A month after curator Charlene Lam’s mom died, she contacted London-based ceramicist Jo Davies and commissioned a porcelain urn for her mom’s ashes. “This isn’t quite the collaboration I was hoping to do with you …” her email began.
The specs for the urn were relatively simple: It should be white porcelain. With a lid. It should function as a vase, because my mother loved flowers. (The process of getting the lid and proportions right actually proved quite challenging.)
I knew I’d be scattering my mom’s ashes in the Pacific Ocean eventually, but for now, the ashes needed a good home. Why not commission an urn from a maker I knew, whose work I admired? My mom, who loved art and design, would have approved.“
The process of commissioning the urn and collaborating with Jo yielded so much more than a gorgeous piece.
As we sat side-by-side in her Stoke Newington studio, surrounded by in-progress and finished work, natural light streaming in from the quiet courtyard, we talked.
I’d worked with Jo for years on exhibitions, but I didn’t know when I commissioned the urn that she had lost her own mother when she was still in university.
As she sketched, as we murmured about the merits and peculiarities of porcelain, she generously shared her own experience of coping with death, loss and complicated grief. I’m so grateful for Jo’s openness and kindness.
“Charlene wanted something that wasn’t traditional for this project but I believe that it’s actually very unusual for clients to stray from symbolism and tradition in moments of grief. The urn is very much the symbolic container of a loved-ones ashes and this tends to be a shape I haven’t included in my range so I’m not necessarily a natural fit for these types of items.
Although I do feel that always sticking with the traditional is understandable, I also think it can be a pity as I do remember the creative process of helping to ‘build’ the elements of my Father’s funeral 7 years ago as feeling very cathartic and like an outlet for considering his concerns and life more closely. To use creativity to make something – anything – with them in mind, to guide us through our thoughts about someone we’ve lost should be done more often.”
– Ceramicist Jo Davies
MEET THE MAKER
Interview with Jo Davies
What was your experience like personally, working on this commission?
This commission to create a container/vessel/urn for Charlene’s mother’s ashes had many elements which were unique. The reason for it was very personal, which can be a great springboard for the development of new work – design and art that comes out of subject matter that’s too broad can feel unsatisfying as there is so much more creative scope within a set of very specific requirements.
On reflection I believe that, having lost my own mother, I was perhaps more comfortable with the commission as a project than other practitioners who hadn’t had that experience may have been. This is because of my first hand experience of how this type of grief feels. My mother died when I was 21 ,so death is not as unfamiliar and frightening to me as it might be to others.
I have often said that I absorbed her death as part of my personality and, at that time, I became acutely aware of how many people don’t experience it until much later in life. My experience forced me to have a deep understanding that death definitely happens rather than being aware of it as an abstract possibility. This has made me very comfortable about talking about it over the years and I have certainly seen friends very understandably struggle with the disbelief of grief when it comes later in life.
Speaking with Charlene at my studio about her mother for this commission was enlightening for us both. When talking through a commission idea I am always conscious of gaining a wider context as it gives the opportunity to understand details about the project that would otherwise be missed, or come up with solutions to problems within it that have not been thought of yet, but I was very aware of the particular sensitivity and importance of the object we were discussing.
For me, it was an insight into how far along the grief process I had come and an opportunity to reassure someone in the early stages as so much of what Charlene talked about was familiar to me and so, in our initial conversation, I was very curious to know about Charlene’s grief so far, to share my own story and hopefully alleviate some of the natural anxieties that come up after a significant grief like this simply by being able to let her know that other people feel have felt the same way.
What was your experience professionally?
From a professional point of view, I was confident that I could make something that would be appropriate but also really glad to have the opportunity to take on a commission that was a true collaboration between craftsperson and client. So often, because I am a ceramicist, I am contacted to make something that is already designed and nothing to do with my practice – I always reject these. For me the commissioning process is a collaboration of ideas and the client should approach me with a set of parameters rather than a schematic drawing. Conversation, sketching and making in the development of a commission are vital.
Did anything surprise you about the process of working on this collaboration?
I was surprised at how easy it felt to do despite the difficult subject matter.
Are you open to taking commissions in memory of a loved one from other people?
What advice do you have for people looking to commission a custom piece?
When looking for an artist, maker or designer to commission, make sure that their body of work is really something you love. Perhaps you already own, or have been drawn to, their work many times at events or online over the years. This fundamentally important aspect is so often ignored or put second as a starting point.
It’s important to remember that you’re going to this person for their expertise so use it. Ask questions and be curious, and don’t assume you know exactly what the outcome will be before speaking with your chosen practitioner. As creativity is also an expertise, that should be allowed to solve the problems you bring to the table.
MEET THE MAKER
About Jo Davies
Jo Davies is a ceramicist specialising in wheel-throwing porcelain, working in East London.
Her practice includes hand-making a fine porcelain design range, lighting and unique objects. Her individual approach to wheel-thrown ceramics, where high-fired porcelain often appears paradoxically to be fresh off the wheel, balances softness with rigidity, smoothness with weight and tactility.
All Jo Davies Ceramics work is wheel-thrown by Jo; from the smallest cup to a large, unique vessel, every object is always an individual item. Each piece acts as a reflection of the shape of Jo Davies’ hands as well as her intentions as a ceramic designer. The enjoyment of the making process and the continuing development of an evolving creativity are what drive her practice.
As Royal College of Art MA graduate, she exhibits internationally and has worked with, amongst others, the National Portrait Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the Hepworth Wakefield, Somerset House, Heals and the National Trust.
The Grief Gallery: London Design Festival 2021
GRIEF GRIT GRACE
The Grief Gallery is a project by Grief Grit Grace and curated by Charlene C Lam. Visit www.griefgritgrace.com for more resources and information about my approach to grief work.