Melissa Wraxall and Andrew Temple-Smith, painter & ceramic artist - home & studio, Bath

Melissa Wraxall and Andrew Temple-Smith, painter & ceramic artist - home & studio, Bath

We met Melissa in 2014 at an art exhibition in Bath and she kindly invited us a few weeks later to meet her family. We had the pleasure to learn about her journey from Australia to Britain where she met Andrew, her husband and fellow artist. Here is their story.

How did you two meet?

Andrew: At Bank Station, after a tip off from a mutual friend living in Sydney.

Melissa: I was working as an Art teacher in Sydney in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. In 1993 I signed up to do a teacher exchange in Scotland in the 94/95 academic year and I planned to go to some of the major art galleries in Europe during the school holidays. So, in early 1994 in preparation for this, I took some evening classes in Spanish and French. At the Spanish class, I made friends with this guy called George, who had grown up in England, and he gave me a list of names and contact details of his friends in different parts of the UK. It just so happened that Andrew and his girlfriend Rima were on the top of the list, and when I got to London I met up with them. I met his girlfriend first actually, at a café in Angel Islington, and a few days later they invited me to a beer and wine festival at Olympia. The plan was to meet Andrew at Bank station at a particular time and a particular platform - this is when mobile phones were a rarity. After a huge amount of running around the labyrinth of Bank station trying to find the appointed place, I finally got to this platform, a train pulled in, the doors opened, and there he was, in the carriage right in front of me. I had seen a small photograph but I still wasn’t sure, so I said “Excuse me - are you Andrew Temple-Smith?”

Could you tell us about your lives before being together as a couple?

Melissa: Before I came to the UK on that life-changing journey, I was working as a secondary school art teacher at a small private school for girls in North Sydney, just across the Harbour from Sydney’s Central Business District. For several years I was living in shared flats and houses with friends, one of the most memorable places being an old warehouse in Darlinghurst, which was not really supposed to be used for accommodation. We built our own dividing walls etc but it was great fun and we all had a lot of space so we could have a studio and a bedroom.

My darling Dad died in early 1991 of stomach cancer (he was only 55, 4 years older than I am now) so I moved home to Bankstown for a while to give Mum a bit of moral support. It was obviously good for me too both emotionally and financially, although she did live a long way from my work and my friends, so I bought a little car. It was brilliant just being able to freely skip off to wherever I wanted. I had a lot of fun in my twenties.

Andrew: I was working in London as a computer programmer living in a flat in Chalk Farm. I enjoyed the arts but took no active part, though I spent a lot of time learning and practicing classical guitar.

What made you choose Bath?

Melissa: We were living in Highbury, in North London, and Andrew had been talking about wanting a Georgian House in Bath for some years. By 2004 when we had been watching London house prices (and the value of our house) climb up and up, I suggested that we cash in, and make the move. Miranda was only in Year 2 at the time but we were already looking ahead to the prospect of some pretty dismal secondary schools around Highbury. The only other option for secondary schools if we stayed in London would have been to go private, which would not only be financially crippling, but Andrew is opposed to Private schools on principle. However, in Bath, from looking at the Ofsted website, the state schools all seemed to be very good and in some cases outstanding. We briefly looked at Bristol, but there were few really good state schools and Andrew really does have a thing about Georgian architecture… 

Andrew: I have always loved the West Country and have spent a lot of time here, mostly around the Welsh border and in Dorset as a child where my grandparents lived. I feel a strong personal attachment to the region. Though I am a Londoner and have a great familiarity with the city, it does not draw me to it other than the odd trip to visit galleries and so on. When we moved down from London, the internet was opening up in a way that meant I could do most of my work from home rather than in offices, so I was not restricted by location for work. Bath also has a quick train to London if needed.

painting by Gina Brown

painting by Gina Brown

What are your favourite places in Bath? What do you love about living here?

Melissa: The architecture is beautiful, the people are very friendly and it is a small city so we can walk to the centre within 10 minutes. It has lots of interesting small shops, and a good theatre, two cinemas, (one an arts cinema) and because it has two universities, there are also a lot of restaurants and nightlife. We are very lucky to have found a lovely Georgian house which was seven minutes’ walk along a tow path, to a primary school which is not only consistently rated as outstanding, but one year was deemed to be the best in the country. Another thing I like is that as well as having the advantages of a city, we can walk out onto fields within a few minutes, and there are numerous places to go near here for a day out. There are a few problems with traffic jams and seagulls; and the shops on Saturday mornings are to be avoided, especially around Christmas. If I could wave a magic wand to solve those problems, and get a beach and a big contemporary art gallery here, I would never go anywhere else. As it is, I take the one and a half hour train journey to London every couple of months to see what’s on in the galleries.

Andrew: I love Bath for a number of reasons, it is beautiful in itself, is surrounded by stunning countryside which I take advantage of regularly as a devoted walker, and is a perfect size to live in. Small enough to walk across but with two universities and a lively market, there is always plenty of activities to take advantage of. It is a sociable place, much more than most of London which many find alienating. I love the hillside around Bathwick Hill, perfect for short walks and with a stunning view of the city. I also enjoy walking around the small, old streets of the city centre which have kept their character despite being an essentially commercial area.

When and how did you start making art?

Melissa: I actually can’t remember making a decision to start. I think I just carried on drawing right from the day I first held a crayon. I can remember kids at school always saying that I should be an artist, but I can also remember thinking as a small child that there weren’t any artists any more. I don’t know where I got that idea from, as my parents were very encouraging, so I just drew and drew and got better and better. I did start playing around with oil paint when I was about fifteen, but it was a good decade before I really started to get a handle on it, and I continue to learn new things about it all the time. However when I left school and went to college, I did do a Bachelor of Art Education, because I couldn’t see myself “starving in a garret.” I think that bohemian idea is a con actually, because as long as society thinks it’s OK for artists to have to starve for their art, then they think it’s OK for them to work for nothing, and show their work for nothing, pay extortionate fees to enter competitions and for some galleries to take ridiculous percentages of sales of their work etc. (I’ve heard of some that take 60% - 80%.) Anyway I digress – my course was great actually because the education students were in the same studio classes as the fine art students, so we were encouraged to think like fine artists, and I never stopped producing my own work right through the decade or so that I was teaching.

Andrew: I did life drawing at university but did not follow up on this until I met Melissa a decade later. I did various drawing classes in Sydney and then more life drawing in Finsbury Park after moving back to London. However, the class, folded after a couple of terms. There was also a ceramics evening class in the school, running at the same time. I took my chance and on the first attempt was grabbed by the whole process of throwing clay on the wheel, coming back spattered with clay and eager for more.

Could you tell us more about your creative process?

Melissa: I think that my process involves both conscious and intuitive decisions. The conscious decisions are things like which photograph/s I’ll work from, and whether to crop them, what size I’ll make the work, and what media I’ll use, and whether to work on paper canvas or wood. Some artists simplify this (more boring) part of the process by for example, only doing oil on canvas of a particular size, but I haven’t come to a point yet where I want to limit myself with this. The more intuitive decisions come in when I’ve started the work. This is where you get into right brain mode, or “the zone”, and you’re making decisions about what colours to use, where and how much paint to put on and where, and whether to wipe off a tiny bit here or spread a bit more over there. I’m not really aware much of a verbal monologue going on in my head in this thinking mode, but I can spend hours in this zone and not feel the time going by at all. It’s a fantastic feeling, but it only comes with practise. If I am kept away from my studio for a couple of weeks for one reason or another, it is harder to get into the zone. My aim is to get to the studio every day, at least from 8:30am until 1 or 2pm, but I don’t always achieve it. 

Andrew: Ceramics is a very technical art form, there is a huge learning curve needed to create work, from preparing the clay, making, testing and applying glazes, and multiple firings before the creation of the form is even considered. Despite this, I found from the first day that expression was possible, but I do still find that technical issues come to the fore all the time. Clay and porcelain are both easy to work with in some ways, but don't always behave themselves when exposed to the white heat of the kiln. 

I spend a lot of time just thinking about the work, and my best ideas usually come in the early morning while it is still dark. Ideas pop into the consciousness seemingly unprompted which is very enjoyable. I usually recall them once it is time to get up hours later. The thought processes at night when we are semi-conscious seem particularly free from most of the rationality and constraints we impose later on. Perhaps, the subconscious is just happier making an appearance at that time of day. Once the light comes up, many of the ideas seem crazy or nothing like as significant as they did earlier on, however a few survive and get taken into practice.

Once sitting at the wheel or moulding clay with my hands, a different creative process begins. When entering a state of flow, those internal criticisms can disappear again, and this time a more process led form of creativity can emerge. The night time thoughts tend to be more conceptual, whilst the practice led ones are about bending and playing with these ideas to take then into new places. I don't have the ability to think these processes through beyond a certain point, after that, experimentation takes over with a series of what-ifs about the form and surface.

Where does your inspiration come from?

Melissa: My work has always been inspired by my own experiences in one way or another. After I left college, I did a series of paintings which vented my frustrations about relationships or difficult work colleagues. Mostly they were kind of amusing post-modern mash-ups of images of women from art history, (Greek mythological subjects, or ancient stone-age sculptures) with other sources like contemporary newspaper photographs. 

After I moved to the UK, I started working on a series of largish paintings from photographs of rock formations in the Northern Territory in Australia, called the Devils’ Marbles or Karlu Karlu. We visited it in 1999, when our first child was a year old, and I was really taken with the “consciousness” of the place. It seemed to live and breathe, and I later found out what a sacred place it was for the Aboriginal people of the area. As I made these paintings over the next few years, they came to be symbolise my nostalgia for Australia too.

In my most recent work, including throughout my Masters degree, I’ve been working from an archive of family photographs, mostly from long before I was born. Although I was not there when many of the photographs were taken, I grew up hearing stories about relatives in these photographs who died before I was born, or of others, now elderly, who appear as young children in these images. It is partly about my experiences of still missing my dad, and my maternal grandparents, and wishing I had met my dad’s parents. Also it’s about missing my mum and brother and his family who live 12000 miles away. 

In general though, for other people who look at my paintings, I hope to convey ideas about the ephemerality of the experiences we think will last forever, childhood, youth, life itself. Memories and stories of course can last, but only as long as they are continually retold, and that is, in a way, what I am doing with my work.  The photographs themselves, the earliest of which were taken on film with a box brownie, are damaged and disintegrating, and will not last forever and even this analogue method of making photographs, which lasted for 150 years or so, has now largely passed into history.

Andrew: I take my inspiration from a number of angles. Some of my work is thrown, so this is always, to some extent, informed by the long history of ceramic vessels. Domestic ware has for the most part evolved as a form of functional minimalism. Much of my work is not designed for functional use, but their forms are minimal in approach and by having no direct purpose, even forms that could be described as vessels can enter into the world of abstraction.

I also take inspiration from natural processes, particularly in the surface patterning. With the  Nebula pieces I aim to find a balance between control and chance where slips are painted on and later burnished to reveal a dialogue between the natural texture of the work, the brushwork and the final burnishing of the surface.

In some of the sculptural works, the medium used is porcelain, and this can be simply burnished without the use of glazes or slips; minimal, pure and white. 

How would you define the role of the artist?

Melissa: I think that this is something that each individual artist has to define for themselves, as having a role, implies a social function or niche. However, I suppose that in general an artist makes an object (or a performance, or a sound piece etc) to explore ideas which he or she hopes will be communicated in some way to an audience. I think for me, in my personal approach to making paintings and drawings about ephemerality, I hope that the viewer can draw meaning from my work, in terms of their own experiences, memories and family narratives.

Andrew: My definition would be someone who can find ways to bring together existing ideas in novel ways, perhaps to invent works from scratch though I am not sure that this is really possible. Art is one form of creativity which, though traditionally associated with aesthetics, has moved into other realms that go beyond simple definition. The works or performances created by the artist can intrigue, question, shock, sooth, inspire, inform and annoy the audience in equal measure. The work may also just bring a feeling of presence and sit quietly as if observing the audience instead. 

The artist is not best employed producing work that just look ‘nice’, or is destined to purely boost the status of the buyer.

Is the whole relationship between the artist and the audience just a game for those in the know? Perhaps, but it is a complex, culturally rich game that brings enjoyment and fulfilment to all parties, and what is wrong with games anyway?

What is it like to share a profession and a passion for art with your partner?

Melissa: Well, it’s interesting; when we got together, although I had been painting for years, Andrew had not yet discovered his natural affinity with ceramics. Apart from his job as an IT consultant, his creative outlet was acoustic guitar, which he played beautifully by the way. I’ll let Andrew tell you the story of how he first fell into throwing pots, but by the time we moved to Bath in 2005, he was well and truly hooked. He found out that there was a Ceramics Masters course at Bath Spa University, so I encouraged him to go for it and he was accepted. Naturally I thought “Hmm, maybe it’s about time I did a Masters too!” so I applied as well.

So from the days of the “His and Hers MA courses” we have been working as artists simultaneously. After the course I took up a studio at 44AD, and Andrew swiftly converted my painting studio at home into a ceramics studio. No going back now!

I’m really proud of how well Andrew is doing with his ceramics. It is beautiful work and is selling really well at a few galleries around the South West. Right from the beginning of the course, Andrew’s Design: Ceramics course leaders were extremely conscientious about getting professional exposure for their students, from interventions in the Holburne Museum to Design shows all over the country, so that has worked very well for him. I am selling a few paintings here and there, but it seems to be harder to sell paintings than ceramics, because there are so many brilliant painters out there, so the competition is really fierce. 

I’m really conscious though, of the fact that when Andrew gets IT work, which he has been getting a lot of recently, he can’t get to his studio and make his work which is frustrating for him. So even though I’m not qualified to teach in this country and have no experience of any other kind of paid work, I try and save money by doing any painting and decorating that needs doing around the house. It has taken me away from my studio painting for three or four of the last six months, but it is only fair. These are the kinds of compromises that you have to make when you are both artists and you have two kids to feed and clothe and send off on expensive overseas school trips!

Andrew: I have learnt a huge amount from Melissa, not just regarding art and its practice! We have similar or at least compatible tastes, and enjoy going to galleries and natural spaces that inspire our work. We have not worked in collaboration with our artworks yet but we have not ruled it out either!

I take Melissa’s critiques seriously and they are enormously helpful in progressing the better ideas. Making art can be hard work and having an inspiring and encouraging partner, especially one who knows what they are talking about, is the best of things.

Dear Melissa and Andrew, thank you for sharing your home and studios with us. Learn more about these inspiring artists by visiting Melissa's and Andrew's websites. 

We are Irina and Silviu and we do everything together.

Our story begun in Transylvania while studying Philosophy at the University and we have been inseparable ever since. From translating philosophy books to changing diapers, creating collages together and documenting our reality through photography our togetherness became a lifestyle.

For the past 8 years we have called Wales home, the land of hiraeth and Celtic legends, of rugged coastlines and dramatic Brecon Beacons. 

If you feel a connection with our aesthetics and vision we would love to hear from you.