Story from Issue 15
Harley Weir’s photographs unfold in mysterious fragments: sensual, erotic, feminine, intimate all at once. It’s no small wonder that the London-born Weir has become one of fashion’s most sought-after creatives in recent years. Her dreamy editorials routinely appear in Vogue, i-D, POP and Dazed, and she’s been called upon by labels including Celine, Balenciaga, Missoni and more. Weir’s work is held in the permanent collection of Amsterdam’s Foam Fotografie museum, where she staged her first solo exhibition in 2017. And her star has not stopped rising since. Behind the glossy veneer of fashion, the gentle-spoken photographer harbours a steadfast inquisitiveness towards the human condition. She’s travelled to Calais to document the small, precarious spaces within the migrant and refugee camps, and turned her lens on conflict zones including Israel’s West Bank to capture portraits and landscapes. Weir hasn’t shied away from difficult situations, but it’s her latest project—and most personal yet—that finds her at her most vulnerable. After Weir’s father was diagnosed with early- onset Alzheimer’s disease two years ago, they began collaborating on a collection of ceramics together in an effort “to work through happier times”.
HARLEY WEIR My dad had always been really interested in making ceramics. When he was younger, he did some courses and things like that. I think it was something he always would have loved to do more of but didn’t have the time for—he had a family to look after and be a part of. It’s something he never did as much as he would have liked, so we decided to start making things together. He bought a kiln and we’ve been making things together since.
JESSICA KLINGELFUSS We don’t often consider pottery a collaborative medium, so this is an intriguing take on it. Do you work side by side or do you work together on pieces?
HARLEY In the beginning, we tried making pieces in tandem. Now, we only do so when it feels right because it’s quite difficult to actually make things together. What usually happens is that my dad will make some-thing and I'll glaze it because he finds it difficult with the colours. Essentially, my dad’s type of Alzheimer’s is one that affects the eyes—it’s like you’re slowly forgetting how to see. That means that clay is the perfect material to work with because he can feel it and it’s visceral and tactile.
JESSICA As a photographer, what’s it like working in a new material and sharing your artistic practice with someone else?
HARLEY It’s been so fun to learn from my dad because he knows about ceramics . He teaches me as we go along, tells me things. Sometimes we create together and sometimes we just work alongside each other in a therapy-like situation. We’re both communicating without being highly pressured; we’re both expressing ourselves in a way that doesn’t feel stressful. I feel like he needed a bit of a push to do the things he wanted to do, especially because there are so many other things to do when you're busy. It’s a reminder to keep up with it.
Weir’s practice is deeply rooted in her devotion to analogue photography. Unusually for a photographer, she maintains a reverence for the material aspects of art-making—her hands are essential and she baulks at the thought of the immediacy of digital. While her ceramics have a distinctly Weirian touch, there are subtle nods to some of art history’s female greats—a twinge of Alina Szapocznikow’s sublime surrealist forms or Louise Bourgeois’ bulbous shapes. Still, the ceramics reflect Weir’s interest in rich textures, tone and colour. Like her photographs, they’re best viewed by honing in on subtle details.
HARLEY I’ve been working with my hands from when I was young and the whole process of art-making is very important to me. One of the reasons I still shoot film is because it’s so physical and that’s why I’ve had a problem turning completely to digital. Obviously, I enjoy the process of using my hands so much. It’s nice to have something else that I can do in a similar vein and that still feels like an emotional process as well.
JESSICA It must be liberating to work in a completely different medium from the one you’re very comfortable with.
HARLEY People know me as a photographer, so there’s pressure on my photography to look a certain way or to advertise a product. With ceramics I can be really free; I’ve got no one to answer to.
JESSICA Pottery is an analogue process, just like developing and printing film.
HARLEY Putting the pot into the kiln is exactly like putting the film into the lab. What’s it going to look like? How’s it going to come out? You don’t know with ceramics. There are many times you’re going to be shocked. That sense of anticipation is similar to film.
JESSICA I see a visual thread between the ceramics and the images in your Paintings series, in particular.
HARLEY There is definitely a connection. Actually, I wanted to put my images onto the ceramics but I just haven’t managed it yet. Every time I make something, I say to myself: “This one doesn't have a picture on it!” I’ll keep trying to see if that works because at some point it would be fun to blend ceramics and photography.
JESSICA The figures etched on the pieces are really intriguing, some have a childlike quality to them, others are quite humorous and many seem very anguished. I also see a number of feminine forms and very specific patterns or symbols: almost like cave paintings, they seem to tell a story.
HARLEY It’s very much like that. I’m sitting there chatting with someone at the same time, or with my dad. I’m just enjoying movement and trying not to freak out too much about how it’s going to look.
JESSICA Are you evoking earlier, personal memories?
HARLEY There’s a little storyboard in them but they’re very free. One minute I’ll be drawing something more meaningful, the next I’ll just doodle something I feel like at that moment. It’s very much about the process, rather than the end subject.
JESSICA You haven’t shared much of your ceramics practice openly yet, with the exception of Dogpot, which you recently posted online.
HARLEY With that particular one I was trying to recreate the symbol of Rome: the she-wolf. In a way, I was trying to make a pregnant dog. I made one but it cracked, and that one was my second attempt. I was envisioning a pregnant dog when I made it. It doesn't look like it at all, but that was the idea.
JESSICA The colour palette seems to be significant, too.
HARLEY I do tend to favour going very dark or very light, but I’m still experimenting. It’s hard to get glazes to work the way you want them to—most of that is exploration so far. Pink and dark colours seem to be working well for me. That’s probably something quite subconscious, I like extremes.
JESSICA There’s a curious, and fittingly extreme series of ceramics with knives jutting out of them.
HARLEY Those actually, funnily enough, are just tests of something I'd like to make. I went to my parents’ house for Christmas [two years ago], where my boyfriend and I were making the Christmas dinner with my family. There just wasn’t one sharp knife in the house so I ended up confiscating over fourteen knives that were all completely blunt. I took them home because it was so crazy that they had so many unsharpened knives. There was no control.
JESSICA It's far too common among parents.
HARLEY I think that’s probably going to happen to me! But I had to confiscate [the knives] because it was too much.
There is a long-standing notion that creativity is coupled with mental disorders and illnesses. On the one hand, there’s almost a stigma, where we think of artists’ creativity fueled by madness—for better or worse. On the other hand, art therapy has been lauded as a constructive outlet for those afflicted with degenerative brain diseases, allowing them to express themselves in meaningful ways. Even before her father’s diagnosis, Weir found herself drawn to art therapy. Collaborating with art therapist and friend, Cressida Brotherstone. The pair have been documenting informal art therapy sessions for over three years.
JESSICA You’ve spoken before about a misunderstanding of disability that you once carried in yourself. But through your work with Cressida, you were able to reconcile this. You’ve found true beauty in the work you do with people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds—importantly, without being invasive.
HARLEY That’s what helped start this project with my father. Cressida and I have been doing sessions with kids and dementia patients. It’s beneficial for people who are suffering from Alzheimer’s or other disabilities, and like-wise, for people sharing a life with someone who has those illnesses.
JESSICA It must be a great release.
HARLEY Art therapy is so conducive for relieving tension and escaping to another world where you can play and be free again. Cressida and I have done an open therapy session, which I hope to do more of, so people can come and talk about mental health, specifically Alzheimer’s and dementia.
JESSICA The ceramics you’ve made with your father are obviously deeply personal tokens. What have, or will, become of them?
HARLEY My dad and I will put on an exhibition of the ceramics that we’ve made together and we’ll sell the pots to raise awareness and funding for Alzheimer’s research. It’s a disease that’s becoming extremely common, as we’re growing older. We’re making the most of the good that can come out of the illness. It makes sense for me to explore this, even though it’s very personal. I think it’s really important to bring light to an illness that affects so many people and their families.
JESSICA We’re often so quick to try and treat the body that we often forget to treat the soul, and art-making plays a hugely important role in that. You must appreciate this time with your father.
HARLEY It helps me see how things actually are. Otherwise, it’s easy to see someone who’s unwell once a month and assume they’re absolutely fine, that there’s nothing wrong at all. You don’t really know the ins and outs of what’s been going on.
JESSICA I imagine this ritual allows you both to be present.
HARLEY That’s probably the best part about it—spending this time together and sharing thoughts. §