Vivienne Sillar: ceramicist

The Isle of Arran has been the holiday destination for artist Vivienne Sillar since childhood.

Her family swapped city life in Glasgow for the wild mountains and dramatic shores of the island annually, and even though she has moved south to Derbyshire she continues to return each year.

The flora and fauna there is not only the catalyst for her incredibly dexterous ceramics but is also used to help create them.

Her studio in the garden of her Chesterfield home is filled with not just clay but also driftwood, seaweed, shells and stones from the seashore. The driftwood will find a new life as part of her hand-built sculptures while the rest is used as part of the smoke firing that gives her work its distinctive patina.

“Most of the inspiration for my work comes from the island which is home to an amazing variety of sea life.

“The fluid streamlined shapes of creatures of the sea are perfect for any artist and I have been fascinated by and drawn to them all my life. I am a compulsive beachcomber and every walk along the shore is a starting point for something else.

“I have a holiday home in the village of Kildonan and I head there at least four times a year. I can’t wait to get back when I am here,” she said wistfully.

Vivienne has been working with clay since being a student in Aberdeen in the late 70s but it is only in recent years that she has had time to work full time as an artist.

While her family was growing up she had jobs in a variety of arts centres and galleries organising exhibitions and for 15 years she was teaching ceramics at Chesterfield College.

The 59-year-old considers the real turning point in her life to be when she joined the Peak District Artisans just over two years ago.

“It is a great organisation and it has given me the opportunity to get my work seen by so many more people,” she said.

However her epiphany moment was when she discovered the effects of smoke firing on her work.

“I was getting frustrated with glazing as, quite honestly, I wasn’t very good at it, and so much of my work was being wasted. You can’t undo glaze and I hate to waste anything.

“One day I was experimenting with a fellow potter friend and we decided to try out smoke firing. When I saw the results I was really excited. ‘This is it, this is it,’ I thought. ‘I have found my voice at last.’ I knew then that smoke firing was going to be my thing.”

Vivienne creates the tactile smooth surface on her sculptures by burnishing them with a teaspoon and then she uses the natural ingredients she collects, and even such things as  banana skins and Marmite, as mark makers during the smoke firing, which she does in old tin baths.

The seals, gannets, curlews and herons are all very popular with customers and Vivienne says she wants to continue working on them, but she also wants to start designing larger sculptures like Flight Over Stand Wood, above, which she made last year for the PDA’s exhibition at Chatsworth’s Art Out Loud event.

In an illustrated talk at the Great Dome Fair this July, Vivienne will explain how the five foot long sculpture was made using only a 15-inch wide kiln and a piece of oak donated from the Chatsworth estate.

n For more information about her work go to