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Gardening in Clay: How Vanessa Hogge creates flowers that last forever

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Elizabeth Finney meets ceramicist Vanessa Hogge, who handcrafts intricate vessels and wallflowers from memory

Vanessa Hogge started life in the sunny plains of South Africa, where both her mother and grandmother curated wild and beautiful gardens. These horticultural masterpieces have lodged themselves firmly in Hogge’s memory and, while gardening isn’t her forte (yet), she has found an alternative way to recreate flowers from her childhood. “I look at my work as my version of the gardens of my mother and grandmother,” Hogge says. “I love flowers, I think that they have so much to offer. There are so many variations, so many different forms, and as a means of decorating they’re just so perfectly suited to clay.”

All images courtesy of Polly Rusyn and Yeshen Venema

Aug 17th 2018
Elizabeth Finney
Craftsmanship
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Hogge admits that her extraordinary wallflowers and floral vases are far from being botanically correct, explaining that they are really just figments of her imagination. She creates every piece by hand, often from memory, perhaps using a knife here and there but no other tools. Aside from the memories of her family’s gardens, she also draws inspiration from all over the world and rarely from a live bouquet. Japanese woodblocks, floral fabrics from the 1970s, Indian miniatures, the botanical drawings of the iconic Marianne North and the flowers painted by Frido Kahlo have all informed her work. “I love zooming in on a Frida Kahlo painting and seeing the way she painted flowers – often really small in a corner – they have a wonderful 3D quality,” explains Hogge.

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Within her work, Hogge has found joy in repetition. From afar, her pieces look complicated and often symmetrical. On closer inspection, however, they reveal themselves to be far more personal. Pinching clay into petals and rolling it into stems, each individual section is completely unique. “It’s the act of not using moulds but making everything from scratch, with the clay, with my hands,” she says. “It has a lovely rhythmic quality and it is very therapeutic. There’s something very addictive about the repetition. I also like work that looks like it’s had a lot of effort put into it, so I don’t want to find a quick and easy alternative.” Some of her larger pieces can take up to three weeks to make, after which she allows them to dry before putting them in the kiln. Her pieces can be temperamental – something that has taken two weeks to create could come out of the kiln cracked and ruined, but Hogge has learnt to brush this off. She explains that it’s the nature of the craft and that it takes a certain personality type to persevere with it. She herself is the embodiment of that type: calm, gentle and seemingly unflappable. Her technique stems from her earlier work during the late 1980s, known as sprigging, a method that involves adding low relief decoration to a vase using a press mould. Hogge’s version of this is more hands-on and uses inconsistencies en masse to create a more dramatic effect.

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Three years ago, Hogge returned to her passion after a 25-year hiatus from the craft, during which she worked as an interior stylist and graphic designer. “In some ways, I feel sad that I’ve missed out on all those years of doing ceramics but, on the other hand, I think it’s so good to experience other things,” she says. “I’m grateful for the life experience of having had these other jobs and they are definitely contributing to my work now.” Hogge started out in ceramics in her teens, trading in her academic A-level subjects for art after a friend introduced her to the on-site pottery room. “I just loved it from the moment I touched some clay. All the way through my training I knew that ceramics was what I wanted to do,” she adds, smiling broadly. “It’s just such a fantastic, strange and difficult medium because so much can go wrong. It’s so addictive, but it’s not for the faint hearted.”

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Instagram has been key in Hogge’s rise to success. Now with more than 58,000 followers, her stunning pieces lend themselves extremely well to the visual platform. “When I graduated in the late 1980s from the Royal College of Art, it was such a battle,” she recalls. “You had to get your work photographed and send transparencies to magazine, hoping that they would get printed.” Nowadays, Hogge has her work cut out for her, with orders pouring in from all over the world. She spends five days a week in her studio at Cockpit Arts in Holborn and does all the packaging and marketing at the weekends. Grinning, she describes herself as “in the honeymoon phase” – her second career has taken off and she can’t quite believe it.

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Both her wallflowers and her floral vessels are mesmerising, hypnotic and becoming increasingly popular, and while she plans on ‘inventing’ a few new flowers to create and perhaps doing installations and collaborations, she’s so immersed in the joy of her craft that she feels no need to make any massive plans or changes. Hogge is the prime example of a true artisan. She appears to be completely in love with every aspect of her work – the materials, the process, the final product and the act of sharing it. “My days are filled with the love of making these things and needing to get to the end of producing whichever piece that I’ve started,” she says. “Having something tangible that you can actually hold and think ‘wow’. You can’t regret anything, things happen for a reason.”

vanessahogge.com / cockpitarts.com

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