Bjork Haraldsdottir [ - Present ]

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Born in Reykjavík, Iceland, Haraldsdóttir’s works are inspired by Nordic pattern and folklore. Her family was originally from a small village on the Snaefellness Peninsular called Olafsvík in the shadow of the celebrated twin peaked glacial mountain that inspired Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

The patterns on her ceramics echo the distinctive black and white designs of Icelandic woollen garments, rugs and tapestries, inspired by snow, nets and other crystalline and geometric forms.

Having graduated with a Masters degree and the Silver Medal for Architecture from Glasgow School of Art she studied at the Hochschule der Kunst in Berlin before practising professionally as an architect in Reykjavik, Edinburgh and London.

She turned to ceramics as a way of creating ‘small architecture’ in a hands-on manner in response to the bureaucracy and meetings with lawyers, legislators and engineers that comprises much of an architect’s day-to-day life.

‘I have now worked as a ceramic artist for longer than it takes to become an architect’ she says. ‘Clay has replaced steel and glass, but I still work as I was trained; pieces are planned and drawn before they are made and made as they are conceived.’

Her sculptures are mostly built in stoneware clay and painted with slip; black on stoneware or sometimes white on lava stone. This is then scraped back to reveal the base material in two-tone monochrome patterns, occasionally joined by a mid-tone painted slip to create more complex geometries. The scrape marks are visible, and the surface is a plane of shallow relief, like an elaborate braille; the tactile nature of Haraldsdóttir’s work is important – they are an invitation to touch.

‘The works are a conversation between the pseudo -perfection of geometric pattern and the tactile impurity of hand-manipulated clay’ she says. ‘They are not sterile and porcelain-perfect but visceral mini monoliths, which have layers of complexity built into superficially simple constructions.’

She deliberately creates warped planes through careful pattern cutting and jointing of would-be flat slabs so that vessels become subtly off-kilter.

The strong patterns on them tend to anaesthetise first impressions that they are organically shaped and made from organic materials but the play of light, even across matt surfaces belies a more expressive form.

People are generally afraid of handling ceramics but Haraldsdóttir’s works invite quite the contrary reaction. She creates cushions of clay that sometimes encapsulate loose clay beads that create ‘roulette wheel’ sounds when held and handled.

‘Some of my pieces are ‘participative ceramics’ she explains;

‘I am particular about the cuts and punctures I make in my vessels. Letterbox openings allow the soul of each piece to come and go as they please.’

  1. Can you tell me about a routine day in your studio?


Every day in my studio is different depending on what I am making and at what stage the making process is at.

I might be beginning a collection in which case I will spend a couple of hours sketching and refining ideas which have probably been bubbling in my brain for a while.

I will then get out new clay and prepare it ready for rolling out large slabs of clay on a slab roller. These will need a couple of days to ‘relax’ and dry out a little to enable me to begin building each individual pot.

I will normally have between four and eight pieces on the go at any one point in the process. I tend to roll out enough slabs to allow me to make a few pots at a time. The making of each pot is time consuming since the form and finish is important. It may take a few days until each piece is satisfactorily finished and ready to decorate. The decorating process involves painting each piece with two layers of slip, either black or white. Depending on time of year, the painted pots will take between a day and up to a week to dry. Once dry to the touch I score the pattern into the slip and then scrape off parts of it to reveal the clay and thereby the pattern. The patterning takes anything between two days to a week to complete depending on the pattern and size of pot. In between these processes a lot of coffee is consumed!


  1. Do you see yourself as an artist or a ceramicist, or both?


I think ceramics and art are entirely inter-connected. The two do not exist without the other. If I were to define my work in a specific category I guess I would use the term Sculptural Ceramics. I prefer not to though. Art is a good enough definition.


  1. What was your specific training in ceramics?


I have a Masters Degree in Architecture and worked as an Architect for the best part of 20 years. Ceramics came much later and began at the East Finchley Art Institute in 2009.

It was an instant thing. I fell in love with clay and have been working full time as a Ceramic Artist since 2011. This has involved a lot of experimenting and self-teaching as well as functional courses with Somerset based master potter. Being an Architect has informed a lot of my techniques, which probably are not always rooted in ceramic tradition.


  1. How has your work in ceramics evolved since leaving behind your architectural background? How has it changed?


I don’t think I will ever leave my Architectural background behind. It is always very much there in the way I design, draw and construct. It inspires my work every day. However, my work has probably evolved into something more organic and free and I don’t feel obliged to stick to the plan as much anymore. Clay gives freedom from the legal and legislate constraints Architects have and it has taken time to shed this.


  1. Who or what have been your greatest influences?


My work is unequivocally architectural to my eyes and is influenced by my training and profession in many ways. However, natural forms reflecting my upbringing in Iceland and exposure to the extraordinary in nature are also reference points. You could say that my work, like most art is to its maker, is a manifestation of the enduring themes of my experience.


  1. What is the most challenging element of your practice?


The kiln and firing process is always the biggest challenge. I try to eliminate risk as much as possible by constructing my work well, but there is always an outside chance that pots crack in the kiln. When this happens a lot of hard work has gone to waste. Thankfully this is now a rare thing.


  1. How has folklore influenced your practice?


Some of my work does takes inspiration from Icelandic folklore. The Hidden People, who are tall, beautiful and mostly invisible people who live in the hills and mountains of Iceland, have inspired my recent groupings of vessels. It was believed that these supernatural beings would appear to mortals once per year on New Years Eve, greeting the New Year with elaborate dancing and feasts. The group of pots lean towards each other in a gentle movement emulating a dance.

The names of many of my pieces are sourced from my native Iceland. I seek out names from folklore and old tales such as female elf names or literary characters and novelists. This is probably borne out of a desire to emphasise the feeling of kinship between my work and my experience and upbringing.


  1. Can you tell me more about the combination of organic form and geometric surface pattern in your work?


I am fascinated by how pattern can completely alter how we perceive a form. Form and pattern are individually and equally important, but my work is defined by the interaction of these very distinct attributes. There is often an ambiguity in the pieces caused by the drape of the pattern over the form, which begins to almost disguise the shape as it runs seamlessly across creases and corners. I like to place a rigid, geometric pattern onto an organic form – a bottle or bell shape. The ‘grain’ of the pattern vastly alters the perception of a piece. I often make a series of identically shaped pieces and apply very different patterns to each piece. The result is fascinating. Two superficially similar forms will appear unrelated when rendered with different patterns. I also play with tonal differences on similar forms. They are a part of the same family, but each has a distinct personality.


  1. What are the latest developments in your work?


My work changes subtly and incrementally with every firing and every exhibition so I don’t expect work in the future to look like it did in the past.

Some of my latest work has developed from mostly standalone pieces to work designed in groups. Working in sets reveals a new dynamic; a conversation between pieces with individual personalities. It allows a rhythmic interplay to develop. This is a direction I am finding increasingly intriguing to travel down.

I am also exploring new tonal directions. Single colour vessels with pattern revealed only by the juxtaposition of slip clay and stoneware clay appear to me quite serene. Solid whites and solid blacks alter the aesthetic and allow scribed patterns to characterise the pieces in way that is very different from their ‘sister’ pieces patterned with contrasting tones. I feel that they are creating a memory of these sister pieces. In some the form is now the leading part of the piece and the pattern only becomes clear once close up. I like this hide and seek felling it gives.

When a development like this occurs it happens fluidly and organically. My method in clay has infinite possibilities so I don’t feel the need to alter my concept drastically. I will continue the process of producing well-conceived and well-executed work that hopefully brings joy. Just as landscape alters according to weather and winds, my pots are my landscape and will continue to alter and develop.