As the Spring sunshine pours through the window it seems a fitting day to be writing about the work of Agalis Manessi. The ceramic artist’s portfolio exudes warmth and playfulness; from her quirky cat shaped vessels to her delicate, folksy figurines and smiling, contented animals. Manessi works within the tradition of Maiolica, a ceramic process that was developed over five hundred years ago and yet the simplicity of her work displays a modern freshness. I wanted to find out more…
I read that you originally hail from Corfu. What brought you to London? Serendipity! I was born and grew up in Corfu and originally started with ballet but after an accident I had some time to reconsider and was drawn to the idea of using clay. I was lucky to meet a painter who talked to me about Foundation courses in England, where you could try different disciplines, I thought it sounded interesting and applied. Having been given a place I came and then progressed to a Ceramics BA course at Central School of Art and Design. I stayed on and never stopped.
Does your heritage influence your work? In some ways I suppose it must do; Greece is rich in flora and fauna and has a wonderful light and of course has a rich tradition of ceramics from ancient times.
Before you set out to create a piece do you have a set idea in your mind of how it is going to look? Or does it evolve as you are making it? Before I start I have a bit of an idea; in the case of animals and figures I spend time looking at paintings and frescoes and picking out characters which draw me in. Then I start with modelling, beating and stretching the clay; somehow trying to draw some kind of character out of the amorphous lump. I try to stop before the piece becomes over modelled so that the painting can be allowed to bring out some other aspect of the work. I believe that the most successful pieces are the ones where modelling and painting are working in equal measure. In the case of the large bowls and dishes I see them more as creating my own canvasses onto which drawing and painting can take place with some narrative that evolves through elements placed, chosen from my own drawings. The cat vessels are freely coiled, evolving into organic forms which then await to be ‘dressed’.
Where do you draw inspiration from? Museums are a great source of inspiration. I love popping in to the British Museum and the National Gallery and I also try to visit several exhibitions every year. We drive to Greece every summer and on the way stop to look at one or two churches with fabulous frescoes and mosaics, the more one looks the more one sees. I also like to walk and look at animals in the park, or sit and draw them when they are lounging about. I am lucky that at the moment I have been given two rescue cats which are a continuous source of inspiration too. Sometimes reading a book or a short story an aspect of it or a character will stand out and creep into a piece.
I think there is something very serene, yet playful, in your work. How do you achieve that? You would be surprised how animated a lump of clay can be! I seem to engage with each piece for some time, and occasionally it feels as if the piece is already there and emerging through the manipulation of the material. Painting with Maiolica, when it works, seems to add a little poetry to the different characters.
Do you look for beauty in life? Yes, I think there is so much of it around us.
You specialise in Maiolica, tell me a bit about the process. Maiolica is the process of using a tin glaze. Before the firing one paints on the chalky surface with a mixture of metal oxides and under-glaze colours mixed with some of the same glaze diluted with a little water. The true colours show only after the firing, so whilst painting one is not sure of the colour combinations and their intensity. A lot of surprises therefore; it is quite challenging, and yet when it works it has its own poetic beauty.
What are you working on at the moment? At the moment I am working on a commission for the Affordable Art Fair for a gallery in London, eight pieces mostly dogs, also some large platters/bowls.
Do you have any exhibitions coming up? Some of my work is on show at the moment at the Ingo Fincke Gallery in London as well as at Thenewcraftsmen, also in London. I hope to participate in a couple of shows in the autumn in London. There will be a fund raising on -line auction for the Craft Potters Association from the 5th to the 14th of June and one of my pieces will be in it.
All images and work courtesy and copyright of Agalis Manessi.