Artist Interview

Dust, Jasperware and Colour Obsession – Interview with Joyce Iwaszko

Those familiar with Stoke-on-Trent’s vibrant world of art and culture will no doubt be familiar with the Airspace Gallery, situated near Hanley town centre. Not only a gallery, but also home to a number of artists in the studio spaces upstairs. This is also the venue of my interview with Joyce Iwaszko, where she has a studio space herself.

If you have read any of my recent posts regarding Stoke-on-Trent’s 2021 City of Culture bid, you may be familiar with the name. Iwaszko is one of the founding artists of the Dust exhibition series which are culminating in the final show of their six towns tour in Longton Town Hall at the end of this week.

The inspiration for her current set of paintings were the Jasperware of the Stoke-on-Trent ceramic stalwart, Wedgwood. While many associate blue and white as the signature colours of this range, Iwaszko had already completed a series of work that reflected this and wanted to try something new. By chance she happened upon the artwork for the City of Culture bid by Andy Cooke.

Lemon yellow, terracotta, dark red; these were all colours that were present in pieces of Jasperware, but also reflected in the yellow, orange, and red of the City of Culture logo. The inspiration from the bold colour choices within his design not only instigated a new direction in her painting, but was also the impetus for the two artists to connect and start the collaborative project, Dust.

This new direction provided a chance to create work that combined contemporary with aspects of the history and heritage of the city. And this juxtaposition of the historical and contemporary are common themes within Iwaszko’s work. The scale and the layering of the media within her work is reminiscent of traditional oil paintings, yet the subject is abstracted and the colour, tone, and texture take president.

The images have layers and layers of paint. Dark layers and light layers for depth, but also this equates to layers of history.

Iwaszko tells me that these paintings start with a large board which she then covers with cement. Mirroring the ceramics process, the initial application of the cement to the board is done with the hands and then tools are used to smooth the surface further. There may be many ways in which people could interpret this use of a traditionally masculine material by a female fine artist, and while Iwaszko has used particular materials to challenge gender roles in the past, this choice was practical rather than theoretical. ‘I use the cement to imitate the porous feel of the Jasperware; it was the material that was most like clay without being clay.’

The lines that stand out in the centre of each piece are also built by hand in cement, and are a symbolic gesture to the ‘platform’ given to figures within the traditional Jasperware designs. Some other surface embellishments are added by flinging cement at the image. These again are reminiscent of the ceramic studio, especially the area surrounding the potter’s wheel.

While Iwaszko would not describe herself as a ceramicist, she does feel a deep connection to the heritage of Stoke-on-Trent and its potteries industry. Arriving in the region in the 1980s from Northern Ireland when the ceramics industry was thriving had a significant impact. She became interested in Wedgwood and was drawn to the archives of experimental pieces that are held at the Wedgwood Museum. This was where the fascination with Jasperware was born.

There are also elements of regeneration in the works and the emergence of the Dust series of exhibitions. Stoke-on-Trent is a city that has gone through many changes in the last few decades; from thriving industry to socio-economic decimation, and is now emerging as a cultural capital. Many of the artists raised in the area have themes connected to these ideas replete throughout their work, in addition to a pride for the abundance of creative talent and innovation that has sprung from the local area, both in historic and contemporary times.

You want to paint, but what do you paint?

Through her artistic career, which includes an MA in 2004, Iwaszko has experimented with different mediums, including some ceramic work and plaster modelled sculptures. But her real passion was colour; ‘I am obsessed with colour’. And this is certainly clear within this series of work. Rothko is an immediate inspiration and Iwaszko seeks to take the viewer somewhere else through the use of colour.

There is a depth to the surface of her images. Subtle colour changes specifically designed to draw the viewer into the composition and direct the gaze. Paint is applied strategically to emphasise the layers. And like any good artist, Iwaszko always keeps her subject inspiration close to hand and creates her images with Jasperware and the City of Culture logo in sight. This allows for a response to the changing tones and hues of the ceramic piece and the creation of subtle variations through the paint.

The final stages of the image are created by adding ceramic pigments to the oil paint. The use of these was inspired by an exhibition in the Spode factory site in 2014, Journeys, Pathways, and Trackplans. At the Spode building a golden dust had formed in the crevices of the walls. It inspired a piece of work for that exhibition, ‘Spit and Dust’, to reflect the layers of building, industry, and its inherent danger. As such, Iwaszko has included ceramic dust in all of her pieces in this series.

There is also an installation element to the display of the paintings themselves. While they function as standalone images, within the Dust exhibition they work as a series and are complemented by multiple ware boards and carefully piled ceramic pigments. Once again, emphasising the meeting of the heritage of the ceramics industry with the contemporary aspects of fine art.

So, while these pieces of work function as memoirs of historical legacies throughout the city and its arts and industry, they also occupy a personal reflection as well.

Most of the artwork is quite personal and has hidden elements.

I can see there is an internal dilemma for Iwaszko as she tries to determine just how much of her inner process to divulge. The colours of the work are significant, and the numbers on the work are all personal. Iwaszko makes a link to her own secrecy of practice with that of the experiments of Wedgwood. But there is an element in all artists that seek to hold onto to aspects of their process. Making everything known to the public can sometimes negate your own personal connection to the work, so I respect and admire Iwaszko’s need to keep some elements to herself.

Like with all abstract work the initial simplicity that can sometimes be evasive in its aesthetic justification – you like it, but you can’t always vocalise why. There is a depth of concept and process that underpins these pieces. I was immediately drawn to Iwaszko’s work on my first visit to a Dust exhibition, and this greater understanding of the work has only sealed my appreciation.

Dust: Longton Town Hall will run from Friday 19th May to Friday 2nd June. Check out the Dust Facebook page for more details.

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