Objects of desire

I love ceramics and spent a chunk of life in college hanging out in the craft department of NCAD instead of studying architecture. I was familiar with the technicalities of ceramics and, for my sins, decided to try making porcelain bowls until I could execute one. I made four and never touched them again.

So without sounding too uppity, I know a good pot when I see one.

Yet when I first saw the work of ceramicist Deirdre McLoughlin in 2004, I presumed they were the work of a young artist, definitely a guy, maybe French or Italian. I was struck by the edginess of these beautifully made objects. They were spare, oddly but perfectly shaped, neither too busy nor dull, ‘poised’ and yet provocative.

I’m embarrassed now by my own prejudices. But I suppose we all do it, instinctively parcel a piece of art off according to a stereotype in our head.

You can be ageist too, assuming a piece is by a young person or you might add value to better-known works of art, regardless of what you really think of its merit.

And so it was with Deirdre’s work or ‘vessels’, as she calls them. Her work certainly wasn’t what I recognised as Irish or traditional clay work. But whatever it is that she does to clay, it has put her on the shortlist of the international Loewe Craft Prize in 2018 along with Joe Hogan, the Galway-based basket maker. Her great grandmother and forefathers were lace makers, weavers, stonemasons and sculptors, so Deirdre has a history of our Irish making and craft in her DNA.

It clearly wasn’t the first time Deirdre’s work had had this reaction. And when I confessed my prejudice about her being a young Frenchman, probably with a loft in Brooklyn, the 69-year-old just laughed.

Deirdre graduated with a degree in humanities from Trinity, and then moved to Amsterdam in the 1970s.Here she saw an exhibition of work by the sculptor Rosemary Andrews that provoked something in her – she asked Andrews to teach her the craft. Rosemary said no, but offered to share her studio and gave her a piece of clay with instructions to “do something with it”. That was more or less it and Deirdre has been making with clay ever since.

Like many artists, her biography is peppered with stints as a teacher and singer and cleaner. But one incident stands out as having shaped her career in a sad and uniquely Irish way. The death of hunger striker Bobby Sands in 1981 affected Ireland in general, and Deirdre in particular, very significantly. After it, she had what she calls ‘a mental blowout’.

She recovered but felt that now she knew what she was – and was not. It brought the importance of her work sharply into focus. She decided to devote her life completely to making what she now realised was an art form. She also realised she needed to travel to gain the right skills. And ironically that took her away from Ireland.

So she travelled to Japan to study in Kyoto with the Sodeisha Group, a movement of ceramic artists who were determined not to have their work appear rustic and wanted to move away from traditional Japanese form of tea pots and rice bowls.

Deirdre left Kyoto in 1985 to travel through China and observed their approach to ceramics before returning to Europe.

Now she lives and works in Amsterdam. Her work sits amongst the greatest ceramic artists in the world, yet she is self-taught – she just began when she was given a lump of clay and told to make something.

The Chinese edition of Wallpaper magazine, the bible of art, design and architecture, has just devoted a four-page feature to her work. An exhibition of her work opens in Galerie Le Don du Fel, Aurillac in France on June 30. And another at the Galerie Franzis Engels in Amsterdam runs from October 10.

Yet she is almost unknown here in Ireland. And if she was a man, I’d have heard all about her.

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