While studying for an illustration degree in Brighton, Alice Johnson found herself naturally gravitating towards more tactile mediums. She tells us: “I was initially drawn to the relationship between 2D and 3D where I would use papier mache and air drying clay as a way to turn a drawing into a tangible object.” For Alice, “making something physical was much more interesting than a 2D image, that sense of touch that is often lost from a drawing, especially when it’s put into the digital realm.”
Having upgraded from air-drying clay to kiln-fired ceramics, Alice is now one year into her ceramics course at the RCA, which she applied to, she says, “on a bit of a whim” and, to her surprise, was accepted. “Although I didn’t have much ceramic experience,” she reflects, “I’m so grateful to my illustration degree as it has given me an angle to approach ceramics with less pressure of the weight of its tradition on my shoulders.” Alice’s wheel-thrown bowls, plates and cups are things of beauty, but her truly distinctive artistry lies in her hand-built pieces: her vases, her signature prawn-shaped receptacles, and (our favourites) her pottery pets.
“The pets began,” Alice tells us, “back in 2015 when I did a ceramic course and made two figures of my old spaniels. Then some friends asked for their pets to be made, then I created the Instagram page for them, and it snowballed from there. Making Pixie Geldof’s dog has to be a highlight. I feel so lucky that I ultimately get to look at pictures of animals for a high percentage of my time! It’s such a joy seeing pictures of the pottery pet with the real pet; they never look too sure about their ceramic counterparts, which always makes me smile.”
Each a unique representation of a real treasured pet, Alice’s ceramic cats and dogs have a simultaneous substantiality and delicacy, their stocky little bodies offset by finely tapered ears and noses, and by the intricately painted details of their markings and expressions. Alice speaks of “using the ceramic as a canvas to draw, to communicate and tell a story” – an approach clearly manifested in her translation of the character of each individual animal into ceramic form.
There is a whimsical naivety to Alice’s pet miniatures in the asymmetrically of their slightly askew features. For Alice, these irregularities are the best way of organically reflecting reality: “I get inspiration from imperfections found in nature, from natural materials, plant life, animals, humans and colour. Clay at its source is an organic material: in the way I present my work there is a wobbly, organic feel, interconnecting the ‘natural’ theme. I enjoy the naiveté of, say, a fingerprint or a slight imperfection, showing that a piece is unique and handmade.”
Drawing on the creations of fine-art ceramicist Betty Woodman and the “quirkiness” of the Staffordshire pottery figurines, as well as the aesthetic of The Bloomsbury’s Group’s Charleston farmhouse, Alice’s creative process is one of instinctive experimentation. As she says: “The clay ultimately decides what it wants to do – of course, how well something is made affects this, but it has just as much control as you do. I love how it goes from something so malleable pre-firing, to something that, once fired, lasts forever.”
Because they are imbued with the character of real pets, Alice’s creations are not simply ornamental objects, but receptacles for and representations of the bond between human and animal. Quite literally, she inscribes lumps of clay with personal meaning and emotive significance. She states: “The domestic is something I have recently been researching, such as our relationships with our homes and certain objects – why we feel sentimentality and how objects evoke nostalgia, and how human relationships can surround an object.”