Reflections on 30 Years of Clay

Watch video from Ann-Marie Robinson's whimsical retrospective at the ISLAND Arts Centre

A teapot on legs, the spout of which is three times larger than its container. An intricate punchbowl decorated with flowers, insects and nine miniature goblet cups. A mirror, framed in rosebuds, twigs and dead winter leaves that houses a family of hedgehogs only perceptible to the keenest of eyes.

If Lewis Carroll had wanted Alice to journey through a homeware store on the way to her appointment with the Red Queen, these are, perhaps, the type of pieces she may have stopped to admire. Yet here they are, arranged on plinths in Lisburn’s ISLAND Arts Centre, tracing artist Ann-Marie Robinson’s career trajectory from inquisitive GCSE student to quirky clay expert.

There are other examples of her highly original ceramics on show, all twice fired or, as with the pieces featuring gold or platinum leaf, three times: a cup and saucer, an ornate watering jug, an impossibly large flowerpot. But few of them are practical.

It is clear that Robinson is passionate about form rather than function. She revels in colour and shape, character and texture. No two of her pieces are the same, and you suspect that IKEA is her idea of hell.

'I'm not really interested in keeping to a formula,' Robinson agrees. 'I like my work to be different, each piece special. I hope that comes across in this retrospective.'

Gallery One in the ISLAND Arts Centre features recent work, pieces that Robinson admits she is most happy with. They are, understandably, more elaborate and whimsical then the pieces on show in Gallery Two, which are, as Robinson describes, 'examples of an artist still trying to find her feet'.

These ceramics are unique also, and reflective of Robinson's playful personality, but the aesthetic prevalent in Gallery One is much more uniform and recognisable.

'The second gallery has 25 old pieces that I’ve begged, borrowed and stole back from people temporarily. They go back to when I was doing my O Levels,' Robinson winces. 'And there’s a piece there that belongs to my mum and dad. It’s a milk jug and it must weigh the same as a bag of clay! It’s absolutely hideous, but my parents just adore it.

'Then there’s the progression into my college work and degree show, through to my first exhibition. It was in the Octagon Gallery, which used to be on Belfast's University Avenue. I studied at Queen's University, and they used to show students' work there. They didn’t do it for the money. It’s sad that it’s closed.

'Then there are some experimental pieces using porcelain, which I tried my hand at for a while. And finally there are the big chunky pieces that I struggled to get into the kiln. Sheep and elephants, fruit bowls and things like that. I still like making large objects, but I think that now my work is more defined.'

Robinson developed a love for three dimensional art partly as a result of her father taking up the post of Keeper of Applied Art at the Ulster Museum. Robinson spent a good deal of time with her father in the museum after they moved to Northern Ireland from Shropshire, and recalls her adventures there with a wistful glint in her eye.

'There were exhibits from all sorts of artists,' she says. 'Painters, sculptors, printmakers, craftspeople. I believe that I have always been a creative soul, but the museum really opened up my eyes to what art can be.'

Another obvious influence on her work is the film director, Tim Burton. Visiting Robinson's workshop near Moira, one gets a real sense of this. The white space, replete with kiln in the corner and pots of paint on shelves, feels like a pre-production art store for one of Burton's features.

'I just love his work,' Robinson beams. 'Particularly the black and white visuals in films like Beetlejuice. I do love to use colour in my work, but black and white can be equally striking. So some of my teapots, for instance, have been directly influenced by the scene in which Beetlejuice turns into a fairground ride, and his feet stick out like a court jester's.'

For those interested in purchasing a one-off tea cup and saucer with a resident ladybug inside, then Robinson's retrospective is the exhibition for you. All works on show in Gallery One are for sale, and the exhibition is on until the end of January. Visitors to the Royal Ulster Academy exhibition in the Ulster Museum can also see more of Robinson's quirky work.

Visit Robinson's website for information on commissions and forthcoming exhibitions.