Carolyn Tripp

Lives lived, mine and my immediate ancestors, and an anonymous life that created a small ceramic bottle – perhaps in the late 19th century – which inspired a life in the 21st. Here lies the origin of my work.

Ceramics and the Far East have been a presence for as long as I can remember. My paternal grandmother owned a collection of oriental pots which I saw regularly throughout my childhood (I would secretly lift lids to peer inside, looking for imagined treasures within!). At the same time, my Great Uncle Bernard, my grandmother’s brother, worked in China for the BBC. A writer, he would send me richly illustrated postcards and regale me with stories of the Orient. It was Great Uncle Bernard who gifted me a small Imari bottle …

Stories, words, images, pots. The stage was set early.

School steered me away from creative pursuits and into a career in advertising. Its fast pace and unreasonable demands ultimately unfulfilling. In my early thirties, taking a bold step, I left my secure job and travelled the world before taking a class in ceramics. Those evenings in Pimlico under the tutorship of Barry Guppy were to change my life forever. My study continued at Camberwell College of Arts under the legendary Richard Slee. It was here that I learned to be a ceramicist, immersing myself in every aspect of the craft. Great Uncle Bernard’s gift meanwhile sat patiently, waiting to play its hand.

On graduating, I made slipcast pots in a shared studio in Peckham. A ceramicist, but yet to find my voice. I became a single mum, balancing making with a role in a social enterprise supporting those recovering from mental illness. Life was busy, fragmented. And my grandmother’s pots? They were now in my mother’s care.

My dear mother, yet another ancestral link to ceramics. It was she who would buy boxes of assorted pots at auction, rootling through each precious hoard looking for the most interesting specimens! Together we’d study and discuss them, eagerly researching their potential origin and value. When I went into ceramics, mum was my greatest supporter, my cheerleader, thrilled to be gifted a piece.

Family. Connection. Pots.

When my mum’s health began to decline, it was having to take a step back from my making that took me a step closer to my past, and simultaneously to my future. Spending time with her was paramount. It was during this difficult period that quite by chance the small Imari bottle surfaced once more. A Japanese Imari bottle. White bodied. Decorated in red and blue. With a tall slender neck.

This small piece from the other side of the world, from a different culture, a different century, had me in its spell. Turning it in my hands, I wondered if I could throw a piece like this. I’d been slip casting for years! If I returned to throwing, could I possibly have retained the muscle memory to create such a form? Needing a change, and a distraction from mum’s illness, I dug out a wheel. I set about playing, as much for my own mental health as anything else. Experimenting with transfer decoration. My inspiration? My grandmother’s oriental blue and white collection.

Time. History. Family. Echoes from a different culture, a different century. They needed time to converge within me. Fragments, that when combined, would tell a new story. How like the pots I now make.

When my mother eventually died, I took a pause. Time. I needed time. When I emerged, my making had changed. I had changed. I was ready to speak, to tell my story, to share my voice. It transpires I had much to say. Much to say about stories, families, words, connections, images and pots.

Six years on, my work echoes my journey perfectly. Thoughts, stories, impressions and images torn into fragments and reassembled on my pieces. A metaphor for life, for my life. In reshaping my stories, new connections, new interpretations, are made. From family – my mother, grandmother, a great uncle – and the hands of an anonymous potter in Japan, has sprung work that has developed far beyond long-necked vessels and simple blue and white. I now create my own “families”, pieces differing in shape and size, scale, curve and decoration, but united in spirit. Oriental-inspired ceramics with a contemporary twist.

And my grandmother’s collection? It is now in my care. It watches over me still. As does Uncle Bernard’s small Imari bottle.