James Fenner is a Brighton based artist who produces hauntingly beautiful ceramic sculptures which explore the strength and fragility of the human condition. We have displayed James' work for a few years and in that time it has been a pleasure to see him become one of the most sought after ceramicists in the area. In this interview we get to know James a little better...
Can you tell me about your creative process?
When I was doing my GCSE's I saw a small collection of drawings and paintings by the artist Egon Schiele at the Royal Academy. I was struck by how he juxtaposed detail with space and evoked in me this strong aesthetic that remains a central theme in my work: a figure emerging from the honed block. Although I would regard myself as spiritual rather than religious, the haunting epitaphs of biblical figures depicted in tortured rapture have held a curious fascination for me since childhood. My earlier work was formed from found objects that I assembled into shrine like sculptures. The move toward ceramics came from the desire to create my own figures rather than using dolls and vintage photographs. Self-taught five years ago, the use of fired clay now shapes my art. I feel a real affinity with this material, and my personal challenge and endeavour is marrying anatomical accuracy with emotionality whilst honouring the natural property characteristics of the clay itself.
In your opinion, what is the role of the artist in society?
Hmmmm, that's a great question. I suppose it could be said that the role is multi-faceted. It is a direct expression of the artist's human experience or being in the world. A mortal's perception of life and death no matter how or what is being conveyed. Here the artist is a role model to the viewer of the created art. They offer a perspective or vision that can be shared or rejected by the onlooker. The artist could thereby be seen to offer an experience that provokes, challenges or inspires a response. Whether this is deemed good or bad is perhaps inconsequential, but perhaps like the piece of grit in an oyster shell, the merit or the artist's creation lies in its ability to remain with the onlooker long after the experience and stir something within where the pearl of transformation comes from the process of self-reflection.
You have said before that a lot of your work is about understanding the human condition - what is it you are trying to convey to the viewer?
I also practice as a Humanistic Therapeutic Counsellor. The role of compassionate witness is an important agent in our own human striving for higher meaning and self-acceptance. These sculpted figures ask the viewer to engage in a relationship, to look at and be seen with compassion for all our mortal endeavours to survive and grow. As humans I believe we are a nuisance of feelings where the mind seeks to make sense of our mortal experiences. From the Judo-Christian notion of dualistic thinking, we grow up in families, communities and societies where the cultural mores divide our perceptions of experience into good and bad, right and wrong. Although this can be seen as an important moral compass in which to steer our lives, in itself it so often creates internal conflict and a sense of shame. These figures, primordial, inherently wise, offer in simple gesture, humble reverence to struggle to be, a quiet role model if you wish, in the age of celebrity. Here light and dark are inseparable and inform us in contrast to the other's qualities. Therapeutically, all aspects of ourselves need to be welcomed and integrated for us to fully function in a health full way.
What do you want viewers to take away from your work?
I guess I have never really put it into words before. I hope that the viewer has a sense of being understood in some small way. Perhaps it is about relating and relationship. That of object and subject. The viewer is reciprocally viewed by the figure before us, and we read the face of the sculpture as a reflection of our own emotional landscape. I think that sense, art is so very personal and is in itself relational, changing, growing, flowing.
How important is art to understanding the human mind?
Gosh. I think it is inextricably fused. Art in a sense is the direct expression of what is contained within the mind. We see recurring themes explored through the ages, a reflection of cultural values through changes in aesthetic practice and mediums. Perhaps the role of art is to create a conversation with the viewer, to engage the mind and hopefully expand it. A case of individual evolution expanded to collective consciousness, where the zeitgeist phenomena may be understood and witnessed.
Why is the human mind such a big focus for your art?
Maybe it's more the human condition rather than just the mind. Perhaps since the French Philosopher Descartes, the Western approach to mind, body and spirit has been split, devaluing the bodily experience as lesser than that of the mind. Many people are disconnected from their feelings, emotions and bodily sensations. It's the physical and the psychological that makes us human. Can the mind comprehend our own morality? It tries, but as living beings we only know life, knowing it only as a witness to the deaths of those we love. My wish is to challenge the viewer to go within and value and trust their own experience rather than seek validation from an external authority. I see how we are so influenced throughout our history by powerful institutions, the media of celebrity now being our Church of today. So many of us feel disconnected from a vision of the world that we do not really resonate with and are left instead feeling disenfranchised. For many of us, meaning has been lost to the concept of status and the intrinsic need to belong. To belong to our own uniqueness would be my wish for every human being alive.
If the human mind develops throughout life - how do you see your art changing alongside your own development?
I'm not sure whether the mind necessarily develops beyond childhood for many of us, unless life experiences challenge us to see it for what it is, a sense making machine. I think too often we stay within the smallness of our thoughts and experiences from early childhood and do not challenge this conception of ourselves in relation to the world. I've lots of ideas floating about in my head at the moment. I'm currently experimenting with different clays. Up until now I have used a white fired stoneware clay. I've just started working with a porcelain grogged mix good for sculpting. I'm testing the limits of the materials in terms of delicacy vs. durability and practicality. Recently I created some pieces based upon empty rooms which I would like to explore further. I think, given time I'd like to take up paper and pencil again, drawing being my first love and see what might emerge from that. But in terms of my current work I feel there is still much to explore, refine and expand upon, both in my subject matter and its execution.
How do you know when a piece of work is completed?
In three words - I feel it. It's difficult to say really, but there is a knowing sense. A balance somewhere between incomplete and over worked that I have come to recognise and respect.
Do you have any tips for aspiring artists?
An incredibly influential tutor in my life shared this simple wisdom with me during my Counselling training that I think really sums up my own journey in art; 'follow your smoke'. Go with what inspires and ignites your creativity enjoying the process creating rather than the end result and know this will then lead you to the next step. Trust the journey if you are willing to grow from it.
View our selection of artwork by James Fenner here.