Phoebe Cummings and ‘Truth to Materials’

‘Triumph of the Immaterial’  (detail) – installation in raw clay by Phoebe Cummings


I was delighted to see that Phoebe Cummings has recently won the inaugural Women’s Hour Craft Prize (8 November 2017) with ‘Triumph of the Immaterial’ – a installation piece in raw clay which took 5 weeks to create and is currently on display at the V&A.

I first came across Phoebe’s work at The New Arts Centre in Wiltshire in 2016 where she had created an intricate sculptural installation from unfired clay with fruit, flowers, swags and garlands in an outdoor ‘folly’.  Open to the elements we were supposed to witness its disintegration.

I have always admired those artists who adhere to a ‘truth to materials’ philosophy. Let the artwork celebrate the material from which it is constructed rather than trying to cover, hide or disguise it. I suppose this predilection comes in part from my own natural inclination towards nature’s colours and tones, as well as materials such as wood, paper, linen and faded or worn objects.

When I first started working with clay I often preferred the look of it unfired. The texture and colour was more appealing to me in its raw state than when it was fired and glazed and I  found ‘decoration’ a challenge. I’ve never really been able to shake off this prejudice which is probably why the pieces I make and buy from others are, in the main, undecorated or have natural looking, textured, weathered, worn or distressed surfaces.

Phoebe uses unfired clay to make her pieces and then lets them deteriorate naturally until there is little or no trace left. Wherever possible she collects what remains and recycles it. I love this idea. Not only is it so much more environmentally friendly than firing large kilns to high temperatures but it adds another dimension to the art work. A thing of beauty and fragility has a natural life span. We are all subject to the ravages of time and some of the most incredible things I have ever seen are marked by the passage of the years or in a state of dereliction or decay. After all, nothing lasts forever and the fact that all good things come to an end should be celebrated not mourned. As T S Elliot wrote in The Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end, And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from ”. This is true of so many things but particularly relevant to Phoebe Cummings exquisite work.