Sally McGill - For The Love Of Patterns

“I’ve always really loved patterns” Sally McGill tells Craft Editions when we met in her studio at Craft Central, London. “My mother said that as a very small child I did patterns everywhere. It’s something I’ve always liked doing”. She speaks with warmth and openness when describing her creative journey from painter to potter. Sally's path to finding what she loves has been forged via several different forms of creative expression all of which have included lots of drawing. Creating beautiful, painted pottery is something that sits well with her “I think I know now what I want to do... and I really love doing it”.

Sally originally studied interior design at London College of Furniture and although she enjoyed the technical drawing aspect of it, the project management side put her off. Afterwards she went to work in several small pattern-cutting businesses. In the mid 80’s once her children were at school, Sally did what she confesses she’d always wanted, which was to take lots of drawing and painting classes. She got a studio and began exhibiting and selling. Whilst her paintings started off being quite figurative they quickly became much more abstract when she realised she never really enjoyed painting people. 

In spite of a flourishing career (she featured in the RA Summer Exhibition 5 times) Sally began to feel fed up with the art business itself. In 2008/2009 with the proliferation of art fairs, fine art was becoming more commercial and with it a sense of what was fashionable. “It had to be bling and ‘in your face’ or conceptual” which meant that quiet, restrained work like hers didn’t sell, “I didn’t fit at all”. Her disillusion with the British art scene coincided with her daughter, Olivia establishing herself as a ceramicist. “I was getting very envious and started thinking I want to get my hands on some clay” she remembers. So the family built a studio in their house in France and Sally’s transition from painter to potter began. She soon got a wheel and kiln in London and in doing so found that her painting studio was being squeezed out in favour of her pottery. Sally and Olivia now share a studio at Craft Central in Clerkenwell, London.

As an essentially self-taught potter, it’s taken Sally 8 years to explore and establish her own less traditional way of working. She was always interested in making patterns on pottery and now uses pencils and underglazes to create brightly coloured patterns. Her love of colour is the reason why she tends to work in porcelain rather than stoneware; she loves the fact that it is so white and that the colours really ‘sing’ against it. Her non-traditional background means that unlike many potters she's happy to do things her way and gleefully admits that she buys glaze rather than making her own.

What is so original about Sally's work is the way she fits patterns into specific spaces. Painted circles, outlines in red and black, bright orange starflowers, little blocks of lines, repeated marks and squiggles all bubble with an organic energy. Her pieces are unique and yet all clearly linked. From plates to vases to cups and bowls, the through-line is evident; exploring patterns of layering, symmetry and repetition. Like meeting a set of siblings; each piece is an individual, yet when you see them together it’s clear they are from the same family. Whilst the colours are bright and the patterns can be bold, the overall look is never brash. The designs grow organically from one another. There is a very natural feel, but whilst Sally says she is inspired by fractals and a little by nature, (a tree creeps into the design of 1 of 4 plates) she is more interested in patterns and progressions. Her work is quietly vibrant, each piece containing its own unique energy, distinctive in and of itself. However beautiful her work may be, Sally insists that it's pottery and not art - all her pieces are meant to be used and are dishwasher proof!

Sally’s studio really is that of a working craftsperson. There is a sense of continuity and progression all around with pieces of pottery at every stage of the making process; being made, drying, being decorated, waiting to be glazed and fired. Her enthusiasm for the whole process is abundant and she says she gets much more pleasure from this than she did from painting. Why might that be? Partly the fact that pottery sells in a way that paintings don’t and partly because potters enjoy an autonomy that artists are perhaps not permitted.

“I like that I don’t have to justify things, I do it because I like the way it looks… If it’s a painting people ask ‘what’s the thought behind it?’ I just want to do it, leave me alone!” she says with a laugh. 

Find out more about Sally McGill here.  

All images by Craft Editions.

Brian Waring