Lorna Graves

Painter and ceramic sculptor


Lorna Graves, artist: born Kendal, Westmorland 23 June 1947; twice married; died Carlisle 23 July 2006.

Inspired by the landforms and ancient art of Cumbria, the artist Lorna Graves made paintings and ceramic sculptures of magnificent simplicity. "I grew up here on the land," she wrote, "working in the fields and byres as a child close to the diurnal and seasonal rhythms of life."

She was born in Kendal in 1947, to young parents she described kindly as "dreamers", but her early life was unsettled and often hard. Moving through a succession of temporary homes, she was passed across Cumbria, to be brought up eventually by farming people near Hadrian's Wall. Encouraged by her inspirational geography teacher at White House Grammar School in Brampton, Graves pursued her fascination with the structures of the land, and went on to study Earth Sciences at Bedford College, London University, earning a BSc in Geography and Geology in 1972.

After several years working as a librarian at Oxford University, in her late twenties Graves began to train as an artist, studying at Cambridge College of Art, then Carlisle College of Art and Design. From then on, she was to work full-time as a painter and sculptor.

The one tutor who really inspired her was the mystic painter Cecil Collins; but the turning point in her work, she explained, was an early commission to make studies from the Ruthwell Cross, the eighth-century runic monument just over the Scottish border. Sketching Ruthwell, and its Cumbrian companion cross at Bewcastle, she was intrigued by the carved depictions of Christ standing on the heads of beasts. It was those carved Anglo-Saxon snouts which blended over time with Cycladic and local Viking and Megalithic influences to create Graves's highly distinctive forms.

Working with the archetypes of animal, human, bird, boat, shelter, she stripped away individualising features, to create symbolic forms with a rare purity of line. Alert, nosing the air, her animal sculptures were titled plainly as "Beast". Conveying a powerful stillness, these non-specific creatures were neither calf nor deer, sheep nor bear, but something essential and universal.

Although occasionally she worked on a larger scale, and sometimes in bronze, the ceramic forms she always returned to were compact and portable, asking to be cradled in the palm of a hand. Her sculptures held the nature of stones, rounded and smoothed by the sea, weathered by time, or worn through generations of human handling.

Graves's paintings and sculptures show a universe not just interconnected, but seamless. The tracery of lines on her animals' flanks indicate fur and fleece, but those whorls or nicks also evoke ripples of water or blades of grass. Her long series, which began in the late 1980s, of Woman with Wing sculptures present a slender female form sleeping under the sheltering curve of an arch that is simultaneously a feathered wing, a bird-pierced sky, and a tree-lined hillside. Animal and human, earth and air are poised at a point of integration, where they both understand and become each other.

Her ceramic sculptures were smoke-glazed using the Japanese Raku technique, where coarse clay is sculpted by hand, fired in the kiln, then laid in a nest of twigs which ignites on contact with the glowing newly-fired clay, causing smoke and ash to become embedded within the body of the sculpture. The primordial flickers of carbon smudging the surface appealed greatly to Graves, suggestive simultaneously of life and death. Often they had the appearance of bone, reflecting a sense of something unearthed, partially corroded, and concealing more than they revealed.

Graves was fiercely secretive about firing her work, finding it an intense, emotional and private process. Her studio assistants always suspected that the pyre of leaves and wood-shavings traditionally burnt in Raku was also being stoked with less conventional combustible materials such as favourite found objects and personal artefacts, which would imbue the sculptures with almost talismanic significance.

One of her most recent works, Burial Ground (on show at Penrith Museum as part of "Stones; Circles; Landscape Art" until 31 October), is an enigmatic collection of vessels and effigies suggestive of Bronze Age grave goods. Within the fabric of one of these ceramic urns, Graves had incorporated her own father's ashes. Graves held forceful views about the sanctity of burial sites, and hoped her work would make viewers question the rights of archaeologists to disturb and display ritual remains. "It seems that the passing of time justifies any desecration, any level of insatiable or morbid curiosity," she wrote:

The very existence of mystery or the unexplained seems excuse enough to sweep aside all former rites, simply to add to the list of what is Known or Found. We call these things found even though they were not lost. Is something diminished by being in the dark earth or is it diminished by being removed and exposed?

A humanist, Graves had an intense sense of the sacred, and this was reflected in commissions such as her 1991 crucifix for Carver Memorial Church in Windermere, the memorial on Little Dunn Fell (1994-95), and her relationship with Welfare State International (producers of the Dead Good Funerals Book), for whom she created a hand-painted coffin in 1994.

Graves exhibited steadily across Britain, Japan, Germany and the United States. She won awards (notably the Oppenheim-Downs Memorial Award in 2001) and her work entered many public collections, with purchases made by the Victoria and Albert Museum, Tullie House Museum in Carlisle, Abbott Hall Art Gallery in Kendal, and numerous other city art galleries from Aberdeen to Stoke-on-Trent.

She had a strong following, but perhaps suffered the fate of many artists who are rooted within one locale, to be dismissed by the metropolis as a "local" artist. In the mid-Nineties, Graves moved her studio to the Barbican in London; but by 2001 she was back on home soil in Cumbria, and exhibiting regularly with the new Lowood Gallery in Armathwaite.

Lorna Graves was strongly connected to the land and landscape of Cumbria, but never belonged to any one place, shifting and resettling often, between Brampton, Grasmere and a succession of houses in Hunsonby, close to the stone circle Long Meg and Her Daughters.

"The modern psyche has been said to suffer from ontological disorientation or a loss of a sense of origins," she wrote. "The power and effect of prehistoric monuments is to trigger memories of belonging." It is this same quality of groundedness which Graves achieved in her own work - stirring a sense of permanence, continuity and the inexplicably familiar.

Judith Palmer

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