There’s something in the comeback of clay that captures the current zeitgeist perfectly. And no one does clay quite like Tom Norris.
Currently working with FELT Collections - an artist collective that explores the seams between art, craft and life - we hosted Tom’s ceramic vases at our Marylebone store in May.
The vase, his signature work, combines fine art with practical application. In his quirky yet quiet studio, he shapes pieces that showcase his sobriety of thought and colourful imagination.
Needless to say, we felt we had a fair bit in common with Tom. Not only do we enjoy a playful minimalism but we also share a sense of respect for the natural world around us.
SIRPLUS is a natural fit for Tom (as we are sure you’ll agree). Tom enjoys relaxed functionality which has some uniqueness in every detail - captured perfectly in his pairing of Linen Tailoring with our EcoVero Ceramic Print Cuban Shirt.
We visited his studio earlier this summer and touched base with Tom on his work, the fundamentals of style and what clay teaches us about living well.
SP: How did your relationship with clay begin?
TOM: I first started working with clay just before going to the university about 12 years ago. It was my dad that introduced me to it. My dad is very handy, he’s good with materials, an excellent clay sculptor, a boat builder and so on. So, I was taught the fundamentals of the craft by him. He spends most of his time outdoors in nature, so that’s probably where a lot of my philosophy in art comes from too.
I was sure I wanted to continue working with clay from an early age. Although I wasn’t sure what I wanted to make. I wasn’t making vases, pots and vessels at first, I was making, organic sculptures and weird figures and then large architectural or post-industrial objects. It was an unconventional way of reaching conventional forms.
There wasn’t a lot of doing in my early art education, the school didn’t encourage it. When I started working in clay it was immediate and exciting, you could start building things in a way you wanted to. I liked the material in my hands. I like the metamorphosis that takes place when you fire it in a kiln and the potential it has to hold metaphor as closely as poetry does.
SP: That’s really interesting, that sense of journey that clay takes. On that, what has your work taught about your own journey?
TOM: It’s taught me about patience and a certain amount of controlled disappointment.
A huge amount happens in the process of changing clay into ceramics, which is out of your control. Colour might change, and flaws in the form become immortal, so you must learn to go with it. Which is actually a great lesson to learn early on.
It’s also taught me about optimism and about the brilliant thing that happens when you have an idea or see something in the world and decide to do something about it. All of that is great for the character, it humbles you, excites you and places you in the world - all with a pot you tried to make. It's great!
SP: The creation of something from raw materials is a humbling experience for sure. This is something we were discussing alot when planning our Spring/Summer lines. Both how to respect these materials by working with artisan factories, but also how the materials themselves affect the wearer. What do nature's raw materials mean to you?
TOM: I see it as a collaboration in a way. Using materials of the earth to explain or understand the situation you are in, is a very human thing to do.
The agency that clay has to describe the past for us or to think productively toward the future is potent. It’s a democratic and ubiquitous raw material as materials go, anybody can approach it, the earth is covered in it and you can find things made from it everywhere.
To put it plainly; as both a potentially functional and artistic material, it can bring or speak of comfort in our lives. This is similar to the function of clothing, I guess. To create a barrier or embellishment between outside and in. It’s an age-old need to make things safer and more comfortable or to go further to feel good and belong.
This sounds fairly serious but it's not really when you actually look at it. It's dirt from a few meters down.
SP: That comes across very much in your work - this mix of optimism and sobriety. In a sense that we can enjoy both simplicity and eccentricity - both in clothing and art. It’s a sense of freedom of self-expression perhaps, curating only what feeds your own journey. On that note, aside from your profession as an artist, you are an arts educator. What do you seek to transmit to your students when it comes to alchemising their own art and stylistic pathway(s)?
TOM: This is a huge question. It’s mostly an unknown and your own path shouldn’t be tampered with that much by an educator. I would say, say less about what you want to do. Find out about what happens when you do something, but most of all do something. ‘Just get on’ is a mantra that is difficult but, ultimately the only way forward. It’s much better to find out what doesn’t work as an idea than be burdened with an idea that hasn’t been attempted.
This is my opinion for art, obviously, I wouldn’t recommend this approach as a surgeon!
But most of the time getting it wrong is what life is all about. For me, what’s important is to try and notice things by looking at the stuff around you for a bit longer. Simple. Spend more time thinking about things that aren’t us, we have a big enough influence in the world already. I think that answers the question but I’m not sure.
SP: It actually does. That feels really clear. You mentioned poetry earlier on, what would you say is poetic about your work? And how is this reflected in your lifestyle?
TOM: I think optimism is poetic in my work. In a more literal sense though, I make symbols, motifs, and signs from things I see or think about. These become poetic language, the whole thing extends through the possibility to connect one to another.
In this way, it’s a bit like how we use our memories. The shape of the memory might be unclear, but it could help form or bridge a thought. Whether or not the shape is the same afterwards is irrelevant, but the notion has remained. It’s a feeling.
The idea that this takes place for me on a functional object is also important ‘poetically’. As something we associate with our home is familiar and therefore potent.
I often take this into clothing too. Like the way linen can take coloured dyes well, and you’ll often find it in bright, summer-appropriate hues. They hold meaning and memory. Pastel shades are fun and very casual, while navy and stone are naturally smarter.
SP: Does the concept of being an 'independent artist' resonate with you?
TOM: I haven’t thought of any other way. I’m up for other approaches but making things on my terms has worked so far.
I’m not sure I can claim complete independence. I rely on the people I spend time with. I rely upon my role in education and so on. Or if this question is about representation, I’m happy with the community that chooses to represent me.
SP: To you, what does it mean to truly harness one's unique style?
TOM: The style in my work comes through a process of abstraction. I layer colour, marks, symbols and figures. My work is described often as very painterly. I have a mix of harder-edged symbols and loose gestures. And sometimes animals or something creeps onto the surface.
As decorative as it might sound, just colour and pattern are the drive for a piece, occasionally. I think this mix of influences comes from my interest in the availability and possibility of collage. I think a lot of contemporary painting listens to the same logic and aesthetic that collage can have. The style in the work is not consciously designed but felt. Approached both playfully and seriously.
I talk a lot about optimism. I think that’s where the boldness and striking colour come from. Making something that represents the imaginary or the remembered or even simply possibility is a productive place for me.