Ceramic artists who break the mould

Penny Withers in her studio
Penny Withers in her studio
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HANNE Westergaad makes feathers, Sarah Villeneau makes fantastical vessels, Penny Withers makes beautiful forms and Emilie Taylor explores Sheffield’s social realities. But they all have one thing in common - they all work in clay. Star reporter Rachael Clegg looks at the work of some of Sheffield’s top ceramic artists.

STEP into Sarah Villeneau’s studio and you cross a threshold into another world - one created entirely in clay.

Impressionistic: Sarah Villeneau in her studio. Photo: Stuart Hastings

Impressionistic: Sarah Villeneau in her studio. Photo: Stuart Hastings

Here, at in her spacious studio at Yorkshire Artspace, on Brown Street, Sarah runs her small ceramic enterprise, creating fantastical vessels, dishes and forms.

They are all inspired by nature, yet look like something from another world.

“My work’s very impressionistic - I’m fascinated by repeat forms in nature,” she said.

And, proving her point, a huge tree dominates the centre of the room, surrounded by shelves of wonderful forms.

Clay day: Penny Withers makes twisted vases and eye-catching stoneware.      Picture: Steve Ellis

Clay day: Penny Withers makes twisted vases and eye-catching stoneware. Picture: Steve Ellis

One vase looks like a massive egg with a shark-teeth mouth at either end – like something from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

“They’re not exact impressions of nature but forms inspired by nature which I’ve created using a bit of imagination. I love working with different textures and forms,” she says.

One of her other ceramic highlights are her Impossibility of Ideal Love vases, which come as a pair. These bullet-shaped vessels are designed to fit into one another - one is perforated and the other is spiked.

But they don’t quite fit. “It’s about how you can never really find the ‘perfect’ partner,” she says.

And one floor below Sarah in the sprawling Yorkshire Artspace is Hanne, whose objects are equally striking and range from feathers to big, bold planters.

Hanne’s porcelain work – such as her beautiful feathers – are cast from hand-made moulds using real feathers. “That’s what we did this summer,” she says, “collected loads of feathers. I am fascinated by feathers - they are so different when they are lying on the ground, having fallen off a bird, to when they are on the bird in the air.”

It’s hard to imagine that the delicate feathers Hanne has collected once supported the weight of a creature in the sky. And Hanne’s cast-feathers are fragile too. “In the Cupola Gallery, where I exhibit, the lady has them hanging on an invisible thread - so they look like they are suspended in mid-air.”

Hanne’s feathers are also presented in the Yorkshire Artspace foyer in individual frames as part of the Artspace’s tenth anniversary exhibition, and Hanne has been there almost as long.

“I moved in about eight years ago and have been here ever since - it’s great.”

But the reach of Hanne’s work stretches far beyond Sheffield. She has exhibited in Wales, Gloucestershire and East Yorkshire – such is the appeal of her pieces.

Hanne has also taken artists under her wing, such as Emile Taylor, who shared a studio with her when she started working as a ceramicist three years ago.

Emilie – who now has her own studio in Yorkshire Artspace - makes interesting socio-political vases about Sheffield society.

The vases - huge in size - show scenes of the city from its various high points, such as Sky Edge.

The scene, which shows the cityscape, also depicts a cluster of ‘hoodies’ – teenage lads clad in hooded tops - huddled in the foreground.

“I think young people have a hard time because of the judgements people make.

“There’s a real stigma about certain groups of young people and these lads standing against the background of Sky Edge represents a sort of rite of passage.”

And while her vases show Sheffield’s past and present heritage, Emilie’s own Sheffield history is shown in the vases too.

“My grandad was a pigeon fancier and used to have a base at Sky Edge from which he could see across the whole city.”

Emilie’s work is not dissimilar in its social subject matter to that of cross-dressing Grayson Perry, who has become one of Britain’s most celebrated contemporary artists, only Emilie’s original vases are focused on Sheffield.

And then there’s Penny Withers, an established ceramicist who makes twisted vases and eye-catching stoneware.

Her latest creation is a cluster of stoneware mugs coated with an iridescent mother of pearl glaze.

Her creations all start at the pottery wheel. “I throw most of what I do on the wheel – I’ve always been fascinated by this process and the subtle ways you can manipulate the clay,” she says.

It’s a passion shared by Emile, Sarah and Hanne only the results are fascinatingly diverse.