For some, the table top is a minefield of manners; for young artist and silversmith Kathleen Reilly, it is a space which presents endless possibilities for the reinvention of the everyday. Hers is a world of fingerless rings and petal-catching plates, and she navigates it by producing works which vibrate with energy, balanced elegance and a mischievous sense of humour. Reilly has studied and exhibited across the world. We discuss her journey from jewellery to tableware, finding inspiration in the unexpected and the importance of an artist’s relationship with their audience.
There has been a distinct buzz surrounding your work since you graduated GSA in 2015, and you’ve exhibited both locally and internationally – can you tell me about your journey through art school and after? What was the most important part of your studies to you?
I think the most significant part of my studies was actually the summer before my final year. I enjoyed the Silversmithing and Jewellery course – especially the conceptual and technical application side of things – but scale-wise I think I had always struggled three-dimensionally to make jewellery. I frequently felt like I couldn’t translate what I wanted to do; this didn’t necessarily worry me at the time, it just confused me. I was working in London and went to a Daniel Weil exhibit – he’s an Argentinian industrial designer – there was a retrospective and then a series of clocks he had recently made. Seeing this, everything just sort of clicked. I thought about Weil’s work: he’s very multidisciplinary and often uses everyday objects. Alexander Calder was also a natural association. I began to think, why can’t I use jewellery techniques to make larger or sculptural works? At the end of the day it’s just a difference in scale and composition. If I hadn’t gone to that show I’m not sure what I would be making now – but that’s exciting too!
You attended Hiko Mizuno College of Jewellery – how and why did you make the transition between jewellery and conceptual tableware, and do you feel there is still a connection between the two?
Hiko was really important for me. I think that’s where I learned not to take things too seriously, and brought a real humour to my work: I realised that not everything has to conform. I guess one of the reasons for this was being in – Japan I was exposed to a completely different lifestyle and daily schedule. As for why I chose tableware, I’ve always been very drawn to functionality and the everyday. Through studying silversmithing I naturally gravitated towards the table top and it just grew from there. I often define my work as jewellery ‘for objects’ – after all, they should be allowed a bit of fun too.
Do you believe there should always be an element of emotion and playfulness within functional design? Does the emotive nature of an object constitute an important function in itself?
That’s a really interesting way to put it – however I don’t think there always should. If that’s what you’re aiming to achieve then perhaps there’s value in that, but I like the way that an object can spark different things for different people, sometimes even bringing nothing at all. I’ve created work for specific reasons, and then been prototyping or showcasing them and someone will gain something from it that I’ve never seen before. I think that’s one of the most rewarding and interesting things about creating work, especially work involving the everyday. A lot of our ideas are so entrenched: a spoon does this, knife does that… So it’s good to turn this on its head, and even more so when the outcome evokes a completely unexpected response.
What led you to seek to reinterpret and add new meaning to everyday experience?
Soon after I had these thoughts about functionality, we were given an introductory project in our final year at art school called ‘seven rings’. I encountered the theories of Karl Fritsch, always an important one when in conversation with this topic: "The ring is desperate, desperate to find a finger, desperate to tell you: I love you, I am beautiful, I am rich, I am cool, I hate you, I come from Ireland or Austria, I want more, I have enough, I am married, I am funny, I am scary, stupid, important, I can't help you. I am.” I liked the way he personifies, and almost glorifies the ring. I began to think, what if I had a ring that didn’t want to find a finger? Then I started associating rings with other objects: making simple connections at first, then developing into more abstract terms, for example a ring for a jug to hold a candelabrum, perhaps. However, I still felt the need for a reason behind these associations and experiments, and began to analyse daily interactions on the table top. While filming and photographing here, I noticed lots of funny anecdotes or reoccurring problems to try and solve, develop or reinterpret.
How has your time spent studying abroad influenced you? Japan is a country which associates a particularly deep sense of tradition and ritual to dining and food – did you find inspiration there, or anywhere else?
It’s funny, you’d think the inspiration would be almost inevitable but I really don’t associate much between my time in Japan and my focus on dining. I think because back in 2013, I was so far from that outcome there wasn’t yet any connection to be made. I was more obsessed with the plastic food – it’s a master craft in itself. There are rows and rows of fake plastic cast meals that are encased outside restaurants, it’s amazing! Some of them even look better than the actual meals. I was also too busy enjoying the real food – it’s my favourite.
Have you ever been surprised by a viewer’s reaction to your work?
All the time! That’s the best (and sometimes worst) part of it, I love showing people how things work and getting that eureka moment. But equally there’s a lot of confusion and sarcasm. My favourite reaction was during my residency at Designskolen Kolding in Denmark. I was playing about with some ideas, cutting holes in plates and putting them on vases. One student came in and said; “Hey, that’s cute! Is that to catch petals that fall from the flowers?”. And from that comment I made a completely different work. My work right now usually follows daily activity, so getting a serendipitous comment from a coincidental interaction was really exciting for me.
Do you wish for the objects you create to influence the user, or the user to influence the objects?
From a maker’s point of view, the work is definitely supposed to influence the user and make them think differently. However, a lot of the time the user can influence the object too; perhaps the object is waiting for someone to show it what it’s capable of… and everyone will see something different in it (I hope).
Which aspect of the creative process do you find most enjoyable and compelling?
Problem solving. I really like maths. I love finding something in my work that requires that element of problem solving; sampling and associating until I find the perfect fit. It’s an aesthetic and functional sort of mathematics without numbers.
What are the three things/people/places which have most influenced you, and why?
Glasgow, for sure! I have a really good, creative group of friends who are always so helpful and supportive. I think growing together creatively there is always a natural sense of competition, but it’s good to see that wash away and realise that we are all in this together. Two of my best friends run a series of exhibitions at the Voidoid Archive called Very Friendly. What they’re doing is amazing and I’m so grateful they asked me to exhibit. I would also say my uncle has influenced me. He’s a painter. My family has always been very involved in the arts but it’s really rewarding to be able to see the talent and success of someone’s work so close to home. It keeps me motivated. Finally, I found great inspiration during my residency at Designskolen Kolding last year. Coming out of art school can be daunting: you don’t realise the full scope of what you’ve learned, and that combined with a natural Scottish cynicism can definitely make you panic! Going there really boosted my confidence. Helping students with technical and conceptual ideas on a daily basis makes you recognise how much you actually know: about what you do, but also about yourself and your work. I also worked for the amazing and talented Josephine Winther.
What does the next year hold for you?
I’m about to start my MA at the Royal College of Art in London so I’m going to be working full-time on that, which I’m super excited about. I’ve also just been asked to do a really exciting commission for next year, so let’s hope it all goes ahead!