Ceramicist Amy Cooper lives at the head of a tidal river in Cornwall, coaxing clay into handmade lights inspired by the shapes and forms of the natural world, from starfish to cliff-top flowers
Words Nicola Smith
The river runs along the bottom of the garden of ceramicist Amy Cooper’s home, which is tucked away in the creekside village of Tresillian, near Truro in Cornwall. ‘When it’s spring tides, the river is in the garden, and when the tide is out it is muddy, but it’s wonderful – full of reed beds and alive with bird life and fish. I even saw an otter recently,’ says Amy. The creek’s water is a constant source of inspiration for Amy’s array of striking porcelain lighting – from lamps and lampshades to tealight holders – all evoking the seascapes and landscapes around her. ‘I find the light and space so invigorating and life-affirming. It inspires on every level, from the shoreline treasures to the hidden world beneath the waves,’ she adds.
The spirit of the coast sings from Amy’s urchin lamps, which are beautifully and painstakingly textured, and lit up from within to produce a warm glow. She digs out a sea urchin fossil that inspired the range. ‘It’s so perfect and ancient, such a treasure. I love the idea of found things which have been washed up on the beach,’ she says. The urchin lamps are slip cast in two-piece moulds, and Amy decorates them from inside and outside while still soft. They are then fettled (smoothing the rough edges) before being bisque-fired (at a low temperature to harden the clay), sanded, glazed and fired at a higher temperature, and wired up. It takes her two to three weeks to complete each one.
CAPTURED BY CLAY
‘This range is very hands-on, working with raw clay in my hands and coaxing it to do what I want it to do,’ says Amy. ‘The glazing can be challenging as I have become more and more particular over the years about the results I want to achieve. I tend to push the material further, which sometimes means pieces break. Even after all these years, it is still a little bit of magic to light up a perfectly fired urchin.’
Amy grew up on Cornwall’s wild north coast and completed her foundation on the county’s south coast, at Falmouth Art School, before studying for her BA in ceramics and sculpture inland in Wolverhampton. The pull of the sea proved strong and she moved to Brighton when she graduated in 2002. ‘It was a such a vibrant and lovely place to be. I started my own business and did lots of exhibitions and shows in London, as well as exhibiting my work at the V&A.’
She and her husband Gareth have been together since they were teenagers, and, while he worked as a landscaper in Brighton, he also helped with her business. When they were expecting their first child, daughter Rosa, now 12, they migrated back to the West Country to be closer to family – first to North Devon, then to Cornwall. They have now lived in the county for 10 years, with Rosa and son Ithan, aged 10. Gareth works full-time for the couple’s business.
DREAMING UP DESIGNS
Amy’s product range has grown to include pendant lights, intricate tiles and a collaboration with Cornish furniture maker, Samuel F Walsh, resulting in beautiful standard lamps which marry solid ash and porcelain to great effect. Her work is sold via numerous galleries around the country, as well as online on Etsy and, more recently, direct from her own website.
She uses sandblasting techniques on pieces such as her cylindrical lamps, which are stencilled based on her drawings and sandblasted until the areas that are covered by the stencil stand proud. The stencil is then removed, revealing the design. ‘Sandblasted pieces can feel more instantly gratifying, as my illustration is so perfectly transferred to the piece by using the stencils,’ she explains. ‘I also love drawing, it is the core of what I do and it has felt so good to get back to it over the last few years.’
When Amy isn’t out seeking creative stimulation from the sea around her, often taking her sketchbook and camera on walks and using the drawings and photos to feed into her work, she is creating in her garden workshop. It is buried halfway under the sloping garden, which runs down to the river. ‘It’s pretty cold all year round, which the clay likes, and sometimes it has puddles,’ she says. But it is full of clever kit, including a blunger – a great big mixer which turns the clay body into the slip for casting – a kiln, and a potter’s wheel, while in the garden she keeps the sandblaster, an industrial compressor originally used for removing rust from cars.
Amy also finds time to enjoy the coast with her family, whether taking daily walks along the river with their lurcher, Bridie, or driving 20 minutes to the Roseland peninsula to swim at Carne or Pendower beaches. ‘This year we have been going at least once or twice a week, and sometimes we all go and take dinner to the beach. Ithan and I also go some mornings, and we have done loads of snorkelling this year, which has been wonderful. We have a kayak too and we paddle along the river, which is heavenly – when the tide is right!’
Being close to the coast is hugely important to the family. ‘Our daughter Rosa has a rare genetic brain disease that means she is profoundly disabled and has a limited life expectancy,’ says Amy. ‘She is the sweetest, most gentle human being, but she has a lot to deal with. This has shaped so many aspects of how we live our lives. It put into sharp focus what is important and how precious life is.’ Evidently, the ever-present sea weaves through Amy’s life and work, uplifting her. ‘I love to feel connected with the constant flux and geology of our coastline. I find the coast in all its forms to be the most energising environment for mind, body and soul.’
Browse Amy’s clay lighting at amycooperceramics.co.uk
AMY'S FAVOURITE CORNISH COASTAL SPOTS
• River walk from Tresillian to St Clements (about 1.5 miles). ‘It is a wheelchair-friendly path so it’s good for Rosa, and it’s dog-friendly and beautiful.’
• Greenaway Beach, between Daymer Bay and Polzeath. ‘We used to spend a lot of time here when I was a child. It has the most beautiful turquoise and purple slate, and loads of rock pools. It was the first place I ever saw a hermit crab so it’s very special!’
• Black Head promontory, near St Austell. ‘I lived near here as a teenager and when Gareth and I first got together we used to walk here a lot. Now we go to Little Harbour Children’s Hospice with Rosa and we often walk down there as it is just down the road. It is wild and dark, but when you get down to Black Head there is a secret swimming beach.’
• Trelissick (National Trust), near Truro. ‘The walk here is tidal and muddy, and I love the way the old trees come down to the water and seaweed hangs in them – that combination of woodland and creek is so magical. Through the Cornwall Crafts Association, I also have a chandelier hanging in the gallery at Trelissick House, made to commemorate the National Trust’s 125th birthday. It is a dream come true.’
• Rocky Valley (between Tintagel and Boscastle). ‘There is a Bronze Age carving in stone as you walk down the valley, and there is a great band of quartz that the stream runs over, down to the sea. It feels very ancient and elemental. And very Cornish.’