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How Creators Create: A Q&A With Ceramicist and Digital Business Owner Anne McCrossan

Walking up to Anne McCrossan’s pottery studio at Gaolyard Studios, I am greeted by the excited tail-wagging Tufty, Anne’s adorable and affectionate companion. After settling in, Anne confirmed my suspicions about her studio: we were sitting in what once was a prison cell (“gaol” is the old English spelling of “jail”).

Despite the eerie history of the converted prison yard, the space is beautiful and bright with sunlight pouring in. There’s an inviting and inspiring feeling in the air as we turn to Anne’s story and how she came to be an artist in St Ives. As you will soon learn, it’s a fascinating journey about finding your purpose, visualising what’s in your mind’s eye and sparking conscious conversations about humans as makers.

Anne McCrossan and Tufty at Gaolyard Studios.

Celeste: To say you’re a woman of many talents would be an understatement. You’re an entrepreneur, social scientist, artist, writer, digital leader, speaker, mentor – can you tell us a bit about the different hats you wear and how creativity fits into your work?

Anne: For me, creativity is the engine behind everything. What connects the work I do in digital business and the work I do in ceramics is the curiosity around what’s behind creativity. In business, I’m interested in what’s happening dynamically between a company and its audience, and creatively, what’s happening dynamically between an object and the person looking at the art and connecting to it emotionally.

Art has always drawn me in. Somebody produces something compelling or beautiful which releases a high level of appreciation for materials and composition – I think the way we react to anything is built on that. There’s hidden artistry in everything, but what is the purpose you’re doing it for?

If you look at the first fabricators in civilisation, some were making things because they were essential for our survival, others were making things because they were honouring a culture or a cultural leader, and some fabricated things to communicate and express emotion – we’re still doing that.

There’s hidden artistry in everything, but what is the purpose you’re doing it for?

What I find fascinating from the social science perspective and the way people engage with culture, is what makes something relevant today and how it’s affecting us. One of the things I’ve focused on in ceramics is digital iconography. The icons we see every day a start button or a buffering icon we automatically respond to those commands. If we see “download” or “share”, we don’t think twice, we just do it. 

And yet, if I take those icons and I put them on a ceramic, you wonder, what am I supposed to do with it? Iconography contains a lot of information and the way we fashion our identity contains a lot of coded communication. It’s more important than ever to realise this because we have symbols being flashed at us thousands of times a day, yet we don’t question it.

Anne McCrossan’s Alter Piece Collection.

At the beginning of the digital world, if you didn’t have the download button, you would simply code that in and have control of that command prompt yourself because it was designed to be incredibly simple. And pure code still is but we’ve become less aware of how that all happens. I think it would be nice to have a more conscious conversation about how we feel about that.

It’s about our choices. The digital environment has completely exploded the number of choices that we have. And yet, in some ways, we feel more conditioned and automated than ever. And then there’s the fact that you can copy and paste anything, or things like deep fakery – that’s another dynamic of the web that makes you think, is anything truly original? What’s the role of the maker and the artisan?

Celeste: Right and the question about the source: Where does anything come from?

Anne: The reason I love being in St Ives is the longevity of ceramic practice here. The clay I use comes from a pit in St Agnes; I can literally see it come out of the ground. It’s the clay Bernard Leach used too, so there’s the provenance of ceramic practice built into the material. And yet, there’s also this sense of where something is actually derived from, do we ever really know in today’s culture? A piece of information that a lot of people read and believe – we don’t know where it comes from because people that control places like Facebook cut the link. 

We don’t know the origin of any thought practice anymore. How do we know where the source of information on which we base our beliefs and our judgments comes from? Not everything that pops up on the screen is ok to digest. Every single feed is algorithmically driven. It shows us what it thinks we want to see – that constricts what you imagine to be your universe. I think it doesn’t hurt to just reject it all and find ways of saying or choosing something else.

Celeste: Have you always been interested in the digital world and art, or was there a defining moment that led you down those paths?

Anne: In 1984, when I was just starting out professionally, we had typewriters, we didn’t have computers. Then, this thing came along you switched on and it said hello. Steve Jobs put creativity into computing from day one – that was his genius. But what got me was the MacPaint program. You could choose a cursor that was like an aerosol can and it changed everything. Instead of typing letters, you could go wild with a graffiti tool. Jobs was absolutely committed to the user experience. He designed his offer around how easy it was for people. The language, interface, design, the way the products were created – that was what originally flipped it for me. I’m grateful to have had that moment.

You could choose a cursor that was like an aerosol can and it changed everything.

I’ll always remember that feeling with the graffiti spray can. I think we need to bring that to the digital age. We need to refuse to be told what platform we can be on. I want to get underneath the engine of this and de-complicate what my options are. I want to be able to ask and get the truth because we are such passive receivers. More digital activism would be a good thing.

Celeste: Sitting in your studio in St Ives, we are surrounded by your beautiful pottery and ceramics. Have you always worked with clay or do you make other forms of art as well?

Anne: I’ve always worked with fabric. I consider clay to be a fabric that I discovered only about 10 years ago. My mother was a dressmaker and one of my earliest memories is being in John Lewis in the haberdashery department. She would go ’round the local markets to touch the fabrics, and to this day I can’t understand a fabric without touching it.

I’ve always worked with fabric. I consider clay to be a fabric.

Eventually, I decided I didn’t want to be a businesswoman for the rest of my years and I wanted to honour a promise I made to myself to go back to art. While I was on a shoot making a commercial for a client, I got a place at Saint Martins and fashioned a portfolio. I was 28 then and found out that my aunt had gone to Saint Martins to study fashion in the ’60s and my grandmother had gone to Saint Martins to study fashion in the ’20s. Then I found out that my other aunt did ceramics! She told me she was a slab builder.

I also have 300 years of Cornish ancestry. My dad started doing my family tree in 1999 and picking up his work, I found out that my great-great-grandfather was a mariner in Sussex and he married a Cornish girl from Falmouth. His dad had done the same. I got back to the 1500s and they’re all over here. So there we go, I’m Cornish!

Celeste: I love your Alter Pieces and pots and bowls inspired by Cornwall’s natural clay resource, what you call your [This Earthly Code] Collection. They represent themes of balance, humanity, the digital world and tradition. Could you expand upon the relationship between these elements and how they intertwine with each other?

Anne: For me, it comes down to a play on the ascent of man – making vessels, human identity, and where we’re going as makers. I used this white earthenware because you can fire it at quite low temperatures. John Bedding was a big help for this, he told me to fire it as low as I can. It took me two years to figure out how to make these things. I had an idea in my head and I wanted to realise it.

The Ascent of Ceramics.

They’re all quite different so I wanted to also get a sense of unity. Some of them are works in progress. The next stage is to make different types of work in the same clay body, then continue in a range of different clay bodies. The figure, as an abstract human identity, has no gender, no age, no race. It’s this contemporary and universal human totem. I want to be able to make those totems in every kind of clay and every kind of variation that I can think of. That’s part of the expression of identity – it’s never-ending.

Celeste: It’s a very cohesive body of work.

Anne: That figure there, that’s the Tărtăria tablet, it’s about 5,000 years old. Used as a clay tablet, it was one of the first examples of writing. Look at those arrows – we use those now. I believe we are repeating history. The clay tablets during the Egyptian period were used to record inventory, and we’ve now got tablets to store our own personal inventory. 

Anne’s Alter Piece with the Tărtăria tablet.

So wouldn’t it be nice if we could learn from the path that civilisation took? This time around we have choices. We can consciously and collectively have a conversation about what we’d like those to be. What kind of a society would we like to create? What’s really happening at the moment is almost the opposite – we’re more controlled, we feel more disempowered and like keyboard monkeys. There’s a lot I take from ancient history to help me think about what I can do to connect the dots.

Celeste: I didn’t think about all this when I looked at your website but now it makes complete sense. With where the clay comes from and the techniques – the symbolism is there.

Anne: What I’ve done so far is play with all the different threads.

Celeste: But you saw the big picture, now you can put the pieces of the story altogether.

Anne: When I was at Saint Martins, it occurred to me that the biggest challenge of an artist is trying to realise what they can see with their minds. It’s like an artist’s curse in a way, we’re forever trying to realise what we see in our mind’s eye. Sometimes it tells you something new in itself because it’s not quite how you conceived of it, and sometimes it’s frustrating. The ceramic practice is me bringing my ideas to life. It’s the fun part.

Celeste: You’re clearly very talented, the figures are beautiful and tell a story. It’s your purpose, you’re visualising your purpose.

Anne: You put it very wonderfully actually. Until you just said that, I hadn’t realised that’s what I’m doing.

Celeste: I think that’s very unique. To physically mould your purpose with your hands is impressive. 

Anne: That’s what humans have done from the get-go. Even the computers – somebody moulded that. Steve Wozniack got the motherboard and moulded the computer with his hands. We should never forget that.

Celeste: We touched on social science and art coexisting – how do you think these two different domains can be stronger together?

Anne: Dynamically, interactively. I talk about it on my Visceral Business website: interaction mapping, seeing what’s happening dynamically. “Marketing is a contact sport” – nothing happens until people engage with you. I love doing Open Studios during the St Ives September Festival because you can watch people respond to the work. It’s fantastic to have people visit. One lady came in and said, “I’m not sure I like the figures all glazed.” That got me thinking and I started playing around with wax – those figures are more alabaster. Somebody gave me that idea through the way they interacted with the work. It’s all about the dynamics of what’s happening when you produce something.

Celeste: And the conversation that it sparks. Because everyone is going to bring something different to the piece, their interpretation – usually that’s a positive effect.

Anne: We need people who can help us artists be more as a community.

“The net worth is in the network.”

There’s a phrase we use digitally: “The net worth is in the network.” That describes the power of being digitally connected but I think it’s true generally of human beings and the purpose that we have.

Celeste: Your background is the perfect blend of business and artistic experience – do you have any tips on how to be both an artist and entrepreneur?

Anne: There’s a school of thought that says in today’s day and age, it’s important to be a generalist – somebody skilled and able to put different areas of interest together randomly. We don’t need people to be “the manual” because we can create a manual. It’s the putting together aspect of it – it’s perfectly okay for your business practice to be informed by a personal interest because that will be the unique slant you bring to it.

An inspirational slice of St Ives, stimulating and sometimes unexpected.

I’ve always wanted to synthesise my various interests, but it’s probably more helpful to honour the different parts of ourselves. Now, having had my life experiences, I recognise we don’t all have to be one flavour. We can have many different flavours to the things that make us who we are.

Celeste: Do you have any tips or advice about how to do that – how to be open to different flavours, how to combine a passion with a business?

Anne: Be free. Get yourself a large piece of paper, put it on a tabletop, and express what it is that you like in life. It could be walking, adventure films, sailing, yoga – anything. Let yourself see the canvas that you actually are. Articulate it out, let it speak to you about what you want. The visualisation process is incredibly powerful. As artists, but also as regular humans, we sometimes forget how much it can help us. This goes back to identity: What identity do we want to craft? How do we begin the crafting of that identity?

Let yourself see the canvas that you actually are.

Visualise it. Cut out pictures from magazines, write words, pick out colours, make it as random as you like. No rules, no self-censorship – see what presents back to you. Is it full? Would you like it to be fuller? What are other things you haven’t tried before but you might find interesting? How are you going to have new experiences that you might want? Let that speak to you. I think that is a very important act of taking ownership of our futures.

Celeste: That should almost be a required class at university.

Anne: Yes, definitely, I would love to see that happen. Companies have managed their identities for decades. Now, we are the determinants of our identity – both as seen by others and how we craft it in terms of our life’s choices. I think that should be a required skill. It’s as important as financial literacy or any other kind of literacy.

Celeste: Let’s turn to your Emergent Code Chronicles blog book, which describes the transition from analogue to digital and how we’re reacting to artificial intelligence and code. What do you think the future of art is within that context?

Anne: I hope it survives. I passionately believe that we’ve all got hidden layers of creativity that don’t get to see the light of day because of the circumstances of the world we live in. But if we want art to have a presence, we have to fight for it. We have to focus on being makers. I call humans makers a lot because I think we have to focus on being makers very deliberately. 

If we want art to have a presence, we have to fight for it.

Celeste: I’ve also watched your TEDx Talk about how you’re not bound to one place and how you can feel a special connection with somewhere you’ve never been. I can relate, not being from this country and stepping onto Harbour Beach and having this strange feeling of connection. 

Anne: It’s almost like it rearranges your neurons.

Celeste: What brought you here and do you feel like you belong here now? Are there other special places that you hold in your heart and continue to bring to your work?

Anne: Where I live in Lelant, is incredibly special to me. When I first found that area, it was like seeing bits of so many places I had been in the past. It was really compelling. I can’t see myself being anywhere else. It has grabbed me by the wrist and said, “Deal with it.” I would have had no interest in being a part-time visitor. I’m here for the long haul.

Celeste: Lastly, what advice would you give to someone who would like to start creating more or for the first time – digitally or in a more traditional sense? Perhaps something that inspires you to keep creating?

Anne: I think one of the great wonders of what digital life gives us is access to so many inspirational people. Visualisation is important, but so is being able to look at other artwork. On Twitter, I follow people because they inspire me. And you can ask those people, how did you learn to code? Or, how did you learn to be a painter? The question you’re asking me – we can sidle up to people through social networks to praise them and learn from them, either by looking at their work on Instagram or by following their story.

Don’t be afraid to start that process and do it with the hunger that you have for it.

In this Connection Age, it’s vital to not be scared, passive receivers, and think that what others do doesn’t apply to you. It’s really important to connect, either through seeing the work or building up that kind of virtual community of people you look up to. It rubs off. Anyone, living or dead, living in any part of the world – all these people can be your influences.

Musicians do it all the time – they have artists they’ve been inspired by and their own work will be a fusion of themselves and the things which influence their work – all artistry is. So I say, don’t be afraid to start that process and do it with the hunger that you have for it.

[This Earthly Code] Collection by Anne McCrossan.

Lean into it because if you feel that energy, it’s a sign that it matters to you. Don’t resist; that’s the cue. One of the second big learnings (the Apple computer being the major one) was when I got involved with a network of leaders and marketeers run by Seth Godin. Seth shaped my career. He was phenomenally important. He supports a lot of people, and his philosophy has rubbed off on me. He was the one who fearlessly said, lean into that feeling – if you’re scared to do it, that means you must do it. Because that’s going to make you grow.

At the time I connected with Seth (2008), it was just before he started writing the book Tribes. He said he was going to set up this community of people, 1,500 marketeers worldwide, who would have a blank space to test how we could form a culture digitally from nothing.

He wanted people to write and make connections. The first blog I wrote was called “What does government mean to you?” and because it was the first thing Seth commented positively on, it got a lot of attention. Essentially I was saying, Apple is the government of my tech world, we are governed digitally, and we need to think about that.

If you’re scared to do it, that means you must do it.

When my father was dying, I didn’t have the headspace to be an entrepreneur so I had taken a job I didn’t want. I had the idea for Visceral Business at the time and Seth pushed me to do it. He said, “Write a ‘ChangeThis’ Manifesto. You need to do a TED Talk.” This lean-into-it, make-a-difference, do-what-matters advice gave me permission to do just that. I will always be grateful to him.

If you go with no expectation, it’s through connectivity, interaction and dynamism – through what I call a “visceral moment” – that things happen. That physical response is dynamic energy. When we see art and we’re moved by it, it’s the platelets reorganising. It’s the synapses connecting in a way that didn’t exist before – this is where Visceral Business came from. That kind of synaptic connection, juicy experience that makes us think, stuff is happening here.

Are you an artist or creative based in Cornwall and interested in sharing your story on CBA Content’s blog? If so, we’d love to hear from you. To get in touch drop us a line here.

You might also enjoy reading:

How Creators Create: A Q&A With Cornish Artist Jason Lilley

How Creators Create: A Q&A With Abstract Artist Shelley Thornton

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