From a distance, Sophie Southgate’s brilliant bowls appear chunky and heavy, with painted shapes adorning a flat, level surface, like a tabletop.
But first looks can be deceiving.
“An object is more intriguing if you don’t know what it’s made from,” says Southgate, who lives and works in Orpington, Kent, about 40 minutes southeast of London. It will draw you in more, she says, if you don’t know whether it’s soft or hard, light or heavy, solid or hollow.
Only on close inspection do viewers see how Southgate has used hue, texture, and negative space to play with perception. First, they realize the piece isn’t solid after all. “Then I say, ‘Here, hold one.’ I hand them a piece and they’re immediately shocked because they expect it to be heavy, and it’s not. And they feel that it’s rough when they thought it would be smooth.”
Southgate uses molds to achieve her look. The clay is cast as a thin shell that comes up the sides and across the flat surface of the top, and drops into the inverted shape as one continuous piece. From a distance, contrasting matte colors create the illusion of flat surfaces. Adding to the intrigue, she places the openings – cones, half-spheres, pyramids, and other configurations – off center. While the pieces might look heavy, a 12-by-6-inch bowl weighs just under a pound.
Southgate, 32, developed her award-winning style as a ceramics student at Cardiff School of Art & Design in Wales, where she earned her degree in 2014. “I was thinking about interpreting form within ceramics,” she says. “I was playing with the space in between things as much as I was thinking about the form of things – like when you look at a landscape, how the empty space between points like hills and buildings can be more interesting than the things themselves.”
Her designs have a whiff of art deco, a style that comes naturally, thanks to her parents’ vast collection. “Art deco was all over – glass, paintings, furniture, lights, rugs, ceramics. It was just a part of our life,” she says. “It was a big influence, but one I wasn’t really aware of until later. It was just how we lived.”
As for her bold palette, Southgate says she’s never shied away from color. “I love all colors. That was always part of my personality,” she says. “Color brings you joy. If you’ve got a room that’s got some colorful things, it’s going to lift you.”
Southgate gives each piece a unique color combination when making the casting slip of semi-porcelain earthenware. “I might add a bit of pink, and that will be a pinky-orange – every color is a continuation of the color before.” Then she applies porcelain slip to the surfaces with a spray gun, a process made even more laborious with her newer super-textured pieces. “On bigger pieces, that means thousands of coats, and then using a heat gun to dry them in between,” she says.
While some artists create a signature with traces of the body, Southgate strives for the opposite. “Some people purposefully leave their hand marks in the clay, I’m more and more removing myself from it,” she says. “That way, it stands by itself.”
Behind the wheel: Southgate spent five years as a delivery driver, navigating a small van around London neighborhoods to drop off automotive parts. “I knew I wasn’t going to be a delivery driver forever, but I still know the roads very well.”
The right hemisphere: During a six-month stay in New Zealand in 2008, Southgate met creatives working several jobs to pursue their passions. “From then on, I decided I was only going to do a job I loved.” As soon as she returned to England, she enrolled in art classes.
Back to basics: When Southgate is not making her own work, she teaches ceramics at the Clay Room UK. “I really enjoy teaching, and it’s good to put yourself back to square one. You have to think about every element, so it’s given me a good grounding in my knowledge.”