand gesture. ‘The railway line runs right behind our building,’ she says, as carriages thunder past the window of her airy first-floor studio. ‘So every now and again, somebody loses a pot.’ This is Fireworks Clay Studios — home to 20 artists, who share kilns in a converted coach house that has been a thriving hub since it opened in 1994. The walls of Sara’s space are plastered with colourful sketches, intriguing diagrams and rows of carefully labelled glaze samples. It is part studio, part laboratory. ‘I don’t know how this one will look yet,’ she says, pointing to a sketch of a bowl pinned to the wall, ‘but I want to find out’.
She’s been busy lately, putting the finishing touches to a new range of her signature striped bowls to show at the ‘Made London’ exhibition in October, while juggling life as a mum to her two-year-old son. ‘People always joke that I dress him in a lot of stripy clothing,’ she laughs. ‘It must be a subconscious thing.’
Sara’s career path has not been a traditional one. Having started out studying ceramics at the University of Wolverhampton, she quickly switched to illustration instead. But, wary of the solitary life freelance illustration presented, she taught art for six years after graduating before going part-time to try her hand at children’s book illustration. When that didn’t work out, she returned to her first love and began a year-long MA in ceramics at Cardiff School of Art & Design in 2003. ‘I started painting bands on a bowl with a brush and everything just fell into place.’
During the same period, Sara was driving to Nottinghamshire every few weeks to visit her mother, who was unwell at the time, and became acutely aware of seasonal changes. ‘I drove past a field one week and it was green then, two weeks later, the same field exploded into a sea of brilliant yellow oilseed rape in full bloom,’ she says.
‘It was completely transformed.’ She began to study the way that colours and lines appear to alter space and her debut ‘Arable Landscape’ series was born — a collection of bowls with stripes in bright yellow and green. She spent another year at university researching colour and glazes, then moved to her current studio in 2005. A PhD in ceramics followed.
‘When you look at a valley, it’s split into squares and lines and bands of colour that make you look at it in a certain way,’ says Sara. ‘Because there so many different colours and lines to look at, your eye moves in a haphazard manner. I paint lines on the bowls haphazardly, too. You might start by focusing on the wider bands, or maybe on the red bands — it’s all down to you.’ The results are breathtaking and her colourful linear decorations make the bowls appear to morph and move. ‘A wide band at the top creates a tilt effect, while lines that are close together make the bowl appear to vibrate,’ says Sara. ‘Impressionist painters used a similar technique by painting coloured dots close together in their pointillist works.’
JUST AN ILLUSION
Sara is inspired by influences as diverse as David Hockney and William Turner — in fact, she once travelled to Switzerland to paint the Rigi mountain at different times of the day, as Turner did, then based a series of bowls on the palettes she saw. More recently, she has been toying with the interplay between the inside and outside of bowls. ‘I’m fascinated by the visual connection,’ she says. Her fans are hooked, too — eager collectors regularly commission her and she’s making ripples in the world of ceramics: her debut appearance at Chelsea Craft Fair in 2005 resulted in a batch of impressive stockists and in 2009 she was awarded first prize in the Vessel,
Form, Decor category at the Ceramics For Europe competition.
Sara traces her sensitivity to colour back to childhood when, aged nine, she painted a picture of an orange tent in a green field and instantly disliked it. ‘I’ve sometimes wondered whether I have ultra-sensitive cones on my retinas because I’m so aware of colour. Being in boring, beige surroundings actually depresses me.’
Sara picks up one of her latest pieces — a ‘Pulse’ bowl, with red and blue stripes. ‘I love the way that red looks pink when it’s next to royal blue, but orange when it’s next to grey-blue. It’s all to do with simultaneous contrast,’ she explains. ‘The cones on your retina are always seeking the opposite colour to the colour you’re seeing and projecting it, so we always see colour in relation to something else.’ She discovered that ‘white is never really white’ while on a skiing holiday, gazing at different coloured shadows on the snow. ‘The hue varies depending on the colour of the light. I think my friends thought I’d overdone the apres ski — I was obsessed!’
So, what’s next? Photos of seascapes taped to the wall provide a clue. ‘I want to explore the relationship between matt and gloss,’ enthuses Sara. ‘I usually work with matt glazes because the vertical reflective lines on a shiny bowl distract from the horizontal bands, but I’m fascinated by light on wet sand so I might adapt my methods,’ she says, her mind already racing. Spend some time with Sara and you’ll never see colour in the same way again…