This busy woman is Denise O’Sullivan – a happy-go-lucky, Michael Jackson and Rockabilly loving Mum, with a passion for pottery, VW camper vans and all things retro.
In between juggling time for childcare, attending photo-shoots, packing up her pottery for a major Paris exposition and selling her vintage wares at a local summer events, I managed to grab a cuppa with Denise at her house. Whilst her little daughter Eva drew pictures for us, and her husband Mark Dunn prepared the VW campervan for the weekend we chatted about Denise’s own story.
Just like The Potteries fairytale, Denise’s own father and grandmother worked in the pot banks across the city. As a child Denise would visit her Dad at the pot bank where he worked as a dish maker. She would sit in the factory room filled with the distinct aniseed smells of the china paints and the fumes of the kilns, and play with bits of clay, whilst watching the women gild the beautiful dishes – sometimes they would let her have a try. She loved the atmosphere and trying to be a proper potter like her Nan, her Dad and all those people in the factory. With shoes dusted in white powder from the factory floors and the touch of the wet clay working in her tiny fingers – its no wonder that Denise went on to study ceramics. For Denise it’s no longer a fairytale, it’s her career.
At school Denise had work experience with Royal Doulton’s and was offered a job in the casting and assembling department. But she followed the advice of her Mum who said, “…If you are going to get into the ceramics industry, make sure you’re the designer”. On that advice, Denise decided to continue with her education, doing a GNVQ in Arts and Design at Newcastle under Lyme F.E College. Then she went to Wolverhampton University to receive a B.A in Ceramics and attended the renowned Frink School of Figurative Sculpture, in Stoke on Trent before it closed in 2005. Denise recently returned to education, after a short gap (well she has been rather busy just lately, developing her own business and having a baby daughter.) She is in the final stages of completing her Ceramics M.A at Staffordshire University.
Did Denise always know what she was doing? Did she always want a career in ceramics? “At Wolverhampton I learnt so much, all about glazes and techniques, I learnt about the equipment and the materials, we built kilns, we went on trips to factories and museums, we met loads of interesting people. I was lucky to be on a course like that; those types of courses hardly exist anymore. I’ve met people who have spent three years at the Royal College of Art and can’t even turn on a kiln!”
“When I was at college I based a lot of my work on what surrounded me, just daily life, the processes of making things, like cake baking, domestic life, the everyday things in the house. The ornaments on my Nan’s mantle piece, the objects we collect around us, like shrines to memories, special events, gifts that pay homage people and heritage – they may seem kitsch and tacky to some people but the power of that attached memory bestows that item with more value than anything else on earth. I don’t think that I even knew what I was doing sometimes. I was working through so many ideas. The lecturers definitely didn’t get a grasp of what I was doing until those last few weeks at Wolverhampton. That’s when the penny dropped.”
“While I was studying and trying to figure out what it was I was trying to say through my work, I came across the American ceramicists of the 30’s-50’s period and the Funk Ceramics of the 70’s. People like Robert Arneson who had an autobiographical style to his work. I too was creating assemblages and installations; I was filling rooms with ceramic artefacts, like shrines. I was looking at things that aren’t appreciated, like mothers and grandmothers baking cakes for the family and how we pass on those skills, and I was interpreting the process of the mundane and everyday and displaying them as art. I guess that’s what I was trying to do.”
Robert Arneson created sculptures in ceramic, to be seen as an art form, rather than a traditional craft or functional piece. He would work with mundane, everyday objects that also included personal elements for him – this was a defining element of Funk Art. Denise explained more about how that influence developed her work.
“Wolverhampton University had links with this amazing place in New York called Alfred. The whole town seems to be dedicated to ceramics. That’s where people like Arneson, John and Andrea Gill were based. I was encouraged by Carol Windham, who had worked with Arneson, giving a talk about the figurative work she was doing. I started to notice in the Ceramic Review that all the American work looked so experimental, I felt more connected to that style than the traditional English approach, at that time.”
“I was helped by the lecturers to apply for a six-month placement at the New York State School of Clay-working and Ceramics at Alfred University. When someone like Val Cushing, a famous thrower from USA says to me ‘Come over and experience it here’ – it was amazing. I had such a brilliant time and was taught by John Gill, who I admire, it was a brilliant time to explore my creativity, develop my skills.”
“I made oversized, ceramic cupcakes with icing pumped from icing bags and decorated like cakes would be decorated, decorated in glittery icing sugar. I was fascinated with the surface decoration. That has played a big part in my style. When I was about to leave school I also toyed with the idea of becoming a make-up artist. Looking back I think it was all about the surface decoration, the gilding of the ceramics, the tattoos of Rockabilly, the lipstick, the glamour, the bright colours, the kitsch element, the applied decoration to cakes, the food colouring, the fancy details, the layers of decoration, the processes…it all comes together in my work.”
The brightly coloured oversized cakes worked, they got Denise noticed by people. It was a continuation of her work at University but it had something commercial about it for people to want it in galleries and museums, and in their living rooms. The timing was right. Also by having opportunities like the “Making Moves” West Midlands scheme and doing some world wide travel to expos in America and Europe, plus running community arts projects like doing ceramic murals and large-scale community projects with schools and community groups – this provided Denise with more experiences to know what she was good at and what she wanted to do. She developed her business too.
Around Stoke on Trent, lots of people know Denise for The Pop-Up Emporium market days that she organises to sell her own vintage wares, and also to support local makers and vintage sellers by having local events to develop their own businesses. Denise negotiates with local councils and printers and enlists all the stallholders to make these public events happen…. she’s one busy lady!
Denise sells her wares worldwide, not just locally. This export side of her business relies on having a good profile at events like the one she is preparing for as I write this – Maison et Objet, at Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris. A key location like this should be great for bringing in lots of buyers from different countries.
“I already sell my tea sets and coffee sets in Europe, and by doing events like Maison&Objet in Paris in the past has help me to make those connections. This will be my third time there. I’m so excited this year too because I’m launching a new range that incorporates some new materials and a new style.”
It’s a skill how Denise manages to mix the elements of her life together – like one big cake recipe, getting all the ingredients right to make sure it all comes together and everyone gets a slice. Denise appreciates the few close friends who help her with the business side of things and how family really help her and Mark to juggle time, so that they all still get a family life. Weekends at VW fairs selling their vintage wares and sharing interests all helps to get the balance right for Denise and Mark.
“I start the day around 6am, adding transfers, so I can get a kiln firing done before everyone wakes up and I need to dash off to workshops, or using facilities at Staffordshire University. Most days I’m collecting the pots from local cottage industries, like the three specialist hand-painters who do the fine edge gilding for me. I’m filling and emptying the kiln all the time. From the initial biscuit firing, plus the layers of decoration and the glazing, each piece undergoes three or four firings before I can pack it and send it to the customer. There is a lot of attention to detail. Then at night I‘m still working by checking orders online, or hand-finishing more transfers.”
“Maybe people don’t realise the amount of background work that goes into my pieces before it is even made, right from the design stage. I spent a long time sourcing the exact shapes that I wanted to recreate for the tableware. I wanted to use the styles that were only ever used in grand country homes and by royalty. To the trained eye, the shape of the tableware that people use says so much about them. People can recognise class distinctions, for example the deep shaped teacups I use were only ever used in high society and even some of the designs were registered to HRH. “
“It’s all hand-worked decoration, nothing is added by machine. People who collect my work can probably notice that I also change my surface design slightly every six months. I catalogue all those design changes, so if you buy an English Rose and Skulls teacup or a Gold Skull teapot you know it’s a limited edition, because the design will change. Cataloguing helps me to categorise my work and see how the style develops.”
So with all this work on her plate, is Denise ready for Paris? And will there be anything new for people to see?
“Yes, the new range might surprise people who think that I’m just all chintz and china cups. There as always been the other side to my work – the kitsch element. It links to my love affair with America, the retro fashions, plastics, Tupperware, melamine, all the colour and glamour of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s.”
“This new idea has been bubbling away for a few years and I’ve worked really hard with engineers to get prototypes that work, practically and aesthetically, plus a new back stamp. I’m really excited to see people’s reactions and I’ll update my site with the new range and news from Paris too.”
Whilst Eva reads her storybook, we sat on the sofa and discussed Denise’s hopes for the future. After Paris, what is the next chapter?
“I’d love to go to America again with my work, for the shows in Chicago and San Francisco. Years ago I went to the Sofa expo, with glass artist Jacqueline Cooley, and I’d love to get my work there with more bespoke, one-off pieces – some new sculptural work. I don’t want ‘just’ to be categorised in the industry section of these big expos, I want to be recognised in the handmade too with my new ideas.”