"I was first inspired to make a ceramic sea chimney whilst watching a video of a manned submersible dive down to a volcanic rift valley in the Pacific ocean. Massive and multiple spires of solidified lava hove into view - strange, mystical shapes culminating in pinnacles and chimneys with multiple stacks up to tens of metres high. They looked sculptural - the unique and strange life forms teeming all over the surfaces were so beautiful that I felt the urge to try and recreate a version of it.
I found many references to hydrothermal vents online, plus a few books on the subject and set about learning as much as I could. The life on and around a hydrothermal vent is fascinating and largely unique. The scientists who discovered them in the late 1970s had not expected to find life two miles deep in total darkness, with extreme pressure and temperatures of around 750F.
How does life thrive there without photosynthesis? With chemosynthesis. Mineral-rich fluids erupt out of cracks in the earth’s crust and react chemically with the seawater. These chemicals feed the billions of microbes which in turn feed the populations of higher animals. Sometimes the chemicals symbiotically maintain creatures, as with the striking and unique red-plumed Giant Tube Worms (Riftia). The microbes within the worms survive by converting the chemicals and minerals (importantly, hydrogen sulphide) into sugars which in turn feeds the worms. Vent Snails, Brachyuran Crabs, Yellow Mussels and clams graze on the microbial film on the vent surfaces. Squat Lobsters, Yeti Crabs (yes, they are hairy!), Zoarcid Fish and octopuses scavenge and prey on each other. Most of the life here is white or colourless - why expend energy on colour production in total darkness?
It took several months to work out the best way to make my ceramic sea chimney. It needed to look tall but be small enough that I could easily reach the top with a step ladder. I prefer to make life-sized sculpture so I aimed for a height of six to seven feet – perhaps a young eruption with young life. I knew that a multitude of four to five foot long red-plumed Giant Tube Worms would not work and neither would Giant Clams the size of dinner plates!
It was not going to be possible to make my chimney in one piece, not only because of the modest size of my kiln but also because of the vagaries and unpredictability of clay. Unless the structure is an even thickness throughout, large clay forms can warp, slump, crack and always shrink during the long firing processes. These possibilities need to be allowed for.
Following several scribbled sketches, I settled on making the main shape in a number of parts that fit together in a kind of three-dimensional jigsaw.
The basic clay needed to be rough, strong and thermal shock-resistant. This created another problem because different clays shrink at different rates. The rougher clays only shrink about 6%, whilst the white stoneware and porcelain that I use for fine work shrinks by 16%. This meant that the finely made life forms, when attached to the basic chimney, would fall out in the firing! I was going to have to do some careful mixing of clays to achieve a more even shrinkage between them.
The chimney is made of ten pieces – three at the base, two in the second layer and three upper storeys. The subsidiary chimney has two parts and sits neatly at the base.
Each piece was separately made by building up the walls with internal supports and the life forms were added along the way.
Tube Worms, mussels and shrimps were all made in small batches so that I could place them en masse on each piece of chimney to achieve some balance and harmony. The more singular species such as fish, octopus and crabs, I placed on or amongst them as appropriate. The exact positioning of animals evolved as I worked.
I placed thick polythene between the sections of chimney wherever they touched in order to be able to take them apart easily when ready for the first of four firings.
Each was coloured and glazed using the same palette, with lustres added where useful for example the shrimps have the illusion of looking slightly transparent.
After all the firings the fitting back together of such a comparatively large ceramic structure had its difficulties, but with a little chipping, filing and some internal reinforcements, all was well. I hope you enjoy looking at it."
Jill's work will be on show as part of The Natural Eye 2018: The Society of Wildlife Artists Annual Exhibition (25 October to 4 November).