10 Minutes with Holly Stevenson

Arrangement, 2020, Glazed Stoneware

Much to the artist’s joy Elizabeth Fullerton, art critic, and author, jokingly said  “Your pots make me feel like a dirty old woman in a mac!” and wrote, “Holly’s pots are gloriously sensual, tactile and fluid. Embodying both the male and female, her sexy amorphous pots make you want to grope and caress them, leaving your senses tantalised.”

Holly Stevenson is an artist working predominantly with ceramic sculpture, and her practice is informed by psychoanalysis and feminism. In the studio, she has an ongoing project called Sigmund Freud’s Ashtray. Her surreal ceramics spring from forms inspired by Freud’s favourite ashtray, it is a seductive egg-shaped jadeite object that can still be found equipped with a phallic cigar on his desk at the eponymous museum in Hampstead. Playfully she repetitively makes and utilises her two key forms in clay, the oval and the cylinder, and it is through these that she has constructed a language that allows her to consider and convey her world. Her figurative work is often concerned with re-reading historical applications of the feminine figurine.  More of her work can be viewed here www.holly-stevenson.co.uk

Your ceramics explore both sensuality, tactility, and fluidity while embodying male and female in one, how did you first start experimenting with these ideas and the medium of clay? 

Thank you for such kind observations!

Clay is naturally tactile and the beliefs that drive my work, they are somewhat stubbornly rooted in my childhood… nestled at that point of becoming aware of our gendered world and that sensation of refusing, powerlessly refusing the status quo. Recently I looked back at the photos of my degree show and my concern with what it means to be female, my searching for a matrixial space through Freudian narratives whilst opposing exclusively male ones, has been vital from the get-go. Earlier on I used a lot of materials that lent themselves symbolically and financially to feminist art, lard, jelly, wood, pulp, stamps, magazines, driftwood, old furniture, myself, knitting VHS tape, etc, essentially cheaply available and loaded materials. I fully turned my attention to clay in 2017, in an adult education class, and I fell in love with it because of its tactility, clay accepts knowledge. As a material it is archaic, it is a vital player in our origin stories, and I felt viscerally attracted to those embodied Promethean aspects. Nearly all cultures have a clay creation myth, why not make my own wo|man art from it.  

Becoming A Shell, 2021, Glazed Stoneware

Do you draw before creating your pots?

Yes, always, I have piles of tattered sketchbooks covered in clay and glaze because I work from drawings at every stage of the process. For each piece, I translate the figure from my subconscious with preliminary rapid sketches.  Once the work is bisque fired I make colored pencil drawings to map out the glazing process. I see my pots as figures, I also make portraits of them in pen and watercolour. 

I would love to hear more about your ongoing project titled Sigmund Freud’s Ashtray. Does psychoanalysis play a significant role in your work?

Freud became officially significant when I went along to one of the compulsory lectures at Chelsea where the lecturer made the entire theatre full of students laugh at Freudian analysis because of his misinterpretation of penis envy.  I didn’t laugh, I decided to go to analysis! I didn’t find the cheap shot funny, women are sick of phallic male dominance and oppression and to put it very crudely if penis envy is another way into talking about the chagrin felt at Picasso being understood as a genius but not a misogynist or at the fear of being vulnerable due to a lack of power then Freud had a point. Let’s remember that it’s a cultural norm to ask for the firstborn to be a boy. Riddles, rude jokes, trauma, mental health, childhood, desire, sexual identity, condensation, remembering wrongly or rightly, fiction, ghosts making work where words fail, my practice is psychoanalytical. 

Sigmund Freud’s Ashtray is the overarching title for my ceramic artworking. The metaphorical pot form, (an ovular eye, vessel, womb, container, receptacle, hidden void) which sits at the base of my figures, is directly inspired by the father of psychoanalysis’ favourite jade green ashtray, still found equipped with a cigar on his desk today at the eponymous Hampstead Museum.  I started my clay journey by pensively remaking the iconic object where the oval tray and the cylindrical cigar respectively and conceptually grew into female and male components (sculpting clay is componential). Through these two forms, I developed my own alphabet with which to work and through my reading of psychoanalysis. 

Who inspires you the most?  This is a tricky question because I’m quite eclectic and my undergraduate degree in Art History isn’t helping to narrow this one down. If inspiration means the process of being stimulated by then I have a very long list of artists and thinkers whose practices I greatly admire. Historically my favourite artists are those who convert trauma with humour into new languages, Renate Bertlemann, Marisol Escobar, Ida Applebroog, Alina Szapocznikow, Helen Chadwick, and Niki de Saint Palle for bold examples. This week I feel very inspired by strawberries, they wear their seeds (which are really dried fertilized fruits, the red flesh is swollen receptacle tissue) on the outside. Nature’s reproductive resilience is always inspirational.  

Nocturnals, 2021, Glazed stoneware

If you could collaborate with anyone (both living or dead) who would it be? 

I would like to collaborate with the spirit of Freud via an exhibition of my ceramic sculptures at the Freud Museum. Freud loved antiquities and old masterworks, collecting them was his second biggest passion after cigar smoking, and he disliked contemporary art, especially Surrealism! He did eventually receive Dalí and acknowledged his talent, so a form of historical permission has been granted. Currently, I’m co-curating an itinerant boxed exhibition called Hand-Held in collaboration with the artist Ingrid Berthon Moine. 

Are you currently reading anything that is influencing your practice? 

I’m reading and re-reading After-Affects | After Images: Trauma and aesthetic transformation in the virtual feminist museum by Griselda Pollock. I dare not paraphrase. 

What are you working on at the moment? Recently my striped childhood bedsheets have been my muse and after much musing, I’m pleased to share the news that READING BETWEEN THE LINES, a solo show of ceramic sculpture, will be opening at Sid Motion Gallery at the end of September 2021. All welcome

Thank you for interviewing me <3