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Fragile memories sewn up in award-winning ceramic artist Anne Butler's work

Working with Parian porcelain can be a fragile business, but, for award-winning ceramic artist Anne Butler, it can also unearth layers of happy memories. The Co Down artist tells Gail Bell why she doesn't care about fragility and happy distortions are just part of the process

Ceramic artist Anne Butler at work in her studio in Carryduff, Co Down. Picture by Mal McCann
Gail Bell

ANNE Butler is profusely apologetic, but I have caught her at a delicate moment while in the painstaking throes of precision porcelain ceramics and she may have to dash off at any second, leaving me dangling...

Such are the occupational hazards of working with "very, very tricky" Parian porcelain which demands split-second timing in the kiln and a barely there touch from the artist, but this award-winning ceramicist is well used to fluidly picking up the conversation where she left off.

I suggest it must be a little like removing a prize-winning cake from the oven at just the optimum moment – but no, not really. You put a cake in, you get a cake out which is (for the most part) the same shape, while Parian porcelain – an unglazed, white porcelain – can be a rather unpredictable beast when under the intense glare of a hot, fiery furnace.

"It can be incredibly mobile while in the kiln," the Co Down-based ceramic artist says of the porcelain which dates back to the Great Exhibition of London in 1851and takes its name from Paros, the Greek island renowned for its fine-textured white, Parian marble.

"A difference of three degrees can mean you have a piece standing in the shape you put it in the kiln or it collapsing, but while I have experienced many tearful disasters, I have had many lovely 'accidents' as well.

"Parian has a satin, marble-like quality as a solid and a delicacy and translucency when thin. The loss rate is very, very high – usually one in every six [pieces] might survive, but breakages don’t bother me. Distortion and fallibility of material are part of experimental process and add to the overall effect."

A Parian porcelain sewing machine created by Anne Butler and inspired by her grandmother

In her studio in Carryduff, which also comprises a gallery for some of her favourite pieces, Anne creates beautifully distorted, asymmetrical and symmetrical vessels and cubes, as well as unique sculptures built up from wafer-thin layers of porcelain to create a three-dimensional object of choice.

Her latest, a sewing machine, owned by the Arts Council NI and inspired by her grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease, is currently on display in the recently opened Craft NI exhibition in its new home at Belfast’s Royal Avenue. Layers and layers of Parian are artfully constructed to create the shape of the machine itself, with moulded porcelain authentically mirroring cloth, scissors and even a spool of thread balancing on top.

"The sewing machine is probably one of the most poignant pieces for me," she says, "because it holds memories of my grandmother, who lost her own memories due to Alzheimer’s disease. When she died, we found her sewing machine alongside buttons and various other things that people keep in a sewing box. It struck a chord with me because I am inspired by archaeology and geology and the whole idea of things being buried in layers."

Many of her sculpture ideas are rooted in childhood, including an old-fashioned typewriter created in 2018 (currently on display in the Ulster Museum) and her first piece in Parian, a telephone, based on an old model she had at home, which was selected for the Royal Ulster Academy exhibition in 2015, not long after she returned to the studio after a long break away.

Ceramic artist Anne Butler. Picture by Mal McCann

It took "countless hours and a huge amount of breakage" before completion and she tentatively suggests that no-one else would "have been mad enough" to do it.

But, while such showpieces remain a talking point and have led to numerous selections for influential exhibitions, awards and bursaries – including the Rosy James Memorial Trust Award in 2017/18 – they are time-consuming, "incredibly complicated", and cannot be relied upon for an income.

For this reason, Anne's work also includes a retail and practical element – her distinctive cubes remain in high demand as decorative interior design pieces and salt and pepper sets are a popular component in the domestic vessels section of her ceramics collection, often characterised by abstract marks, light and shadow and calligraphy skills picked up while living in Japan.

The Cambridge-born and Ulster University trained artist lived abroad for 15 years in total, "sometimes for work, sometimes for an adventure", returning to Britain in 2000 to complete an MA in Ceramics in Cardiff before moving back to Northern Ireland where her son Dan (17) was born in 2002.

"I first moved to Northern Ireland when I was in my teens after visiting my uncle who was an astronomer and worked with Armagh Observatory," she says. "I fell in love with the place and decided to stay, first working with a Newry and Mourne craft company where I was introduced to ceramics for the first time.

"I studied the subject properly at Belfast Art College and then, when I took off on my travels, I tried to use my new skill wherever I happened to be. In South America, I worked for a volunteer organisation in Peru and I spent six years living in Indonesia where I had my own little studio while teaching English.

A typewriter made from pieces of Parian porcelain

"You absorb a lot of the local culture wherever you are and I loved using indigenous materials to make my pieces. When I had a year residency in Japan, for instance, I learned to make ceramic tea bowls and I also did calligraphy there which still shows up in a lot my work today."

Although she worked with porcelain in her early career, Anne almost stumbled across Parian by accident, after seeing it used in an exhibition at the FE McWilliam Gallery in Banbridge by Irish artist Ursula Burke and "knowing instantly" she wanted to try to work with it herself.

"The thing was, I had lost my confidence after such a long time away from ceramics when I was raising my son and doing some part-time teaching at Belfast Art College," she says. "I would look at my earlier work and think it belonged to someone else. Then, in 2015, a friend encouraged me to get back in the studio again and I never looked back. It is such therapeutic, meditative work and when I went back to it, I found it hugely rewarding."

Today, work never stops and the awards keep coming – this year she was selected for the Korean International Ceramic Biennale as well as the Royal Society of Sculptors Exhibition in London. She is currently preparing a number of pieces for the Ceramic Art London exhibition next March.

"I can't get insurance for travel, even though I have special boxes made and the pieces actually travel very safely," she reveals. "I was relieved, though, that my sculptures were selected for the online platform for the Korean event and didn't have to actually travel there. It is difficult enough, sometimes, keeping the pieces safe at home – I have a have a rather large dog with a very big tail."

:: Anne's sewing machine is among selected work from 19 contemporary Northern Ireland designer-makers currently on display at the Craft NI exhibition, 115-119 Royal Avenue (open until January 17). Visit craftni.org for more information and annebutlerceramics.com

The telephone – an old GP 230 model – Anne created from wafer-thin slices of Parian porcelain

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