Lisa Jones

Autobiographical alchemist.

“I was on a walk in Suffolk, and I saw a sign pointing me to ‘The Spong’.”

I’m sitting with a cup of tea in the studio which ceramic artist Lisa Jones shares with eight other makers, at Great Walstead School, just outside Lindfield. She’s been given an open-ended residency there, in return for a bit of teaching. She’s telling me the story behind one of her sculptural ceramic artworks, which looks akin to the innersole of a shoe, folded up over itself. Though very elegantly so, and in an interesting shade of grey.

She’s arranged fifteen or twenty examples of her work on a cloth on the table we’re sitting at: the sandpapery, richroyal-blue pyramid, which we have used as our cover image; a delicate, grey zig-zaggy thing that looks like a coat-hanger turned into an aerial; a mustard-coloured pock-marked phallus, with a twig-like nose. Distinct, but interconnected pieces, like a group of friends at a party. Each one, you want to reach out and touch. And feel, what’s more.

“I thought ‘what the hell’s a spong?’”, she continues. “Then I walked on, and I found out. It’s a kind of tongue-shaped jetty, sticking out over the river.”

Later on, in her studio, she turned the experience into the artwork in question, and called it The Long Spong . She used the same term as the title of her solo exhibition at the Meiklejohn Gallery in Lewes, earlier this year, where I first came across her work. “It’s got a ring to it, hasn’t it?” she says. “The Looong Spooong,” I repeat, stretching the vowels. “Yes, it has.”

As I am to find out, every piece of work Jones produces has a story behind it, often autobiographical: it might be her little niece having a tantrum while being weaned off her plastic beaker; the way liquorice was stacked in the open market in Pontefract, where she was brought up, or the shallow cardboard boxes ice-cream used to be sold in, back in the day her grandma brought it out of the freezer, for a treat.

I tell Lisa I’m going to ask her about her life, to see how it’s led her to where she is now, producing charming, witty, impudently intriguing, beautifully coloured, interestingly textured handbuilt ceramic objects, in a studio in the High Weald of midSussex. This mini-biography process is always relevant to understanding an artist’s work, but it seems particularly pertinent to Lisa Jones, who delights, I soon realise, in retelling the narratives that lie behind her pieces. “That’s great,” she says. “Everything I’ve ever done plays into my work: it would be impossible to extract.”

Pontefract, she tells me, is a small market town in West Yorkshire, which she got out of soon after she was allowed a TV in her bedroom, which coincided with the emergence of Channel 4. “My dad was a lorry driver, my mum was a receptionist, there was very little culture around the place, and Channel 4 made me realise there was more to life than I’d realised.”

She did a BTEC in Art & Design at Wakefield College, and left Yorkshire at 18, having won a place on the Fine Art BA at Middlesex University, never to return. “Never ever?” “Well practically never. My parents have moved to Hampshire, so there’s no reason.” She got a ‘good grade’, but the course did little for her, and soon after graduating, she stopped considering herself an artist.

“After that I got a series of the sort of jobs creative people do because they don’t want to get a proper job,” she says. “I was living in North London. I was a florist, a garden designer, and a stylist for magazines. I did a course in horticulture, and botany. Eventually I realised that I wasn’t very good at working for other people, so in 2002 I started up a freelance illustration business with my partner, Edward Underwood, producing greetings cards, and wrapping paper, that sort of thing. It’s still going!” I pick up the mug my tea is in, which has an illustration of a cheeky-looking dog on it, perhaps a Collie. “The company’s in my name,” she says, “but Edward does all the illustration.”

For fun, she signed onto an evening class, learning how to throw pots, in Stoke Newington. “My first meaningful encounter with clay. The teacher, Lesley, was a 60-year-old Goth, who would nip off to get us a bottle of wine towards the end of the lesson. She got married, I later found out, in a Batmobile, to a postman, who was also a Goth.”

She and Edward moved to Lewes, converted an old windmill into a home, and had a son, Orson, now 10. She did another ceramics course, with Mohamed Hamid, in the centre of the town, and decided to do another BTEC, at Kensington and Chelsea College, in 2014. “This was a bit of a turning point,” she says. “I came to understand there was so much more to ceramics than throwing pots. I learnt about hand-building, different glazes, printing on clay. The penny dropped: all the fine art I’d studied could be linked to my interest in ceramics.”

An epiphany, then, of sorts. “I started looking at the world again through an artistic filter system. I’d switched it off, and I switched it on again. Through such a filter, every book you read, every show you see, every experience you have, takes on new meaning. I still throw the odd pot, but now it’s mostly hand-built pieces; I call myself a ‘ceramic artist’.” She continued her re-education with an MA at Brighton University, which she completed a couple of years back.

I ask her who or what her art is inspired by, and she mentions ceramicists Alison Britton and Betty Woodman, sculptors Isamu Noguchi and Ron Nagle, and the painter Forrest Bess, promoted by Betty Parsons, whose work she also loves. “But most of all,” she says, “I am influenced by personal memories, and objects that I see around me, especially in museums. Wherever I go, I go to a museum, whether that’s the V&A, John Soane’s Museum or a more regional, low key venue such as Lewes Castle. Every object you see has a story behind it, and I love that. Do you know what a knocker-upperer is?”

I tell her I don’t. “Well, before the days of alarm clocks, there was a person who used to go round the houses early in the morning waking people up for work. Some of them lived on the first floor, so he would have to tap on the window with a long stick. It had finger-like protrusions on the end, so it was like a hand doing the tapping. I saw one of those in a museum, and it influenced one of my pieces. Unfortunately, a couple of the fingers broke off.” She loves sticks, she says, of all shapes and sizes: water diviners; wands; ceremonial staffs. They often reappear in her work. “And hats, as well: hats have always got a lot of meaning behind them.”

I ask her what she wears when she’s working, and she brings out a green apron, which is covered in ink – from screen printing – as well as clay and glaze. Then she tells me about her MO. She prefers to use stoneware, because porcelain cracks, though if there is a crack, she likes to embrace it, and include it into the work. She often uses all the off-cuts from the slab, adding protrusions to her piece. Sometimes she makes a rough preparatory sketch, but generally doesn’t plan what she’s making beforehand, it just emerges from the process. She likes adding repetitive patterns to her pieces, like tribal marks on objects she’s seen in museums: “lots of spots and dots.”

“And then there are the glazes. I bisque-fire the piece, then I glaze it. I use stain and oxides, creating the different colours, this is an important part of the process. Texture is all important: I generally spray the piece with engobe, a matte glaze with low amounts of glass in it. Then I fire it to stoneware temperature.

She has, she mentions in passing, won an award to help develop her glazing techniques, the Breaker Award. This has allowed her to deepen her knowledge of the complex chemical reactions that take place during the glazing process, and apply those to her work, to achieve different effects. “There’s so much complexity within ceramics for most people to learn in a lifetime,” she says. “Glazing is like alchemy.”

Which makes Lisa Jones an alchemist, of sorts. An autobiographical alchemist, creating ceramic sculptures, now there’s a thing. To finish off, I get her to tell more stories about the pieces on display in front of us. The Lisa Simpson-like head on a stick? “That wasn’t my intention, but I do have another wall piece I’ve titled ‘Lisa Simpson’: this one is in fact ‘Mr Sneeze’.”

And our cover image, the royal-blue pyramid? She pauses for thought, and gets serious. “The slag heaps of Britain’s mining towns and villages are still looming over their landscapes,” she says. “They’ve taken on an almost geological – or topographical – permanence. Especially when you measure their bulk against the lives of the people who created them. There’s also a sense of abandonment. The abandonment of jobs… of families… of ethics… of policies. And, I guess, ultimately, the abandonment of the working classes themselves.”

And finally, the rough-textured, black-mottled cup? “When my mother was in her twenties she had a motorbike crash, and she lost her hearing in one ear, and her sense of taste and smell. Now, in her eighties, she’s losing her eyesight as well. All she has left, really, is her sense of touch. I’ve used volcanic glaze here to make it especially tactile. That one’s for her.”