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Interview with Ashley Tarr at Ethulu Inspired Crafts

Who are you and what do you do? I’m 37, a graphic designer and a frustrated artist and craftsperson. I was born in Bulawayo in what was then Rhodesia. I have been living in the UK for 20 years and have two spritely Lhasa Apso fubabies.


What are your main influences? I really draw inspiration from everything around me. I adore beautiful things, things with a bit of bling. Nature plays a big part as well and I like to combine the two. Art to me should be beautiful. Even if the subject isn’t. If an alien were to land and see a certain piece of art, not knowing what it meant, he should still think it the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. Gustav Kilmt, Rembrandt, as well as sculptor Auguste Rodin have all influenced me. However underlining all this, is always my love of Africa and the art and cultures of the area and all other ethnic and ancient art.


Is there meaning behind your work? I have never subscribed to the school of thought that art is about making the viewer think about meaning behind a particular work. It would be impossible to create a piece of art that spoke to everyone in the same way. Rather, I like people the get a ‘feeling’ when they see my work. That leaves them free to experience it in their own way.


What qualifications have you obtained? I was never lucky enough to study art at school but I think that I have always been creative. As a child I was convinced I could design and manufacture a new video game with merely a cardboard box and small, intricately decorated cardboard pieces, attached to wire. It was no wonder that I went on to study Graphic Design at college. Most of my skills in painting, ceramics and jewellery are self-taught, though I would be lying to say I haven’t done a few classes here and there to pick up the basics.


Where do you work? Last year I converted my garage into a studio which has been absolutely brilliant. Now all of the mess is gone from the dining room table and I can hide away in my little cubbyhole when I get a creative urge. It is a luxury I know but it gives me the freedom to play with fire, which all of my pieces usually require!


Tell us about your ceramic creations? All of my ceramic sculpture is based around traditional techniques. I use two different kilns to fire my sculpture firstly an electric kiln to bisque fire items and then a Raku kiln to glaze. I use predominantly crank clay, which is a superbly reliable, coarsely textured clay giving exceptional warp resistance and the low shrinkage. Though this is the perfect clay for Raku, I do at times experiment with other clay bodies. I also use mixed media including glass and metal to adorn my pieces. I never use moulds. All of my work is free-formed and the pieces 'evolve' as I work on them.

What is Raku? Raku represents a style, a glaze and a technique of firing a piece to create magnificent scorched and crackled random patterns on an item of pottery. Special glazes are used to coat a piece and these usually contain metal oxides which react to heat and oxygen. A glazed item has to be headed up fast to very high temperatures and then plunged into sawdust or newspaper to draw the oxygen from the glaze. This creates beautiful effects across the glaze but also puts tremendous strain on the pottery decreasing the chance of its survival. Once fired this way and cooled it is very strong.


Tell us about your paintings? I love experimenting with different media and techniques. I guess this means that there is no formal 'style' behind my work as I like to try new things and go  through phases. Right now I'm being influenced by the old golden religious Icons from the Byzantine period and juxtaposing them with modern content.


Tell us about your jewellery? I love using coloured and precious metal wire in a messy style, together with glass, wooden, bone and metal beads, to create natural and organic pieces - like having a vine of berries draped around your neck.


How do you work? I work full time in Graphic Design but can usually be found in my studio on evenings and weekends.I have to grab every spare opportunity I can. All of the work I do gets assembled  from the ideas I have in my head (I’m not much of a ‘preparer’) and I rarely sketch or note anything down. To me it takes all the fun and spontaneity out of it. However, I usually have to first clear a space in my studio because I’m a messy creator (the opposite of how I am outside my workshop) and like to work on a few projects at once.


What’s integral to the work of an artist? I think the most important attribute to any successful work is passion. There is no way I could sit in front of my workbench and create anything that I am happy with, without it. I need to believe that what I am creating will live up to the vision I have in my head and I am an infuriating perfectionist! Getting excited about the task ahead is the most important thing because without it, the whole process becomes a burden.


What role does the artist have in society? Society can live without art but how boring it would be. Art defines a time. It gives future viewers an idea of what artists, and people in general, were feeling when it was created. It helps free our imaginations and makes us view things through other people's eyes.


What’s your strongest memory of your childhood? My Grandma, my dad's mom. I get most of my talent from her. She was a dressmaker and used to sit with me and draw and paint.


What’s your scariest experience? Buying my first flat. Terrifying!


What’s your most embarrassing moment? Another of my passions as a teenager was acting. I won an opportunity to compete for a Bursary in Dramatic Arts with other kids from various schools. I had to learn two scripts of my own choice, and sailed through the first but got totally stuck on the second. I stood in front of an entire audience and tried to clear my head, thinking if I just relax, the first thing that came out of my mouth would be the right thing - it wasn't. I started repeating the first script and then ran off the stage crying. I didn't get the Bursary.


Tell us about a memorable response you have had to your work? I’ve had a piece stolen! Though I was understandably upset, there was a hidden part of me that was quite impressed that someone had made the effort to steal my work from an exhibition. I wonder where it is now?


Is the artistic life lonely? Not at all. Doing my art is a bit like meditating. It gets me away from all of the worries and stresses of life and allows me time to reflect. When I’m creating something my mind is 100% focused on that task. I don’t think about how clean the house is or if there’s food in the fridge. When I’m in the middle of a project 9 times of of 10 my understanding husband has to pick up the slack on the domestic side. Also an important part of any artists life is networking, so I meet so many new people.


What do you dislike about the art world? I sometimes feel that not enough credence is given to new and up-and-coming artists. It is very difficult to break into the artist network. Sometimes I think the markers that define good art have been skewed - that art has become about shocking rather than pleasing the art world.


Should art be funded? For many years I have WANTED to be a crafts person. I looked admiringly at those wonderfully bohemian folk who sat outside their quaint little studios or within their gorgeous reappointed gothic churches,  sub-divided into neat little vestibules for divine inspiration, and wandered when that would be me. Yes, creativity can cost, dearly. To say anything to the contrary is merely displacing people’s expectations. Indeed, its almost a right of passage, challenging one on how best they love their craft, by how much they can throw at it. At some stage down the line, an artist will need to make a financial contribution, buying materials or renting premises to display their art, and not everyone has the means to be able to nurture their talent. What a loss for everyone if the support isn’t there.


Name something you love, and why. I love to travel. It’s one of the top 5 most important things in my life. I will forgo many things to have the chance to visit new places.


Name something you don’t love, and why. I don’t love chaos, disorganisation and lack of customer service - on the trains, in the shops, when you’re buying a coffee or trying to pay a bill. It drives me crazy.


Favourite or most inspirational place? Sit me on any verandah, in any camp at the Kruger National Park, South Africa and you’ll see a person at peace. It reboots me. It is one of only a few places in the world where you can feel like you are in the wild and back to basics.


What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given? “Tomorrow is another day.”


What wouldn’t you do without?I absolutely cannot do without my friends and family. But in the studio – my dvd/cd player!!


What would you like to achieve as a crafts person? As morbid as this may sound, I want to leave something behind; to create work that people can look at for generations to come and enjoy. All of my work I create to last.


How can people find you? You can visit my website www.ethulu.co.uk or email me at ethulu@gmail.com. I look forward to your visit!

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© Ashley Tarr / Ethulu 2020