Martha Cook & Dr Liz Bahs
Interview conducted by Hilary Macey-Dare.
I sat down to talk to Martha Cook and Dr Liz Bahs about their creative collaboration in pottery and poetry. Martha has an MA in Ceramics and is a Georgia-based potter with over thirty years’ experience. She makes functional pottery, which is inspired by nature with a strong textural element to it. Liz is a poet and lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Surrey. Her latest collection of poetry, Stay Bones, was published in 2020.
Q: You both met at a residency at the Hambidge Centre for Arts in Georgia. What was it that cemented your friendship and led ultimately to a collaboration? Did the place have any bearing on this meeting and was the place reflected in the creative output that came from this meeting?
Liz– The remoteness of the centre, in the North Georgia mountains, was one of the attractions of the residency. I remember losing first the sat-nav signal and then the phone signal on the four-mile road, winding up the mountain towards the centre. During the day, we were isolated from each other in our own cabins in the woods to work, coming together only once a day for dinner, partly for the communal experience and partly to make sure we were all still alive!
Place and the physicality of place is an important theme in my writing. I was drawn to this specific residency programme because I wanted to just be in the silence of a forest and to write about the flora and fauna of the region. In essence I went to finish some poems for my second book and to start a new project…still very unknown to me at the time but focusing (perhaps) on the idea of home-ground and where and what this concept links to for me.
Martha– Yes, the centre takes you out of your normal world, taking away daily distractions. But also it allows you to make connections with people, if that’s what you want. Some people don’t want that and go there for the isolation, but the human connections are there if you want them. And I noticed straight away that Liz was friendly and happy and easy to talk to and all it took was a glass of bourbon and some Indigo Girls music on my back porch of my cabin. I was worried that I might be lonely when I went there but that didn’t happen.
Q: Did you already have an interest in each other’s art forms or was this something new for you?
Liz– I had tried pottery some years beforehand, but I wasn’t very good at it. When I first stepped into the studio where Martha was working, I could see straight away that the clay on the table in front of her didn’t look like any projects I had encountered before. And I wanted to engage with the process of how she made her pieces.
Martha– I had never connected with poetry. I found it very abstract and sometimes hard to understand. Liz’s poems are much easier to get meaning from for me and when she reads her poetry it’s like this aura comes over her and she steps into this magical world where she is feeling the poetry, which makes it come alive.
Q: In what ways did you decide to put your collaboration into practice? Was it something that evolved organically? And how does your collaboration reveal itself practically?
Liz– I suggested the idea on the last night of our first Hambidge residency and wasn’t sure anything would come of it. But when we reconnected, we talked about the idea of doing a collaborative residency.
Martha – At first, I was unsure as to how it would work, but Liz reminded me that we both love texture and nature and we have all these common interests and the more she talked the more I felt connected. And one of the things I learned at Hambidge that first year was you can get so much benefit from stepping into the unknown and stepping into your fears and not being afraid. I trusted the process and it worked.
Liz – We had to prepare a joint personal statement in our application, which became the bedrock of our approach, grounding some abstract notions in a practical way forward. I was used to sketching but was scared to pick up the clay. Martha gave me a small project in clay and I worked my way from hand building in complete darkness (so I couldn’t critique my work) to attempting the pottery wheel and firing some of my own clay slabs.
Martha – Liz was fascinated by my texture tools and wanted to play with the possibility of texture in clay. We were both interested in the possible inspirations that we might get from one another. Liz was the one who suggested we do a morning meditation, so we started the day with meditation and then we wrote about it and talked about it and it was so powerful. It set the tone of the daily structure for the entire residency and of our collaboration.
Q: Do you have a template of other pottery/poetry collaborations that you were keen to emulate or were you interested in pushing this in an entirely new direction?
Liz– I had been familiar with the work of the poet Julia Connor and Martha introduced me to potter / poet MC Richards and by chance we discovered that the two were also colleagues and perhaps collaborateurs.
Q: Are there ways in which the art forms interact with each other that brings a new perspective on each?
Liz– it has been interesting to see the parallels between poetry and pottery in terms of our own processes. For instance, the last thing Martha does with her mugs, is she takes them off the wheel and she pats the bottom into a little concave spot, so it feels nice to hold. Then she signs the bottom. it’s a kind of fingerprint before sending it out. And in the same way, in the final stages of finishing a poem I double check the rhythm of the line breaks, where the white space meets the words to make sure it sounds like ‘mine’ before sending it on its way.
Martha– Our collaboration has made a difference in the way I approach my work. I have learned to slow down, to be mindful about what I was going to do. The meditations and the writings nailed down the need to slow down. I always wanted there to be a bit more meaning to my work, more depth. I started seeing metaphors and seeing how metaphors are part of what I do a lot. And then I wondered how I could help Liz – she was so curious about my work that it gave her all kinds of new things to think about and explore. It was a two-way interaction that was very natural, very organic.
Q: How do you ‘edit’ each other’s art? By this I mean how do you give feedback and what makes it a collaboration?
Liz– we start from a mutual point of departure, be it a shared metaphor or a common theme that we want to explore. Occasionally these themes may diverge: I am inspired by the Japanese mosaic ceramic art form, kintsugi, with a conscious focus on structure and how words and form can be broken into fragments and come back together, which was not necessarily something Martha was interested in. But it’s a reflective process that becomes a conversation between the two art forms.
Martha- I wasn’t trying to change Liz’s poetry and she wasn’t trying to change my pottery, but we were both interested in the possibility of inspiration that we would get from each other. I gained so much from this experience and I wondered how can I help Liz? And she was so curious about what I do and it gave her all kinds of things to think about and explore and I was getting all this validation that the things I was saying was meaningful. It was very natural, very organic.
Q: If Martha’s desire is to ‘create pottery that is aesthetically pleasing and feels good in your hands’, is it true that yours, Liz, is to create poetry that is equally pleasing in an aesthetic sense and feels good in your mouth? Is this where you find some symbiosis or does it come from some other place?
Liz– sensory triggers play an important role in my poetry – the sensory experience, particularly in the physicality of it. I want my poetry to be accessible and I want readers to be able to step into the scene, as though they could have been there. And I want the poetry to come alive. And my new poetry is very consciously about structure in terms of fragmentation and how the pieces come together and what it means to take a piece of something – a piece of clay or writing – and to make it move.
Martha- Everyone at my studio will tell you that I am the texture potter. I work from nature and I look for things that will be interesting to press into clay. It can be a rough broken stick or a stone or a broken brick that I press into the clay and repeat that texture can make some wonderful patterns and designs reflecting the physicality of it.
Q: Martha talks about warmth, but also practicality – that her art has utility – as well as simplicity and authenticity. Did you recognise in each other a compatibility that would enhance your respective art forms through a collaboration?
Martha – I was trained as a functional potter first so I think function came before aesthetics. That’s my background, but my goal is to make my pottery aesthetically pleasing and something which elicits an emotional response. I don’t have to just make functional things, I do enjoy the sculptural part of clay as well, but I have a tendency to go towards the familiar.
Liz – there isn’t a utility in poetry in the same way as pottery, but the poems I have written about people, particularly family members is me reaching through a generational divide and wanting to touch that person and make sense of their lives or my relationship to them. I make sense of the world through writing, so for me I can come to know my feelings say for my grandfather by having written about him. So, in that sense there is a use to poetry. Even if someone opens my book and has one poem that touches them, that is enough for me. There is a compatibility in the sense of gaining a sense of pleasure in reaching for a favourite poem or a favourite mug.
Q: Are you currently working together towards a tangible goal – an exhibition or collaborative event – virtually or otherwise?
Liz– our collaboration is an ongoing thing, marked by intense periods of working together, followed by periods where we don’t work together, but keep in touch maybe once a month by Zoom.
Martha– Liz describes us as ‘rope-mates’, which is a mountaineering metaphor she borrowed from the writer Monica Suswin. We are two people at two ends of a rope and the rope helps to keep you connected to what it is you want to do or where you’re going and if you start getting off track, then your rope mate can pull you back or pull you along on a journey. We worked together in 2020 via a virtual residency, which was highly productive. I have a big show coming up next January and so my focus for that was to make work that was show-worthy. So, our virtual residency was very successful. I stayed in an apartment attached to the arts centre where I work, and Liz camped in her garden to create that sense of escaping the real world. We have discussed doing more residencies together and maybe once the pandemic is over, we might be able to go to some other places together. We have also talked about exploring the idea of a collaborative book.
While pottery and poetry may not be the most obvious basis for a creative collaboration, my conversations with Martha and Liz revealed a symbiotic relationship that stemmed from a personal connection and a realisation that the two art forms shared many areas of commonality. What is especially interesting is the way in which a meditative reflection on each other’s art form has led to a new approach to their work and that this is a process which continues to evolve and open up new avenues of exploration.
Buy Liz’s book
To find out more about Martha Cook and Liz Bahs go to our Meet Our Guests page for more information.
Hilary Macey-Dare is a Creative Writing MA Student at the University of Surrey, who will be chairing the Creative Collaborations Talk at this year’s virtual festival.
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