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Work / Illustration

Meet Grace Wilson’s cast of charming – and amazingly lifelike – ceramic characters

Artist and illustrator Grace Wilson remembers having a Play-Doh hairdressing toy as a kid, “where you squeezed the dough through a plastic head with holes in it to give you long, spaghetti-like tendrils of hair. Twenty-plus years later and I’m still at it!”

We’ve written about Grace a couple of times before, but focused back then on her brilliantly witty and satirical comics and her brutally honest depictions of what foreign travel is really all about. But we hadn’t until quite recently spotted her immensely characterful ceramic figurines, which she’s been making for a couple of years now and which she showed at an installation at Good Press in Glasgow last year.

Her work has always spanned ceramics and traditional illustration. On her foundation year, she says she “accidentally ended up in the ceramics department”, before she did a bachelors degree at Central Saint Martins. “After wrestling and failing with the design side of things, in my final year I ended up creating quite basic figurative and illustrative pieces that were rather storytelling in nature, by drawing in graphite over white porcelain figurines,” she says. “It was a happy half-way between drawing and making.”

That storytelling element in her work has only become more pronounced in the years since she graduated. After a couple of years working as a ceramicist in London, she decided to move to Stockholm and got onto a Storytelling MFA course at the city’s leading arts university, Konstfack.

It was here that Grace made her first foray into the world of comics. “Sweden has a really strong comics tradition, especially in the area of autobiography, and my professor at the time was very encouraging, pushing me to pull out the stories behind the people and imagery I was creating,” she says. She would often visit the Serieterket, a huge library dedicated to comics, and “got really into making slice-of-life, social-commentary and autobiographical works”.

It was also here that Grace got back into the ceramics workshop. “It felt nice to be both making ceramics and doing comics,” she says. “Almost like I was creating action figures of the characters in my comics.”

That emphasis on narrative and backstories, so important to comics, is also visible in her ceramic figurines. Grace somehow manages to inject an atmosphere of drama, a sense of dynamism, into a frozen figure. “I really like capturing certain moods or expressions in the figures I make, so it looks as if they’re a still in a film,” she says. “Maybe someone’s just shouted at them, or they’re giving someone the evil eye, or they’re hunched over and tired after waiting for an overdue bus to arrive. It’s important that there’s a sense of life and action in them.”

She achieves this brilliantly. As a viewer looking at her figurines, you can’t help but ask yourself: What are they thinking? What has just happened to them? What’s going on around them? Where are they, and where are they heading next?

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However, it took the illustrator, who is now based in Edinburgh, a while to accept that this was an OK way to express her creativity. “I think I thought it wasn’t valid enough to be an adult who is still making the same exact same kind of things I was making in plasticine at nursery!” she says. But then that’s often where the charm of her characters comes from – that slightly naive style, which feels beautifully unpolished, more of an in-the-moment sketch than a still-life masterpiece.

In fact, that’s often where Grace gets her inspiration for her characters. “Usually I’ll be working from drawings I’ve made or descriptions of people I’ve written down,” she says. “This could be either a person I’ve captured in their entirety, or a mishmash of details I’ve drawn. Maybe a thick ankle squished into a strappy sandal crossed with a scowling woman with a pouting, made-up face clothed in a floor-length woollen coat.” It’s often, she says, like an “exquisite corpse, matching together bits as I see fit”.

The process from that point is fairly simple. Surrounded by a few of those sketches for reference, she “bashes” a lump of clay into the loose shape of a pose or posture that she’s particularly keen to capture. “A lot of my figures are quite solid, round folk, or are wearing big quilted jackets or padded coats,” she says. “These fuller figures are much more enjoyable both to sculpt and draw.” She tends to make the head separately and then “pops” that on last.

“When everything dries out a little more so the clay is leather-hard, I’ll neaten everything up and get all the details right; then it goes in the kiln,” she says. After that, she glazes, hand-paints or enamels in details like red lipstick or bright patterns across fabrics hanging down in folds. But for her, nothing can beat the moment, when the pieces emerge from the kiln: “I love the feeling of opening the kiln, praying that everything is going to come out OK. But if it comes out even better, it’s sheer joy!”

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