Since ancient times, people have integrated symbolism and ceramics. However, as abstract sculpture has come into fashion some of the more literal forms of symbolism has fallen to the side. Which is why Julie Nelson’s ceramics are so exciting. Her work is a refreshing look at some of our most ancient symbols as she has put a modern twist on them. “The hand is a symbol for communication. Birds represent transcendence and fish procreation. Symbols allow us to communicate without the barrier of language.” Says Julie in our interview. And she explores this way of communication through her art. Each piece is recognizably touched by a human hand, allowing the viewer to develop a personal connection to the object thereby telling a story for the viewer to interpret. Her work is soothing to the eye and familiar in a way that feels like meeting a dear friend.

Julie works from her studio in Brighton, a coastal city south of London in the UK and has always been inspired by the seaside. She studied ceramics at university and specialized in sculpture. Her journey in ceramics has taken her to lighting to small sculptures, and now she is working in larger scales again. Here we talk with Julie about her ceramics career as well as the symbolism in her motifs…


How did you get into ceramics?

I grew up by the sea in Torquay, Devon. My sister and I were encouraged to make things by our parents. I studied a BA in 3D design, specialising in ceramics at Middlesex Polytechnic. I focused completely on sculpture, particularly anatomy. For one term I made furniture and was the only time in the 3 years that I made anything functional.

You used to work in lighting, what made you shift to sculpture?

Following my degree, I concentrated on sculpture. This period helped me to formulate a distinctive feel for form and the importance of light on a 3D shape. My lighting collection continued the idea, was minimal and influenced by mid-century organic modernism. The forms were opaque and the light would emit through holes cut in the sculpture. Sculpture by day, lamp by night they worked with natural and artificial light. Crafting smaller objects enables me to evolve my ideas faster and be more experimental and creative. When I moved from London to Brighton, I sculpted lots of little maquettes and was lucky to be included in a show called Recollect. The theme was artists own ‘cabinets of curiosity’, their unrealised projects, ideas and models from their studios. This was the start of the work that I’m making now. Ironically my work is evolving and growing larger again.

Each of your motifs are distinctive, birds, hands, and fish, what drives you to work with such representational themes?

I love the image of the hand, it has character and can represent the way we communicate, sense, create, measure, and interact with the world. It is the ‘tool of tools’. I am surrounded by birds living on the coast. Symbolising both nesting and flight, the theme has felt very personal. I have learned much about birds whilst I have been making them, especially pigeons and crows. Studies have shown that birds have personalities and bond with those of similar character.

The coast has been an important part of my childhood and subsequent life and this is where the fish come in. We often take it for granted that we live on a small island. The fish sculptures have been inspired by early life forms, coral and tiny microfossils called Foraminifera. Under the microscope, they have an incredibly complex structure and pattern.

The hand is a symbol for communication. Birds represent transcendence and fish procreation. Symbols allow us to communicate without the barrier of language. I strongly believe in the connectedness of everything and symbols create links. I am very interested in science and love to learn something through the work that I make. I think this is one reason for my themes. I’m exploring air, land, and sea!

What is your creative process like?

I regularly look through my references, photos, drawings. I sketch then make small models. I have been trying to discipline myself to do this. It works better for me to go into the studio prepared. I use black and white stoneware clay. It has a fine grog for hand building. I am currently trying to make the walls of my work thinner. I make glazes from the recipes of some of my favourite ceramicists, preferring a very elemental, monochrome palette. ‘Decoration’ doesn’t appeal to me and I prefer the surface to resemble a natural quality such as bone, pebbles, sand…. It’s not easy to achieve. I always look to nature for inspiration. I like studio ceramics to reveal the maker’s hand and find a beauty in imperfection and depth to the surface. It’s a fine balance to make this work. When I’m glaze testing I take a scientific approach and document everything in order to repeat the parts that work. I think most ceramicists endlessly research and experiment. I work iteratively which allows me to evolve the shape, colour, meaning.

Were those paintings of pigeons on your blog yours? Can you talk about working in other mediums?

When my children were small I learned how to use photoshop and designed textiles for a while. There were constant deadlines for print runs which helped so I’m now quite skilled at it. As a result, I draw a lot on the computer. The birds on my blog are quick sketches in photoshop. I also use it on occasion to draw something I plan to make in clay. I can even add a glaze finish. I take an enormous amount of photos and now need to have regular sorting and deleting sessions. In the past, I have cast in metal and I would love to try this again.

What does a typical day in your studio look like?

I cycle to the studio along the seafront to catch a glimpse of the collision of sky and sea. It’s a daily inspiration. I mostly work in silence but sometimes listen to podcasts or music. My studio is an old stable for a very grand square in Kemp Town, Brighton built in the early 1800’s. It’s an enclave of artists and small businesses and I’m very lucky to have it.

On a typical day, I would be making several pieces at once, engrossed in hand-building, working in rotation to give each object a chance to dry a little. The day passes very quickly. I could easily work long into the evening but try and allow time to tidy up.

What are you working on now?

Currently, I’m organising an expansion of my Flock installation (of over 100 ceramic birds) but this time involving other people, some of whom may have little experience of ceramics but who may benefit from the process. I am looking to integrate other materials with my ceramic pieces and to create some books of my work.