On The Magic Of Ceramics, the London art scene, and letting go of control.
Sarah J Harper (goes by the name Harper Bizarre Art) is a multi-disciplinary artist from Plumstead, London. Her work has been exhibited internationally, including the Tate Modern, the Saatchi Gallery, and The Wein Museum.
I meet Harper in artFix Woolwich, an all-encompassing café that serves as a studio, workshop venue, and communal space for local artists. Her face mask, which she’s tugged down to the chin to show her brilliantly full smile, is striped in vibrant rainbow colors. Her story starts to leave her lips before I’ve taken a sip of my coffee, and she starts out with what artFix means to her.
Harper was approached by artFix at the time it was setting up. She has since come up with some designs that are intended for merchandise, but this project still hasn’t come to fruition. For the time being, her various paintings hang on the walls and breathe life into the cafe space. As we talk, the tables around us fill up and the coffee machine picks up speed. it’s quite apparent that artFix serves as a local hotspot; people around us buoyantly cross to other tables to greet each other.
Harper grew up “running to the sea everyday” in Cornwall, the Western tip of England, until she moved to London as a teenager. She’s been in Plumstead, London ever since. She’d done a lot of art throughout her adolescence, until “life took over.”
In education, Harper didn’t pursue the arts. With a degree in sociology and psychology, she dived head-first into office jobs and ended up starting her own events management company. In 2005, she put together the biggest public sector event that the country has yet had as of now (Delivering Sustainable Communities Conference.) “I’m quite proud of that,” says Harper. Being in charge of every detail, from the security to the layout, events management turned her into a sort of “controlling beast.” “I suppose it’s like having a very large bunch of flowers in a vase, and each one of those flower heads has a different idea, and I am essentially the vase.”
At age 40, Harper became pregnant with her first child and around the time she gave birth, her husband fell ill with breast cancer (he now spends time promoting awareness of the disease.) She quit her job and returned to art as a means of therapy. That’s when she discovered ceramics.
“There’s a whole lot more to life than working sixteen hour days. I wanted to watch my son grow up and be there for all the milestones.”
She was beginning to dabble in mosaics when she discovered the wonders of ceramics, which she has not stopped pursuing until now.
“It’s an almost childlike art form, where you’re going back to getting messy. There’s no limit to where you can do with it.”
At the same time, at the core of ceramics lies its uncontrollability. A common ceramicist inside joke refers to the “kiln gods”: “Essentially, once it’s gone inside the kiln, you are at the mercy of the kiln gods.” Something that you’d spent ages on can come out of the kiln having fallen apart. With many years of experience in managing events and with her husband fighting a chronic illness, she admits to becoming a “controlling beast” at home. Ceramics allows her to practice the art of letting go and to appreciate the highs and the lows of life.
Harper’s artworks center around an activistic purpose. One of her proudest works so far is her version of “Money Art” — drawing and coloring on bills. She turns the face on any bill into “boomface,” a nameless, bursting caricature that propagates awareness of a relevant social issue.
The collection Harper has designed for Arts4Refugees, the social impact startup that she has partnered with, also has a defined activist twist. One of the slogans she has painted is “Human Being, Human Doing,” to encourage us to get up from our seats and do something — we all take the being in the human being for granted. Another is “Just Being Human” — “just” implies a small sense of inadequacy, the feeling that we can do more, go beyond where we currently are. She chose bright colors to draw people into the causes of Arts4Refugees: specifically, how it empowers refugee entrepreneurs to build up their businesses. Finally, she chose to use circles as the symbol of cosmopolitan life: the circle as the globe in which we all live in, the circle as a metaphor for the circularity of life. We all go in circles and patterns; what we do for others and for ourselves find a way of coming back to us.
Having been here for most of her life, I ask for some honest thoughts on what it’s like to be an artist in London. Harper appreciates the abundance of opportunities that locals have to connect with fellow artists and form a community, but at the same time, laments the exclusive nature of the “high-class fine art world.” But living here never quite gets boring. There’s always something going on in the city that doesn’t cost you a cent, and here I have to agree. Most galleries and museums in London have free admission, which helps Harper introduce her son into the intricate world of art. “He’s very interested in the sort of work that I’m doing,” she says, but is afraid of the day when he enters adolescence and may lose that interest.
As much as she loves London, Harper has a “little dream” of moving to Margate (a town on the southeastern coast of England) someday. She admires its art community and its beach (“a beautiful thing”). It has a big art scene, and what’s most important, it’s right by the sea. I assure her that it will happen, because her life started out by the sea and it moves in circles. “Our conversation has moved in a circle,” adds Harper, exuberant.
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