Meet the maker: Frances Priest, ceramic artist


Frances Priest’s most recent work was for the Royal Edinburgh Hospital and it transformed the clinical white walls with colour and interest

Frances Priest adds colour to tiles in her Edinburgh studio

My favourite sort of day is when I can clear the decks and get on with making and designing. I love being in my beautiful studio, with the radio on, absorbed in developing new ideas or focused on physically making an object from clay.

I grew up in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, which I didn’t think was a terribly exciting place at the time. Little did I know that the seeds of the now blossoming contemporary arts scene were being sown. I love going home to visit the world-class institutions in the region, such as the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the Hepworth, the Henry Moore Institute and the Centre of Ceramic Art.

Frances-Priest-making-tilesI was very lucky to be tutored by renowned ceramic artist David Roberts on a foundation course in Yorkshire. It led to a successful application to the ceramic department in the design school at Edinburgh College of Art, where I graduated in 1999 with a BA and a PGDip in ceramics.

After graduation my work was selected for Talente – a survey show of European craft and design graduates – organised by the Handwerkskammer of Munich, which meant that I had to quickly find a studio space and make new work for the exhibition.

I started working part-time in the craft department at the Scottish Gallery, and as a ceramic technician at Stewart’s Melville College. My professional life was underway.

Scotland is a great place to be a creative. We have a huge amount of talent, fantastic museums and galleries and a supportive infrastructure. There’s more confidence among the creative community that Scotland can contribute to an international conversation.

I try to capture the mutable nature of decorative objects in my work, creating pieces out of multiple forms that can be arranged and composed. I’m constantly playing around with and rearranging test pieces in my studio and I enjoy thinking out ideas through drawing. Research, whether visiting a museum, experiencing new places or just exploring my bookshelf, is the most important part and it’s where I find most inspiration.

My most recent work, for the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, has been very rewarding. It has been wonderful to work with people with the vision and trust to let me scale up my ideas and apply them in a healthcare setting. I spent time with patients and staff to understand what might enhance the hospital environment.

Frances Priest’s work at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital. It has transformed the clinical white walls, filling them with colour and interest

The historical research aspect of the project was fascinating; I visited Telford’s Jackfield Tile Museum and explored its archives, building a relationship with manufacturer Craven Dunnill Jackfield, visiting its factory floor and creating work that marries my design thinking with the firm’s manufacturing expertise that has been built up over centuries.

Opening a kiln can be the best and worst thing. Sometimes the results are everything you’d hoped for. Sometimes it doesn’t turn out as expected but there is a happy accident that can be embraced and enjoyed. But sometimes things just go horribly wrong and weeks of work have to be discarded.

I dread to think what I’d be doing if I wasn’t working as a ceramic artist. I was fortunate to attend a progressive state school that believed in the arts. I’m not sure my passion and talents would be encouraged in the same way today. To quote a piece by one of my favourite artists, Bob & Roberta Smith, ‘Art makes children powerful’.


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