Interpreting Inspiration: Carolyn Genders

'Cobalt Blues Trio' open vessels by Carolyn Genders

Carolyn Genders is an award-winning East Sussex artist. She embraces the ancient technique of coiling to create inimitable hand-built contemporary ceramics, reflective of the beautiful Sussex landscape. Nicholas Toovey tells us more.

'Cobalt Downlands Red Interior' open vessel by Carolyn Genders
'Downland' open vessel by Carolyn Genders
'Downlands Manganese' open vessel by Carolyn Genders
Pages from the artist's sketchbooks
'Stone' sculptural form by Carolyn Genders
'Wealden Garden 5' open vessel by Carolyn Genders
'Wealden Garden 11 & 12' open vessels by Carolyn Genders
Carolyn Genders in her studio

Carolyn believes she was born a ceramicist, aged four she made pots for her mother from clay she found in the garden. She obtained a BA honours degree at Brighton and after graduation set up her first studio. Later, Carolyn obtained a Postgraduate diploma in Ceramics at Goldsmiths College, London. She is a fellow of the Craft Potters Association and a published author of ‘Sources of Inspiration and ‘Pattern, Colour and Form’. Carolyn often teaches at West Dean College, but ensures that the majority of her time is spent creating her own work.

Arriving at her studio in Danehill, you are taken aback by the magnificent view of the High Weald and instantly recognise why it has been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. You are also greeted by Ludo, a sweet-natured dog who lives up to his name in wanting to play. Carolyn’s studio is light and well organised. Shelves are neatly arranged and brimming with containers of coloured slips, oxides and stains, interspersed with found objects such as shells, pebbles and pinecones. A few surfaces are adorned with trial pieces, many appear as finished vessels, others are fragmented references of firings and colours. These shelves surround the central work table where several works in progress are concealed by bags preserving the moisture in the clay, amassing mystery in what might be unveiled. A large window looks out across the Ashdown and Sheffield Forests towards the distant Downs. Hidden from view around a corner of the room are her three electric kilns. Up a small flight of stairs in the opposite corner is a small gallery space with an offering of finished pieces, all vying for attention and demanding to be touched.

Born in Singapore, Carolyn moved to Sussex with her parents as a child, since then she has grown up in the county and cannot understand why anyone would want to live anywhere else. Is she inspired by her Sussex surroundings? Yes definitely. Although it may not be instantly obvious when looking at her ceramics, the Sussex landscape has been a source of inspiration for the majority of Carolyn’s recent output. A small sketchbook contains vigorous drawings made of her impressions of her surrounding landscape, these are still abstracted but are certainly more identifiable. A larger sketchbook moves these drawings on to designs, selecting elements from the initial drawings and merging them with outlines of vessels and forms with occasional colour references. None of these will ever be made as Carolyn works in a spontaneous and free way. She aims to give the impression she feels when in the Downland landscape, rather than a literal translation of what a camera would record. Carolyn combines the rhythm, colours, light and balance of the view, with brushwork and textures seen in her paintings and prints, to create a reflection of a lifetime of inspiration. She works on a series of vessels all at the same time, each in a different stage of production. This approach keeps her mind fresh, it also allows for play, which Carolyn believes is very important for the progression and exploration of any artist. By making changes to the outlines of the forms, different sgraffito marks and colour variations, each piece will have a completely different identity, united by a subtle intrinsic theme.

The majority of Carolyn’s work is hand-built using the ancient technique of coiling, this involves methodically building up the shape using rolls of clay, pinching and pulling the form upward over a period of days to avoid collapse. Once built, the body is painted in coloured slips, either vitreous or burnished terra sigillata depending on the desired finish. A process of mark-making then begins to reveal the layers below. Carolyn loves the equilibrium of the old techniques and the contemporary surface treatment. Whilst intuitive, the form and balance is carefully considered, unlike a flat canvas, the three dimensions add exciting and challenging possibilities in how the exterior, interior and form will all work harmoniously. Whilst sculptural forms are always prevalent, the artist confesses open vessels are her primary love.

Carolyn has been actively exhibiting her work since 1981 and is now an established and highly-regarded ceramicist. She has exhibited in Continental Europe, Japan and throughout Britain. From 16th June to 2nd July, her ceramics will be featured in a group exhibition with Shirley Crowther Contemporary Art in the ‘Summer Exhibition’ at the Jointure Studios, Ditchling. The recently renovated workshop of the renowned modern British artist Sir Frank Brangwyn offers the perfect backdrop for her eye-catching works. The gallery is open from noon until 5pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Carolyn has a natural mastery of colours, patterns and textures, which infuse her sinuous silhouettes and promote her ceramics into tactile works of art. Her inspiration allows for a depth of perception, adding resonance and veracity to her output. For more visit

Nicholas’ article was originally published in Sussex Life magazine in June 2011.