Combining various materials including porcelain and wood, and using a complex carving technique to achieve a distinctive aesthetic, Leah Jensen is one of the UK’s most exciting emerging ceramicists. As well as exhibiting at several group shows since 2011, her work has also been featured in a number of established magazines, including Ceramic Review, The London Magazine, and Elle Decoration. With her first solo exhibition currently underway at The New Craftsmen in Mayfair, we were keen to catch up with Leah to learn more about the intricate techniques and processes involved in her craft.
You’ve been practising various crafts since childhood. How did you first become interested?
I’m very fortunate to come from a creative family where everyone has a different material of choice. From my woodcarving Finnish grandpa to my mum who studied textiles and ceramics, I’ve had a lot of close people to look up to. As child I was fascinated by my mum’s sketchbooks; I loved the way she mixed colours and textures and combined different media. We spent a lot of time drawing and making together. It’s what I’ve always enjoyed doing most. I see flecks of different family members personalities appear in my work unintentionally.
So, who or what would you say has been the biggest inspiration to your work so far?
This is such a difficult question as there are so many creative people to mention, many that would not be considered as artists or craftspeople. However when it comes to ceramics, my absolute favourite is Hitomi Hosono, her work is just breathtakingly beautiful and intricate.
In my own work I use images of European Renaissance paintings, this is in part because I get a visceral feeling from them that is unlike any other painting. For about ten years my favourites have been Jan Van Eyke, Botticelli, Lucas Cranach the Elder and Younger. There is something about the way that these masters were able to depict people, and what I interpret as melancholy, that really affected me when I was a teenager.
How do you choose which Renaissance paintings to work from?
When I started to develop my geometric carving style, I enjoyed making the detail more perfect and complex but I felt it was lacking narrative or reason. At this time I happened to read an article about the relationship between art and maths during Renaissance Europe, and after seeing preliminary drawings and plans for paintings of this period I became fascinated. I’ve always loved this era of painting, and I’m captivated by the melancholy and religious themes. I love the intricate detail that goes into painting the garments and delicate facial features.
I use different subject matters for different bodies of work – my last collection looked at different artists’ portrayals of Lucretia, a figure from Roman history. There are many reasons that I might choose a specific painting. I looked at Lucretia because her story really affected me.
The patterns you carve from are created using a complex image pinning process. How did you devise this technique?
After deciding that I wanted to apply these ideas to the carving the process happened naturally. It felt like the most obvious move forward at the time.
Having worked with a range of materials over the course of your craft career, why did you choose to focus predominantly on ceramics in the end?
For me one of the best things about clay is that you’re able to create incredibly detailed work very easily. It’s exceptionally versatile in that you can make it practically any colour, texture, or shape you like. Another advantage is that before it’s fired you can recycle it as many times as you like, which is great if you want to experiment but don’t have the funds for a lot of resources. I do also use many other materials in projects that are separate to my pots. I actually have a bit of impostor syndrome when it comes to ceramics.
Some of your work incorporates wood as well as porcelain. What do you enjoy about this combination?
I selected this combination intentionally because I felt the properties were polar opposites and would therefore create the greatest contrast. Bright white, clean, hard, cold porcelain in juxtaposition to burnt, dirty, black and grey charcoal that crumbles in your hands. I like playing around with a subtle feeling of discomfort that this combination might give people, especially others that work with porcelain.
So, how long does it take to make a pot – can you describe the process?
My large pots take an average of 135 hours. I start by hand building the pots with a ceramic technique known as coiling to create the basic shape. I apply images of the painting I’ve selected to the surface. Pins are then used to map out points within the painting that I feel are significant to its structure. This might be facial features, corners on buildings or the negative space created by limbs. Once the pins and paper are removed I’m left with a series of dots that dictate where I will carve. At this stage I try to put no thought into what I’m doing. I feel the more unconscious my decisions are the better the outcome. The carving is done with a scalpel before the clay is fired and still quite soft, a stage ceramicists call ‘leather-hard.’
Your work is very labour-intensive, and the results are truly stunning. What’s the biggest driving force behind what you do?
I’m really focused on trying to make things as complicated and refined as possible when it come to carving. I want my pots to look almost as if they’ve been made by a machine. The endurance of the work is also important to me — when I finish a piece I’m almost in disbelief that I managed to do something so repetitive whilst sat in the same place for such a long amount of time. I go through a lot of podcasts and audio books! I feel this gives me an odd relationship to my work as I never feel any attachment to it: once a piece is finished I can’t wait to get rid of it and start something new.
You’ve used the term ‘anti-digital’ to describe your work. Is there an element of rebellion against digitisation in your carving method?
No, not at all. It started as a tongue-in-cheek way to quickly describe my work for people that might automatically assume its 3D printed. I use it as a sort of lure. I’m absolutely fascinated with 3D printing and admire the work of those who use it, but as of yet I have found little enjoyment using digital techniques myself. There is something so important and therapeutic about making things with my hands that I just couldn’t give up.
What do you enjoy most about working with porcelain? And what’s the most challenging aspect?
It’s a really temperamental material that often doesn’t do what you want it to, but that’s all part of the charm. It cracks and warps easily and it feels like butter in your hands when you throw it on a wheel. When fired to a high temperature it reaches a point called vitrification, and this is when it acquires its beautiful translucent white glow. There’s nothing else is quite like it. I love how crisp and clean I can get every detail with porcelain — its completely worth going through all the trial and error.
You’re first solo exhibition is currently underway. What can we expect to see from you there?
I’m showing a series of vessels that are slightly larger in scale than my previous work. And for the images, I’m going to be looking at paintings that can be found at the National Gallery because I want to be able to study them in person.
And finally, what advice would you give to someone starting out in the industry?
I think it’s really important to be patient and not to be so hard on yourself. What I am about to say is beyond well-worn, but in an age where people are used to things being so instant, it’s easy to forget that building a career in the arts and becoming established takes such a long time, just think about all the great artists you know. I get upset when I speak to my peers who feel disheartened with what they see as a lack of progress, when I think they are amazing.
Leah’s first solo exhibition will be held at The New Craftsmen in London until 16 June.
About the Artist
Leah Jensen uses ceramics as a canvas, as a surface on which to explore ideas surrounding mathematics and art. Deconstructing Renaissance paintings to their fundamental elements, unearthing hidden geometric structures that reside beneath the surface, she carves each vessel by hand with an aim to increase the complexity and precision of detail to appear mechanically manufactured. She describes this aesthetic as ‘anti-digital.’