Mella Shaw: Sounding Line Exhibition

© Jenny Harper

Sounding Line is on show at Summerhall War Memorial and Sciennes Galleries
1 Dec 2023 – 25 Feb 2024
Opening hours: 11.00 – 17.00  Weds - Sun

Mella Shaw is an award winning contemporary ceramic artist, crafting objects and installations exploring themes around balance, tipping points, and more recently environmental consciousness.

Central to this exploration is Shaw's latest exhibition, Sounding Line. We recently had the opportunity to connect with Mella in her studio, delving into her path into ceramics and unravelling the creative process that underlies the exhibition.

Can you tell us a bit about who you are and your journey to becoming a ceramicist?

I am an artist activist using clay to make installations and objects. My background is in Anthropology and I had a former career managing large exhibition programs in museums and galleries, such as the V&A, Dulwich Picture Gallery London and most recently The Fitzwillaim Museum, Cambridge. During this career of 15+ years I struggled to find a creative output in my life. After being lucky enough to have used clay a lot as a kid I always wanted to get back to it. Eventually I went part-time in my museum job and enrolled a two day a week diploma in Ceramics at City Lit in London. This was an amazing course with incredible tutors, all of whom are successful ceramic artists. I knew ceramics was going to be central to my life from then on. I decided to apply to the Royal College of Art and gained an MA in ceramics and glass in 2013.

Seven years ago, I moved back to my hometown of Edinburgh and I currently have a studio at Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop. I now combine my ceramics career with teaching and freelance curation. I make work that is intentionally thought-provoking and over the last ten years this has meant addressing issues to do with the climate crisis. I take lesser-known issues about the global climate and environmental crisis and present often dry data and statistics in ways that people can engage with. I aim to make work that ignites a sense of wonder in how it is made. This is important to me because I witness how this sense of wonder engages people emotionally and then through this they connect intellectually with the subject matter.

Can you describe the key themes that you explore as a ceramicist and how this has developed over time?

I work in a way that is driven by the idea or concept I am trying to portray. This means that I make each object or installation using the ceramic materials and techniques that are most relevant to that specific idea. As a result, I used a very large array of ceramic processes, and it can mean that each project looks very different - I certainly don’t have a particular making “style”. Nonetheless, over time there have been clear motifs that repeat in all of my work. I am interested in balance and particularly where that is disrupted, i.e. where stability turns to disorder and chaos. I feel drawn to clay because the material carries so many layers of meaning and connotations of human history. Clay also has a central change at its core – clay becomes ceramics and in this seismic shift there is an opportunity to discuss themes of longing, of loss and of new beginnings. I have explored this in many ways in my work over the last 10 years but all of them have at their centre an interrogation with the moment that things change from one state to another. This can mean a very formal tipping point or a more conceptual one.

We are living through a unique moment in history. Human activity is affecting the environment in such dramatic ways; causing tipping point after tipping point. Unfortunately, I am not short of subject matter! More than this I feel a responsibility to make this central to my practice in part because I am a mother and in part because I am a citizen of an affluent country in the Global North.


What are the parallels you see between your early work such as thresholds, exploring concepts of tipping points and unpredictability, and the more environmentally centred aspects of your more recent work?

My work has always been about longing, loss, thresholds and edges. Conceptually tipping points interest me for lots of different reasons. There is an energy shift at a tipping point and that can be interesting to explore sculpturally. But much more than this is the fact that we are living through the most enormous tipping point imaginable, or should I say, multiple tipping points. The climate crisis is one that disrupts the equilibrium all around… this is not a static world, it never has been but right now the chaos of what will meet us if we let this tipping point fall is evident. I use my practice to engage people with the emotion of these environmental issues – as I really believe that art has the potential to connect to people emotionally and that is how I can inspire people to take action.

What is the Sounding Line project, could you elaborate on the issues it explores and the conceptual origins behind it?

Sounding Line is a large-scale ceramic installation and 6 min film that addresses the issue of sound/sonar pollution and the devastating effect these have on particularly deep-diving whale species that rely on echolocation. With permission from Nature Scot I made my own clay body using bone-ash from the remains of a Northern bottlenose whale beached on the West Coast of Scotland (in the same way cow bone is used to make bone-china). I then used this unique clay to make large-scale sculptural forms inspired by whales’ tiny inner-ear bones. The project takes the name: Sounding Line, from a rope dropped from a boat to the seabed to measure depth at sea.

For the installation I wrapped the ceramic sculptures in red marine rope which, through a collaboration with artist Theodore Koterwas, has been made to resonate with a sonorous pulse taken from actual sonar and ship recordings. Visitors are encouraged to touch the ropes thereby feeling the vibration travel through their bodies. The result is an immersive artwork that intentionally reflects the lived experience of the whales themselves.

In the studio we discussed your research trip to the Hebrides. What were the experiences from this trip that have gone on to influence the final outcome of the project?

I went to the Outer Hebrides at the start of this project in July 2022 to look for bones of beached whales and to get a sense of the environment where so many whales are washing up dead. I had been told by a contact at the National Museum of Scotland that there would likely be very old bones on An Doirlinn beach on South Uist. The beach itself was vast and totally deserted, it’s an incredible place.  After a couple of hours of walking along the beach we found a whole carcass of a dead minke whale. The smell was like nothing else and the form itself was very bloated … but most of all was the sense of “Otherness”. This incredible animal seemed so out of place on the beach, it’s head was missing and we found its tail a little further along the beach. This feeling of eery, uncanny otherness definitely stayed with me.

© David Evans

We kept walking along be beach and about 2 hours later the tide had gone out a bit further and there in the sand was the most incredible whole skull just sitting at the edge of the waves. Completely awe inspiring, so sad but also so incredible to see this totally beautiful object – so out of time somehow. Its not clear exactly why or how that particular whale died but having the experience of seeing it first-hand really affected me. It made me feel connected to the project in a new way.

© Mella Shaw

Then, just a few meters away I found something else totally mesmerising. There was what I am calling “sand etchings” where the little eddies in the water have carried black volcanic sand over the white sand of the beach. The patterns left behind were like nothing else I’ve ever seen. It was so magical. It looked like a Durer etching of the anatomy of a naked torso or of a sinuous arm… extremely bodily - but also so abstract.

© Mella Shaw

I took some photos and also a short bit of video and these really informed the feel of the work I made in clay when back in my studio. I wanted the ceramic forms to carry this sense of mystery and “otherness” but still be connected to the body. It also inspired me to take one of the forms back to the same beach 9 months later and make a film piece of me dragging this along the sand with red rope and returning it into the sea. As this form was made out of unfired clay that included bone from a beached whale (in much the same way that bone-china is made out of cow bone) it slowly dissolved in the water. I worked with a film maker called Rowan Aitchison to film this with time-lapse underwater photography.

© David Evans

© Rowan Aitchison

Can you tell us about the physical process of creating the forms?

The forms are made out of clay that includes bones from a beached Northern bottlenosed whale. The clay body is a very strong, white firing, stoneware. The addition of the whalebone makes it a bit “shorter” ie a little harder to work. Once I had decided to make forms based on these tiny (1-2cm) inner ear bone shapes I made some maquettes. I didn’t really know how I was going to scale these up initially but through a process of trial and error I hand-built them in a coiling method. I would make one half upright then once that was formed and completely finished I would turn it onto its side then coild-build the bottom half.

© Mella Shaw

It’s important to me that the shapes are completely 3-D, ie they don’t have one particular base, they sit in any orientation. This means that I can change they way they sit depending on where they are sited. This way of making things without bases is something I have done for a long time. It is a central feature of my practice to date and allows a playfulness to come in at a later date. Often it isn’t until I take something out of the kiln that I get to experience how it will sit. In this instance the pieces I have made for Sounding Line are so big and so heavy that it takes three people to move them! That has certainly been an additional challenge.

© Jenny Harper

When we visited your studio, you discussed the process of firing & grinding down the whale bone. How would you describe the significance of this process in relation to the underlying themes of the project? Is it intentionally symbolic, or was it primarily approached as a practical method?

The process is the same as when making bone-china – bone china is made with between 40 – 60% cow bone in it.  Bone-china is known for its strength but also apparent fragility – so yes it was an intentional metaphor. Some of these whale species are very large, they are majestic animals when in their own habitat but all this changes when they are lying prone on a beach. They become immensely vulnerable out of water and this fragility in the issue was reflected in the material used. These whales are protected species because of this fragility, yet mass beaching events like these are happening with increased frequency due to human-made sound and sonar pollution and the effects of climate change.

How has the culmination of your research, designing and making been embodied in the Sounding Line exhibition?

The overall exhibition Sounding Line includes both a large-scale, interactive, ceramic installation and a short, silent film made in the Hebrides. Each part of this project exists as a result of years of research and development. The project was funded by Creative Edinburgh and Creative Infomatics who support the use data in creative ways. I wanted the project to be quite minimal but also to speak to a complex subject in an emotive way. The whole project is a consciousness raising exercise as I am not allowed to sell the sculptures because (ironically) they include bone from a protected species. 

While making this project I was also reminded of how the image of a beached whale was used in Seventeenth Century Dutch etchings to signify impending disaster. The form of a whale, lying prone on the sand, so majestic in water and so completely out of place on land, was used by artists at the time as an image of the reversal of God’s order. The Otherness of it spoke of impending doom.

Through an encounter with Sounding Line I hope people are affected by the subject matter and also feel the urgency of the wider issues of ecological collapse and climate change that it speaks to.

© Jenny Harper

For more information: Instagram @mellamine


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