For Cassie Sharman, a ceramic artist from Cambridge, the lockdown presented a unique opportunity
Back in March, as the government announced the UK lockdown, many people were left with uncertainty and anxiety never experienced before. For artists and creative people, the lockdown period would present a further opportunity to express themselves through their work. The wider general public would also turn to art and crafts, many of whom were inspired by Grayson Perry’s Art Club show on Channel 4.
Cassie shared her story: “I’ve always wanted to start my own ceramic studio where I could get back to creating my own work. “Back in 2017, my husband and I planned a small extension to our family home, and we decided to also build a ceramics studio at the end of the garden – something I had always dreamed of having.
“We asked an architect Mike Tuck to design a studio that would complement the Victorian house due to its close proximity. It was a much bigger project than we anticipated, but while there were many difficult and stressful times during the year-long build, I came to enjoy the research and design elements of the process.”
The house on Riverside in Cambridge was the family home where Cassie grew up with her parents. “At first I was hesitant to move back into the house, as I wasn’t sure how I would feel with all the old family memories there, but we decided that remodelling the house could help start this new chapter of our lives. We were really pleased with the outcome of the project, and I couldn’t wait to get started back in a creative environment.”
However, once the new studio had been built, Cassie found her time in the studio was extremely limited. “We had a young daughter, Elodie, and I then gave birth to Jack in August 2018. The months would slip by, and the studio became more of storage space and a buggy and scooter park! I really wanted to get into the studio and spend time making, but family life came first, and my husband was working long hours.”
Before her children came along, Cassie also had to come to terms with the unexpected loss of her mother, Dr Julia Swindells. Her mother had always been very encouraging of her work, and as an only child, they were very close and supportive of one another. “Not only did the studio take a lot of time to set up, acquiring the tools and materials I needed took time, and I physically and emotionally didn’t have the energy to devote to my work”. Months later, that was about to change.
Cassie’s love for ceramics blossomed while she was studying Design Crafts at De Montfort University, Leicester. She was fortunate enough to be tutored by Sue Pryke, who went on to be a judge on The Great Pottery Throw Down. “During the first year, we used a range of materials, but I was most focused on using ceramics, which really inspired me. I mainly used stoneware and porcelain, and Sue Pryke’s specialism was slip-casting using moulds made from plaster. I would pour the liquid ceramic slip into my own moulds to create a form. After pouring out the excess liquid, I would leave the walls of the form in the mould until it was hard enough to remove.
“More recently, I have been using bone china and Parian, which you can leave in the mould to help keep their form; otherwise, they can change shape or warp. I also use alumina when firing to retain the shape of the pieces. I’ve really enjoyed experimenting with the different materials, and there is a feeling of great excitement when opening up the mould.”
At university, Cassie found that she was one of the few students interested in slip-casting as many of the others focused on metalwork and jewellery. “I was lucky to have Sue as my tutor and benefitted from some one-to-one technical sessions, learning how to mould-make and slip-cast.”
For Cassie’s degree show, she made a collection of monochrome vases, which she named Concerto. They were influenced by the piano and the rhythm of music but portrayed through porcelain. Cassie’s mother, Julia, was a keen pianist and musician and had helped her create the title. Her vessels became a ‘happy accident’, as they became marbled when she had to top-up the slip in a mould, using leftover black slip. She found that she really liked the way the two different porcelains marbled together. That collection was displayed on a stage designed by Cassie, and they sat together in harmony. Some of the vases were quite large and unusual looking. She also added accents to the rims in gold lustre, which gave some pieces an ornate feel. Her vases gained a lot of interest at the show, and she sold several pieces, which gave her the confidence to be able to sell her work in future.
After university Cassie came back to her hometown of Cambridge, where she continued her work, producing large marble-effect vases. At this time, she was renting a studio space at the Rowan Foundation. This fantastic organisation helps vulnerable adults with learning disabilities to learn skills to help them become independent. She also enjoyed helping out there with the occasional workshop to assist the students.
Cassie previously worked in some galleries in Cambridge where she sold some of her vases. This was a useful time where she was able to learn more about ceramic artists and the business side of running a gallery – not all of which she enjoyed! She decided to study for an Arts Management master’s degree at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge to learn more about the business side of the industry. During this time, she was approached to do some teaching at the Cambridge School of Visual and Performing Arts (CSVPA). Cassie became a Craft Lecturer where she enjoyed teaching 16+-year-olds for eight years.
“I really enjoyed teaching this age group, and there were some incredibly talented students from across the world, many of whom would go on to universities such as Central St Martins in London,” she said. One of Cassie’s main personal achievements was setting up an after-work-hours creative ‘Craft Club’ for the staff. “When you’re teaching, finding extra time for your own creative work can be challenging. Craft Club brought together similar-minded people who still wanted to create, learn and be inspired. Each week, a different member of staff led a class and taught us new skills, such as photography, printmaking, ceramics and glass, etc.”
When she left her teaching role to have a family, Cassie missed this creative time and the energy and enthusiasm of her colleagues. Over the next few years, she took a break from her work as she juggled family life, house renovations and the studio build. By August 2017 the ceramic studio in the garden was complete, but her confidence as a ceramic artist needed a boost.
After two and a half years of limited use, Cassie’s studio was about to feel a change. “My husband, Jon, was told that his job was to be furloughed until further notice. Schools and nurseries were shutting, and we were going to have to adjust to a new normal,” she explained. “The uncertainty of Jon’s work situation and his sudden availability to help with childcare gave me the inspiration to get in the studio, to experiment and to start producing work that I would be proud of and perhaps even sell again.”
Like many families up and down the country, the whole family was being creative in the house and garden. While Cassie was in her studio, Jon was using leftover paint from the house renovation for other projects. He and the children painted an old bench while Cassie looked on from her studio, where she was working on her new theme of brickwork, layered on porcelain vases.
Since being back in the studio, Cas-sie has been creating new pieces that are more functional and can be used as vases but have the architectural texture of bricks to make them unique. She casts many little bricks, which are layered up around a cylindrical form which she slip-casts. “I wanted to use bone china again, which is quite temperamental but is so white and translucent, it’s beautiful. I’m also us-ing Parian, which is self-glazing, and I am interested in the history of both of these materials. Even though Parian is off-white, it has the required luminosity, and the light works so well with it.”
The idea to make small bricks came over time; firstly from the house and studio build at home, where Cassie grew to realise her interest in Cambridge brick. “We live close to the Museum of Technology, which has a large brick chimney, and this has influenced me because I walk past it so often and you can’t help but notice it. My mum and I would visit my grandad in Otley in Yorkshire, and I loved driving through the little country lanes and the moors there, surrounded by dry stone walls. My work is a play on scale, and I am interested in the miniature and model aspect of architecture. My small cylinder is made up of approximately 2,200 handmade miniature bricks that are applied to the main form using tweezers and slip.”
Cassie soon received commissions and pieces have been sold in the UK, and one piece was sent recently to Sweden. “I’ve been extremely pleased with the finished pieces, as it has made all the hours of work attaching the bricks worthwhile; it’s an extremely lengthy process.”
Open studios in Cambridge runs every year over the weekends in July. Because of the lockdown, this year, artists were encouraged to display their work in their front windows as part of ‘Cambridge open windows’. Cassie made this her goal and used all the time possible from the start of lockdown to enable her to show some pieces. During this time, she built a website and launched an Instagram page.
“Each week in July, I tried to add a new vase to my collection, and I enjoyed setting up my window display. It felt great seeing people looking in to view my work and trying to listen for any feedback and comments about it – most of which were positive, thankfully!” Cassie was also keeping busy updating her online accounts, building awareness of her work and sharing information and communicating with other artists in the field.
Having now sold some pieces, and after receiving recent commissions, Cassie is delighted to be working as a ceramic artist. Next on her list of ambitions is to build a collection for an exhibition – hopefully by which time things will have become more normal again. “I really enjoyed the window display and showing my work online, but you can’t beat the feel of an exhibition, with guests mingling with a drink and learning about the work on display. Cambridge has some good exhibition spaces, so I can’t wait to find the right venue and to set up a show again.”
Cassie has always enjoyed teaching, so this could be another avenue for her. “Since having children, I’ve enjoyed doing art and crafts with them, and my daughter has shown a keen interest in my work in the studio. A next step for me is to put some courses together for small groups of children and adults. I’ve been improving my skills on the wheel, and I definitely want to continue learning and developing creatively.”
In terms of her work, Cassie is very much enjoying working with the brick-effect vessels and experimenting with their form and size. She has taken on some one-off commissions, such as a wedding anniversary vase with nine printed sunflowers to signify the wedding theme. She acknowledges that she may again move on to different forms and styles, but, for now, the bricks are helping to build her career and reputation as a ceramic artist.
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This feature first appeared in issue 44.