When it comes to interviewing Fenella Elms, her amazing body of work precedes her. An award winning sculptor, her art has been featured in the likes of Elle Decoration, The Sunday Times, Vogue Living and House and Garden Magazine. Her works are undeniably beautiful; made from porcelain clay they seem almost translucent as they respond to the light. As I catch up with Fenella at her busy Wiltshire workshop, she is more than happy to share her story. After 20 years working in mental health care, Fenella started sculpture at an evening class and was instantly hooked. Ten years later, her work has been seen and sold all over the world. The perfect Hotcourses success story, whether you are looking for a new hobby or a pedestal to jump into the art industry, Fenella proves that with hard work and creativity, anything is possible.
So Fenella, how did you get into sculpture, have you always been interested in art?
Not really, I’ve always been arty but I started out working in mental health for 20 years. It was only 10 years ago that I started art training.
Did you go back to college?
Yes, I started at a local evening class and quickly it became a bit unsatisfactory because I was so interested. From there I went and did an Art Foundation and a Higher National Certificate in ceramics at Swindon College.
You must get asked this a lot, but where does your inspiration come from?
It’s not as concrete as looking at something and trying to reproduce it – I draw from it, not just with a pencil, but I digest it in an emotional way. It’s really difficult to explain. I will take a lot of time drenching myself in experiences, whether it’s music or even books. My work is made with an attentive interest, but not with control – I am not working to a design.
Has your work changed a lot since you started?
Yeah it’s always evolving and that’s what is interesting for me. If I just came up with an idea and stuck with it I would get frustrated, so I am always experimenting and trying new things – I have lots of ideas of things I want to do.
What materials do you most enjoy working with?
Porcelain is my favourite clay because it is so beautiful to handle – it’s very soft and smooth and easy to add colour to because it’s white naturally, so it’s fairly easy to stain. When it’s fired it has an extraordinary translucent quality, it shrinks and becomes slightly glassy. I find it transforms more than other clays in the firing process.
Do you exhibit your work or sell it?
My work goes to galleries, I have people contacting me constantly to buy and I also do public commissions – its three areas really.
Which part of your job do you find the most challenging?
I think the public commissions are the most exciting; they are the most challenging because they really are different each time – we’re trying to create something which will work in the space it is designed for. If it’s going in a public space it’s usually upscale, so it becomes really technically tricky to work out how it’s going to be possible to manage it.
How do you ensure your client loves what you create?
I always insist they don’t buy it if they don’t want it, because if you see a piece already finished in a gallery you know what you are getting and you buy from that. Whereas if you commission a piece, neither of us are quite sure how it’s going to be. I feel it’s a bit like an arranged marriage – they are being forced to do it rather than really knowing the work they are entering into a relationship with if you like! So I’d rather they met the piece and decide whether they still want to have it or not. Saying that, I haven’t had anyone say no yet.
How hard is it to take your initial sketch and turn it into a sculpture – does it change as it goes along?
Yes it does, it’s a fairly intuitive process – it’s about being attentive and available to possibilities as they arise, but not feeling too controlling over it. I normally have several pieces on the go, so when something isn’t going too well I can move on to something else.
How do you know when a piece is finished?
Well it’s usually fairly clear – it’s not like a painting where you can keep adding, it’s either made or it isn’t and then once it goes into the kiln that’s it.
Oh yes of course. So what would your advice be for someone thinking of taking an evening course?
I think evening courses are a really good way to start, as you quickly know whether you need more than that or not. Especially for me when working with clay, I found it frustrating because it takes a long time to make something, so if you are just relying on evening classes it can take a whole term to finish one object. But if you are going for social reasons, or just out of interest then an evening course is great, but I quickly found I wanted results and needed to put more time in.
On the other hand then, what advice would you give someone who wants to follow in your footsteps and work in the industry?
I think that training is important because there are certain technicalities you’ve got to learn. But I also don’t think training is the be all and end all and think sometimes people can get stuck in a rut doing course after course. In the end you’ve got to get on and do it! It really is about getting a balance.
You’ve got to practise it and find your own style and techniques, because clay is unusual in that it does require a lot of technique and everyone specialises and gets good at what they do. You become more and more specialist in one area and then your work becomes more individual, so you’ve just got to go away and do that really.
That’s really good advice thank you! My last question is which artists inspire you most and why?
Oh boy, well it’s not just other artists that inspire me – it’s classical music, jazz particularly, I listen to it when I am working and I feel it infects what I do. I love going to see live music. I find reading a good book pretty inspiring, just seeing how things come together. There’s something similar about all art – the connections, the structure of how something’s put together. I love dance too – I think that’s very similar to sculpture, it’s an odd thing to say, but I feel the poise, the combination, the movement, the action – for me that’s what I am looking to create in sculpture. In terms of ceramic artists, I think my top favourite is Rafa Perez who is a Spanish artist. That’s a really difficult question though as there are lots I think are really clever.
If Fenella has inspired you to try a sculpture class, why not take a look at the options listed on Hotcourses. With plenty of full time and evening options available, we have a course to suit every aspiring artist out there – what are you waiting for?