Driven by her passion for making things and inspired by the art of the Bloomsbury Group, studio potter Frances creates unique vases for the blooms she loves
Frances Palmer creates unique garden-inspired vases from her New England studio.
From her studio in New England, Frances Palmer has been making textured ceramics since 1987. Each handmade piece is functional and beautiful, including the vases that she makes for the many flowers she grows herself. Dahlias, the blooms she is most passionate about, take centre stage. Frances tells us more.
I began making ceramics soon after I had a baby. I’d gone to college to become a printmaker, but I loved the academic side too, so I ended up with a degree in art history, which I am so glad about now, as I use it every day of my life. I got married, had a baby soon after and set up home in Connecticut, in the dead of winter. I did not know anyone locally, my husband was away all day, working in New York, and there was just the baby and the countryside to keep me company. I was completely overcome by the solitude. My husband said: ‘You should try something you have always wanted to do.’ And that thing was ceramics.
The inspiration for garden-inspired ceramics came from some research I had been doing. Looking at the work produced by the Omega Workshops’ Bloomsbury Group artists, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, I was inspired by their country house, Charleston, in Sussex, with its amazing tableware, and I thought, ‘I am going to learn how to make that’. I went to a pottery class, then I went out and bought a used kiln and a wheel, and set up a studio in our house. It was never a hobby. Right from the beginning, I was really serious about it, and wanted to start selling my pieces immediately.
For me there is a connection between making pottery and gardening. Of course, both involve working with your hands. Plus, with gardening you have a lot of surrendering to variables and saying, ‘Okay, maybe I’ll try again
next year…’ The same is true of ceramics. It is the kind of process where the artist, beyond a certain point, has to relinquish control. When you put a pot in a kiln, the creation goes beyond your control, and you have to let the nature of the process do its own thing.
I approach my cutting garden in much the same way that I approach
my pottery. In both disciplines, you learn not to be too hard on yourself if your creative work doesn’t turn out as you envisaged. That said, my garden is functional rather than pretty, because I think foremost about how the flowers will work in one of my vases. The two jobs feed off each other. One year, I came up with the idea of making plaster casts of the flowers, so that I could use them to refer to during winter, when the garden was asleep.
My fascination with dahlias dates back to when we first moved to our
house over 25 years ago. I didn’t even know dahlias existed and I was looking though a garden book when I saw some photos of them – it was love at first glance. I was completely smitten. Back then, dahlias were obscure, expensive and hard to get hold of. People would roll their eyes with incredulity when I told them I was growing dahlias. But I loved ordering them from tiny nurseries in Oregon, Washington State or even Canada, and I couldn’t get enough of their amazing forms and colours.
I soon started growing my own dahlias. Nowadays I grow hundreds of them in tomato cages, and maybe it is not the prettiest way, but it works. People say they are a stiff flower, however last autumn I visited London for three weeks and when I came back home, they had completely done their own thing, meandering about the garden, and the whole effect was magical.
To find out more about Frances’ vases, visit francespalmerpottery.com.
Frances works with three Shimpo Whisper pottery wheels to avoid mixing clays – one for porcelain, one for white earthenware and one for terracotta or dark clays. Her light-filled studio is close by her cutting garden, so the flowers that inspire her designs are never far from sight. Beside her is an eight-spout tulipiere awaiting her final touches.
Frances experiments with the dahlias that she grows, pressing their flower heads into slabs of clay to work out the best ways of incorporating impressions of the blooms into her pottery designs.
CLOCKWISE FROM BELOW An impressive display of Frances’ wares – her output is now considerable; the dahlia and pompom theme in her ceramic work is often evident at the necks of her vases; out in the garden the inspiration for her pottery abounds.