Some months ago, Debbie Harris received a photo of a rafflesia from a friend. Commonly known as a corpse flower after its powerful stench, the rafflesia is a plant species in Southeast Asia formed of five petals around a circle centre. Each petal, blood-red and fleshy, is covered in raised lesions that the scientific community have fondly called ‘warts’. In the centre, a hooded oculus looks down to a disc of tendrils that reach up like stalagmites in a cave.
The rafflesia has no stems, leaves, or roots. It is a parasite masquerading as a flower – a vine that attaches itself to the inside of its host. The flower is its only external feature, which can grow over 100 centimetres in diameter and weigh upwards of 10 kilograms. Cartoonishly strange, the rafflesia conjures a mutant red-cap toadstool or Audrey II, the man-eating alien plant of Little Shop of Horrors. Captivated by its strangeness, the image was printed out and took up pride of place in Harris’ bubble-gum pink studio.
Corpse Flowers and Chewing Gum is Harris’ hot-house presentation of twenty-one ceramic flowers made over the last four years. Accompanying these large-scale sculptures are hordes of miniature flowers that sprout from the corners of the room. In the sugar-sweet landscape, Harris’ plants look good enough to eat: though, they may think the same of you. The influence of the rafflesia is seen in the bulbous form slathered in lilac, cobalt, cornflower, and terracotta glazes. Germinating from the top of the structure bursts a cavity of tentacular thorns. As you navigate the landscape – somewhere between the ocean floor and a Hello Kitty Mars landing – it’s easy to imagine a clay vine curling around your ankle. Despite the solidity of fired clay, Harris’ sculptures are pulsating with life. Conical towers of coiled clay sway with Seussian tufts sprouting from their tops. Pearly grape-sized bobbles fruit from the stem of another between crescent-shaped indentations and swarming spirals. Harris’ sculptures present as grotesque tiered cakes in ornate buttercream frosting, but we know they are dense and fragile. They are boundary creatures, ominously beautiful, luring us into a false sense of security. Within the immersive atmosphere of treacle and fondant, Harris’ installation is a contemporary grotto. This earthy cavern invites our descent into a world of play, where our imagination takes hold. Flocks of tiny blooms seem to inch along the floor in the corner of your eye, only to freeze when you look at them head-on.
Harris acknowledges that her medium is temperamental. The best-laid plans often crack and slip away in the heat of the kiln or the boot of your car. Harris approaches her practice with intention but is attuned to clay’s unpredictability. She’s learnt to let her objects grow throughout the making process, and although they choose their final forms and colours, she guides them toward her vision. Having studied painting before falling into clay, Harris has a unique command of colour. She has particular trouble with yellow – it contaminates things beside it, producing a sharp note within her chorus of blush and mauve. She embraces the juxtaposition of the towering matte black structure: a gothic interloper in a circle of fae. Within her carefully arranged composition, Harris’ creations are mercurial and enchanting.
Harris herself is something of a hedge witch, versed in herbs and flora, and her practice is steeped in trial and error, routine, and ancestral knowledge. Her affinity for gardens comes from her grandma Phyllis, who, like Harris, was a collector and cultivator of intricate flora. Although Harris cannot physically visit Phyllis’ garden, she draws inspiration from the space as she understands it through Ektachrome projector slides. The garden, then, is an imagined space for Harris, where she creates sculptures as Phyllis tends her flowers. The landscapes that emerge in each iteration of Harris’ work are this communion made tangible: life raised from the mud.
-Maya Love, 2023