Eve Bennett’s ceramics studio, located within a renovated shoe factory in Stafford, resembles the set for a fairy tale. Families of mice cluster together on the window-ledge, cabinets of butterflies hang from the wall, and a shelf full of white owls peer at intruders. Even the ornate bird cage, which Bennett found in Morocco, swings from the ceiling, creating ethereal and patterned shadows on the wall.
Bennett’s childhood memories evoke a fairy tale world. She recalls growing up with her mother, father and sister in a grand, haunted house in Cheshire. She describes how the family kept warm in winter by huddling around an open fire; on one occasion, with too few logs available, her father ripped apart the carpet and fed it to the flames. In the summer she would spend hours playing on her own in the garden, leading her mother to tell her that she had “a head full of magic”.
Bennett is clearly a storyteller, for whom “art has to have a narrative”. She is interested in the storytelling tradition, in all its forms, and mentions her enjoyment at listening to Alan Bennett’s ‘Telling Tales’ during lengthy train journeys. These humorous monologues, which deal with his family relationships and upbringing in Leeds, resonate with the artist, who strongly identifies with her own Northern roots. Like the author, she remarks that: “My work takes me on a personal journey through my memories and family stories”.
It is a family story which inspired Bennett to create one of her most significant works to date, The Story of Birds:
“When I was younger my mum had offered to take care of my uncle’s aviary of tropical birds while he was on holiday. It should have been so easy. But my dad got an urgent phone call at work from my hysterical mum. All the birds had died overnight because she had left the gas hob turned on”.
It’s a tragic story but one that she and her family still find great amusement in, because it reminds them of her mum’s forgetful nature. Her uncle is yet to see the funny side.
While studying at Manchester Metropolitan University her mother, Cynthia, passed away. Bennett channelled the grief she experienced into her practice, producing The Story of Birds in commemoration of her mum and the tale of the aviary. She designed a collection of life-sized, lifeless birds, hand-moulding them using porcelain and paper clay. Arranged in a striking tableau, within and surrounding the Moroccan bird cage, they were first exhibited as part of her Head Full of Magic show at the Manchester Craft and Design Centre in 2009. She has subsequently installed her birds, along with mice, frogs and butterflies, in museums and galleries around the UK.
For Bennett, artefacts preserve and distil memories. Fascinated by everyday objects, as carriers of meaning, she regularly visits museum collections. She explains that:
“Much of my work has been based around collections…I am interested in the history they represent. Even as a child I would be fascinated by the way museums display their collections”.
Visiting Manchester Museum, she gained access to the archives, where she spent days drawing, painting and taking photographs of the preserved creatures, which she finds simultaneously “macabre yet profoundly beautiful”.
Developing her practice, Bennett has more recently begun to work on a series of larger, more abstract birds. Whilst continuing to use porcelain and paper clay, these objects have taken on a more sculptural and monumental feel. Bennett explains that she now works in an increasingly expressive and immediate manner, using as few movements as possible. She slices into the clay with a curved wire, and leaves many of the folds which emerge from the cuts: “the less you touch the clay, the more beautiful it looks”. Celebrating the natural beauty of her medium, she allows each bird to form within her hands: the graceful pleats of a wing, the curve of a beak, and slender feet all emerge from the creases of clay, as if by magic.
Bennett also intricately paints each one of her creatures. Her admiration for the ceramicist Eric James Mellon is evident. Like Mellon, she translates her watercolour studies onto the surface through a series of delicate glazes and the process of reduction firing. She shows me a series of owls, painted in muted, soft shades of blue. With her sensitive touch, she endows each animal with its own character. Looking down at her hands she tells me that they are identical to those of her mother – who was also a talented artist – and that “it is when making and rolling and painting, she’s there”.
In the corner of the studio is her kiln. Speaking about the firing process, Bennett explains that the change which occurs within it is “like alchemy”. For one exhibition she only opened the kiln on the morning beforehand, allowing the furnace to decide which of her creatures would survive. Cradling one of the birds, which has emerged with a flawless, glazed surface, Bennett wonders aloud if her mother tried to bring her uncle’s birds back to life. Porcelain, she points out, warms up in a person’s hands.
Bennett has firmly established her place within a tradition of contemporary artists who use visual art as a medium for telling personal tales and immortalising memories. Like Kiki Smith, Paula Rego and David Hockney, she uses the cloak of the fairy tale to confront unsettling truths. Yet, she also brings humour to her poignant drawings, watercolours and ceramic creatures. The world she creates is a touching commemoration of the dead and a celebration of the living, in all its unique and exquisite forms.
This article was originally published in Art, Share, Love