In Haunt

From celebrating saucers without their cups to connecting our silhouettes through Clay, CJ O’ Neill is a Manchester-based artist not afraid to experiment with objects – items of the ‘everyday’ becoming vessels for exploring emotion. Ceramics such as cups, saucers and plates are a key feature of her work.


A researcher, maker and educator as well as Senior Lecturer at Manchester School of Art, CJ works with a wide range of people within her practice, exploring personal connections to objects, storytelling and interaction along the way. Her 2018 PhD thesis was titled My, Your, Our Stories: a processual investigation of artistic interventions with everyday ceramics; further investigating how ceramic objects can connect people and shape their stories. Think about it – do you have a particular favourite bowl or cup? Are there certain plates your family use for ‘special occasions’? These are connections just waiting to be explored. (Pictured above: a piece from the 'Heaven' series)

CJ’s creativity with objects, ceramics in particular, has taken her far and wide; looking at personal connections across the world. The Pol Project, for example, was based in in Dhal ni Pol, Ahmedabad, India (a picture from the trip is below) in October 2010 and involved CJ working with anthropologist Amanda Ravetz, artist Steven Dixon and two Indian researchers alongside the local community to encounter environmental issues through creativity. Workshops were developed, including activities for children such as decorating ceramic saucers and teacups: hand-on engagement with objects and the leaning process. Having also exhibited in a range of places – from Kilkenny Arts Festival  and the National Craft Gallery of Ireland to Grimmerhus in Denmark – CJ is passionate about the ability of art to bring a range of people together; often to reflect on themes that unite us all.

Pol Project

Grief and death is one such theme – another key element explored in CJ’s work. Dad's Doorways is a collection of pieces made in response to the death of her Dad in 2018: consisting of beautifully crafted and decorated saucers containing the recurring image of a doorway – a powerful symbol weighted with the potential for transformation, change and progress. So often we only associate saucers with teacups, but through Dad’s Doorways CJ considers the inherent beauty of the object itself, as well as the concept of something being ‘absent’ at its centre.

Exploring grief after all matters deeply to CJ, inspired by her own experiences of making and creativity in response to grief. This is a relationship she hopes to encourage others to engage with – artistry as a way of considering and coming to face grief and bereavement in a positive way. The recent exciting news that pieces from CJ’s Dad’s Doorways collection feature in the Manchester Open Exhibition 2020 at HOME (launched on the 17 January and open until 29 March), is also likely to start conversations amongst the public about the themes on display.

The Materiality of Grief is the title of a project CJ is planning next – and taking the artistic explorations a fascinating step further – hoping to use both 3d printing in clay and transfer decoration to explore our connections to those who have died and our relationship with grief. She is also hoping to talk to more people about this concept.

Here at Haunt Manchester, we spoke to CJ to find out more…

Hello CJ.  Your fascinating artwork often involves exploring objects and peoples connections to them. Can you perhaps tell us a bit more why you have been drawn to consider this (oft unspoken and yet deeply felt) relationship?


"In my research over the last 10 or so years I have realised that by activating the agency of everyday ceramic objects through engagement, we can make visible our narrative connections with others, acknowledging the importance of others in our lives. (Image above: a piece from CJ O'Neill's 'Heaven' series)

"Growing up we had a box of 'fast cups' that were brought out once a month and moved between the houses of my parents group of friends.  Once a month, they held home made soup that marked the end of a 24 hour period of fasting when the friends came together to pray, talk and eat.  The money that would have been spent on food in those 24 hours was donated to a charitable cause and often the person fundraising would come along and talk to the group about how the money had been spent and who it had benefitted.  ​The cups themselves advertised a pharmaceutical company and came to my parents through a friends daughter who had kept a box in the garage.  But it was not the aesthetics of the cups that stuck with me, it was the people that they reminded me of that made them much more valuable than a free giveaway - on seeing them I could smell the soup and home made wheaten bread, I could hear chatting and the kettle boiling for pots of tea.  Thoughts of family, friends and community are embodied in these objects." 

Congratulations on some of your work being displayed as part of the Manchester Open Exhibition 2020 at HOME! Which pieces are involved and do you think an ongoing public audience at an exhibition like this will give rise to some interesting conversations around themes in your work?

"Thank you!  I am so delighted to have work on display in Manchester in such a fantastic venue and as part of such a significant exhibition.  The pieces on display are Dad's Doorways - a collection made in response to the death of my Dad in 2018.  I'm hoping that visitors will be able to connect with some of the figures in the pieces - noticing small details or perhaps see themselves in one of the silhouettes.  In previous exhibitions, when I've used the symbol of the doorway it has revealed stories about journeys - real or imagined - and in combination with figures, can often provoke deeply personal narratives about loss or absence.  Being part of such a broad exhibition like the Manchester Open will hopefully bring people coming to see photography, or painting as opposed to objects and in this way attract a wider range of responses.  One of the things I really hope for is that visitors return home and re look at some of the objects they have at home, thinking about the people who are connected to the things they already own - enabling the sharing of stories and memories with others."  (Pictured below: pieces from the 'Dad's Doorways' series)

Dad's Doorways "One lovely thing is that the private view of the exhibition (Friday 17th January) is the date of my Dad's 2 year anniversary!"

Another key theme explored in your work is grief and how the creative process and making can have a constructive effect. Dad’s Doorways is one such example – involving saucers as a central object. We most commonly associate saucers with teacups… so why focus on this object in its own right within the pieces?

​"Saucers have an inherent absence.  They can become obsolete objects if the cup associated with them gets broken - often hiding underneath a plant or stacked in the back of a cupboard.  Or, given to a charity shop where they sit in stacks, waiting for a new owner.  I love finding stacks of these objects, and have collected many from across Europe - I'm planning a series of pieces and workshops to make use of these!  

"This absence in the saucers is something that appears to connect to our subconscious, and enabled me to acknowledge the absence of my Dad and provided a way of momentarily pausing the movement of memories of him. (Pictured below: a piece from the 'Dad's Doorways' series)

Dad's Doorways

"The making ​of these objects, carefully hand cutting each transfer, sometimes 4 or 5 times to get it right, allowed me to experience my grief.  To be in it.  A making*thinking process.  One inextricable from the other.  A constant movement. A few times I had to stop making as I was crying, but please don't misinterpret this as a negative experience, it was simply part of my grief and through the making of these objects, I have enabled numerous conversations with others about death, loss, grief and bereavement that would not have happened otherwise.  These objects have connected me to others and continue provide a constructive way forward with grief."

Doorways are a recurring symbol within your work. Can you tell us a little more why you are drawn to these, particularly in relation to grief and death?

"I return over and over to the image of the doorway within my work - ‘Life is made up of a series of doorways that we choose to step through.  Death is just another doorway to step though - we just don't know what's on the other side.  Yet.'  My Dad was smiling as he said this and it resonates in my head quite often.  I first acknowledged the power of the doorway as a symbol within a residency in India where I collaborated with visual anthropologist Amanda Ravetz on The Pol Project.  ​We walked around the pol over the first few days, being invited into numerous homes for tea.  Crossing the threshold of the doorway felt incredibly humbling and highlighted for me the transitional properties of the doorway, from public to private; external to internal.  We also ran a series of workshops in the pol, getting to know the community and this culminated in setting up a doorway in a central space in the pol and inviting the community to act out daily rituals around the doorway.  Amanda took video footage and I took stills - partly to encourage the timing of people coming through the doorway.  These stills informed a series of pieces that captured moments of the day around the doorway.  

"On returning to the UK, my aunt passed away, and I suddenly saw the images in a different light - were these people standing around some form of threshold between this life and beyond?  Between heaven and earth?  I made 3 larger plates exploring this notion of heaven, utilising gold for its precious and magical properties to fill the doorways.  (Pictured below: cup and saucer from The Pol Project)


"Doorways are fascinating objects though - aren't they?  How many times have you imagined what lies behind a closed door?  C.S.Lewis is not the only writer to harness the potent nature of the image of the doorway.  The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, has a specific reference to a doorway that seems to just be in the landscape, but lead somewhere else. ‘Only a few yards away, clear to be seen in the sunlight, there stood up a rough wooden door, and round it, the framework of the doorway; nothing else, no walls, no roof.’ (Lewis, 1950)

"Symbolically, they represent choice and notions of pathways, they offer routes of escape and are used in storytelling often to demarcate moments of transition and transformation, of movement between worlds. Alice's dilemma with which door to choose creates all manner of trouble for her. ​ Within my practice, the doorway has become a potent activating agent for the narrative process. 

"The doorway decorating a small plate that sits on my shelf (pictured below) is hand cut in black transfer detailing the flowers that were placed carefully around the frame in The Pol Project. Filled with gold - the symbol of chi, the essence of our energy, and in its very essence a transformative material – what is revealed in this piece is the magical potential of the doorway to transport us into the other worlds of our imaginations."

Doorway Plate

Some people still feel that considering death and ‘allowing it in’ to our lives, so to speak, is a negative experience, something they would rather avoid. How would you respond to this attitude in light of your practice?

"I acknowledge and respect wholeheartedly that each experience of death is different and would never assume that it is an easy or light conversation to have and that for some, their experience of death is so crippling that it is best for them to not 'allow it in'.  I did not actually set out to evoke notions of death or grief in my practice, it is something that has emerged as a recurrent theme over a long period of time for both myself and others interacting with the work, and because of this, because of the response from others, I am hoping to continue to explore this within my practice, to see if making and the materiality of grief, can allow a place for others to express their own experience of grief and loss in materials and making as an alternative to words."

A number of your other projects – including Clay Networks – have potential implications for our exploration of death, our relationship to those who have died and grief. Can you tell us a little more about this, as well as your future creative plans?

"I believe we are the result of our experiences, that we build our knowledge and being due to the people and experiences we encounter, how we acknowledge these others in the work that we can be fascinating.  Clay Networks set out to acknowledge the contribution of others to the formation of our selves through 3d printing in clay.  The residency and engagement sessions at the British Ceramics Biennial in 2019 revealed a number of possible avenues for development.  Visitors were photographed, and their silhouette was translated to a digital line.  This outline was paired with the outline of another visitor or member of staff, and a digital objects was created that connected the 2 outlines.  These objects were then printed in clay, creating a physical manifestation of the connection between these 2 individuals.  (Pictured below: pieces from Clay Networks - image thanks to Jenny Harper)

Clay Networks "On the opening night of BCB, Katia, a visitor, asked if she could be included in the objects.  I paired her with a member of staff who was working in the flatbacks production area.  I created a digital outline of Katia from her photograph and paired it with Sarah’s in Rhino, before exporting it to print on the delta printer.  As the first face, Sarah, began to appear in the first few layers, Katia’s colleague exclaimed “I know who that is – it’s Sarah, she works in a studio in Manchester.  You should meet Sarah actually – I’ll introduce you to her.”  This simple statement re-affirmed the purpose of the research – to facilitate a more meaningful connection through the use of technology in combination with clay and making. 

"I would like to explore connecting people to others that have died in printed objects, by way of acknowledging the ongoing connections and influence others have on us as individuals beyond death.  

"Moving forwards, I will utilise both transfer decoration and 3d printing in clay to further explore The Materiality of Grief ​- engaging with others through making in response to our experience of grief.  I hope that this develops into a project that can have a positive impact on the people that experience it."

To find out more about CJ O'Neill and her work, visit her website here. She also is interested in hearing from and connecting with those working around grief, death and creativity - with contact information available via her site. 

By Emily Oldfield 

Images provided with thanks to CJ O'Neill




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