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A chat with Jane McCracken

A chat with Jane McCracken
Jane McCracken is a biro artist who has designed a stunning 8 plate series: 'In Homage to the Last Great Carnivores of Eurasia' for The New English. Read all about her inspirations and ideas for her beautiful artwork and what she has planned for the future!

How did your collaboration with The New English first come about?


For my solo installation ‘The Woodcutter’s Cottage’ in 2013 held at The Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate I created The Woodcutter, an avatar who lives in a cottage on the edge of Europe’s forests. The Woodcutter witnesses changes through war and peace, not only to the forests, but also their inhabitants. He collects images and objects and makes artwork, which reflect his perception of all that he sees. Inspired by my own ceramics collection, I decided to design a very special dinner plate set for The Woodcutter, memorialising the wild carnivores he lives alongside but also symbolising the historic and continuing threats towards these species.

Whilst celebrating their beauty it was paramount to include subtle or overt references to illustrate the reality of why each species is threatened or in decline. Ultimately I wanted to represent the pain of loss The Woodcutter experiences through his love and respect for the forests creatures and his awareness of their demise, through human destruction.  It took eight months to make the work, which included weeks of research, looking through thousands of images, watching films and reading relevant text, as well as making the Biro drawings.  The series to date includes four diptychs paying homage to Grey Wolves, Amur Leopards, Siberian Tigers and Brown Bears.  I then designed eight plates using the drawings as the foundation for each design.

In 2005 I began a ceramics and glass collection which included antique as well as contemporary pieces such as ‘Lying Stag’, in white bisque by Nymphenburg, ‘Bowl with Fawn’ and ‘Plate with Bear and Beetle’, by Hella Jongerius for Nymphenburg Sketches series, a set of Moser Wild Bird Whisky Glasses, as well as pieces by Jurgen Bey and Studio Job. 

Over the years I purchased many of the contemporary pieces from exquisite ceramic and glass gallery Vessel, 114 Kensington Park Road, London founded by owners Angel Monzon and Nadia Demetriou Ladas. Vessel’s brilliant Assistant Curator Juliet Mayo helped me build my collection and was also familiar with my artwork.  I therefore sought Juliet’s expert advice for my brief, which included eight coupe plates manufactured to the highest standard to be made in the UK. Juliet was delighted to recommend prestigious ceramic designers and manufacturers The New English and introduced me to Paul Bishop, the original founder.  Paul and his excellent team worked hard not only to recreate my designs but reproduce the original Biro drawings as faithfully as possible for exhibition.

Following the exhibition I decided to release the set as limited edition pieces so the sense of owning an exclusive piece of art could be retained while each plate was fully functional.  The functionality of the plates was very important to give the customer the choice of experiencing the symbolism either as an object d’art for display or through the every day action of eating food from a plate.  I was so thrilled with the standard of work produced by The New English that we continued the collaboration manufacturing plates as editions of 200 per design.  Since Barbara Desax bought The New English it is a pleasure to work with her and her team.  Barbara is extremely receptive to my ideas and continues The New English ethos of perfection as well as meticulously reproducing the artwork.

What inspired this range and how would you describe it?

My passion for wildlife and my continuing exploration of loss through the human condition of destruction inspired this range.  Also influential was my love of film and fine ceramics. In particular an antique Russian bowl from my collection, which commemorates the electrification of the Soviet Union.  It is complete with marks inflicted by the previous owners cutlery!  The bowl created a parallel between the mysterious avatar ‘The Woodcutter’ as I wondered who had owned it, what food they had eaten from it and how much they had enjoyed the illustrations of peasant and village scenes incorporated in the design as food disappeared from the bowl.

I would describe the range as functional art – whilst each piece can be used as a functional dinner plate it is also a piece of art conveying symbolism and examining man’s interaction with animals through man’s needs to collect exotica and hunt apex predators. The plates are vessels to celebrating not only the beauty of creatures which are deep rooted in our psyche, but also to create awareness of ways of life lost and the reality that many familiar species are silently disappearing from our world.



If you had to choose, which would be your favourite piece and why?

I think perhaps ‘Shh, it’s a Tiger!’ – the drawing was a bit of a labour of love! It was very hard to work out the layers of the forest in particular so that the tiger sweeping through the trees was still apparent. I used several reference images for inspiration including old masterpieces and had to decide as I worked which individual branches from each reference image should be retained and which left out of the drawing. It’s like doing a puzzle, working it out as you go along.  At times your heart is in your mouth, as Biro can’t be erased!  Since a small child I have been passionate about wildlife particularly tigers. Aged eight I read in a magazine that Caspian Tigers had been declared extinct.  It was a heart breaking moment and determined a decision to highlight the plight of tigers when I became an adult. 

There was a lot of pressure to get this piece right. I had to stop towards the end of the drawing, photograph it and make a print. Then by drawing on the print I was able to work out how much foliage should be drawn around the pond so as not to distract from the bathing tiger or the Red Army cavalry – over working could have ruined two months of work. This piece also involves my interest in war and loss. That said ‘Sweet’, is inspired by my dog and muse Lily as well as a story of lupine love and loss, so it is also a very personal piece.


How does it feel to see your work (in the flesh) on high quality Fine Bone China pieces? Was this always your intention?

It feels out of this world! It was an emotional moment when the first set of plates arrived from Stoke-on-Trent and I opened the box.  Not only elating to see the beautiful craftsmanship The New English achieved and feel the delicacy and quality of the china, but also knowing that eight months of work had finally been realised exactly how I intended. All the research particularly the viewing of harrowing images so that hopefully the right balance of reality through symbolism was reached for each piece, made holding the final product in my hands even more special. The diligence of The New English to make what had become such a personal series of art was outstanding and I greatly appreciate their hard work as well as Juliet Mayo’s expert advice!



Where did the idea come from to have your designs now on The New English mug?

I realised that mug design could further emphasis symbolic aspects of each drawing.  For example enlarging the image of Lily in ‘Sweet’ on the front of the mug accentuates her eyes and plaintive expression whilst folding her wings delicately inside the mug almost gives a sense of stroking angel wings.  



One of the most integral pieces of symbolism in the ‘The Orphans’ drawing are the orphan bear cubs playing on a branch in a Russian forest.  Particularly with mug design I could not only place the branch of cubs on the back of the mug but make the cubs slide down the inside of the mug, their mischievous play revealed each time a cup of tea or coffee is drunk!

Also displaying the branch on the back of the mug highlights a layered image of the face of Wojtek the Soldier Bear. Wojtek an orphaned Syrian Brown bear was adopted by soldiers of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps in WWII.  Below his face on the drawing is the regimental badge depicting Wojtek carrying artillery ammunition. Wojtek helped his comrades by carrying ammunition during the Battle of Monte Cassino. He believed himself to be human according to many of the soldiers. 

At the end of WWII Wojtek and his regiment were stationed near Berwick-upon-Tweed.  After demobilisation it was decided Wojtek should be sent to Edinburgh Zoo much to the heartbreak of many in the regiment. Having been used to human companionship all his life, solitary incarceration must have been difficult for Wojtek despite visits from former Polish comrades. Having lived for a time not far from the field in Berwickshire where Wojtek was billeted and where his claw marks still exist on the trees, heightened my connection to him. Both Mummy Bear and Baby Bear and The Orphans explore the practice of den hunting in Russia where female bears are woken from hibernation by hunter’s dogs and shot as they emerge from their den. During hibernation female bears often produce a litter of cubs, which are unlikely to survive without their mother. But The Orphans also examines our use of animals in hazardous front line positions.

It is this desire to relate the stories and emotional experiences of real people and animals through drawings, sculptures and objects and now through products, where the symbolism behind each artwork can be contemplated through a simple everyday object, which drives my work.

Choosing to have a high quality product manufactured by The New English as opposed to cheaper mass produced products hopefully not only makes the item a conversation piece to be shared with others but to be looked after and not part of a ‘throw away’ culture.  Also I love surprises and have tried to introduce a little surprise within each mug design.

What can we expect from Jane McCracken in the future?

I am currently working on a new body of art continuing my exploration of loss through war and destruction, which includes drawings, large format prints, and sculptures and objects incorporating hand drawn images. However when I created the series ‘In Homage to the Last Great Carnivores of Eurasia’ I fully intended to add to the set with designs of species such as Snow leopards, Iberian lynx, Himalayan bears and wolves to name but a few. So I would love to fulfil this intention by designing additional plates and maybe some lower edition pieces as well as adding these designs to the mug series. I would also like to explore designing one off ceramic pieces in full colour too.

Any additional comments?

My work takes so long to make that it is limited to a just a few new pieces a year.  As cinema is such a huge passion in my life my aim is to try and make work that is as cinematic and epic as possible whilst representing the subject in an iconic way so they are recognised as real people/animals and not just statistics. I also think it’s important to grow and experiment. 

My full-time art practice began by making drawings in black Biro, progressing to colour Biro drawings, 3D objects and installations, manufactured ceramics and now clay sculptures tattooed with Biro drawings. I would like to do so much more! We all have a precious object/s in our lives, which are beyond monetary value. I love to use meaningful objects in my life be they living or inanimate, like my dog Lily or a found object as inspiration to weave into my work. 

When you make artwork you make it for yourself, and it becomes an extension of you almost like a child because your have grown with it and become so familiar to it – you hope that others will like it and I am always humbled if people like a piece of my artwork. You are never satisfied, always self-critical and always striving to better the last piece you’ve made! This is a driving force alongside the need to tell the stories of new subjects.  By threading personal objects, emotions or experiences into my work the pieces go beyond visual art for me.  It’s the places I am transported in my mind while making the work that stay with me, as do the stories of the subjects the work represents. 

See more of Jane @ http://www.janeleemccracken.co.uk/

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