Creating beautiful art left Anne Marie with chronic asthma, but she's no intention of stopping
Fumes from the paints she uses on her ceramic pieces have left Anne Marie Robinson battling ill-health but, she tells Una Brankin, she just leaves the windows open now.
Anne Marie Robinson's work is breathtaking – literally. For the fumes she has inhaled for 30 years while adorning her stunning ceramic art have given her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or, in other words, very bad asthma.
"When I got the COPD diagnosis I thought 'Am I going to die?'" the artist recalls. "But they told me it was a specialist environment form of it: basically I got it from the chemicals I've breathed in from the liquid gold and silver lustre on my teapots and animals.
"I can't breathe at night sometimes and I have to use an inhaler two or three times a day. I'm also very prone to chest infections."
The diagnosis meant the English-born mother-of-three had to give up smoking.
"I really miss the whole ritual of making rollies and the special box I kept all my accoutrements in," she sighs. "But it was bad enough when I went into a smoker's house the other day and was met by this wall of smoke – my lungs couldn't take much of that."
As a result of the COPD, Anne Marie's studio in her quaintly overgrown garden outside Lurgan is well ventilated all year round and she "freezes" in the winter.
She's a slight, colourful figure working at her bench. Just over five feet tall, she has a mop of golden hair piled on her head and magenta lips. And when she suddenly hisses – claws drawn – to jokingly illustrate a bitchy remark, she's the picture of a pretty marmalade cat, even down to the bright green eyes.
Her own jet-black Kitty sits quietly with her in the studio, either on the floor or curled up in the kiln. A "potter's cat", Kitty is as dark as her owner is fair. Anne Marie's naturally vivid colouring is all over her most recent piece of art, a typically quirky teapot with an intricate, twisted gold handle, but she took her inspiration from elsewhere.
"I was taking a walk through Lurgan Park one day and these big trees just seemed to jump out at me with their knots and their lumpy barks," she says in a strong Lancashire accent, verging on Scottish. "I thought 'Sod this, I have to get home and make a pot' – and took off to start working on this."
Her work is a minimalist's nightmare but it's exquisitely detailed, funny and highly individual, and she has been commissioned for many public artworks and by clients including Senator George Mitchell, the late former Northern Ireland Secretary of State Dr Mo Mowlam and former Irish President Mary Robinson. Her lime-tree inspired teapot is on display at Down Arts Centre in Downpatrick until August 30.
Like all of her pots, it's fully functional, though I doubt many collectors would scald and stain the beautifully handmade porcelain with hot tea. There's a hint of Turkish Ottoman artefacts in her sensuous design, with a splash of Dali and the wacky film sets of director Tim Burton's Beetlejuice, Willy Wonka and Alice in Wonderland.
As one local critic put it: "If Lewis Carroll had wanted Alice to journey through a homeware store on the way to her appointment with the Red Queen, these are, perhaps, the type of pieces she may have stopped to admire."
One of the more refined palaces of the south in Game Of Thrones would be an ideal setting for Anne Marie's magnificent punch bowl, which she has painstakingly adorned with gold-leaf balls, flowers, insects and nine miniature goblet cups, or for the large rectangular mirror she bought in a charity shop and framed with rosebuds, twigs and dead winter leaves. Look closely and you'll find a family of miniscule hedgehogs in the undergrowth.
"It takes ages rolling all those fiddly little balls in particular," she says with a roll of those harlequin eyes. "Wine helps ... but then I'll go tripping over that step! In general, though, it's quite therapeutic work – slow and progressive, and it's great to see it blossoming."
The fascination with 3D art began with Anne Marie's first trip as a child to the Ulster Museum, where her father, Michael Robinson, took up the post of Keeper of Applied Art, at the height of the Troubles in 1972.
"I came over from England with my dad and my sister in a boat – which was like a cattle truck – and it was lashing," she recalls, bent double laughing at the memory.
"There was me with my bright red hair and freckled face, and Dad saying, 'There's a lot of trouble here so keep your heads down.'
"But we settled in well – I went to school in Holywood and I loved going to work with dad. There were exhibits from all sorts of artists – painters, sculptors, printmakers, craftspeople. I think I've always been a creative soul, but the museum really opened up my eyes to what art can be."
She struggled to make a living after graduating in 3D Design from the University of Ulster and admits it was hard at times to feed the children, Jessica (22), fashion student, Kirsty (17) and "the wee late one" Anthea (12), all of whom are from her second marriage to Paul, an IT consultant from Tyrone.
"It's tough – only a very small percentage of the population buy art, and then it's usually for the big names, not because they connect with the art. And people here don't tend to buy big ceramics. I'd like to be a full-time ceramic artist but I can't afford to."
She's coy about her age – "Say I'm 100 and then everybody'll think I look great" – and hates looking at photographs of herself, yet she hasn't changed much from her wedding picture on the wall. She blames her mother for bossing her into a Princess Diana-style bridal gown with leg-of-mutton sleeves, a far cry from her more bohemian, playful personality. Her fortunes changed for the better after the wedding and she won a Barry's tea sponsored Craft Council award for Best Handmade Teapot in Ireland.
"I was a bit of a tomboy when I was young but I did like playing with tea-sets, and when I got into ceramics I liked the challenge of making a teapot, having to make the lid and the spout and the handle and merging them.
"My friends say that my animal pieces seem to reflect my personality more, that they're witty and more lively. I started off doing sheep, then when I got fed up with them I did pigs with huge ears, then cats with huge eyes and paws. I've started doing birds recently. I don't know where the ideas come from sometimes. It's just random –there's no formula at all."
To help pay the bills Anne Marie runs workshops in her studio and has a big waiting list for her ceramic art class in Maghaberry Prison three days a week.
The author Carlo Gebler is a colleague. I tell her about a cousin who taught there and never read his students' case files, so his judgment wouldn't be clouded. She doesn't either.
"If somebody tells me so-and-so's a rapist, I don't want to know. I wish they'd never told me. They're all ages; some are very accomplished," she says. "Some are taken away in the middle of the course – released or moved to Magilligan. There are quite a few in for growing cannabis at the minute and one of them's very good.
"It's very difficult, challenging work though – it's not the same telling grown men what to do as it is with kids. I like to escape back here away from teaching."
The ceramic art pieces for sale at the Downpatrick exhibition range from £150 to £1,000. It's a colourful display, interspersed with her monotone signature – black and white checks and spots: "I like cleanness and crispness of black and white, and the geometric thing. Yes, I am very neat and tidy – sometimes I wish I could just take a big brush and slap it on, but I am a bit fastidious."
And despite the asthma, she's still painting on light-catching gold leaf, silver and platinum lustre.
"It's very expensive but it transforms everything and brings it to life. Everything I do is basically made from mud – the lustre makes them really special."
- Anne Marie Robinson's exhibition is at Down Arts Centre, 2-6 Irish Street, Downpatrick, from today until August 30, Mon-Sat, 10am-4.30pm. Admission free
All her own handiwork
- Anne Marie uses the ancient punch, slab and coil method in her ceramic art, a technique used by African women to make tall pots
- Her first attempt was an "absolutely hideous" milk jug as a teenager
- Her first exhibition was in the Octagon Gallery on University Avenue, Belfast, which used to show students' work. It no longer exists
- Her work has been included in the collections of the Ulster Museum and the National Museum of Ireland
- She works in porcelain and grogged clay and her pieces are entirely hand-built. Each is highly individual with rich use of colour and lustre decoration
- The larger sculptural female forms are decorated with lustres and velvets – and a pair of spectacles in one case. For details visit, www.amrobinsonceramicart.co.uk