Sally MacDonell is captivated by the power of human connections. She tells Annie Le Santo how it has inspired her three decades of creating ceramics
The feminine sculptures that Sally MacDonell has been modelling with clay for nearly three decades carry themselves with an air of serenity, warmth and at times, mystery. Their faces are purely their own, a product only of MacDonell’s creative vision and skilful hands. Though nameless, their presence is strong, and their soulful eyes evoke empathy from viewers and collectors across the world.
MacDonell’s life began in rural Lincolnshire where she lived with her mother, father and three elder sisters. She describes her family home as a ‘social hub’, which they rarely left. Instead, friends and extended family members would gravitate towards them, gathering for dinners and around the bonfires that her father loved to light. She began crafting with her hands when her mother started teaching her a multitude of skills including crochet, knitting, sewing and making corn dollies.
Around the same time, MacDonell’s first encounter with clay came at an evening class she attended with her sister. However, in school, she chose a path she thought would lead to a conventional career and opted to study science at A Levels with art as an additional subject ‘on the side’. As her studies progressed though, her appetite for creativity began to overtake any desire for convention. ‘I have a letter from my headteacher, where she wrote that “art ruined my A Levels”,’ she reveals. ‘Because I just spent all my time in the art department and never wanted to leave.’
After leaving school MacDonell initially still compromised for a ‘stable’ career, swapping Lincolnshire for London to study a degree in graphic design. Quickly though, she realised the passion she had found in her school’s art department did not translate to computer screens. ‘My graphic designs were simply photographs of three-dimensional models I made,’ she explains. ‘It became clear I just wanted to get my hands dirty.’
MacDonell transferred to Bath Spa University where she enrolled on a ceramic degree. It was here that she discovered an eagerness for life drawing and capturing the intricacies of the human form. During a figurative project in her first year, she left behind traditional vessel-making and carried her life-drawing skills over to her ceramics practice. ‘Mo Jupp attended as a visiting tutor and spent an hour with me one lunchtime,’ she says. ‘It was perhaps the most valuable moment in my education. I felt that he really understood and validated what it was that I was trying to do with my work.’
After university, MacDonell set up a studio with her long-standing creative partner and now husband Alasdair Neil MacDonell. Together they purchased a disused hairdressing salon in Bath, an unusual space with a lively history. ‘Women would come here and leave feeling good about themselves on a daily basis,’ she says. ‘And now I sculpt my women here. I like that.’
The couple transformed the salon into a unique artistic space that any creative person would envy. When you arrive upstairs in the shop front, you are welcomed by their finished fired pieces. As you follow the stairs down, you enter a warm and bustling hub of creative activity. MacDonell shares her studio with her husband – and their cats – with his seat in close proximity across the workbench. ‘We create our own individual work – that part is separate,’ she explains. ‘But in every other way we are a team: we exhibit together, support each other, share our studio and home, and have raised our children together here. Alasdair has by far been the most supportive person during my career.’
Together the pair have displayed their work all around Europe and in the US, resulting in an almost endless list of exhibitions and fairs they have participated in. Meeting gallerists, visitors and fair goers over the years has brought MacDonell immense joy and satisfaction. ‘I love being drawn out of the studio to stand next to my work and speak with people,’ she says. ‘I am not sure where the faces of my sculptures come from – they are never based on anyone in particular – but I think the many interactions I have had with people over the years probably come back to me through my making.’
Human connection is vital to MacDonell’s life and practice. She finds her inspiration in many places: Netherlandic wood carvings, African art, weathered buildings with textured surfaces, extravagant fashion catwalks, and women gossiping in supermarket queues. Yet, it is the varied nature of people that resonates with her the most. ‘I love people. I love watching people interact with one another,’ she reveals. ‘I want my work to be warm and inviting in the same way I find people to be.’
Working in an organic and intuitive manner, MacDonell rarely sketches out ideas before shaping them with clay. She begins by building the shoulders or bodies of her figures, letting her hands do the thinking as she works upwards. Her technique consists predominantly of slab building and pinching the clay into shape, followed by meticulous modelling of finer details. She employs mark-making processes to add texture to the hats or busts of her ceramic women. ‘Sculpting the face often takes me as much time as the rest of the piece. I will be working away and then suddenly, there she is, looking back at me and I know it is time to stop,’ she says. ‘Then, she goes through the firings and glazing and becomes something else entirely.’
Admitting that she enjoys lighting fires as much as her father did, for 12 years MacDonnell would smoke-fire her pieces in her garden. These days, she values colour in her work and has developed a finish using underglaze colours mixed with engobe and fires to 1186°C in an electric kiln. Her work showcases not only her technical proficiency but also her deep connection to intuition and the inherent nature of ceramics. While she possesses exceptional technical skills, she values listening to her heart and embracing the unpredictable essence of the ceramics process. ‘I am never seeking perfection. It is the imperfections, marks and asymmetry that are really exciting to me,’ she says.
With thirty years of experience and expertise behind her, MacDonell remains open-minded and dedicated to evolving her practice. ‘I feel I am constantly moving forward by simply continuing to create my work,’ she explains. ‘I am always chasing faces in the studio. I will finish one piece and then I am onto the next one, modelling a new face. With each one I uncover something new.’
A consistent theme in MacDonell’s art is the depiction of the female form, with their eyes always open, inviting and observant. They stand tall or sit confidently adorned with statement headwear. ‘I want to elevate and celebrate women – that is significant to me,’ she says. ‘Yet at the core of my work lies connection. We are all human beings in a world sometimes preoccupied by differences, I seek out the common emotions, desires and behaviours that unite us.’
For more details visit macdonell-ceramics.co.uk; @macdonellceramics