Understanding cultural attitudes towards nature…

Myths and legends have accompanied people from the beginning of humanity. Some of them have roots in real deals or people’s stories, others are more magical and full of fantasy. Their role in humanity is to teach good behavior, to show the boundary between good and evil, and teach respect for nature and good social skills.  A lot of beliefs evolved thanks to careful observation of nature, especially animals.  In many cultures animals demonstrate a certain were quality, having specific attributes e.g., strong as a bear, clever as an owl, cunning as a fox, etc. Each culture adores and worships a lot of animals, for varying reasons, however, wildlife has always been very important and precious for all of them.

Time flies and the world has changed a lot. People lost contact with nature; wildlife again is precious but mostly because it is threatened rather than being humankind’s teacher. But in Derby, in Banks Mill Studio someone who still feels the importance and wisdom flowing from magical creatures and old myths and legends from all over the world is working to challenge this.

Abbie Sunter, a young and very talented ceramic artist, agreed to answer a few of my questions and to show the roots, inspirations, and outcomes of her work.

It is fabulous!

Do you remember the first story which charmed you?

Title page of Rev. Abraham Fleming's account of the appearance of the ghostly black dog
Title page of Rev. Abraham Fleming’s account of the appearance of the ghostly black dog “Black Shuck” at the church of Bungay, Suffolk.

I grew up in the North West of England near Pendle Hill, it’s famous for its witches who were put on trial in the 17th century, that’s one of the first stories that really captured my imagination because I could link it to the hills and landscape that I grew up in.

Was there any individual who introduced you to the world of myth and legends? Or maybe a book/film/poem?

It was a multitude of things that inspired me to look into myths and legends but I think I was inspired mostly by storytelling in films and animations as a child. So many classic fairy tale stories have their roots in old myths and the films I watched as a child like “Sleeping Beauty”, “Hercules” and “Mulan” came directly from that.

Could you show us photos of your favourite artworks and relevant legends/myths?

This is a piece called “forgiveness” by Beth Cavener Stichter a ceramic artist from the US. She is one of my all-time favourite artists, I find her sculptures so moving and incredible to look at.

The Will o' the Wisp and the Snake by Hermann Hendrich (1854–1931)
The Will o’ the Wisp and the Snake by Hermann Hendrich (1854–1931)

There are too many myths and legends for me to name but I have a soft spot for two British legends, the first is Black Shuck, a giant black dog or hellhound that roams the English countryside and the Will-o’-the-wisp, flame like ghost lights that are seen over swamps and marshes that were said to lead travellers away from the safe paths.

Usually in myth and legends there is a grain of truth… what do you think about that?

I think there is either truth or a lesson to be learnt from myths and legends. They were our ancestors way of teaching their children what to fear and how to behave in this life.

Which culture is the most beautiful for you, and from which of all of them do you take the most inspiration?

Every culture is fascinating and all of them are beautiful in their own ways, I do however find Mayan culture very intriguing especially their sculpture, the style is so different to those found in Europe.

Why animals? In all these stories there are a lot of magic creatures, more or less ordinary.

I think animals are such an interesting way to understand how humans have interacted with nature without time. Every culture will create stories and myths around the animals that they come into daily contact with which really helps us to understand the mindset of that culture towards nature. Are they trying to conquer it or live alongside it? It’s very interesting to think about in terms of history and the future of humanity.

Do you know all of the legends about each of your small magic friends?

I tend to base each of my sculptures on one particular cultures legend on that animal. For example, a recent sculpture I made was based on the Kitsune, a legendary fox spirit in Japanese culture who gets up to all sorts of mischief. But foxes can be found in so many countries that there are also other fox myths that can be found in places like France or further away such as in the USA in Native American cultures.

I am a journalist and usually ideas pop into my mind immediately, faster than I can make a reality – how do you choose the subject of the next work?

I usually just go with what feels right at the time, I find that if I’m struggling to make a sculpture it’s because I’m just not feeling it. When i find something inspiring, I will be able to see it in my mind right away and then the ideas and the sculpting flows freely and easily and that’s the way I like to work.

Could you describe your usual day?

I start my day by going to the gym, getting some exercise in and waking my body up. Then I will walk to my studio and once I’m there I will make a cup of tea put some music or a podcast on and see what needs doing. I try to prioritise certain tasks like commissions and packing any orders. I usually work until lunchtime then have a break, eat some food and make another cup of tea.

I’ll usually sculpt until about 5pm then I will start to clean down my workbench, mop the floor and tidy my tools away. Once that’s done it’s a 20 minutes walk home and then I’m done for the day.

Is there any other material that you would like to try?

I think I have come full circle now and see clay as my one true love when it comes to materials. The joy of sculpting an idea in my head into a three-dimensional object is something that I don’t think I will ever be able to replace.

And last but not least – how did you decide about the tattoo?

I had been working for another artist for a number of years until after the pandemic when I was made redundant. This was my chance to go full time as an artist and after years of making someone else’s work I knew that that I loved was ceramics and what I wanted to spend my time doing was making my art and no one else’s.

The idea from the tattoo came from me making a commitment to myself as a creative and knowing that I am a ceramic artist, these are my tools and this is who I am.

Photos: O. Nachyla and artist’s archive.



About the author

Redaktor naczelna at Szklo-Ceramika.ONLINE | Website

Absolwentka Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego. Zafascynowana szkłem i ceramiką w każdym aspekcie ich powstawania i wykorzystania, w tym historycznymi technikami i technologiami wytwarzania, zdobienia i łączenia z innymi materiałami. Do 2020 r. sekretarz redakcji czasopisma „Szkło i Ceramika” (ICiMB, SITPMB). Obecnie prowadzi własny portal Szklo-Ceramika.ONLINE i angażuje się w projekty tematyczne.
ORCID: 0000-0001-9574-7470

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