Published  21/06/2024

Mella Shaw – interview: ‘All art is a form of activism. I use my practice to engage people with the emotion of environmental issues’

Mella Shaw – interview: ‘All art is a form of activism. I use my practice to engage people with the emotion of environmental issues’

The artist talks about her award-winning work Sounding Line, which focuses on the overuse of marine sonar and its devastating effect on whales, and what she hopes it will achieve

Mella Shaw. Photo © Olive and Maeve.


Mella Shaw’s remarkable ceramic sculpture Sounding Line last year won the British Ceramics Biennial Award, the UK’s most prestigious prize for ceramics. The vast sculptural installation seeks to expose the overuse of marine sonar and its destructive effect on whales. Sounding Line is an extraordinary feat on many levels, as Alun Graves, chair of the award selection panel and the V&A’s senior curator, ceramics and glass recognised, calling it: “Powerful in concept and majestic in execution. It represents in every aspect an extraordinary feat of making, rendering a work that is both poetic and sublimely beautiful, but also confronting and unequivocal in its message.”

Mella Shaw. Sounding Line, installation view, Summerhall, Edinburgh,2024. Photo © Olive and Maeve.

Addressing the issues of sound and sonar pollution and the devastating effect these have, particularly on deep-diving whale species that rely on echolocation, Sounding Line is an ambitious project. Shaw created her own clay body by incorporating bone ash from the remains of a northern bottlenose whale beached on the west coast of Scotland in 2020, which required permission from Nature Scot, to create a potent conceptual message. Traditional bone china is made using cow bone and by making a similar clay, but from whale bone, Shaw intentionally references the fragility of the original material. Bone is replete with metaphoric references: the tangible reminder of the loss of life, as well as being a substantive material that transcends the death of bodily flesh. Shaw used the unique clay to make large-scale sculptural forms inspired by whales’ tiny inner-ear bones, then wrapped these in red marine rope made to resonate with real sonar pulse. Visitors are encouraged to hold the ropes, thereby feeling the vibration travel through their bodies. The result is an immersive and powerful artwork that reflects the lived experience of the whales. This latest piece is in keeping with Shaw’s practice, using clay to make thought-provoking objects and site-specific installations around environmental themes of balance, tipping points, fragility and loss.

Mella Shaw. Sounding Line, 2023. British Ceramics Biennial. Photo © Jenny Harper.

Shaw lives and works in Edinburgh and combines her ceramic practice with teaching and freelance curation. She is a visiting lecturer on the BA ceramic design course at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London and a tutor at Edinburgh Ceramics Workshop. In 2013, she graduated with an MA in ceramics and glass from the Royal College of Art, London. Since then, she has shown work nationally and internationally including being selected for Collect Open 2018, being awarded the prestigious Henry Rothschild Memorial Ceramic Bursary in 2020 and exhibiting three times at the British Ceramics Biennial. Studio International visited the artist in her studio at the Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop.

Janet McKenzie: You trained first in anthropology of art, critical theory and material culture at Durham University, and have had a successful parallel career in the museum sector as head of exhibitions at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, and subsequently as exhibitions manager at the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge. How do the strands of your museum and conceptual work come together in ceramic sculpture?

Mella Shaw: I am interested in people and in how we make sense of the world around us; the narratives we tell ourselves and each other, and specifically how we do this through making (and using) objects and art. This interest drew me to study anthropology and then, later, my working in museums fulfilled a desire to be part of the mechanics of how we celebrate material culture and art. But I was also always a maker. My ceramic practice is similarly concerned with stories and communication. I want to bring lesser heard issues to an audience in a way that connects people emotionally as well as intellectually. Clay is a material that resonates on so many levels. Essentially, my work is about making connections. Connection to one another, to ourselves, to the environment.

Mella Shaw. Threshold, Bridges (Grey and Yellow), 2013. Porcelain, 35 x 20 cm. Photo © Sylvain Deleu.

JMcK: Can you describe your early work, such as Thresholds, that explores concepts of tipping points and unpredictability?

MS: My series Thresholds was made while I was at the Royal College of Art and soon afterwards. With this work, I was interested in capturing in a static form the moment just before something collapses and shifts from a state of stability into one of chaos and disorder. They were metaphors for loss and longing; moments in time – or tipping points – which cannot be returned from. That body of work is also large in scale and is made from brightly coloured porcelain. I used the pyroplasticity of this clay – when the clay moves and distorts at high temperatures – to create forms in the kiln that were impossible to achieve through hand-building alone. I liked that they confused people as to what material they are made from.

JMcK: You have described yourself as an artist-activist, and most recently your work addresses the climate crisis. Can you explain how your ideas and intentions evolved?

MS: As mentioned, I have in the past made work about tipping points and thresholds because I am drawn to exploring the energy in moments of transition. It was a natural progression to make work addressing the current climate emergency because, essentially, it is a series of tipping points – each one a moment that we will be unable to come back from. Global warming, widespread pollution and the loss of biodiversity are the most pressing issues of our time and, as an artist, it is impossible to ignore them. I believe all art is a form of activism, or can be. I use my practice to engage people with the emotion of these environmental issues – as this is how we can cut through apathy and inspire people to take action.

Mella Shaw with beached whale, South Uist. Photo © David Evans.

JMcK: Can you describe your first trip to the Outer Hebridean island of South Uist in 2022, to look for whale bones?

MS: I received funding from Creative Informatics, through Edinburgh University, and used part of this to travel to the Hebrides to look for beached whale remains. With some local knowledge and expertise from the National Museum of Scotland, I was told to look on An Doirlinn beach on South Uist. I was looking for very old bones that had been dragged up past the sea level but incredibly I found a recent minke whale carcass instead. It was a very humbling and moving experience – the smell was also something I will never forget (and not in a good way!).

The whale had no head and no tail; it was like nothing else I have ever seen. The beach was so deserted that this particular whale hadn’t been recorded, so I was able to dial it into the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme to make sure it was recorded in the mortality data. It was such a powerful image. It felt undeniably wrong, and it reminded me of the 17th-century Dutch and Flemish landscape etchings where a beached whale was seen as a symbol of the reversal of God’s order: a harbinger of doom. What more apposite image could there be at this moment of climate catastrophe? It feels so strange, and other, to see a creature so majestic in the water reduced to a mass of flesh stranded on land.

Found Minke Whale Skull, South Uist, 2022. Photo © Mella Shaw.

Later, when the tide had gone out further, I found the skull of the same minke whale in the shallows of the sea – picked clean by scavengers. The whole experience was very humbling and gave me renewed impetus to make my own work as powerful as I could. On the same beach, I also found some incredible sand etchings – made when black volcanic sand is carried in the small eddies of sea water at a different rate to the white sand of the beach. The patterns formed were mysterious; they looked like sinews in an arm or an anatomical drawing of a female torso. Bodily but also ambiguous and again, totally “other”.

JMcK: Can you explain why clay is such a powerful material?

MS: Clay is full of meaning and metaphor. It is literally the earth beneath us and also the “stuff of life” featuring universally in creation myths. When fired, it is immutable and so the archaeological record of our species is traceable through ceramic objects. It is completely ubiquitous, appearing in all cultures as a material that speaks to our connection to nature, and our ancestry. Purely practically, as a sculptor I also love that it can be used in an enormously wide range of states – from bone dry to liquid and everything in between. And, possibly most interestingly of all, it has at its centre this idea of transition; from raw clay to fired ceramics – a shift that takes us from endless possibility to a fixed form. It speaks of containment and the body; of commemoration and loss. It is full of expression and nuance. It’s just the most incredible stuff.

Mella Shaw. Sounding Line, installation view, Summerhall, Edinburgh,2024. Photo © Olive and Maeve.

JMcK: You use complex methods and processes. Can you describe, in physical terms, how Sounding Line was made?

MS: To make the large-scale forms for Sounding Line, I used a relatively straightforward traditional coiling process – but these are by far the largest things I have ever made and there were technical challenges to do with scale. They needed to dry very slowly and evenly and because the forms are so large (some of them are more than a metre long) that they needed internal ribs and three people to move them. But, actually, the more technical part of this work was making the clay body itself. First, I had to get permission from Nature Scot to use the whale bones, then they had to be sintered to 1,000C, at which point bone becomes bone-ash. This can then be ground down into a powder and mixed into the clay. Adding the bone-ash had the effect of making the clay “shorter” and less malleable. Once I had made the forms, I wrapped them in marine rope and with the help of a collaborator, Theodore Koterwas, added real sound and sonar pulse through the rope.

Mella Shaw. Sounding Line, installation view, Summerhall, Edinburgh,2024. Photo © Olive and Maeve.

JMcK: What does the name Sounding Line refer to?

MS: A Sounding Line is the name given to a rope dropped from a boat to the ocean floor to measure depth at sea. I have used actual marine rope as part of the installation to carry the sound and sonar pulse – when visitors hold the rope, they can feel the vibration travel through their body. The rope I used is a deep-red colour and hangs from above and drops down to the floor. The overall impression when you enter the space is of being underwater. However, the idea of a line is relevant to the film component of the project too. In the film, I drag a large unfired form along a deserted beach in South Uist and take it into the sea – there is a line left in the sand that marks the landscape like a drawn scar. I see this as a literal “line in the sand”, an idiom used to say “enough is enough”.

Mella Shaw. Still from Sounding Line Film 1. 6 min. Image © Rowan Aitchison.

JMcK: How does the short film made on South Uist contribute to the narrative of Sounding Line?

MS: This filmic component of the work is key. I had planned right from the outset to make a return journey to the Hebrides and take one of my sculptures – in its unfired state – back into the sea. I chose to return the sculpture to the same deserted beach where I found the minke whale. The process is intentionally ritualistic and there was a strong sense of a cycle being completed. I worked with a film-maker called Rowan Aitchison to capture drone footage of me dragging the form along the beach and into the sea, and then also filmed as the form slowly dissolved underwater in a timelapse sequence. I was interested in bringing out the sense of macro v micro in the film – the idea that this one whale is both large and small; it represents so much more than just one animal’s life. Similarly, the whole issue of sound and sonar pollution is just one example of the devastating effect that humans have on the environment.

Mella Shaw. Still from Sounding Line Film 2. 6 min. Image © Rowan Aitchison.

JMcK: Whalebone has spiritual connotations, and bones are very beautiful. In both Christianity and Hinduism, bone can refer to the immortal part of a creature; in other cultures, the use of bones is identified with hope, the reanimation of what appears to have caused defeat.

MS: Yes, the beached whale bones themselves are so full of meaning and mystery. When seen in the landscape they are incredible sculptural forms in their own right. It felt important that my work honour this, but also that it add new meaning. It is important to me that my work is accessible but not literal – there is no way of competing with exquisite forms from nature. I intentionally make my work ambiguous. I want there to be enough room for viewers to meet it with their own interpretation. It’s interesting to witness the reverence with which people treat the forms once they realise that they are made with actual bone from a dead whale. There is a sense of wonder in that knowledge that makes visitors want to touch them and connect with the animal in a physical way. I found that very hopeful.

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