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You don’t have to be crazy to work here . . .

PUBLISHED: 16:47 11 December 2013 | UPDATED: 16:47 11 December 2013

Ceramic artist Karen Risby of East Bergholt with some of her work

Ceramic artist Karen Risby of East Bergholt with some of her work

Lucy Etherington discovers the joys of madness in artist Karen Risby’s work

“There is no art without intoxication,” wrote artist Jean Dubuffet. “I mean mad intoxication!” Psychologists, artists, writers, poets have often stressed the links between madness and creativity.

Artist Karen Risby’s fascination with the subject led to a career developing art projects with mental health patients, while elements of fantastical imagining can clearly be seen in her own work.

Her androgynous ceramic figures are entwined with nature, hair twisting into trees and antlers with birds perched in their branches, her wall-hangings like eccentrically stylish illustrations ripped from an Angela Carter fairytale. Untamed nature erupts from within, cracking or scratching the smooth porcelain surface. Yet they are also caught in a haunting stillness, as though trapped in a spell.

“I fell in love with the notion of outsider art when I was at college, especially through the work of Dubuffet and L’Art Brut,” she says when I meet her in her Suffolk studio. “Hermits, psychiatric patients, people on the edges of society were creating amazing work that was never meant to be seen. I’ve always been struck by that raw, instinctive creative drive that has nothing to do with money or fame.

“Einstein said: ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a new result.’ There is definitely something of that going on in my work!”

However, at the moment, she tells me, her ‘creative urge’ is driven by the demands of Christmas – the Suffolk Craft Society’s Christmas shop in Ipswich, Blackthorpe Barn at Rougham outside Bury St Edmunds, as well as shows in Brighton and Wivenhoe. It appears the fairytale element of her work has a particularly festive appeal.

“Every year I tell myself I’m not doing another Christmas,” she grins, sheepishly. “Because every piece is handmade – even the tree ornaments – I hole up in my studio for months. But every year I end up enjoying them so much, just getting together with other artists and getting feedback from people that I get sucked into signing up for next Christmas!’

After gaining her degree in ceramics from Camberwell College of Art in South London, Karen managed the art department at the Bethlem Royal Hospital in Kent. Her career in mental health has led to her current position at an adolescent psychiatric unit in Colchester, where she engages troubled teenagers in creative activities and art.

“For the kids to have an outlet of non-verbal exploration is great,” she says. “They struggle to talk when in crisis, especially when acutely unwell. I use working in clay therapeutically, to help take them to a positive space.

“It can help them to calm down and reach an almost meditative state, what we call a flow state. It’s really effective at suggesting new possibilities.”

Karen and her family – husband Alastair Galbraith, children Casper, ten, and Roxy, eight – moved from Peckham in South East London to East Bergholt four years ago.

“I loved the creative energy in London, the amount of galleries and ideas,” she says. “But I needed more space and time to create my own work. I wanted to have a better quality of life for my kids and to actually see them. ”

They bought a rambling old cottage at the edge of the village, which Alastair, a designer as well as an actor and script-writer, is slowly transforming into their ideal home. The first part of the house to get a total make-over was the garage, now a modern light-filled studio space. Karen managed to track down a kiln on eBay – ‘a bargain’ – and began building new contacts in the Suffolk art world, beginning with the Suffolk Craft Society.

“There aren’t as many galleries or creative hubs in Suffolk,” she says. “At first I wanted to run straight back to London! But the Suffolk Craft Society is a great place to link up with other artists and I soon discovered a thriving and enthusiastic artistic community.”

The most obvious positive effect that Suffolk has had on Karen’s work is the local landscape. Not so much the obvious-albeit-jaw-dropping Constable skies of nearby Flatford, more the bleak coastal stretches like Holbrook Bay where her family and boxer puppy Lulu enjoy long, rambling Sunday walks.

“I really have noticed how Holbrook has crept into my work. The muted monotone colours, the stillness and atmosphere and of course the twisted black trees along the eroded coastline.

“I love it most on a grey day,” she grins, lighting up with enthusiasm. “It’s pretty much my palette!”

See Karen’s work at the Suffolk Craft Society’s Christmas Show, Gallery 2, Town Hall Galleries, Cornhill Ipswich, IP1 1DB. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 10am -5pm, until Sunday December 23


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