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In conversation with Nicholas Lees

We had been admirers of Nicholas Lees fine porcelain sculptures for quite a while when we met him in Venice at Homo Faber last year. Nicholas’ work had been selected for the Best of Europe exhibition at Homo Faber alongside work by Cavaliero Finn’s artists, Ashraf Hanna and Matthew Chambers. A visit to Nicholas’ studio in Hampshire one month later and our belief that his work would sit well within the Cavaliero Finn portfolio was confirmed. We were smitten.

In the run up to our first show featuring Nicholas’ sculptures, we chatted to him to find out a bit more about his work as an artist.

Nicholas Lees in his studio in Hampshire

How did you become an artist?

I first became interested in ceramics in 6th form. After having initially studied History and English Literature, I went to Bristol Polytechnic to study Ceramics. Since then I have had spells of different forms of practice interspersed with bouts of education and I have also done a lot of teaching. Having begun as a potter I would now describe myself as an artist or a sculptor. However the relationship to a material discipline is very important to me. I use my depth of knowledge of the medium and think through making.

Group of three floating bowls by Nicholas Lees on show at the Cavaliero Finn home gallery for ourA Sense of the Familiar exhibition

Walk us through making one of your sculptures, what materials and techniques do you use?

I primarily use Parian – a porcelainous clay body first developed in the 19th century to imitate creamy white Greek marble. I use it as I don’t glaze my pieces and it has a nice vitrified surface finish. I do occasionally colour the parian through blending and also use bone china for its intense whiteness, as well as a black porcelain.  The pieces originate on the wheel, where they are made as deliberately thick walled vessels with tapering width to the walls. This can feel a bit contrary, as learning to throw properly involves the aspiration to thinness and evenness! I dry the pieces slowly, continually wrapping and unwrapping them over a period of weeks, in order to achieve an even dryish leather hard state which must be consistent through the thickness of the clay. When ready, a piece is mounted on the lathe by being jammed onto a specially turned plaster chuck. The turning involves some measuring but is largely done by eye using specially made tools – it can take up to 6 hours for an individual piece. The pieces are then fired once. After firing I use diamond abrasive to grind angles and bases on to the pieces. Some pieces are assembled from multiple parts ground to fit precisely and glued together.

The painstaking process of using the lathe after the initial vessel is created on the wheel by Nicholas

How did you arrive at your technique of switching from wheel to lathe?

This work originated from my study for an MPhil by project at the RCA. I was interested in examples of transitions between 2 and 3 dimensions, and this led me to considering shadows and silhouettes. I was interested in capturing some of the ephemeral qualities of the blurred edge of a shadow. I was doing a lot of tests around the idea of making an object which had an uncertain boundary, and appeared to be half present. Thinking about the need to remove some of the clay I experimented with turning. I always loved this stage of the process when I used to make more functional thrown work – I particularly like clay in its leather hard stage. I realised, and was interested in, the reference to the making of ceramic electrical insulators, as well as to the history of throwing and lathe turning as used by Wedgwood since the 18th century.

Nicholas Lees Floating Bowl, Porcelain

Your work is extremely precise, how do you deal with making mistakes in your work? 

Occasionally I swear very loudly! However working in ceramics for a long time helps to make one somewhat philosophical about the many things that can go wrong at the various stages of the process. 

Leaning Vessel 17.15 Parian Porcelain
23cm H x 13cm diameter

Your work explores the effects of light on our perception of the natural world.  Can you tell us a bit more about this and how this is achieved in your work?

The work originated in looking at effects of light and shade and trying to manifest these in ceramic. I have now come to think of light and space as equivalent material elements in my making to porcelain. I have always been interested in boundaries in the landscape and interfaces between different forms and states and have come to think about these more and more. Examples are the cutting lines in hedges, trees growing around hard forms and the intertidal zone at the coast. The work is about perception over time – looking and looking again reveals the ephemerality of perception. The use of fins on hard edged forms means that as light conditions change and viewpoint alters, the boundary between presence and absence of the object shifts.

“I have now come to think of light and space as equivalent material elements in my making to porcelain” Nicholas Lees in conversation with Cavaliero Finn

You work in both 2d and 3D is the 2d work a precursor to the 3d or does it exist independently of your sculptures?

The work on paper is a parallel activity – another way of thinking about some of the same ideas, through a different medium. It has the advantage of immediacy and so is a good occasional antidote to the slow iteration of ideas in ceramics. Sometimes the drawing helps push the sculpture forwards and sometimes it’s the other way around.

Nicholas Lees Leaning Vessels alongside one of his ink drawings.

Which artists particularly inspire you and why?

Amongst many others; Hans Coper – looking at his work first got me hooked on ceramics. Elizabeth Fritsch – gorgeous objects and I love the play of dimensions and realities. Rachel Whiteread – for her investigations into presence and absence. David Nash – materiality and time. Anthony McCall – light as material, ephemerality and substance.

Ceramics by Hans Coper (1920 – 1981), arguably one of Britain’s most important post-war ceramic artists – image courtesy of Auction Publicity

You are lecturer at the RCA, UCA Farnham and Bath Spa University, in fact you taught Matthew Chambers didn’t you?  Do you feel this enriches your work and if so in what way?  Can you give an example?

I did have the pleasure to teach Matt at Bath Spa University and although I didn’t teach Mimi Joung, she did come and do a placement with us from the RCA so I’ve worked with her too. I really enjoy teaching. It means I am engaged with a great range of people, ideas and points of view. Also you have to constantly challenge your own preconceptions in helping students to find new ways of thinking and working. There is a process of continually trying to see and to open up potentials without being proscriptive, and I am sure that this helps my thinking about my own work. In talking to students in tutorials, I can find myself saying things I need to hear as much as they do.

Set of three Leaning Vessels by Nicholas Lees on show at the Cavaliero Finn home gallery for our A Sense of the Familiar exhibition

Tell us one piece of advice you give aspiring ceramicists?

Develop skills. The ‘how’ of making work is central to the ‘what’ and the ‘why’.

What’s next for you?

I have begun working with soluble metal colours which I am excited about – bringing some of the qualities of ink drawing to ceramic pieces and playing with the porosity of the object literally and metaphorically. There is some work on the theme of flux and threshold to come.

Cavaliero Finn will be showing a series of three floating bowls and three leaning vessels at its show A Sense of the Familiar at the home gallery in Herne Hill in May

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