Artist Interview: Marice Cumber

 I came across the ceramic work of Marice Cumber after discovering Accumulate, a charitable-status art school for people experiencing homelessness, of which Marice is the director. The inequality gap, or should I say the accessibility gap, in art schools and higher education more generally is huge and undeniable for anyone who has attended university, whether or not they are keen to admit it. When I realised Marice was also a practicing artist, I was keen to learn more, especially given the rising profile and incredible work of the organisation, however I quickly learned that Marice's ceramic practice and her role as director are very separate. Whilst this was something I did not expect to hear explicitly, in contemplation is something I believe to be a healthy way of expressing one's creativity by being able to separate the personal and professional aspects of life.

Marice Cumber, The Vessel of Ongoing Optimism 1, 2021. 53cm x 9cm x 18cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

How would you describe your work as an artist?
For me, it's really important to contextualise what an artist actually is, it’s all about how you use your creativity. I use it with the visual medium of ceramics, and also in the way I have developed the charity [Accumulate]. One is an output and one is creative thinking; I don’t differentiate the two. If I was to explain my ceramics, they are huge, narrative pieces, and by that I mean they are domestic; cups and vessels, very oversized, like a diary of my life and my emotions. I include words on the pieces: big, bold, shout-out statements on my feelings and how I navigate life. I've found that they resonate with people who have experienced similar things. They are intensely personal but appeal to other people. 

Ceramics are a fascinating medium to me; I feel like you really have to want to make them, people rarely stumble upon ceramics as I suppose both the creative process and the materials are less accessible, less intuitive. How did you come to ceramics?

A while ago I went to adult education classes at Morley College in south London. In the 1980s you could go for free if you were unemployed, so I made the most of it and did as many as I could. I had done my degree in fine art but I wasn’t as emotionally invested with other mediums. I had this great ceramics tutor at Morley, and eventually I was just there constantly. This was when I was 23/24, then my work got picked up by a gallery which was amazing. Later I opened up a ceramics business, and started to put more commercial designs from my drawings onto bone china. After that I didn’t do hand-built ceramics for 30 years; life got in the way and the business was taking up too much of my headspace. When I set up Accumulate seven years ago, we had an exhibition at The Guardian building and a friend came up to me and said “this is all great but when are you going to do your ceramics again?”. My own creativity was lacking, and that friend's comment got me thinking: why am I waiting? Four years ago I got a studio again, and re-engaged with my own practice, separate from my day job.

When I set up Accumulate, I was at rock bottom after having suffered a severe depression for over a year and could relate to the people I was working with; I identified with their sense of hopelessness. People are being more open with their emotions now, sometimes it feels like there is nothing to hide, and I want that to come across in my creative work.

Marice Cumber, Urn of Arrival, 2021. 38cm x 34cm x 37cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

How does Accumulate fit into the pre-existing art school, or higher education, system? 

We engage with traditional art institutions and provide scholarships to other institutions, we're not a lone-standing organisation. We had set up Accumulate to facilitate people's creativity who might not ordinarily have access to resources, then it transformed into an art school, not the other way round. Now we have set terms and proper engagement, proper projects. The motivation with getting Accumulate off the ground was not really identifying the gap in pre-existing art schools, it was more that Accumulate evolved into one, with our own values intact.

What role does Accumulate have in inspiring and motivating its students? 

The homelessness aspect of the work that we do is incidental. I reach out to hostels and tell people that I’m putting on photography workshops, to let people know that there are things open to them. There is a lot of creativity in these communities which has not ever been explored. New, supportive communities have developed through Accumulate and that is really valuable. The level of engagement on an individual level isn't the end goal here; I don’t care if someone wants to come and sit in on the workshop for two hours just to get out of the hostel environment. We provide a framework that supports the potential; having the sessions there enables people to explore different mediums, and allows creative engagement to flourish. Our scholarship scheme links them to access and foundation courses, removing the barrier of getting to university; we include travel and tuition costs to make it as easy as possible.

Mark Rothko, Untitled [Blue, Green and Brown], 1952. Collection of Mrs Paul Mellon, Upperville, Virginia.

Finally, and returning back to your personal practice, I'd love to know who your greatest influences are, both in the art and social realms. 

The first thing that comes to mind is an initiative called Incredible Edible, a scheme where people can plant vegetable plants in random public spaces such as curb-side and outside train stations; it's real community engagement. I got inspired myself by seeing someone just get off their arse and doing it. We can all do something in our community. When I first started Accumulate it was working with one hostel, we were so small but our values were the same.

Artistically I love the work of Mark Rothko; I like going to his room at the Tate [Britain] and staring at the purples all day. I remember going to see a show of Frida Kahlo’s show at the ICA when I was 17 and completely engaged with it. The way she exposed her demons through her art was incredible. I also love Tracey Emin, a real female icon. You have to get your head out of the fact that work by some of these artists is so immensely popular; it doesn't mean it can't have an effect on you on a personal level.

Tracey Emin, You touch my Soul, 2008. Neon, 42.1cm x 160cm. Image courtesy of White Cube. Copyright Tracey Emin.

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