Clare McComish talks to the Monthly about her ceramic arts practice and her relationship with Community Arts Partnership

What is your earliest memory of being attracted to the arts?

I grew up in a large family and had older siblings who were very artistic so it was a very natural thing to be interested in the arts.

You went on to do arts at University?

Yes, I had a natural affinity towards the more tactile elements of the artistic process, working with clay especially. I enjoyed the making process so decided on a fine and applied arts degree specialising in ceramics at the University of Ulster in 1996.

I enjoyed the course as it was practical and conceptual, learning technical skills and applying them to fine art concepts. My early years at Uni concentrated on the potter’s wheel, I then took a year out for work experience in a small family run Italian pottery. This was an interesting life and learning experience. When I returned the following year to finish off my degree my work changed direction and I became more interested in architectural works.

The work you do looks incredibly complex?

I have always been interested in working with new technologies and I like to marry new technologies with traditional ways of working. I worked with digital printing on ceramics at its early stages in college.

In recent years my public art commission for the NI Hospice re-build project integrated a ceramic, perspex and lighting sculpture into a three storey foyer space. Consarc Architects kept the two Victorian facades of the original buildings whilst designing a modern healthcare facility behind and connected to the old buildings. This kept its historical and aesthetic qualities nestled quietly in a Victorian residential area. I collaborated with Belleek Potteries and Donite Plastics, designing an uplifting sculpture for the entrance foyer that used traditional slip cast pottery techniques with state of the art plastic fabrication.

Are you limited in scope by the finances involved? The pieces you create all look like they cost a lot of money to produce?

I don’t do many exhibitions because it is so expensive to produce a series of my types of work. The financial danger is you put in the time, labour costs and exhibit the work, get lots of positive feedback however you might only sell a small quantity that would never cover the real costs to produce the work. It’s just not feasible when you have regular domestic bills to pay every month.

Most of the exhibitions I am part of are either collaborative where you submit one or two pieces or I have received specific funding to create work for an exhibition. I enjoy commissions as they are always bespoke with new concepts, ideas and creative problems or solve. 

I would assume that that doesn’t happen too often?

No its an intermittent process, so no certainties of income you can survive on. Over the years I broadened my work skills as a freelance project artist working in community, health and social care. As with most creative practitioners; musicians, actors, writers it’s a cocktail of freelance income sources.

When did you first get involved with Community Arts?

After my Art College degree show in 2000 an architect approached me to design a ceramic public art work for a new community centre. The project involved some community engagement with young people who would be using the centre so that was my beginnings with creative community engagement.

I then spent a few years travelling and living in different countries. When I returned home I worked as an art technician for a while then worked for several years full time in the NI Film/TV industry within Arts and Costume departments. To this day I still do a bit of freelance work here and there in this industry.

In 2006 I accepted the post as artist in residence with Arts Care for NI Hospice, a post I still hold. Then through artists connections I learned of New Belfast Community Arts Initiative (now Community Arts Partnership). When the Landmarks coordinator became available I applied and was successful.

L-R Project Manager, Gina Gallagher, Landmarks Coordinator, Clare McComish and Artist and Facilitator Brenda Graham

What kind of work did you do with the participants?

I headed up a team of artists and they (I) delivered a wide variety of projects working in a range of mediums that included mosaic, textiles, clay, willow, what-ever the budget, time and various artist’s skills would allow.    

Budgets are a real problem?

Yes. The cuts to the arts have had a substantial impact on all creative practitioner’s work. We want to give participants the best possible experience, we want them to learn, to develop their own creative capacities and at the end feel that they have produced something special. It becomes increasingly compromised when the budgets are continuously shrinking. This in turn impacts the moral of the facilitating artists too.

And CAP is now in its 20th year.

I have tremendous respect for the work CAP does. Having worked as a previous Project Co-ordinator and now freelance Project Artist, it’s a fantastic achievement. Looking back at CAP’s vast output, depth, breadth and participative engagement; it is a wonderful testament to the organisation. It was with a heavy heart that I left CAP as a coordinator due to other work commitments however I’m still involved in some of their present project delivery. I met some of the best people and colleagues working there (now solid friends) and regularly stay in touch with the past and present CAP team usually over a chilled beverage or two!!!

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New Belfast Community Arts Initiative trading as Community Arts Partnership is a registered charity (XR 36570) and a company limited by guarantee (Northern Ireland NI 37645).Registered with The Charity Commission as New Belfast Community Arts Initiative - NIC105169.