Craig Underhill’s contemporary ceramics are inspired by the landscape.
Words by Jilly Easterby
From Saturday 27th May to Sunday 4th June, hundreds of artists, designers and makers from across the Duchy will throw open their studio doors and share their artistic practice against a uniquely Cornish backdrop of creek, countryside and coast.
As we follow the distinctive orange Os that denote these creative spaces in beautiful places, Open Studios Cornwall will provoke thought, enchant the eye and stimulate the senses in an exploration of multiple art forms. But the event is as much about people and place as it is about artistic purpose and process. It provides us with the chance to view Cornwall from myriad perspectives and take inspiration from the many ways in which its natural beauty can be perceived and reimagined.
The power of the landscape to catalyse creativity and evoke memory is a recurring theme that binds this year’s participants – whether it be the chatter of crows on a winter tree, the pleasing symmetry of a ploughed field, the silence of the forest or the roar of the tide. Whether you were born in the county or drawn to it from elsewhere, there is something unique about Cornwall’s landscape, as ceramic artist, Craig Underhill, explains.
“I was introduced to Cornwall by my partner who was raised near Saltash. She came to live with me in the Midlands but we visited here a lot. It is something about being drawn to the sea but there is also an intimacy to the landscape here that is like no other. In the Midlands, even the countryside seems quite industrial because of the farming techniques that are deployed there but in Cornwall, there is a sort of history that you can see, which just isn’t visible in other parts of the UK.
“I love walking up Trencrom Hill – it’s a real surprise when you reach the top and you can see Godrevy on the north coast and St Michael’s Mount to the west – and when you drive past St Ives down to Zennor, it feels like you are in another country.
“Heading along the road to St Just, you feel like you have crossed a boundary to an ancient land. I have been reading about the Neolithic landscape in the Penwith area and when you pause beside its stone circles and standing stones, the connection with human activity, with the people from pre-history who placed them there, is tangible, and that is a sensation which I am keen to explore in my own work.”
Craig’s slab-built vessels that incorporate incised lines, engobes, underglaze, glaze and oxides have been described by writer and curator, David Whiting, as “three-dimensional canvasses for his richly abstract painting and marking that explore clay as a strong ground for his resourceful interpretations of landscape, objects that evoke the colour, space and texture of our changing environment.” Paintings on ceramic is how Craig describes his angular, architectural creations, which combine modernist, contemporary sophistication with scratches and etched marks that evoke that sense of pre-history to which he alludes.
“At ceramics shows, people ask if I paint as well and I say ‘Yes, these are the paintings, but they are done in ceramic.’ It is quite difficult for people to understand them in that way because they are three-dimensional but they are very painterly in terms of colour and contrast; the juxtaposition of gloss and matt.”
Craig began his creative journey with a practical HND in ceramics where he learned about materials, techniques and how to both throw and slab-build clay.
“The Bernard Leach tradition was prevalent, but the course didn’t enable me to explore the ideas that underpinned my work and after two years, I felt there was more to do,” he explains. “Whilst looking for a degree in ceramics I came across a fine art course in Portsmouth that offered me the opportunity to study ceramics and further my technical knowledge but within a fine art context, which proved to be the ideal combination.
“I have always been interested in painting. As a student, I had to write an essay and do a presentation about another artwork. A lot of people decided to do ceramicists but I was rebellious and did mine on abstract expressionism. Franz Klein loved his mark-making. The New York painters took themselves really seriously. It made me think that maybe this was an activity that you needed to take seriously and devote your life to, which set me on my path.
“I also remember, as a 19-year-old, observing the work of John Maltby and feeling that there was something in it that was just so right that I had to aim in that direction somehow. He used matt surfaces whilst most of the ceramics I had seen were more functional pots with glazes that I didn’t like. There was also a sense of landscape in his work – of placing marks around forms and I was interested in how they complemented each other. I could see that is what he was doing and also looked more widely at other artforms by Cy Twombly, the American painter and David Carson, the graphic designer. I remain drawn to the way in which Carson uses text and his sense of composition – the layout of all the elements and how they seem to connect in some way.”
The principles of fine art and Craig’s early influences are manifest in his ceramic practice, largely through his distinctive use of colour, texture and shape.
Whilst we are familiar with the earthy tones and aqua hues of Cornish ceramics as well as the influences of Cornwall’s industrial heritage, geology and the rich colours of sea and sky, Craig’s colour palette is as unusual as it is striking with its rich reds, chalky blues, sunshine yellows and woodland greens.
“I do see all of those conventional colours associated with traditional ceramics but by looking a little closer at coastline and countryside, I discover a whole new spectrum as the seasons pass,” comments Craig. “When I first moved here, I cycled to the beach at Godrevy and stopped to look at what was growing in the fields, such as cabbages that were a particular type of bluey green and compared it with what I was used to in the Midlands, with its rather more industrial rurality. I spent ages trying to decide what that colour actually was and I do the same with the sea. What colour is it? Not what you would expect. Not the clichéd turquoises but a little bit yellow. The beach can become tinged with pink in a certain light. I really like looking closely at colours – looking at small spaces – landscapes, not big areas, where you can hone in on a few bluebells or something. The colours that I use are not dominant in the landscape but they exist within it and that is what I see. Even on a wet, grey day when a shard of sunlight breaks through the clouds, the light will reflect in a certain way and it changes everything for a moment and all the colours change as well.
“The more you live here, the more you begin to notice the day-to-day elements of the landscape that might appear mundane but give the whole environment its character. The big beachscapes are wonderful but the smaller spaces are just more intimate and one of the best things about it is that it is all free. Going out and walking and looking at things doesn’t cost you anything yet you learn so much from what’s around you if you just go for a wander and open your eyes.”
The intrinsic temporality, the ‘see it and then it has gone’ side of nature is at the heart of Craig’s creative output. “I love going to Godrevy as it looks different every time whether that is due to season, light, tide or swell. The Towans, with their sense of history and derelict concrete buildings that are the relics of the former dynamite works – another example of human intervention in a dramatic natural landscape – are an ideal place for inspiration.
“I love how industry and nature get on and work together hand in hand. In time, the concrete will erode and nature will take over. I love how nature will always find a way.” Texture literally adds another dimension to the surface, which is what drives Craig to work in clay. “My ceramics are not just about colour and making marks. I add ceramic materials to create texture such as areas of glossy, shiny glaze to contrast with a rougher surface. All the marks I make, I never think of them as decoration. I avoid that word because it makes it sound like they are separate from the form. The marks and the form have to work well together. Steps cut into edges might become part of the form. A square drawn onto the surface might jut out from the edge.
“Shape evolves quite slowly. I aim to replicate the feel of the drawings in my sketchbook. Simple pencil drawings have a certain spontaneity; the line has a bit of energy. Years ago, I tried to transfer that into ceramics but it got a bit too sharp and lost its looseness. I am trying to achieve the same quality now. I don’t want the edges to look sharp and straight. I want a vertical line with a little bit of a wobble, a softness to it, a sort of imperfection.”
The stone distance markers in Cornish country lanes, covered in layers of lichen; the organic form of granite boulders and how they interlock in harbours, and a night-time walk alongside the inky dark waters of Copperhouse Pool all find their way into Craig’s lexicon and imbue his work with an energy that he wants people to feel.
“I encourage people to pick up my work. It is tactile. You appreciate something else about it through touch. You can feel the textures and surface, which adds a bit of understanding. Ceramics are meant to be tactile, which is quite different from painting where you wouldn’t be encouraged to touch the surface. When you do pick up my work and turn it round, you see how the marks move around the surface, how they continue around the corner. It is like a little narrative of marks going round the pot, to which each individual responds differently.
“A woman saw one of my pots in a gallery and said ‘That’s just like a walk I went on along the coast.’ I love that my work evokes a hint of this idea of place – a sense of place, a connection to a landscape that triggers a memory for someone. I really like that, the thought of communicating on a profound level through marks on a piece of clay, which say more than words can.”
For more information about Open Studios Cornwall, and how to visit the featured artist’s studio and the hundreds of participating artists, designers and makers, visit the Open Studios website. Craig Underhill’s work can also be viewed at The Yew Tree Gallery in Zennor in an exhibition entitled The Joys of Life from Monday 29th May to Sunday 23rd July 2023.