Getting Potty With Ceramics

Crescent Arts, Scarborough, not only holds regular art exhibitions, including the current printing exhibition, but also holds a selection of talented artists.

Karen Thompson is a ceramist and currently is a resident artist where she produces an array of different art work.

Her studio, located at Crescent Arts, is full of functional, historically and politically inspired and social conscious ceramics.

Karen said: “I feel I have a powerful voice within my work. I made the Goveshy where delegates at the conference threw a wooden ball at Michael Gove busts.

“That was a powerful piece and really fun to do.”

Another exhibition called Farm World provoked a lot of response from viewers.

Here, Karen created a dark, contemporary agricultural theme incorporating ethical and ecological concerns about the environment.

“In this exhibition, there was a section called A Poultry Life where I took the concept of a well-known chicken egg basket and subverted them and made them into battery chickens,” Karen said.

“I cut off the beak and had hundreds of them exhibited on a shelf all squished together. I really enjoy subverting iconic pieces of ceramics and that’s kind of my main area.”

As well as creating political and social conscious pieces of work, Karen also makes functional mugs which are pierced and cut by hand yet still remain fully functional.

These patterns become translucent when held up to the light and Karen explained how she likes to make things that people ‘interact with’.

“For my degree show, I got a copy of a PMN-2 land mine and made hundreds of them and laid them outside the Holburne Museum of Art in Bath to resemble a military cemetery,” she said.

After creating these, Karen took that form further and made them into little decorative boxes.

“No one knew what they were and I decided to play with that a bit more and it still provoked a bit of a response,” Karen said.

“It’s interesting that I can evoke such a response in people.”

12 years ago, when Karen was living in London, her dad was ill and she was heavily involved with the radio station Resonance FM.

Here, Karen was given a lot of training in resonance but when her dad become terminal she left.

A year later, she tried to get back into the same position but she wasn’t able to access that level of training that the other people had.

“I thought to myself that this isn’t working and it was when I was living in Chelsea that I saw some ceramics classes being held at the college campus,” Karen said.

“I signed up for a few courses and ceramics was one of them so I went across and after a few classes I knew that this was it.”

After completing her degree, Karen saw Crescent Arts being advertised and she thought the studios had a good offer.

“The studios were subsidised and were in a creative environment and there aren’t many places that offer this nationwide,” Karen said.

“It’s a really great place to be and trying to find somewhere with subsidised rent is difficult.”

With other resident artists renting out a studio, Karen described the relationship with the other artists and said how ‘there haven’t been any murders yet’.

“When I make a new piece of work, I will show the other artists as I like to get people’s feedback,” she said.

“If I was in a studio by myself I would miss that interaction and it would feel quite isolated and even now working in the studio is quite isolated but saying that I would be fed up with all the people if I had to share.”

The accompanying picture shows the different variety of work that Karen does.

The tureen heads are based on a cross of two things, a phrenology head which is a Victorian bonkers science figure that sectioned the brain into different compartments and they believed that the different lumps and bumps of each person affected their personality.

The second thing that inspired the tureen heads was another Victorian influence. Tureens were used as serving dishes during dinner parties and were shaped in all sorts of different animals.

“The heads I make are a play on the two of these things,” Karen said.

“I made a head based on the phrenology head for an exhibition at the Scarborough Art Gallery and I placed a series of health charms, such as a moles forefoot, which I called the Charmology Head.”

This head was styled using health charms collected by the Scarborough-based Victorian charm collector William James Clarke.

“All my work is research based and are inspired from a piece of original ceramics and I then make contemporary ideas,” Karen said.

“I was asked to display some of my work in an exhibition with really big names like Grayson Perry.

“They made a call out for artists and I was the only one they selected which was brilliant.”

The majority of Karen’s work is research orientated except the cups that she makes.

“The cups are in a league of their own. People interact with cups and have a personal relationship with them,” Karen said.

As creating ceramics is a very long and laborious task, Karen cleverly made two Charmology heads and one was in colour which was used in the exhibition.

“You never know when something will break,” she said.

“You could simply open the door too early and it breaks so it’s good to make a spare.

“People have been responding and buying the tureen heads and they are becoming more popular than I wanted.

“My greatest fear is getting stuck with one thing that is successful and always making that one piece and the heads are starting to feel a bit like that and I am getting a bit bored of them now.

“I’m always looking for good tache and hair combinations to make them more exciting.”

For Karen, art is about evoking a response from somebody and making them think and some of her work, including the Goveshy and the chickens received huge responses during their exhibitions.

Karen said: “I was interested in the relationship with the computer keyboard and how people build really intense relationships with others over the internet and the only tactile element is the keyboard.

“I made this retro keyboard in 2008 before the mobile phone became so prolific and this exhibition made me think about the part that clay has played in communication.

“A lot of our information comes from cuneiform tablets and I wanted to merge the modern and historic forms of communication.

“I made a cast of the keys and pushed them into the slab of clay and got the impression of the keys.

“I then took the keys out to hold them and that’s when I saw the final print that looked kind of like hieroglyphics.

“Some pieces of work are conceived and some are made throughout the process.”

The studio was filled with dozens of ingredients that are used to make the different components to make ceramics.

According to Karen, a career is ceramics is expensive but relatively to a silver smith it is quite cheap.

The Crescent Arts is a charity funded by the Arts Council and offers a rotating artist residency programme.

Karen has been a resident since October 2010 and will stay there until around the end of June or July.

“I think I need to spend a year with the family in Newcastle but if I go up there I won’t have a studio,” Karen said.

“I am planning to relocate to Newcastle and do this occasionally when I get a good project.”

Some of Karen’s ceramics can be purchased from shops around Scarborough including Angela and Rosie on Bar Street and in Woodend.

“I sell my cups in the Art Gallery and had bits and pieces in Homebird House and I had a conversation with Alex and it would be nice to make some porcelain into lighting,” Karen said.

For more information, please visit Karen’s website at


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