Deirdre McLoughlin – ceramic sculptor

Deirdre McLoughlin (Photo by Kato Tan)

With work in permanent collections all over the world and a steady stream of solo and group shows internationally since 1974, Deirdre McLoughlin’s art is instantly recognisable. Working almost exclusively with ceramics using a traditional coiling method, Deirdre’s sculptures seem to embody both unapologetic strength and a sort of tenderness of form.

Interestingly for Sonnets and Dirty Dishes readers looking for inspiration in Deirdre’s career, she did not attend art college. Instead she studied humanities in Trinity College Dublin. Later, when she understood that clay gave her a language of expression, she made her own apprenticeship by moving to Kyoto and finding her own masters to study under. She now lives and works in the Netherlands.

In this interview for Sonnets and Dirty Dishes Deirdre talks about what she calls ‘the great adventure’ of living deeply through her work.

Three from ‘I am too’ series


In this section we ask artists to talk about what started them down the road they are on – how did it begin? On Sonnets and Dirty Dishes, we want to explore what motivated people to take the leap from dreaming, to doing. We ask: Can you tell us what drives you to do what you do?

DEIRDRE: “I have called myself variously shapemaker, sculptor, visual artist – and I’ve heard myself say I work with mud. Privately I’ve sometimes thought of myself as an artist undercover.

Amsterdam 1972, the artist Rosemary Andrews threw me a lump of clay and said make something and I’ve been doing so since. I was 22 with a degree in humanities and I had never had an art class in my life.

Nine years on the deaths in Northern Ireland of the hunger strikers in Long Kesh prison galvanised me to clarity. Till then my commitment to clay as an art medium was confused. People asked me to make vessels while I was working the clay emotionally to an end even I did not understand. With this dawning clarity I saw the clay shapes were a language of expression. As a composer finds sound, a painter colour, a writer words I found form in clay and it was what people called art and it was necessary. There was nothing for me to do but to grow in my medium and to this end I went to live and work in Kyoto where the best sculptors in ceramic were based. Not an easy decision; I procrastinated for a year. I lived and worked there for four years visiting China for three months – the experience was my training ground.

Finding form in clay is my great adventure. In working I am living deeply.

“I’ve never seen doing what I do as a choice. From my young years I felt driven to express; but express what and how was my problem, till the day I was thrown that lump of clay. The medium gave me freedom as in my ignorance of it I had no standard.

I knew painting as I had often mitched from school which was located in the centre of Dublin and spent the time in the National Gallery and visiting the Hendriks and Dawson Galleries. The day after my eighteenth birthday I took the boat to Holyhead and hitched to London to see the paintings in the Tate and the National Gallery London. There were no art classes in my school so painting seemed to me to be for others. I had hoped to write which brought me to Trinity College to train my mind – but writing failed me. I did some acting but it didn’t hold my interest.

Finding form in clay is my great adventure. In working I am living deeply.

Nono, ceramic, 32cm. (photo by Rob Bohle)


In this section we ask artists to talk about their workspaces, tools, and resources they need. We ask what their work day looks like. We also ask them to respond personally to the Sylvia Plath quote that gives this project its title: ‘I would live a life of conflict, of juggling children, sonnets, love and dirty dishes.’

“All I need is a bag of clay and I can make something.

Starting out I installed a heavy metal and brick kiln in a rented studio and on leaving I had no choice but leave it behind. For about 15 years I rented the use of kilns from potters and ceramicists starting in Japan as the old custom there was to carry the unfired works up and down mountain tracks to massive noborigama kilns– I thought if that could be done in the past it certainly could be done in this age of motorised transport.

I’ve had 14 to 18 free or rented work spaces. Usually my spaces are fairly clear as at each significant move I’ve culled works.

My studio today has shelving, two kilns, three work tables, storage for clay, a sink, a window and a skylight.  It is 35 sq meters in Xpositron – a facility with 54 studios of various sizes and certified carbon neutral and I’m there to stay I tell everyone. All my equipment is mobile – including the kilns.

A typical workday is 6 to 10 hours in the studio – cycling the 8 kms across Amsterdam from where I live.

Deirdre in her studio

“I sold time elsewhere to enable the sculptures.”

“The main distraction has always been finance. In the beginning I knew that not only could I not expect to make money from the sculptures, but I considered it necessary to keep the works free from the money question. My artwork was not connected to commerce. I was also convinced that if I kept working somehow I would survive. I sold time elsewhere to enable the sculptures. In my late thirties and forties I found that although there was recognition for the works this did not translate into finance. For comfort and to stop myself going mad with anxiety I read James Joyce’s letters over and over again – letters full of complaints at his poor pecuniary situation. Later, between gallery sales and invitations to give short workshops and help from my husband Henk Brouwer, I gave up my extramural money making activities. In recent years my artwork supports itself with some extra.

I have never met amongst my colleagues an artist/craftsperson who with their own hands can survive without having to find money in some sort of paid work; unless they have outside support whether it be from inherited money or property, government or institutional or family finance – patronage of any sort. Money is a problem.

NOO, ceramic, 48cm (photo by Rob Bohle)


Publication, performance, recording, exhibiting. In this section we ask: how important is it to you that your work exists in a public space? Why do you think this is? And can you tell us about the time and effort you give to getting your work out in the world?

“It’s important. In the first place a work has to feel right – feel alive. That it communicates to me, it follows that it must communicate to some others – the few or many as that might be. A work is in my care till it passes to a gallery who finds a buyer and the work goes into the care of another.  I’m always happy if a museum acquires a sculpture as works in ceramic communicate and resonate through time.

From early on I’ve been aware that professional photos were important. Once in my thirties before we were all digital I had the experience of manning a slide machine at a large gathering of female artists and saw clearly that no matter how good the work – a bad image will kill it.  I have a website for 15 years now. My first post on FB was in March 2016 and on Instagram a year later. I’m a member of the International Academy of Ceramics and have been short listed and have won some international competitions. I’m dependent on galleries finding me. I don’t push beyond presenting works in the best possible light when invited to do so.

Red Life III, ceramic, 33cm, (Photo by Rob Bohle)


Many creative people speak of periods of self doubt or imposter syndrome. It seems that choosing to persist with our creative projects takes great courage at times. In this section we ask: How has self doubt affected you, if at all? What have you done to bring yourself through difficult times and allow yourself to persist? What has helped you?

“Doubt is part of the process in exploring the material to find what it is that necessarily must be expressed. It is an adventure to what is not yet known. Energy is the key – then focus. My whole self is my working tool.  I’ve explored various physical movement disciplines and meditation exercises. I’ve placed myself in other cultures, situations and environments to absorb knowledge. Currently I make long walks though not often, I practise deep dance often and enjoy finding new vocal sounds. Mentally I’m aware of the effort to keep my mind from falling into habitual patterns of thought.  I need to be open – to understand; to try to see clearly.”

Black Madonna, bronze, 30cm.
SHU, ceramic, 30cm.

Instagram : @deirdre.mcloughlin


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