A thirst for knowledge and continual learning is what drives Lucille Lewin. ‘I really hate not learning and wanted a goal,’ the 69-year-old artist tells me in her London studio. Having recently completed an MA in Ceramics at the Royal College of Art (RCA) and been awarded The Young Masters Grand Ceramics Prize, the South African-born artist has certainly achieved her objective. While proving that success can come at anytime in life and a second career is worth pursuing. ‘I’ve been very lucky,’ she continues, ‘The award was extremely unexpected, the other people on the shortlist were incredibly talented, people whose work I admire – I was actually filming when they announced the award thinking one of these people will be happy because I’ve got a film of it! – and then they were all looking at me, it was very odd. But so thrilling. And somewhat ironic because I’m not young anymore.’
Lewin and her husband Richard founded the fashion chain Whistles in 1976 – in the early days Whistles was a wonderful, aspirational shop; a brilliant edit of lovely labels together with an own-brand range. An early example of a lifestyle store, if ever there was one. But what about Whistles’ current incarnation? ‘It’s very high street now, terribly disappointing to see what’s happened to it because it had such a good niche. I shop in COS and Uniqlo now.’
As a teenager, Lewin briefly studied fine art and anthropology before meeting her husband, ‘I met Richard, then he got into Harvard Business School and in those days you’d just get married and go. I studied art at night school in Boston and worked in a fantastic contemporary homeware store called Design Research (sadly no longer there) before I came to London and worked at Harvey Nichols, Habitat and Liberty.’ Returning to university later on in life to complete her degree and go onto a Masters course is a wonderful achievement; I was delighted to have this opportunity to talk to Lucille Lewin about her ceramic work and brilliant two-part career:
TNMA: How does it feel to go from being a creative talent-spotter (at Whistles and other retailers) to being the creative talent?
LL: That kind of talent-spotting was because I used to get bored with things quickly, I’d go in and out and then onto the next thing. In a way the connection between fashion and art is my life – kind of what I’ve always done.
TNMA: Is there a natural progression from art to fashion?
LL: The way I worked in fashion was incredibly creative. It was never pure fashion. It’s quite interesting now, I’m really doing what comes out of my DNA. Communicating what’s inside me. I think it’s a natural progression, it’s the same aesthetic, the same eye, the same feeling about things. It’s definitely aligned to fashion.
TNMA: Your work feels very organic, are you inspired by nature?
LL: I think it has a lot to do with growing up barefoot. We spent a lot of time on the beach and I’ve still got a house by the sea. It’s about aesthetics that are really authentic to oneself – I always picked up little things. I remember my mother getting so upset with me because I’d collected all sorts of rusty things in my bedroom. Lots of collections of little things that all related to each other, little narratives – I’ve always done that. I understood why my mother ran out of patience with me and put everything in a big brown box in the corner; I just had all these things in my bedroom and had done nothing with them. I still magpie things away and don’t use them for ages, only to come back to them later. I think she would have been so thrilled that I had taken the step to go to do my Masters at the RCA, as she had no education, she was a ballet dancer. She was always incredibly supportive and proud of all of us and I think she would have really liked what I am doing.
TNMA: What’s the benefit of being a mature student?
LL: Doing it now having had all that experience was huge – you have a different attitude when you’re a mature student. And I was much more mature. It was incredibly time consuming, very full-time and I did a lot of late nights. But I had to limit myself because I have a family hub. If I’d been by myself I’d have moved into the RCA. The MA course was one of the most difficult things to get through, it really challenges you. It’s not for sissies. One thing I hadn’t realised was how important computer skills were – now I have someone to help with my website and that side of things because it’s incredibly time-consuming. I know I’ve made lifelong friends of all ages on the course – I worked in fashion all my life with young people and I don’t really see a separation.
TNMA: You mentioned that your ceramics work comes from deep inside and is very autobiographical, please can you tell me a bit more about that?
LL: It is quite personal, I am sure that something as momentous as surgery (Lucille had a non-cancerous brain tumour operated on in 2009) would have a big result. I used the box that my artificial tears come in as a mould to make the small porcelain box-worlds so they are quite autobiographical. Clay is very sensitive, and often reflects, ceramicists will tell you, one’s inner state. If I am not in a good state of mind, the porcelain will not do what I want it to do. I am told that my work does make some people very emotional, I had not realised quite how much it did until my final show at the Royal College, where I discussed my work and interacted with the public. I’m so excited when someone likes my work and can relate to it. A wonderful doctor came to the stand and explained why he liked the work so much. My father was a doctor and I was always looking at his medical books. My parents came from Russia, built themselves up and created their lives. I think immigration comes into it. People have looked at my work and said it represents the chaos of the world I make and I break and I re-use. And that’s like taking a little bit of what you had before and building on it, rebuilding lives. This whole funny world of curiosities has built up a picture of who I am.