Clay and calamity

July 22, 2021

Scraping down imperfections makes imitating plastic with clay time-consuming and a labour of love, the opposite of mass production.Peering in, visitors are met by a spine-chilling line-up of endangered British bird species, lovingly sculpted in bisque fired stoneware clay by Jayne Ivimey.“I present my ceramic birds on their backs and that’s how you have to hold real birds when you are cleaning them.“Then I started wondering what these birds would look like if you saw them lined up all together, so I started making them.It just seemed like a good way to think about loss, extinction and the effects of climate change.”

Scraping down imperfections makes imitating plastic with clay time-consuming and a labour of love, the opposite of mass production. Working flat out, Shaw can only make fifteen a day.

Ceramic plastic bottles and fish in Mella Shaw's exhibit: HARVEST (2017/18)

Ceramic plastic bottles and fish in Mella Shaw's exhibit: HARVEST (2017/18)

“I’ve always been interested in thresholds and tipping points”, Shaw says: “I’d been making quite formal pieces that were about balance and I just realised I had to address our most important tipping point: the environmental crisis. I also want to connect with people emotionally so they understand what this means on a different level. You can read statistics and eventually you become numb to it but hopefully this makes people go “Oh, now I can actually see what we’re talking about”.”

“People come here to study or just enjoy the specimens, they’re not expecting to see fine art in this context. So that jolt can change someone’s thinking in the moment. And because ceramics are so fragile, I think we can use that as a metaphor to engage people in a much more visceral, emotional way.”

A few metres away, a low display case stretches from one end of the room to the other. Peering in, visitors are met by a spine-chilling line-up of endangered British bird species, lovingly sculpted in bisque fired stoneware clay by Jayne Ivimey.

Jayne Ivimey's The Red List of Endangered British Birds (2019) displayed in the Museum of Zoology

Jayne Ivimey's The Red List of Endangered British Birds (2019) displayed in the Museum of Zoology

When they were exhibited in Norwich Cathedral in 2020, Ivimey watched some visitors shuffling from one bird to the next, tears rolling down their faces. It is easy to understand why. Inspired by the marble effigies of knights, noblemen and royals, Ivimey finished her birds in a ghostly white, crossed their legs and positioned them on their backs.

A few years ago Ivimey was working in New Zealand on a bird conservation programme and at one point volunteered to clean birds caught in an oil spill. “I handled hundreds of birds and got very intimate with them”, she says. “I present my ceramic birds on their backs and that’s how you have to hold real birds when you are cleaning them. We’re not used to seeing birds like this – it’s unsettling.”

When Ivimey returned to the UK, she found that sixteen more birds had been added to the Red List bringing the total to seventy (three have recently been moved to the less precarious Amber list). Curious to know what these at risk birds were, she visited the Natural History Museum at Tring and found, to her horror, that she was familiar with all of them.

“I couldn’t believe they were on the list”, she says. “Then I started wondering what these birds would look like if you saw them lined up all together, so I started making them. It just seemed like a good way to think about loss, extinction and the effects of climate change.”

The source of this news is from University of Cambridge

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