We returned to the vibrant city of Bristol to catch up with the talented ceramic artist David Chilton, who creates incredibly detailed mythological figures and vessels based around the female form through a clever use of porcelain paper clay and stoneware. David warmly welcomed us into his inspiring home and showed us his beautifully curated art collection while engaged in a captivating conversation about art, sparked by his passionate interest in the life and work of Gwen John.
Later on, we joined him at his studio space at Maze Studios, where he showed us his work in progress and his work process, chatting with us about the narrative behind his serene and otherworldly figures and the sense of timelessness and spirituality that emerges from every single piece of art that he creates.
Tell us about David before David Chilton Ceramics.
I’m not sure there was a before, as it’s something that I always wanted to do. As far back as my childhood, I’ve always wanted to be a maker and I’m lucky that my parents encouraged me, as it’s not an easy path. There have been periods in my life when I haven’t made but I’ve always continued to look and develop ideas and have collected the work of others regardless of whether I’m making my own work or not. At this point I’m lucky enough to be in the position that I can do that regularly, but I think for anyone creative it’s always there.
Have you always wanted to be a ceramic artist?
From handling clay at a very early age, I just fell in love with it as a material. If you handle it at the wrong consistency it can be so unforgiving, but at the right moment it’s magic. I was also inspired by my Grandma, who was a collector herself, and I always loved going to her house and her letting me look at her treasures. I was also taken around museums and National Trust properties by my parents who always encouraged me to read and study.
Are there any other artists in your family?
No, none, other than a younger cousin, but we’ve never actually met.
You graduated from Cardiff School of Art & Design. What was your experience like as a student learning Ceramics?
I loved it. I was very lucky in that the tutors at the time, Geoff Swindell & Peter Starkey, were very inspiring to me. I was told at Sixth Form College by my GNVQ & Art Foundation ceramics tutor (another inspiring man, Dave Brown) that ‘The best go to Cardiff”. I found that it didn’t have a house style and diversity in making was encouraged. I feel lucky to have studied there.
Why did you move to Bristol?
Two main reasons: the first is that I have family nearby and the second was that I wanted to start making again. Bristol is a great place to do this as it has so many ‘creatives’ and creative industries based here. I had previously worked as a cataloguer and valuer for an Auction House, which I loved, however after a while I began to miss making my own work rather than handling the work of others. It inspired me, seeing antique and studio ceramics from all over the world, but I felt that I really wanted to create pieces of my own that one day could end up in auction too.
How did you find your current studio and why did you pick this area?
Maze Studios is solely a ceramics studio and I really enjoy having peers around me who work in the same medium. ‘Maze’ has a wide range of makers, from beginners to professional full-time makers, and is also a teaching space. I feel that being amongst others has really encouraged me to push my work in new directions.
“Anything about or depicting the body inspires me, from fashion through to contemporary art.”
You draw your inspiration from a variety of sources, from folklore to contemporary fashion, Chinese Han Dynasty and Gothic art, just to name a few. What are your earliest influences and how did you come across them?
I have always loved figures, and my Grandma’s collection contained so much to inspire me (my Grandfather was in the army so they travelled the world picking up pieces as they went). The first figures I loved were those produced by Royal Doulton, from modellers such as Leslie Harradine and Peggy Davis. I was able to see that the work of each modeller had a distinct style depicting specific fashions, and it was this that prompted my own interest in fashion and ceramic figures. I’ve never really had a particular interest in any one style or period, so can appreciate those going as far back as to the 18th century. Although these pieces are now almost a pastiche of the ‘china shepherdess’; at the time they were created they were absolutely modern, of their age and in contemporary dress. They mirror the time when they were created which fascinates me. Anything about or depicting the body inspires me, from fashion through to contemporary art.
What about your first creations?
Hmm, how far back do you mean? I’ve always created and even as a child I always ‘made’; though not very well! The first clay figure I made that I was proud of, I was around 11 years old. Looking back on it now it was awful, but it really opened me up to the possibility of clay.
Can you talk us through your creative process?
There are so many inspirations! From figurative art going back to Ancient Greece, to Romanesque Sculpture, to contemporary fashion (particularly the work of the late Alexander McQueen); I find that anything can set off an idea, which can then gestate and come out in various ways. I draw constantly: just little sketches really to get ideas out of my head and onto something tangible. I’m also always looking; either through a book or magazine, or whilst at a museum or anywhere really. Where I’ve seen something (an image, a fashion shoot, a flourish, a pattern, a glaze etc.) that has fired my imagination, it stays with me and I try to put it somewhere where I can go back to it at a later date. So you could say that my creative process never really stops! As soon as I can, I’ll look at how this can be applied in the work I am making, or whether this is a whole new approach or variation to the work that I’m doing.
What are your favourite techniques and materials?
Porcelain, always! My most used technique is slab building and all my work begins as flat slabs of porcelain that I shape from the inside to create the form; whilst controlling the drying with a heat gun so that they can support themselves.
“I feel better just by getting my hands dirty and touching clay...”
Where do you source your materials from?
Porcelain paperclay is my main material, which I get from a supplier in the South West. I used to make my own, but it’s very time consuming and it’s easier to buy it readymade.
The main focus in your work seems to be the female form ‒ when and how has this fascination begun?
I have always found the notion of ‘female beauty’ fascinating, particularly how it has evolved constantly through the ages: from big hips in earlier cultures to the current trend for extremely thin and ‘statuesque’. It has constantly changed, and has always been objectified and depicted in art. I’ve always been drawn to female artists, probably because as a gay man I empathise with the desire of women artists to be heard. To be a woman who’s gifted enough to be allowed and encouraged to pursue her own vision takes singular talents, such as Sofonisba Anguissola and Artemisia Gentileschi to more modern artists such as Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh and especially Gwen John. I’m not saying that I’ve struggled on any level in the same way, but growing up these women really spoke to me about succeeding and excelling in essentially a male world. Also, when I began making, I didn’t want my work to be autobiographical or about the male body, although as I get older this is definitely changing.
Where does your fascination with the medieval feathered angels come from?
I couldn’t say, as it’s only recently that I’ve looked at them in any depth. You see them in church roofs, but it’s really that particular ‘Medieval’ way of seeing that I’m drawn to and I’ve always been attracted to angels as symbols of peace and protection. I love the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly the work of Edward Burne-Jones, and living near Coventry at one point in my life I remember seeing original Burne-Jones stained glass in the Cathedral. I’ve always loved medieval art as it is less representational or grounded in realism, as it is about the story it tells. Every symbol and object has a meaning, some of which are now lost in time.
What was the most challenging project you have worked on or been involved with?
During 2015 and into 2016, I took the decision to work part-time so that I could focus on making my own work. It was at this point that I really focused on my work in a way that I hadn’t for a long time. It took me a while to re-engage after finding the studio, as just to set up a space with all my references, materials and tools in an environment I felt comfortable in, and ‘Maze’ gave me that.
How has your style changed since graduation and how do you see it evolve in the near future?
I think my style has continued to evolve gradually over the years. It has always been focussed on figurative works, and I still begin each piece using the techniques that I used in my second year at Cardiff. However, at this point I was making paper armatures that burned off in the kiln. Now that I use porcelain paperclay I no longer need to do this. The faces have changed, as they didn’t have any features on them originally, as my work was more focussed on showing gesture rather than expression. However, I always wanted to give them faces, as the figurative art I respond to the most always have them, particularly the Madonnas of Botticelli (they are instantly recognisable) and the work of Brancusi and Nadelman, who have managed to distil the face to its purest and simplest form. I’ve also noticed that my work has also got bigger. I’m not sure where it’ll go but I will always be a figurative maker.
What other disciplines are you interest in or involved with?
I have always loved painting, textiles and glass but have never been especially good at them myself. I’m currently doing a stained glass course (with Stuart Low) as I love the way light transforms glass, but it’s very different from working with clay. With any art, it’s knowing when to stop and with clay the material dictates it to you as you have as long as the clay takes to dry until you’re forced to move on to the next piece.
What is it about Vilhelm Hammershøi’s painting that caught your attention during your trip to Gothenburg?
He is the Danish Gwen John! No artist has spoken to me like her, from the gentleness of her work to the ferocity in the pursuit of her vision. Nothing distracted her and her writings have continued to inspire me. It’s about the notion of saying so much very softly; and Hammershøi shares this characteristic with her. Their work is about restraint which is something I’m trying to achieve in my work too.
What does a typical day in your studio look like?
I’m not sure if there is a typical day! Sometimes I go in with a preconceived idea, or an idea I want to explore further. Generally I feel better just by getting my hands dirty and touching clay, though I couldn’t say why! I’m generally more focused when I’m working towards a show or exhibition, but sometimes it’s just the pure pleasure of making.
Where do you go for inspiration?
It varies, I find Instagram a good source of ideas, and looking for historical pieces such as Chelsea or Derby figures, or I flick through a book (I’ve developed a terrible book buying habit!). YouTube is also good for fashion shows and I’ve recently re-joined the National Trust as context is important to the life of any work, if only to show the owner’s wealth and status. Context is important to me, as every piece has one.
Where is one most likely to find you when you are not working in your studio?
I have a part time job running a ceramics co-operative which I find constantly fascinating, as it gives me the opportunity to see the work of other makers in styles that I wouldn’t go out of my way to necessarily look at. It’s great to see what so many people get out of the same medium and how they interpret it: from a humble mug to something far more conceptual.
What are some of your favourite places in Bristol and why?
The Museum obviously, as it has such a rich collection of ceramics and art. Bristol as a city produced porcelain for a very short time (1770-81) and I like to feel in a small way that I’m part of that tradition. I like the RWA for the variety of work that they show, and the Red Lodge and The Georgian House as they show such a fascinating window into Bristol’s past. Also Spike Island and BV studios for the breadth of contemporary practice they house.
What was the best advice you have ever received?
Hmm, that’s a tricky one, I always found the advice of Geoff (Swindell, my head tutor at Cardiff) particularly wise but not any one particular thing. The words of Gwen John have always resonated with me, in particular.
“Many artists deal with contemporary issues so well, but for me in my work I want a sense of timelessness along with being grounded in the present.”
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would that be and why?
Again, that’s a hard one! I love where I live now, and I would encourage anyone who wants to make or work in a creative industry to really pursue that. For me, Bristol was integral to that as it’s such a creative city, and I can’t imagine wanting to be anywhere else. If pushed? Japan, for their aesthetic and appreciation of craft and tradition. The Japanese engage with handmade objects like no other culture, where every object has a value, and the trace of the hand has real value. Whilst they embrace modernity, traditions are kept alive.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a large (for me) piece of a woman embraced entirely in texture. Partly inspired by a Meissen technique (called ‘Schneeballen’) where a form is entirely covered in flowers. Narrative is key to me, but not always a specific one. I have always referred to myths and legends, but not always literally. This piece contained many elements but it is the overall mood that I want to convey. In this particular work’s case, serenity and otherworldliness. Many artists deal with contemporary issues so well, but for me in my work I want a sense of timelessness along with being grounded in the present.
What are your dreams and ambitions for David Chilton Ceramics?
Again, a difficult question! With any maker, you want your work to speak to people and for them to be moved by it, which is not necessarily what you had intended but on a deeper level. Ultimately I cannot imagine doing anything else, and I hope that what I produce is appreciated. You mention a ‘before’, but I cannot ever imagine an ‘after’.
Can you recommend us a book, a film and a song?
I can indeed, the song would have to be “Feeling good” by Nina Simone (it got me through my final year of uni), the book Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson and the film would be My Fair Lady (I remember watching it with my Grandma).
Thank you, David for the interesting conversation and insight into your creative practice.