Artist on File: Elspeth Keith
This month we visit Elspeth Keith, Ceramicist, to find out about the inspiration and evolution of her art.
I was first attracted to Elspeth's ceramics at an Open Studios exhibition in 2009. I saw her pod like shapes which seemed to be the result of underwater volcanic activity. Some people believe that we started off as amphibians - and somehow you can believe it when you look at Elspeth’s pieces. You know you have never seen anything quite like it – and yet it’s like coming home. This is surely Elspeth’s trademark appeal.
Things that come out of the sea…
"I got to this point by accident,” she says. “I was considering what glaze to use. My tutor at the time said, ‘why don't we try the silicone carbonates?’ Luckily we found some in the back of a cupboard in the storeroom. When the pieces came out of the kiln it seemed to suit the figures I‘d made. I liked the effect so much it opened up a whole lot of other ideas. So I’ve got that teacher to thank for the spark!"
Elspeth says it is also shapes rather than objects that inspire her. The clay almost dictates what shape it wants to be." I have an idea for a pot or a container and if it’s going well the clay will work with me and something evolves. Some clays will fold nicely, some will stand up straight, others won't."
Peaks and troughs
To me it seemed there must be some subconscious alchemy going on. What, I wondered, has been the foundation for Elspeth’s creative imagination? "When I see landscapes, rivers that split as they run into the sea, glacial run offs, sharp mountain peaks against the dark blue skies of New Zealand- these are the sort of things I find inspirational," she says.
It turns out Elspeth has Slatibartfast tendencies. Remember Douglas Adam’s creative character from ‘The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, who made mountains and fjords? Elspeth explains, “I pull up the sides of a pot to make the peaks and rocky finishes."
The results look like geological features, thrown up by eruptions and worn by time.
Although Elspeth likes travelling and enjoys wild landscapes she doesn’t feel that travel is necessary for inspiring her work. She could stay in her shed and the clay itself might be all the inspiration she needs.
But then she says - "I would miss the seaside, the rock pools, shells and pebbles that have been worn down by the sea, and all the different colours you get in the pebbles.”
Maybe the clue is in her childhood. Scottish born Elspeth, spent most of her childhood in Elgin, in the beautiful North East of of Scotland, five miles from the sea on the Moray Firth coast. For the last thirty years she has lived and worked in Hertfordshire. She qualified as a librarian and worked in public libraries, then after a stint of motherhood, returned to library work at the Royal Veterinary College until retiring three years ago.
Elspeth's interest in ceramics started about twenty years ago when she went to a local authority leisure class. "I just loved working with clay and have done so ever since." From that point her interest gradually developed. She has always done a class and learned from teachers and other participants, until this year. For the last three years she attended Open Studies classes at the University of Hertfordshire and in 2008/9 completed a City and Guilds course at Oaklands College, St Albans. She now spends her days working full time on developing her ceramics in her workshop at home.
Venturing into Open Studios was another turning point. Elspeth wanted to do lots of little pieces to try out some different glazes at University of Hertfordshire, where she was attending a course at the time. She made lots of little “pods” for this experiment and discovered they were: “great shapes that I wanted to develop further”. Her first Open Studios featuring her pods proved that people responded positively to her work. She says, "I was blown away by the fact that people wanted to buy what I was making,"
To date Elspeth has done five Open Studios and each one has opened up new opportunities and a wider audience. Elspeth’s creativity feeds off the responses she gets. If something sells well, or someone says they like something in particular, Elspeth will make more but not necessarily exactly the same. The process is balanced by what Elspeth feels she wants to do, so her work continues to evolve.
This year she built a range of pots and sculptures with a heavily grogged black stoneware clay. Also, out of nowhere came a quirky dog, now a series. Volcanic, as though thrown out by Popocatepetl, but begging to play on the beach of course. Organic yet raising a laugh. Clever. I don’t think I’ve seen that done before.
And how does she see the future? The idea of running classes appeals, to inspire others in the way that teachers have inspired her. And maintaining that intangible connection with us all is most important: “I hope people continue to like my things and that I continue to make what people like."
By Belinda Naylor-Stables
You can see Elspeth’s work at:
Palace Green Gallery, Stable Yard, Hatfield Park, Hatfield, AL9 5NQ
The Art Nest, 4 & 5 West Alley, Hitchin, Herts, SG5 1EG
The Art Shed, Westmill Farm, Westmill Road, Ware, Hertfordshire, SG12 0ES