Karen Banks is a ceramic artist who expresses her love of the natural world and the vessel forms created by nature, by producing handbuilt pieces with an organic quality, marked by the elemental forces of fire and smoke.

After studying graphic design and natural history illustration at college Karen moved to London from Northumberland in 1984, to launch her career as a designer. She went on to spend almost 30 years working in the design industry. 

Karen started creating ceramics in the mid-1980s. She found clay to be a comforting medium, and the slower techniques of hand building rather than wheel, to be a good antidote to her hectic work life. She tended to produce large coiled pieces that she could take her time over, and develop an intuitive bond with. Increasingly she found herself using less glaze, preferring the warmth and tactile qualities of unglazed clay.

She became interested in smoke firing in the mid-1990s through visits to the ceramics collections of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and the British Museum. she found herself in awe of the beauty and simplicity of the strong functional forms of past craftspeople, decorated only by the markings of the burnishing tool, the hand of the maker, and the effects of fire and smoke. But it was attending a one week smoke firing course by the renowned potter Jane Perryman, in 2002, that ignited her long-term vision and passion for this way of firing.

Her inspiration comes from the natural world, and the beauty in found objects. Unearthing pieces of broken ceramic particularly interests her, made of clay which comes from the earth, to end up returning to the earth to be discovered like a piece from some historical jigsaw. She sets out to create a sense of the unearthed and ‘found’ in her work. Karen enjoys the unpredictability of smoke firing, as it enhances the organic and natural quality of the individual pieces. No two pieces are ever the same, only similar, as if part of the same ‘family’.

The vessel is a constant theme for Karen, as is the relation of the inside to the outside. She is interested in the contrast between the aged and weathered textures of the exterior walls of objects such as pebbles and shells, and the silky smooth interiors when exposed. For Karen, the experience of touching the vessel is as important as taking in its form. The curves of her large vessels are accentuated by the burnishing and polishing processes she uses. With the small vessels, it is all about the contrasting tactile experiences, and the tension between their apparent fragility and ability to balance.

Karen hand builds from a mixture of stoneware and porcelain clays, using a combination of pinching, pressing and scraping techniques for the small vessels, molding and coiling for the large vessels.