Based in Norwich, Sarah Horlock is breathing new life into ceramics with her unique and inspired designs. Her pots, vases and jewellery are a little bit of sophisticated fun, with a delicate pastel colour palette, tactile finish and mid century feel. We got in touch with Sarah to find our more about what inspires her and her creative process.
Sarah in her studio
Can you tell us a little bit about your previous career and what lead you to discovering a passion for ceramics?
I'm an archaeologist by training, specialising in landscape archaeology, which looks at how human landscapes change over time, rather than focusing on an individual site or time period. I have spent almost twenty years mapping archaeological landscapes in Norfolk and Suffolk from aerial photographs.
A few years after starting this job, I decided I needed to do something creative alongside it and signed up for a pottery evening class in Norwich. I had a few (unsuccessful) attempts at throwing and ended up spending months and months creating a series of water-etched relief tiles depicting the archaeological sites that I had been mapping in Norfolk. The tiles were unglazed, white stoneware and porcelain clays and had no decoration other than the relief design. I've always been fascinated by the interplay of sunlight and shadows, of textures and tone, of vegetation and surfaces, that are visible from above on aerial photographs. The long shadows of low winter sun or at near sunset allows for previously hidden features to be revealed. These pure white relief tiles explored how the intensity and angle of the light reveals the subtleties of relict landscapes from above. I returned to this technique earlier this year and intend to create more of these minimalist relief pieces. By contrast the majority of my ceramics are definitely more colourful, often inspired by the palettes and patterns of mid century modern arts and design, whilst still being archaeological in origin.
How does your work as an archaeological aerial photographer influence your designs? And where do you seek inspiration?
My archaeological career involved discovering, mapping and recording the traces of past landscapes, settlements and monuments visible on aerial photographs. Whilst being professionally interested in the meaning of the patterns in historical terms, the images themselves inspired the artist in me. I've always found the graphic and abstract array of rectangles, squares, circles, dots and dashes, and linear marks so visually appealing. Unsurprisingly the decoration of my ceramics are now heavily influenced by the distinctive shapes, patterns and layering of these ancient landscapes, with stylised trackways and enclosures traversing the surface of the pots and jewellery. In some of my work, most notably the stoneware and raku pieces, these motifs have been reduced down to a more minimalist linear design. Both bodies of work speak to me of archaeology; one is just more representational and the other more abstracted. My fascination with the past is combined with my love of early twentieth century and modern art, design and textiles, which are a constant inspiration. Visits to wonderful places, such as the Ede's house at Kettles Yard, are always great to get the ideas flowing. I'm also currently working on some sculptural raku pieces inspired by volcanic rock formations seen on recent trips to Iceland and The Hebrides for an upcoming Anglian Potters exhibition.
What do you enjoy most about the process of working with clay?
Like most people I think I was drawn to the tactile qualities of working with clay. It can be really meditative and calming, when you get in a flow state while doing certain tasks. I find throwing really enjoyable, when its going well that is! Other times it can be quite frustrating, when you can't get the clay to do what you want. But the fact that you can squash it up, rework and recycle it endlessly, until it is bisque fired means that there's always another opportunity to turn a lump of clay into something beautiful. The archaeologist in me is also drawn to certain techniques that are reminiscent of excavation, in particular inlay decoration, where the clay surface is scraped back to reveal a patterned surface. The water-etching techniques that I mentioned earlier, where parts of the clay surface is protected with a hard layer, then the surrounding softer clay is worn away by water to reveal a relief decoration. This really makes me think of geological processes and landscape formation.
You use Raku firing for some of your pieces, what does this process involve?
I absolutely LOVE doing raku! Its such an exciting, unpredictable and addictive process. You never really know how things are going to turn out – or if they will even survive! The practise involves taking the pots out of the kiln at around 1000c. The thermal shock causes the glazes to contract and crack, causing the crackled glazes characteristic of raku. The pots are placed into bins of sawdust or shredded paper, which bursts into flames and then smokes the fired clay and cracks in the glaze black. I absolutely love cleaning off the soot black pots to reveal the contrast of crackled surface to contrast with smoked black clay. I've found it increasingly hard to fit in raku firings in the last year, around helping to support my Dad, who has Alzheimer's, and the school runs. I've really missed it! But I'm hoping the purchase of a more efficient raku kiln this year will make it more manageable. Watch this space!
Examples of raku fired ceramics
What do love about being a maker in East Anglia?
East Anglia has such a great artistic and craft community. There's so much mutual support, collaboration and inspiration. We are lucky to have so many great galleries, pop-up spaces, markets and independent shops, that stock and promote local artists and makers. As a ceramicist, organisations such as Anglian Potters, are really key to creating a strong, evolving community of art pottery and exhibitions. Of course the beautiful and ever changing landscape of East Anglia is also such a wonderful inspiration!
What small businesses or brands are you loving at the moment?
That's a tough one! It's so hard to name just a few, as there are so many amazing artists, makers and small businesses out there, especially in East Anglia. I have bought a few lovely pieces recently, including from some fellow Thrive Collective artists. I treated myself to a stunning origami lampshade on a colourful hanging cord from Folded Side Project. Also one of The Chemist's Daughter's stylish white relief prints, which really remind me of my white ceramic archaeological relief pieces. On my recent Hebridean travels I came across the work of Beth Legg and Frances Law, inspired by geology and archaeology and unsurprisingly a few beautiful pieces came home with me! At recent Fresh Artisan Markets in Norfolk I treated myself to a lovely terrazzo planter by Stone and Rope and a stunning turned wood and hand-dyed brush from Slow Made Goods, I'm looking forward to trying it out with my raku glazes. Last one, I promise! I've treated myself to some stunning jewellery from Studio Adorn. I love Bonnie's aesthetic and designs and enjoyed collaborating and creating some trinket bowls for her brand last year.
My studio soundtrack often features 6 Music, especially a bit of Lauren Laverne to get the day off to a great start! If I had to listen to one artist all day though, it would be Nick Cave; his back catalogue covers all possible moods of making perfectly! I have actually started to listen to audiobooks while throwing in the studio this year. I love that my head gets completely absorbed in the narrative, whilst my hands are focused on the clay. Probably unsurprisingly, during Lockdown I was drawn to tales of healing and recovery and a connection with nature and a slower pace of life, most notably 'Rootbound' by Alice Vincent, 'The Outrun' by Amy Liptrot and 'Wintering' by Katharine May. I've also been listening to Katherine's wonderfully insightful 'The Wintering Sessions' podcast interviews, which explored a myriad of issues relating to grief, becoming a carer and adapting to big life changes; all of which I've been dealing with recently.
//Images courtesy of Sarah Horlock @sarahhorlock_ceramics and product photography by Megan Clark//