Words by Mercedes Smith
For some much needed joy in 2021, look to the work of Linda Styles.
Some artists are just extraordinary, and so are some people. Potter Linda Styles, whose reputation as an artist and educator has long preceded her, is one such person. She may rightly be called the Doyenne of Cornish ceramics for any number of reasons, not least because her work is thrilling, and has a maverick edge that is completely irresistible. King of all things maverick, Banksy himself describes Linda’s work as “a chaotic comfort that needs no convincing”, passing final, authoritative judgement by adding “Me likes”.
‘The Wild & The Tame’
Linda studied Studio Pottery at Falmouth College of Arts in the early nineties. As an undergraduate she was selected for Ceramic Contemporaries II at the V&A in London, and was commissioned by Sir Terence Conran to create an exclusive tableware range as part of the collaboration Styles and Ward. Since that time, she has established herself as a maker of wondrous objects, regarding herself as a ‘do-er’, and deeming the theory and politics of contemporary art irrelevant to her practice. “I don’t work on that level. I just want my work to give pleasure, even as broken shards,” she tells me. This attitude has raised eyebrows in the art world over the past thirty years, but has given her the freedom to make brilliant, truly distinctive work. As a maker, she describes herself loosely as an ‘art potter’ or ‘assemblage artist’ with a particular affection for Beat culture and cheap, mid-century ornamentation: her house, I discovered on our first meeting, is a wonderland of fabulous things and spectacular vintage objects. As a woman, she describes herself as ‘high church indoctrinated to the point of rebellion’, a little girl who grew up against a backdrop of 50s nostalgia and 60s nuclear family living. What saved her, throughout a particularly turbulent childhood, was the absolute order she learned to achieve through the placement of what she calls ‘divine objects’. “I am drawn to small objects in particular, because of my childhood obsession with Wade china ornaments,” Linda tells me. “I was forever arranging and rearranging them to my heart’s content. It was an important ritual for me, their placement being of the utmost importance. Since then, any home I have ever lived in has been a project of placement, nostalgia and sentiment, an assemblage of make believe, of smoke and mirrors.” Accordingly, curated groups of pots are important to her work. “I tend to make collections, to make assemblages of many pieces, sometimes outrageous in their design, and at other times more discreet.”
Working in groups of five to eight pieces at her Falmouth studio, she begins by assembling soft sheets of terracotta, manipulating and distorting their form instinctively, as the mood takes her. “Then I pour on white slip to get a luminous ground – like painting – and then start with the coloured oxides. I have so many potions it’s mind boggling, and I underlay and overlay to get different effects. It is semi-random, though based, at its heart, on the formal elements of design – but it is an assemblage of sorts, an evolving process.” If her process is instinctive, her inspirations are just as deliciously uncensored, and appropriate to the alarming, unexpected or banal vagaries of real life: “This pot,” she tells me, of a splayed-top bowl made during lockdown titled ‘Home, At Once a Prison and a Sanctuary’, is inspired “by my garden in Falmouth.
“Also featured is a barium splattered and burnished gold rat, because I had unwelcome guests under the floorboards. And the exterior has five downwards slanting arrows, signifying that sinking feeling that is to do with enforced isolation, and ‘forget-me-not’ shapes, chosen one melancholy evening for lost loves.” This unapologetic and darkly witty approach to life’s tougher issues is one of the most attractive aspects of her work, and her personality. Linda’s life to this point has been a challenging one, on many levels, but it has made her incredibly resilient, and fostered a great sense of irreverent humour. She tackled three months of lockdown for example, entirely alone, with the creative panache of someone who knows how to make it through the hard times; apart from working ferociously in her studio, she tells me: “I found it helped to make a thing of ‘cocktail hour’, the ritual of drinking a Martini Sour from my favourite glass, sitting in my favourite spot doing nothing but using all my natural senses and drifting off into daydream land.” Linda’s experiences as a woman, and a mother – and an awareness of her female ancestry, including a grandmother who tailored waistcoats for King George V – are perhaps the most important influence on her work. Her pots celebrate the feminine, in both form and intent: “They have very few angles or straight lines,” she tells me. “They are built as softly as possible, and are naturally inclined to slump, alluding to the feeling of being ‘worn out’.” Similarly, floods of jewel-like colour across the surface of her pots, as well as touches of real gold and a passionate, sometimes furious approach to mark making, suggest the emotional detail any woman engaged in the realities of womanhood will acquire over her lifetime. “My work is about the strength of women in the face of adversity,” says Linda concisely, and many of her works capture this feeling perfectly, often with a great deal of ‘funny’ thrown in.
I am reminded of a dazzling little work on the shelf in Linda’s house, which includes a woman’s flailing arms and comical screaming head, all of which, perversely, are detachable from the body of the pot. It is partly inscribed with the words ‘Her head became dislocated from her body from that moment on’ and like all good comedy, it made me laugh because it chimed instantly with my own life experience. ‘Beauty’, also, is a key concept in Linda’s work, in the face of a contemporary art world that continues to be hostile to the word. “What is function? What is beauty? Is it just cheering yourself up with beautiful objects? I think it is!” she declares with conviction. It is this uncensored expression of beauty, and of female energy, that is at the heart of Linda’s work. Love, devotion, heartbreak, loss, joy, rage, humour and a deliberate disregard for creative or emotional boundaries of any kind, are expressed in her work through her passion for colour and form. “My practice,” she says, “relates to the emotive and instinctual. In that respect, I hope my work is about something ‘other’ than itself.
“What I am trying to do is to capture the power of enduring love, beyond the transient nature of our physical existence. My aim is to focus on all that is beautiful in this world, whilst acknowledging the lurid reality of darkness and despair.”
Linda Styles is represented by Long & Ryle, London, and Compass Gallery, Glasgow.