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Irene Osborne - Pioneering Ceramic Artist.

Posted Sunday, July 1, 2007

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Irene Osborne – Pioneering Ceramic Artist:

`the new epicentre for a colony of celebrated Derbyshire artists'

Judging by the number of artists and craftsmen – including musicians, violin makers, painters, potters, sculptors and watercolourists - Bonsall, it would seem, is exchanging its lead-mining heritage and fast becoming the new epicentre for a colony of celebrated Derbyshire artists.

Lead mining may well be a thing of the past in Bonsall, but T’ Owd Man still lurks in the shadows – and even the old Baptist Chapel - which has been closed as a place of worship for several years - still rings with the sound of praise…….

But times have changed, and whilst the chapel’s previous owners celebrated the miracle of water being turned into wine, it’s current owner is celebrated for turning clay into beautiful ceramic portraits – including one of T’owd Man - and the sounds of praise currently ringing around the old chapel are for the miraculous creations of it’s resident ceramic artist, Irene Osborne!

Irene, who has studied the great Italian Masters has certainly set the village church bells ringing with praise for her latest ceramic portrait is a wonderfully executed study entitled `The Bellringers’ - and depicts the actual bellringers from the parish church of St. James in fine detail, with most characters clearly recognisable.

However, and perhaps more importantly, the work heralds a significant breakthrough for Irene, who after years of study and experimental development has finally perfected her own individual technique for producing ceramic portraits – which is unique to the art world.

More of that later, but what of the artist herself and her working environment?

I went along to the Old Baptist Chapel in Bonsall to meet her and was instantly taken by the sympathetic and imaginative conversion which she and partner Mike have worked hard for six years to complete.

The finished product is quite an astonishing work of art in itself; it looks like a chapel from the outside; it even has the original gravestones in what has now become the front garden – but inside, apart from one of the original commemmorative marble plaques remaining in-situ, the whole interior is an open-spaced warren of split-level galleries linked by iron balustrades, and incorporates the most fabulously curved plasterwork ceiling you’re ever likely to see anywhere!

The space provides everything; comfortable living accommodation, including bathrooms, kitchen and bedrooms; gallery, workshop, store rooms – and a large kiln on the ground floor, for which Irene says,

“We had to dig out four feet below the bedrock floor level to accommodate the kiln, but the space also makes an ideal workshop, and the original floor now provides me with a solid waist-level work bench”.

It came as no surprise to learn that Irene also drew up the building plans for the chapel’s conversion! The architect was Robert Evans of Evans Vettori in Matlock, and Irene said, “I worked from their drawings, and drew up the plans for them, which contained all the building specifications, but of course, Robert should be credited for his wonderful design.”

Irene has been a freelance artist for twenty five years, and apart from developing and launching her own exclusive range of `Oz pots’ domestic ware, she has spent years developing new ceramic techniques.

With degrees in both Applied Arts and Graphic Design from the University of Derby, Irene has supplemented her pioneering art work with a career in education by lecturing in ceramics for Derby University College, Buxton, and at South East Derbyshire College. She has also taught Special Needs Adults and has lectured for the W.E.A. programme and led classes in ceramics for the First Taste charity.

Perhaps ancestry and genetics can account for Derby-born Irene’s artistic expertise; her maternal grandmother drew and her paternal grandfather was a Derby landscape artist in oils, although Irene had no early formal art training and left Parkfield Cedars Grammar School at fifteen, because she “couldn’t stand exams…..”

“I got a job at Rolls Royce & Associates doing menial tasks like delivering mail, and was continuously promoted up to secretary/typist, then my art work potential was recognised and I was promoted to the publications department”.

Whilst there Irene attended evening classes doing a one-year Graphic Design course at the College of Art & Technology, and from 1970–73 she completed a full time three-year Graphic Design Diploma course at the College of Art & Technology.

“Afterwards I freelanced for a year before joining PSG (Product Support Graphics) and became the first female to be trained there as a Technical Illustrator”.

Irene worked on major contracts with the likes of Qualcast and the N.C.B. before leaving PSG in 1979, and then taking time out in 1981 to give birth to son, Nathan.

After her son was born, Irene qualified as a teacher and for a time lectured in Graphic Design at South East Derbyshire College in Ilkeston.

“I’ve been a freelance artist since 1979, and after leaving PSG, worked on some award-winning projects for Weleda in Ilkeston, and also worked as a designer for Amnesty International, including working on the posters and programmes for their annual comedy evenings `The Secret Policeman’s Ball”.

During the early 1980’s she did some prestigious freelance work for Swanston Publishing, the map people, which included delicate art and design work on the Times Atlas, and then in 1993 she returned to full-time education at Derby University.

“I did an Applied Arts Degree, specialising in ceramics, and then taught Special Needs Adults part-time, supplementing my income by lecturing with the WEA”.

Inspired by the landscape of the Derbyshire hills - `especially the contrast between dark and light’ - she launched `Oz pots’ from a converted chicken shed in Mercaston, near Brailsford.

The Oz pots range, exhibited at the Trade Fair in Harrogate, included eye-catching domestic ware, including the Hepworth inspired jug, mugs, bowls, vases, - which were tactile and aesthetically pleasing, thought provoking, functionally designed and expertly crafted.

Oz pots proved quite successful, but Irene soon discovered that competing in a market dominated by mass manufacturing was impossible – especially single-handed from a converted chicken-shed in a field!

“The desire to produce rather more challenging shapes made domestic pricing unworkable, anyway”, she says philosophically.

“I do life drawing when the opportunity arises, and it is the figure, either sculpted or drawn that I prefer to work on. I have always drawn the figure and tried to translate this to painting on clay, which never seemed totally appropriate. By the time we bought the Baptist chapel six years ago, I had already begun to experiment with ceramic portraiture and had created the Mona Lisa in ceramic relief whilst at Derby – just to see if I could. But it took over a year before we finally moved into the chapel and another three years before the place was comfortable to live in, so I did no ceramic work for almost four years”.

Then earlier this year Irene was invited to exhibit her work in Bonsall as part of the Art & Architecture Trail of the extended Wirksworth Festival, and exhibited her Mona Lisa, along with specially produced ceramic portraits of local villagers, including `The Bellringers’ - to great acclaim.

“The invitation to exhibit again kick-started me back into action, and eventually, after lots of experimenting, mostly by trial and error, I finally succeeded in creating a new technique and produced something that I was happy with. But it’s no quick and easy process and currently takes about three weeks from scratch to produce the finished work”.

She revealed her modus operandi: “The composition is vital, she said.

Once I’ve decided on the subject, I make preliminary sketches, and sometimes, as with the Bellringers, I shoot a series of digital images which I then transfer to computer so that I can utilise the graphics to manipulate, shape, balance and size the final composition. Then I print out the image, produce a drawing to work from, and place the composition under a sheet of glass before applying the clay onto the surface and modelling it into a three-dimensional form, then it’s boxed, sealed with clay, and a plaster mold taken”.

Irene points out that the pottery plaster takes three days to dry, and that the original worked clay model is always ruined, `because removing the plaster mold, the clay is damaged’.

“Next, clay sheets are rolled out and firmly and carefully impressed into the cast mold and it is fired in the kiln. Once fired, the work is washed with oxides and re-fired to create the finished product – and that’s it”, she ended nonchalantly, as if anyone could do it!

“Anyone could do it”, said Irene – and I suppose they could too - providing they had the necessary years of experience, the knowledge, the skill, and the equipment!

In my humble opinion, Irene Osborne’s unique ceramic portraits are not only true `works of art’, but also works of true artistry, and the public response would seem to agree with that opinion.

Success has inspired her, and now that she has finally mastered the technique, Irene plans to market her unique and pioneering ceramic portraits to the general public, and said,

“My aspirations are to get commissions for portraits, preferably of a single person rather than a group, and my kiln size dictates the maximum finished size of 32 x 45cm; I’d be delighted to hear from anyone interested”.

Irene can be contacted at: The Baptist Chapel, Yeoman Street, Bonsall – or by telephone on 01629 – 820096.

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