Julie Nelson Ceramic Artist

Can you discuss the importance of symbolism in your work?

Symbols allow us to communicate without the barrier of language. They might mean different things to different cultures but that makes their use very interesting. They create links and connect us.

Hands trio

Comment on how you have combined sculpture with ceramics and why?

Humans have been sculpting in clay for thousands of years. It feels like the most natural thing to do and I started making non-functional ceramics during my degree course many years ago. I don’t get too hung up about definitions, it’s the intention that is important.

The human hand is also a verbal part of our communication, as we twist and move our hands while talking.  Discuss this in relations to your work. 

Many of us take the hand for granted. I have a lovely book by Bruno Munari called ‘Speak Italian’ which has pages of hand gestures alongside the translation. He understood how important these gestures are to our understanding. Even if you don’t use them, the hand is the most incredible piece of anatomy and hand eye co-ordination is instantaneous for most of us. We do this without thinking. So I am drawing the attention to the tool of tools and paying homage.

Hand trio, black, metallic and venule

How do you keep coming up with titles for all your different hands?

The names are simply descriptions of the glazes with each one a unique combination. 

Can you explain the different variations and affects you get when using stoneware, porcelain and mixed glazes?

My technique of mixing porcelain and stoneware offers a random texture which provides a good base for oxides and matt glazes. I have 3 white glazes which I interchange depending on the base colour. They highlight the texture which, in turn, highlights the form of the piece. I do the same with my black glazes.

Midnight metallic vessel 

How can a curator take your work to another level?

A curator can introduce related artefacts and artworks that share a theme which draws interest from the public. Museums are ripe for interpretation and contemporary pieces can reinvigorate displays of historical objects

We are all effected by our environment, discuss how growing up and now living by the coast can be seen in your work.

My childhood was spent by the sea in Devon and family holidays were spent on the rugged and wild Cornish coast. I took this beautiful landscape for granted. From college, in my late teens until a few years ago, I lived in Hackney and Stockwell in London, both very urban environments with their own contrasts and tensions. It was vibrant and exciting. It wasn’t until I moved back to the coast, with a young family, that I appreciated the importance of a connection to nature. Coastal environments are a rich source of inspiration with the effect of the sea and salty air on rocks and pebbles. I can’t walk on a beach without filling my pockets.

Expand on your installation, ‘Flock’.

How any birds make up your flock? 

I originally created 100 ceramic birds which took me about 4 months to make and it was this installation that presented the idea to explore clay workshops with refugees, to think about migration and include a supportive public. The aim was always the artwork at the end. Currently there are 200 birds in Flock Project with plans to expand the it even further. It feels timely to do so.

Flock Project, Photo by Ben Roberts

Where has ‘Flock’ been?

The installation has been exhibited in Brighton and London so far. We held workshops in the ceramic galleries at the V & A Museum, a favourite place to visit in London, and have plans to display the project in a museum which contains a collection of birds from around the world.

Large Ponti bird

How do you organize the positioning of this installation?

The last iteration of Flock Project was in a large white gallery and it felt appropriate to elevate the birds onto a plinth which was shaped into an oval to echo the murmurations that Starlings make. This circular form brought the project back to the original inspiration, watching these beautiful flight patterns on the end of Brighton Pier.

Comment on the environmental issues related to birds and migration and ‘Flock’.

Birds are the most studied animals on the planet and climate change is impacting their numbers dramatically. This decrease is the first sign that things are wrong. There are parallels with human migration – the survival, safety and opportunity for your family (genes) to thrive. It was a privilege to get to know people who have survived such traumatic journeys and to see how the creative process can help to heal.

Discuss the different variations, colours and shapes of your birds.

Various stages black birds

I’m simply exploring ‘themes and variations’. I sometimes put images up in the studio of a bird that comes from the other side of the world but I’m not interested in direct representation, more to remind me to loosen up and experiment with the form and patterns made by a group.

You comment, ‘My vessels result from experiments in form, surface, texture, pattern, and composition.’ Show and give an explanation with several of your vessels.

Cracked Pot

I’m exploring the materiality of clay and the different processes at my disposal. The cracked surface contrast with smoothed tops. Sometimes I create texture on the underside of a form, there to be discovered.

Bud, detail

A bud vessel is layered with different glazes that react and form a metallic, smooth satin glaze.

Ovoid Bud

This Loop vessel is more structural and so a strong cobalt and nickel matt glaze emphasises the architectural characteristics.

Black Looped vessel

Fjord vessel uses all my known applications and is rich in texture. The shape is a simple oval but within the surface there is a lot going on.

Fjord vessel, detail

As the title suggests, I was thinking of mountains with frozen and eroded surfaces.

Fjord vase

Discuss your involvement with V&A and Refugee week. Refugee Week happens in June.

It’s an opportunity for people to share their experiences with each other and the public. The ceramics department of the V & A is huge and holds extraordinary collections from around the world so it was very fitting to hold our bird making workshops there. If you go onto the website www.flockproject.co.uk you can see images and videos of the event.

V & A Flock workshop

What do you have planned for the rest of 2020 and 2020?

I’m lucky to be able to work, in isolation, at my studio, and have had a very busy year so far. I’m working on a short film of Flock Project and plans for a museum display integrating natural history exhibits. I’m continuing with the inspiring galleries and shops who support my independent way of working and the relationships that I’ve built with them are vital. Output is important and communicating to people, outside of my studio, through my work, is what it is all about.


Julie Nelson


Deborah Blakeley, Melbourne, Australia

Interview by Deborah Blakeley, September 2020