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Emilie Taylor May Day May Day May Day

Emilie Taylor May Day May Day May Day

Excerpts from the catalogue Essay by Shane Enright

This is Taylor’s third major solo show and comprises entirely new work. As with her Edgelands exhibition which toured from Oldham to Stoke on Trent, Birkenhead and Farnham in 2017-18, and 2019’s Beating the Bounds in London, the new body of work continues a narrative focus on the lives of women and girls, but weaves around the storytelling open ended streamers for interpretation and conjecture.

The centrepiece is a sequence of tall paired cylindrical vessels, intricately decorated with animated scenes. The ground is soft washes of pastel colours or stencilled floral patterns in cream or umber tones. Over these Taylor has drawn - with extraordinary finesse in the soft clay - animated scenes populated with women and girls in liminal landscapes somewhere at the edge of town, or in domestic flock-wallpapered interiors. One pair shows women dancing around Maypoles, in another two we see single mothers, hallowed with gold leaf,  holding or corralling infants. Other vases show groups of girls, on the cusp of womanhood, in animated movement with flailing arms and acrobatic postures. I am not entirely sure whether they are anxious or ecstatic. I think of Stevie Smith’s “not waving but drowning”.

Before I wonder about what these might say, I ask Emilie about how they are made. All originate with scale drawings, which are in turn drawn from photographs of posed sitters. The approach is precise and premeditated but can look insouciant. First time round, the clay slips fuse softly like watercolours to the body and her scratched imagery is fixed in the kiln. A second firing bonds a transparent glaze and yet a third is required to fix the gold transfers which – Icon-like – halo her figures and add lush cornfields or scrubby plants to her landscapes and in-between places. Technically this is exceptionally difficult, in Taylor’s hands the results are virtuoso.

Myth and ritual intertwine with the everyday in much of Taylor’s storytelling: in Edgelands the works were constructed around the Greek myths of Persephone, goddess of fertility, and her mother Demeter. I ask Emilie about this. Here the characters are recast as Horae; originally the ancient greek personifications of the seasons, but later coming to embody the female forces of natural order and social justice - elemental binders of family and community, tasked with protecting ritual, traditional customs and social order. Emilie speaks of “everyday Madonnas” and I think of the challenges of home schooling, remote working, of the child rearing and caring in a time of pandemic. There is a laundry basket on one of these vases. Some of her interiors are claustrophobic, some of the landscapes are bleak. Bunting billows threadbare in one backdrop. These are remembered stories and lived lives, brought vividly before us.

The sensibilities of “May Day May Day May Day” come together most intricately, it seems to me, in the Maypole vases. Here we see her young women dancing and criss-crossing - once again on that ecstatic brink - around ribbons garlanded with slogans. This is Taylor’s take on Walter Crane’s famous The Workers’ Maypole print of 1894 and his Garland for May Day of the next year. I look closely: “Production for use not for profit”; “employers’ liability”; “cooperation not competition”. These ambitions, vividly foregrounded by allegorical female figures in Crane’s graphics, are as relevant today as they were at the time he illustrated them. I ask Emilie if she has added slogans of her own. She mentions two: “domestic labour is labour” and “no-one is illegal”.  

In Taylor’s own allegories of the Horae; of the Morris dancing; of food and the harvest as either want or plenty; and particularly in the portrayal of her female characters as persons with agency engaged with and labouring to recognise and realise their worlds, Emilie Taylor emphatically affirms both struggle and solidarity. This is a beautifully woven, bravura and necessary endeavour.

Shane Enright is a life-long trade unionists and was for many years a workers’ rights campaigner at Amnesty International. He has written widely on contemporary ceramics over more than three decades.