A Maker’s Story: Candace Bahouth’s grotto-fabulous mosaics
With the Jubilee in sight, we pay a visit to the Somerset-based artist, whose pottery-encrusted mirrors and other magical mosaics feature kings and queens of every stripe. We delight in her irreverent approach
- Paul Whitbread
It’s four weeks until the world’s greatest music festival begins and Michael Eavis is standing in Candace Bahouth’s garden in Somerset, discussing Peter Blake. It’s a surreal situation – or, it would be, if this were anyone but Candace. The pair are talking outside her studio, beside a trio of mosaiced obelisks. Beside them, crates of chipped pottery spill on to the floor. The lawn, falling away below, is studded with clump of totemic tree-like structures. One is encrusted in shells, another in slivers of shale, the rest in fragments of old pottery, embedded in coloured cement. They are, like all her work, fanciful, frivolous and flamboyant, in the Rococo tradition – grotto fabulous. Gesturing to the wisteria-tangled façade of her 17th-century stone cottage, the artist declares she “would mosaic the whole thing if it wasn’t listed”. Instead, she has had to contend with doing a drainpipe, whose ugliness was annoying her, and infilling a hole in the flagstones underfoot.
Candace, New York-born to Lebanese-Palestinian and Italian parents, is unfazed by the arrival of the king of Glastonbury. They are old friends and neighbours. He has been known to leave ceramic offerings – chipped plates, orphaned saucers – outside Candace’s gate, beside her beloved Morris Traveller. Peter Blake, another old friend and another king of sorts, sends her china too: Staffordshire figures, porcelain flowers and, in particular, brightly coloured ceramic birds. After they make their way to the table outside her studio, Candace then sorts, cuts and occasionally smashes these presents, before incorporating them into her mosaics: mirrors, benches, candelabras, madcap candlesticks made of stacked teacups, even shoes.
Candace’s world is full of kings and queens. Elizabeth II appears often, her face cut from commemorative pieces. “Only an American could smash a plate of the Queen,” Candace laughs, her eyes twinkling behind a thick dark fringe. Threaded with glittering strands, her fringe twinkles too.
Candace has made many regal works, using commemorative plates, cups and other royal wedding and jubilee memorabilia in the process. Where the Queen goes, she says, the King always follows. Prince Phillip? Candace affects a look of horror. “Elvis!” she cries. The Golden Boy can be found on every royal mirror she’s ever made. That said, the queen’s late husband does also appear. Here he resides in the throne room, naturally, peering out from the mosaiced cistern of her studio loo.
Such is Candace’s irreverent approach – something underscored by the fact that she’s as happy using a chipped cup from a flea market as she is the heirlooms given to her by friends who want them turned into something beautiful. “I’m entirely unacademic about it,” she explains. Candace doesn’t care if it’s Wedgwood, Worcester or worthless. “As long as it’s beautiful.” Beauty is at the core of everything she does, she says on our visit. “Some of my favourite artists, like Francis Bacon, used their art to express all the misery they’d gone through. I want mine to reflect the wonderful things about the world.”
“I moved to Somerset in the late 1980s. I’d studied art in Syracuse University in New York, but as well as doing what I wanted to, I also needed to make art that other people wanted too. I love faces and because I’ve always been good at portraits, I started doing drawings for people – their children, their dogs, even their horses. I then went on a woven-tapestry course and realised I could combine the two. My first woven portrait was of Gilbert and George. I did lots of archetypal faces: Tutankhamun and the Statue of Liberty, for instance, as well as the Queen. Two of my punk portraits were bought by the V&A.
“For a long time, I was known as a tapestry artist. I still have a separate needlepoint studio, as tapestry and cement don’t mix very well. I have a natural feeling for woven tapestry and the way it covers things, which I think translates well to mosaics. I once made two chairs, which sold through Liberty and Sotheby’s, that looked like tapestry, but in fact were covered in shards of pottery. I love the whimsy of that, although they’re quite serious-looking things.
“Amédée Ozenfant, the Cubist painter and writer, said that ‘art is the demonstration that the ordinary is extraordinary.’ I agree; it’s why I like using pottery. In my studio are piles and piles of china. Some of it is quite everyday stuff, other bits that I think must be rather ‘special’, but I’m not interested in their value as antiques. I care about their capacity to delight and surprise and bring pleasure. I agree with David Hockney that the source of art is, above all, love. My inspiration comes from the work itself and the beauty of the china itself – the exquisite colours, the artistry of a hand-painted pattern.
“I’m currently working on a collection of candelabras, full of wacky characters and sprawling gold oak leaves, which my amazing assistant, Helen, cuts by hand. I’m doing one of Adam and Eve at the moment. The base is a figurine of a woman up a ladder holding an apple, with her breasts out. Thinking about it, they’re probably not Adam and Eve, but I say they are. I’m planning another too, using a wonderful snarling tiger, a camel with a rather disturbing tongue, and two Italian clowns.
“Art is often a struggle against chaos. While my studio might feel chaotic, what I’m trying to do is very considered. I call it purposeful play – putting broken bits together to make something poetic. I like the fact that I’m saving these damaged things from being thrown away, instead letting them bring moments of joy.
“Most of the stuff I work with is already blemished, chipped or cracked – I recently made a candelabra with a cow missing a horn, so I built a new one for her then I made some for her cowherd too, which is rather nice. Often I have to cut things up to get just the fragment I want – particularly the faces. Sometimes the plates are so beautiful I almost can’t bear to cut them; Helen has to remind me that that’s why I buy things. That said, I’ve got a 1937 George VI mug designed by Laura Knight that I’ll never break. It lives in my kitchen.
“My love of faces is definitely to blame for my fascination with royal memorabilia, which is the ultimate combination of faces and celebration. I recently tried to buy a commemorative teapot from a charity shop and the shopkeeper wouldn’t sell it to me as I told her I was going to break it. It’s a shame, as it was going to become something even better.
“I collect all sorts of faces. I’m having a religious moment currently. Not literally – I’m just fascinated by the iconography, the niches, the statues. I’ve got a great drying-up cloth with the Virgin Mary on it. I’ve also got a fabulous collection of plates with faces – Nixon, Clinton, Obama and Kennedy are there, so are the king and queen of Monaco. One of my favourites is the Frank Sinatra, which sings My Way. My granddaughter thinks it’s magical; it is, in a way – though the batteries cost more than the plate.”
Candace’s candlesticks and mirrors are available to buy from Paul Smith, 9 Albemarle St, London W1
An exhibition of Candace’s mirrors will run at the Victoria Art Gallery, Bath, in July 2023
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