This week on WHITEBALLOON INSIGHTS Ann from Ann Bates Ceramics tells us about her journey into the field of ceramics and how she came to create beautiful, bespoke funerary urns.
Q: You make the most beautiful urns, vessels and tiles out of clay. How long have you been working in ceramics and what originally sparked your interest in it?
My relationship with clay began at a local evening class and the sheer joy of working with the material was immediate. Initially interested in hand building, thirty years on I continue to use this age-old technique of producing forms because I feel that it gives greater freedom of expression than using the wheel.
Hooked on making I was soon wanting to find out more about glazing and kiln firings and so embarked on a course at Chesterfield College. The experience proved invaluable and led me to apply for a place on the Applied Art degree course at Derby University; I graduated in 2000 with a First Class (Hons) degree.
After graduation I decided to become self-employed and shared a building in Cromford, Derbyshire with my partner, John. He ran a quantity surveying practice and I had my own pottery workshop and showroom. This worked well until unfortunately my partner died. I was unable to carry on renting the building on my own and decided to move my pottery business and work from home.
Q: Your funerary urns and memory boxes are wonderful, providing both a decorative work of art whilst at the same time fulfilling a function. What led you to making funerary urns?
I was at a loss when John died. There was no plan in place, we hadn’t talked about what we wanted done when either of us died. The following day a funeral director came to visit, arrangements were made, the funeral was held and then nothing! It felt as if I had travelled on a conveyor belt and fallen off at the end. In retrospect, it would have been so helpful to have had a resource like Whiteballoon to turn to beforehand giving advice and choices when we were more able to think clearly and make decisions.
Several days after the funeral I received information from the crematorium about funerary urns, but none were suitable for an individual with as strong a character and varied interests in life as John. I wondered if other people might feel dissatisfied with this lack of choice and began to design and make my own range of hand built funerary urns.
The first urns that I made were decorated with natural objects such as leaves, shell and seed head imprints. As well as being pleasing to look at these objects left a texture on the surface of the clay; I hoped it might be of some comfort to those grieving if they touched the surface of the urn whilst thinking of the person who had died, remembering times spent together.
Working with clay helped me through bereavement and I wondered if others who were grieving might benefit from becoming involved in the design of an urn for their loved one. Those who have taken this option have found the involvement a helpful experience.
Q: It’s really special that people can commission an urn for a loved one, something unique that is made just for them. Can you tell us a bit about this and how you guide families through the process?
On my website, Gallery 1 has images of funerary urns that I have designed and made; it’s often a starting point for those wishing to commission an urn. If people would like to, I encourage them to become involved in some way either by choosing a texture, adding patterns or text to make an urn especially for their loved one, perhaps reflecting their character or interests. Working together we can create an urn as unique as the person was in life.
Being involved in the designing or decorating process can be of some comfort to those who are grieving. A client kindly commented on his experience: “The interactive process of development…..helped me personally in coming to some closure on my grief.”
Q: Is there anyone in particular who has been an inspiration for your work?
My partner John encouraged me in life and when he died my work took a new direction. He was interested in archaeology and I know he would have been fascinated by the modern-day barrows that are being built.
In 2015 I came across an article about The Long Barrow in Wiltshire constructed in a similar way to those built in Neolithic times this structure has chambers with niches for the placement of funerary urns. Some of my urns now rest in this barrow, a place for contemplation where people come together to remember their loved ones, spend time and share memories.
Q: Do you have a workshop that people can come and visit and see your work?
People are welcome to visit by appointment. The telephone number and email address are on my website www.annbates.co.uk
Q: You have a big exhibition next year, can you tell us a bit about this and what you are doing in preparation?
I’ve been given the opportunity to exhibit my work at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery and the title of the exhibition is Echoes: reverberations across millennia.
Through design, process and materials the exhibition will aim to illustrate a connection between the Neolithic and the 21st century revealing how ancient practices of honouring the dead can still be relevant today.
For examples I shall use the 5000 years old Neolithic passage tomb Newgrange in Ireland and the Long Barrow in Wiltshire. Both structures are aligned to the position of the Sun on the Winter Solstice enabling its rays to travel along the passageway and illuminate the chamber, a suggestion of conception and subsequent re-birth. This exciting natural phenomenon occurs in the same way our ancestors would have experienced it; an echo from the past reverberating still.
In preparation for the exhibition I’m making tile samples decorated with designs used in Neolithic times such as lines, dots and spirals. These marks are applied to the wet clay using sharpened sticks, bone and antler shards – tools that would have been available to our ancestors.
I shall also be making a collection of funerary urns decorated with the same designs using the same tools as for the tiles.
Q: Do you have any advice for young people venturing in to the field of ceramics, or any other creative field?
I would suggest experimentation with different materials and techniques. From this starting point you will find which material is most suitable to realising your creative ideas. There may be more than one material; combining them could be very interesting and reveal to you new ways of working and amazing outcomes.
Q: And finally…do you have any other favourite pastimes or hobbies?
Time with my family and close friends is precious and we enjoy visiting exhibitions and museums. I’m fortunate to live in Derbyshire where there is beautiful countryside to walk in and ancient stone circles to visit. I also have my garden to tend and enjoy growing plants from seed.