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

Homes & Gardens - - CONTENTS - Words Caroline Beck Pho­tographs ngoc Minh ngo

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.

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