Helen Martino has been a potter for over 40 years. Helen’s journey to becoming a renowned potter started when she went to Farnham School of Art and then onto the Central School in London where she achieved her ceramics degree. She then moved to Cambridge with a young family where she was lucky enough to create a studio within her own home.
Forty years on and this is where she still works today – looking out onto her garden in all weathers, creating amazing form, fun and functional pieces.
Helen started her career as a functional potter making batches of domestic pots on the wheel. However, over the years she has developed her own unique style of producing a variety of functional and non-functional pieces. So today Helen has a wide range of work – from harlequin vase bowls to teapot vases, bird vessels through to wall hung ceramics – all unique and handmade by Helen.
Helen has an absolute love of working with clay – from the process of making to the creativity of decoration. This love of clay hasn’t waned in over forty years.
Helen’s unique style involves working with hand cut sheets of white stoneware that are freely cut, joined together and hand decorated using a variety of techniques – not forgetting her use of silver, gold or copper leaf lustre.
Now a renowned potter in the UK and exhibiting and selling internationally, it amazed me that when chatting to Helen, she said, “I am still learning and developing new ideas and I feel very lucky to be a potter.” For me, to still love what you do every day, forty years on, is truly testament in itself. I’m very proud to call her both my mother-in-law and an amazing potter.
In conversation with
Laura: How did your journey start as an artist?
Helen: The first thing I did that I remember as being art was a painting when I was 10. My class was given an easel each in the main hall and our own set of colours and we were asked to paint our holiday. That art class felt special and significant. We had been in the Lake District and on the far side of a lake there was a dark coloured scree slope of ragged slates which I had found awe inspiring and a little frightening. I was praised for my painting and it got framed for me. For once I had expressed myself and done it successfully. No words had been needed.
L: How would you describe/explain your work/pieces?
H: I continued to paint and draw and still do. I survived school and moved on to art school at 16, and there I tried pottery. I found the excitement of dealing with three dimensions stimulating and the pleasure of using clay satisfying so I put my energy and creativity into that. It just felt right. At first I made functional objects on the wheel. Later I became involved in learning about hand building so that I could teach it. I found coiling was just too slow but the more immediate making with soft flexible sheets of clay just felt right. And for the surface decoration I enjoyed doing, hand building was more expressive and adaptable than throwing. It gave me a three-dimensional canvas and let me combine my love of drawing with the freedom of painted slips and ceramic colours.
L: What’s important to you?
H: Being absorbed in a form of making that has an end product. I like the challenge of combining design and function in an abstracted way. My flattened vessel vases came about by doing sketchbook work with students and playing around with perspective while depicting cups and saucers and other functional things.
L: What are you working on at the moment?
H: At the moment I am working on some new wall pieces about Lockdown and using Zoom for social contact with my family and friends and other art groups. I think the inspiration comes from the novelty of it all. For years my ceramics have been bought by people who add them to their interiors, and I have lost sight of them. Suddenly through Zoom I was seeing into the houses of other people and how their environment also expressed the personalities of the people I was speaking to.
L: What was the last piece of design, art, craft you bought and why and who for?
H: The last thing I bought was for myself. It was a small painting by Lesley Birch called Holding.
During lockdown I bought a photograph by Graham Murrell of a wild seascape, as I was missing the sea and its sounds and colour being confined to home.
Buying other peoples’ art seems to me to be a way of enhancing my own life.
L: What or who influences you?
H: My influences are quite diverse and include painters like Gauguin, Chagall, Klee and Matisse. Like Matisse, pattern making and colour are important to me.
Within ceramics John Maltby taught me, in his tutorials, to be both playful and serious when working with clay and to think that ceramics are sculptural as well as functional.
Silent film made me aware of the drama of image and what light and shadow and exaggeration can do.