Steph Buttle: the dancing potter pushing things to breaking point
Long Reads 07.11.2017
Photographs Laurence Ellis
Words Mark Hooper
A trained ballet dancer turned actor, advertising director and ceramicist, Stephanie Buttle has found a way to combine all of her previous vocations in the name of art. It’s all about brinkmanship, she says …
Prologue: Enter artist, flourish of trumpets
We open on a plain white gallery space, with a jumble of seemingly random pieces of POTTERY suspended, totem-like, from ROPES attached to the wall and ceiling.
Enter WOMAN, dressed in blue boiler suit. She entangles herself in a loop of rope, also attached to the wall, and proceeds to STRAIN against it, moving gracefully as she adopts poses reflecting those of the SCULPTURE that hangs beside her.
Some time later…
We meet Stephanie Buttle in a South London café on a wet afternoon in May, in the hour before she is due to tutor a ceramics class. Buttle, you may have already worked out, is the woman in the blue boiler suit. We are here to talk about how a life of performance in different guises has informed her art practice.
There are several acts in the life of Stephanie Buttle before we arrive at the performance mentioned above (which she has exhibited in major contemporary ceramic shows including Craftsmanship Alone Is Not Enough at the Lethaby Gallery, London, and Material: Earth at Messums Wiltshire). The piece is entitled Position 6 – a wry take on the first of her previous lives, as a ballet dancer (there are five basic positions in ballet). Talking through her career path now, with the benefit of hindsight, it seems obvious that Position 6 represents a natural progression: a culmination of all her apparent false starts and changes of direction, taking in dance, acting, directing and ceramics. It’s easy to conclude that this was what she was destined to do all along – but that would be to over-simplify, to apply meaning and structure retrospectively. So let’s rewind to the opening scene…
Act I: So you think you can dance
‘It started off with ballet,’ says Buttle. ‘I think it’s interesting that the connection between ballet and ceramics is the closest out of all the media I’ve worked in. Because of that iterative practice, going back to the ballet barre and going through those “one, two, three, four, five” positions – and that constant rigour, with slight increments of improvement in order to create whatever it is that your body’s going to do. It’s thrilling when you find that perfect balance in a pirouette, it’s a very similar sensation to when you are centering clay on a wheel; you have to let go… to do something we’re not really supposed to do, to find the perfect balance. As a dancer you use your sense of touch a lot, when partnering with another dancer you are often touched, held supported by another – it becomes normal to hold another and to be somewhat sensitive to the sensation of what being ‘on balance’ feels like. With clay also, it’s dependent on not just your skills as a maker, but the condition of the clay, incremental changes in the quality of the material – and it’s with a tactile knowledge that you are measuring these changes.’
To cut a long story short, the ballet thing didn’t work out. It’s wasn’t so much a case of not being prepared to put in the hours and the graft, but rather a feeling that something more fundamental was missing. ‘I wasn’t going to progress to become a first soloist,’ she admits. ‘I understood my technical limitations – and unless you were exceptional then you weren’t in the position to challenge the very strict order that ballet demands.’
Acts II-III: The camera loves you
Admitting that she ‘got distracted by being young’, Buttle explains how she fell out of love with ballet (‘but not dance’). Instead, she sought out more contemporary styles – and with them the chance to be more spontaneous, often working with choreographers on productions with a fast turnaround. In the late Eighties she found a new outlet, appearing in pop videos for the Pet Shop Boys, Scritti Politti, Mike and the Mechanics and more. ‘I remember walking onto an AC/DC shoot,’ she recalls. ‘We were on this gigantic set: huge studios, with a film crew and lavish sets, it was exciting… You’ve been institutionalised in a ballet company and then suddenly this! That world was thrilling, so liberating and every job was unique.’
The dancing segued naturally into acting – she co-starred with Juliette Binoche and William Hurt in A Couch in New York in 1996 – but something wasn’t right. ‘With the acting I think I was afraid of a certain kind of success that can happen,’ she says, ‘and I didn’t have the confidence to really push forward.’ So she felt happier being in the chorus? ‘No,’ she admits with a laugh.
As she tells it, Buttle’s move behind the camera was a natural one – partly born out of ‘a desire to be a bit more in control and to start to tell the stories’, but also from her social circle at the time. ‘I was an assistant and would read scripts, help with casting; I was asked to write treatments, to pitch for pop videos and ads. I was always interested in ideas based on characters in isolation.’ She was given some money to make a short film, 4th Wall, which starred her friend Adrian Dunbar. She was then invited to be a director in her friend’s production company, shooting for clients including Martini and Cinzano. Although ultimately she found the reality of putting so much work into producing 30 seconds of advertising ‘stressful and conflicting’, she took away from it a theatrical approach to her work. ‘Once I’ve got an idea, I often visualise it in the structure of producing a film or theatre production,’ she says. ‘I will usually work out ideas with storyboard sketches. My ceramic work is imbued with some of the tools from this time.’
Act IV: Back behind the wheel
Back in the South London café, we’ve been trying to find the common element to all these threads weaving through Buttle’s life: the need to push things to breaking point; to question, to never accept the status quo or her place within it. ‘Brinkmanship,’ she concludes. ‘What a brilliant word.’ She picked up on the phrase after listening to Kathryn Hearn, her former head of course on the Ceramics/Design BA at Central St Martins in London. It is here that Buttle discovered her place, at last, behind the potter’s wheel and in the artist’s studio. She had always connected with ceramics, since studying it at school. So, having left her film production company in 2011, her first instinct was to sign up for a course at the Morley Adult Educational College in London (where she is now a tutor).
After two terms at Morley she decided she wanted more, so she applied for the famous Central St Martins, and got in. Slowly, through her application of more academic work there, working her way through new materials and techniques, she found she ‘started to understand with a bit of forgiveness why I had struggled, and left and moved on’. Which is when it began to click. ‘I kept being attracted to artists who were using clay in a very visceral way – or in a more “art” way. And then things started to pull together: as I was making work, suddenly I thought, “Well I’ll film it” – because that was the best way to document it – and my tutors were encouraging me – I mean, it was so obvious.’ And then things started to pull together. Hearn (along with fellow tutor Anthony Quinn) encouraged Buttle to look at ways to record the projects – and film became the most efficient tool to do this. ‘What I’m trying to do now is explore, but with technique,’ she says. ‘So make something well, love the material: but then push it.’
Act V: Full circle
It’s probably best to describe Stephanie Buttle as an artist who performs with ceramics. As a case in point, take her work Distortion 2016. Ostensibly these are a series of beautifully turned, almost impossibly fragile ceramic vases. But it’s the process of making them that raises the work from pottery to performance art. Having thrown the clay into large cylinders, Buttle would take them off the wheel head while still wet, turn them upside down and dance with them, distorting the material with her own physicality, producing ripples in the delicately fine forms. ‘So you end up where the clay catches a movement through your physical action, rather than your hands turning it,’ Buttle explains. ‘That was a really wonderful moment, finding this fluid way of working.’
Which takes us back, full circle, to her most recent work, Position 6. Developing the processes and the idea of brinkmanship still further, Buttle would unfurl the initial vase shapes into slabs. ‘It’s moved on now,’ she says. ‘I’ve cut and stretched the clay and created a sculpture.’ Once constructed, she wanted to see how far she could push the work – both as an abstract figurative form and also literally, leaning it until it was teetering on the edge of collapse, balanced at a precarious angle.
Which is where we could leave her – delicately poised, finding her balance point, on the brink… But of course, Buttle can’t stay static for long: she has to go with her momentum once again. ‘I can’t help it, it’s still about that curiosity that keeps you motivated,’ she says.
Her work is also, of course, finely balanced in the debate around contemporary ceramics. Is it art or craft? ‘My work sits somewhere in the middle,’ she says. ‘It is art because it comes out of conceptual thinking – but it remains dedicated to the principles of craft skills. In art you are allowed to push ideas and materials and to question the status quo. I am pushing my own narrative – which has given me a sense of freedom. That’s what it feels like. I’ve found a confidence and a medium that I’m truly happy to work in.’
Epilogue: Sound Affects
One of the discoveries she made from showing her work recently at the Lethaby Gallery and Messums Wiltshire was that Position 6 was only complete when she was performing it. ‘I’d like to explore that area where I can leave the work, and it continues to give a live experience to the viewer at the specific time that they are looking.’
Currently, she’s working on creating clay vessels that can be used as a receptacle for sound art. It’s partially a project through Stephen Bass, owner of the record label Prah Recordings and the Prah Foundation artist space in Margate. ‘He has an ongoing commission called Five Easy Pieces,’ says Buttle, ‘which is basically about choosing five pieces of music that have been influential in your life, and then responding to that with some kind of art piece. I’ve taken that brief and I’ve run with it. So the idea is making these vessels that work like speakers and will amplify sound – it could be music or it could be more physical sounds like a heartbeat…’
Her mind is racing again, pushing things beyond their equilibrium. Bass, for his part, sounds equally intrigued by how Buttle has gone about the project. ‘The first practice attempts Steph made were beautiful in and of themselves,’ he says, ‘but it was her explanation of the thought and passion behind them that were really striking – showing
a depth of emotional and artistic connection to the idea that was humbling.’
Tellingly, when I say that I like the tension in Position 6 – the sense that it may all come crashing down, she replies that she hopes it does. The idea that it could easily break at any time is what gives the piece longevity for her.
‘The opportunity to perform was the beginning of a new way to explore the work,’ she says. ‘Positioning myself the same as the piece, becoming a mirror to it and not knowing what I was going to do… I used the gallery like a studio and would just be with the work, I sat and had my lunch with it, fell asleep next to it. That’s interesting because it could fail, or be beautiful, or be nothing: I want to explore this very live potential in my work. It could go wrong very publicly, but I’m up for that…’