Denise O’Sullivan: Made in Stoke-on-Trent
‘I call it a “toffee pot” – it’s multi-use: for tea, coffee, or gin.’
I am sat in a freshly painted unit at a canal boat yard. Longboats are lined up outside along with the cars in the carpark. It is a fabulous space, full of potential in the heart of the Potteries in Stoke-on-Trent. I am with Denise O’Sullivan, a local ceramic artist and she is telling me about a new line of tea-pots, or ‘toffee pots’ as she has coined them, that will be available for Christmas.
The elongated style that she describes evokes images of dancing shapes in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland during the Mad Hatter’s tea party, for me, at least. It’s an inspired idea, a multi-use coffee or tea pot, made with the same porcelain and bone china clay base as her other pieces, completed by the mix of print and hand-painting surface design that is distinctive in O’Sullivan’s ceramic works.
‘I just want it to put a smile on someone’s face’ she tells me.
Yet this is not just restricted to the designs for the surface of the ceramic ware she produces, even the rounded shape of her current line of mugs has been designed to invite the addition of hands, cupped around the base, to be warmed by the surface of the porcelain and its contents. The feel of the mugs, and her other work, she says, is an integral part of the design.
Collections and Shrines
This alluring sense of earnest nostalgia runs through her work and ethos as she tells me that much of her inspirations are rooted in her life in the Potteries. Memory and tradition are key concepts and she initially started building ceramic installations, inspired by the her Nan’s home. ‘She had collections of things, from where she had been, all lined up. It was like a shrine’ states O’Sullivan. These objects would all tell stories, which she sought to recreate within her own artistic practice.
This notion of warmth, memory, and traditional imagery was borne out in O’Sullivan’s earlier work as ceramic cakes. ‘I was in an apron, and I had all of the ceramic ingredients, but was using cake baking tools and techniques’, with the idea to try and make representations in one medium that had evocations of another. The impetus to focus on cakes and tea making came from the traditional notion of ‘have a cup of tea and a piece of cake’ as a universal articulation of support and sympathy in any given situation; another memory of O’Sullivan’s Nan.
It was not just the methods of production that she was trying to imitate, but also making one material look like another. She tells me about a ceramic éclair that she had made, ‘I had this American glaze, and I managed to get it to look like chocolate. It actually had that matte look and slight appearance of “sweat” that éclair chocolate gets.’
Made to be Used
The installations of her student years had evolved and the focus was now on taking a small item out of that space; ‘a little piece that could be taken away’. With this in mind, O’Sullivan started to develop cakes with lids, initially to put jewellery in, but she was delighted to hear that many people had found different uses for them – such as homes for their scouring pads on the side of the kitchen sink. In this sense her ceramic works had completed a journey; emerging and evolving from her own childhood memories and finding themselves in the collection of valuables in another home.
‘I want things to be used’ she tells me, and I have to sheepishly admit that the two pieces of hers that have been bought for me (very well chosen gifts from my awesome best mate!) haven’t yet had the pleasure of use. Yet with the design of the shapes of the ceramic ware themselves having just as much thought as to their functionality as their aesthetics, it does seem as though not using them is a denial of their true intent. So, as we speak I have stopped saving my beautiful skull mug for a special occasion, or when I move house, and it is now sat beside me full to the brim with warming tea.
Back to Her Roots
These original artistic ideas, O’Sullivan feels, have now come full-circle. Her new space is a realisation of the installations that she started with; she points out a small alcove in which she plans to develop these ideas. Yet it will also allow her to create a space that can accommodate her everyday work, workshops, and gallery space. It will be multi-functional, and she tells me about the plans for moveable wall units to add a sense of flexibility to the space.
This is all part of a gradual expansion plan that she has for her business, Denise O’Sullivan Ceramics. ‘I’d like to have six ladies hand-painting the designs in the studio’, she tells me. Yet, this is not an ambition for market domination. With her rich history within the area, O’Sullivan is passionate about preserving traditional practice and adding to the cultural regeneration of Stoke-on-Trent and the legacy of its ceramics past.
Made In Stoke-on-Trent
As such, O’Sullivan is clear that all her works are 100% products of Stoke-on-Trent. It is a key aspect of her vision for the future of the business and design work; to actively engage and preserve the cultural heritage of the area. ‘I’d like it to be how it was; with each lady getting to hand-paint my designs but then signing their own name on the bottom, so they have some ownership of it.’
It’s a vision of a creative business that values the unique aspect of the handmade over mass production. Something which O’Sullivan tells me is at odds with some notions of the pottery industry which values uniform perfection. This was something she experienced herself when she had a studio at home. After leaving several cake designs on the workbench her father, a potteries worker, told her later that he had sanded the bottoms off for her – assuming that the uneven edges, reminiscent of a cupcake casing, were not intentional.
The contention between the pull of mass production over the integrity of traditional skills and handcrafted items does not seem to be an issue for O’Sullivan. It is clear that she is an artist who is just as in love with the process and history of her work as the end results. It is evident not only in her involvement with many local arts events and organisations, passion for traditional praxis, and support of the local industry, but also in the designs themselves.
Kitsch and Candy Colours
‘I wanted iconic images that could mix and match’ she tells me. She has a love of candy colours and kitsch, but has developed a more sophisticated edge to this well-known iconography. The flamingo imagery is a nod to her time spent in Las Vegas and the influx of Americana to British culture in the latter half of the twentieth century; bringing a touch of the exotic into the home.
Yet all of this imagery is still steeped in the notion of memory and tradition. O’Sullivan finds out some ceramic flowers to show me; historical pieces of Stoke pottery, ‘the ladies who made these would train for up to seven years’. I ask if these were the inspiration for the rose designs that are incorporated into much of her recent work. Not intentionally, she tells me, the thought was to create a spin on the traditional image of the English Rose.
Pop-art, kitsch, and music are all influential factors in her surface pattern designs. The lips design, that for me had immediately invoked images of the 60s and The Rolling Stones, O’Sullivan explains derived from notes to loved ones, often ending in a lipstick kiss on the paper. Her logo is also reminiscent of a message written in lipstick, and a series of the ‘kiss’ mugs have tiny lipstick swirl details on the handles. The ‘kiss, kiss’ design is now an integral part of the Denise O’Sullivan brand.
And it is certainly a brand that you should be keeping an eye on. There are lots of plans in place for the future, starting with this new studio space that we are sitting in. O’Sullivan’s pragmatic and determined approach has already presented itself in a plethora of opportunities. Some she has been able to take advantage of, such as her recent collaboration with Virgin Trains to provide them with British made ceramic ware for their trains. While others, such as committing to a large order when she showcased her work in Japan in 2009, have not come to fruition because of a lack infrastructure in the business to meet such high production rates in that time.
Yet, O’Sullivan does not see this as a drawback, rather a chance to learn and develop the business. Seven years on, she now has the potential production processes in place to fulfil such an order, and she is keen to capitalise on the contacts made in Japan. Again, however, this does not come from a purely commercial mindset: ‘I’d love to collaborate with Japanese artists’, she tells me, a way of reviving and fusing two different cultural approaches to ceramic tradition.
Recently O’Sullivan found a letter that she had as a response from an application she had sent to work at Emma Bridgewater, an iconic Stoke-on-Trent ceramic brand, when she was around twenty-two. The reply was simple: ‘You shouldn’t work here, go out and make it on your own’. With her current artistic trajectory it seems like this was sound advice.
Denise O’Sullivan will be hosting a Pop-Up Shop in her new studio on Saturday 10th December, 9am-1pm, Thursday 15th December, 3pm-6pm, and Tuesday 20th December, 9am-1pm. Or you can contact her by email to order: email@example.com.
O’Sullivan will also be part of the upcoming DUST exhibition taking place in the New Year. In addition she is active in many of the arts events within the Staffordshire area and beyond, to keep up to date with where you can see her work follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.