Essay by Jennifer Pattinson as part of Contextualising Practice course.


Figure 1: Liminal, 2022 by Jennifer Pattinson. Southern Ice porcelain and glaze, 17 x 22 x 10cm, consists of three animal heads – a Grey-Headed Flying Fox (Pteropus poliocephalus), Ringtail Possum (Pseudocheirus peregrinus) and Little Raven (Corvus mellori). (Morcombe 2000), atop wheel thrown porcelain vessels. The surface of the porcelain is left unglazed except for the animal’s eyes, which are black and glossy. The animal heads serve as lids or stoppers for the vessels, which act not only as a means of displaying the heads but as their bodies, each a slightly different size and shape to reflect the individual animal’s form.


I have spent the majority of my life fascinated – bordering on obsessed – with animals, specifically those which are wild, undomesticated, or otherwise out of reach.[1] Since beginning my studies in art and its theoretical bases, this fixation on the nonhuman – or ‘more-than-human’(Rupprecht 2017:142) – has manifested itself within my practice as an inescapable theme, permeating every aspect of my work. In the aftermath of two years of covid-induced lockdowns, and having spent the majority of my time confined to one place, I find myself increasingly appreciative of my nonhuman neighbours – the Little Ravens, to whom I listened while taking my dog for our government-approved hour of exercise, the Ringtail Possums whose night-time antics amused me when I struggled to sleep, and the Grey-Headed Flying Foxes, who thoughtfully flew over my house at night so I could observe them and wonder as to where their night of foraging might take them. My most recent work, Liminal, was born out of my memories of the encounters I have had with ‘liminal’(Donaldson and Kymlicka 2011:210) wildlife – animals which are neither domesticated nor wild, and who live in close proximity to humans(Donaldson and Kymlicka 2011).

Behind urban ‘transspecies encounters’(Huggan 2020:210) such as these is an ecological phenomenon known as synurbisation – wherein the effects of urbanisation and synanthroposation (defined by ecologist Maciej Luniak  as ‘the adaptation of animal populations to human-created (anthropogenic) conditions’(2004:50)) are combined. This creates an ‘ecological vacuum’(Luniak 2004:51) and with it new niches for urban species to make their home. Each of the animals I have depicted in Liminal is native to Victoria[2], and has adapted their behaviour in response to urbanisation and found ways to not only survive in urban areas, but take advantage of these anthropogenic conditions(Luniak 2004) whether it be ringtail possums decimating our gardens in search of food, flying foxes roosting in man-made parks planted with introduced species[3] or ravens pecking about at wheelie-bins in search of discarded scraps. These animals live alongside us, and for the most part do so happily and healthily (Luniak 2004), even when we are less than welcoming – and we often are.

Synurbic animals are almost entirely overlooked by humans, in everyday life, city planning, even by Animal Rights theorists and activists, because they evade categorisation as either domestic or wild (Donaldson and Kymlicka 2011). This ‘domestic/wild dichotomy’(Donaldson and Kymlicka 2011:212) is deeply ingrained in many aspects of human society, but does not acknowledge the animals that fall somewhere in the middle (Donaldson and Kymlicka 2011) – those which are liminal. This invisibility makes it easy for humans to ignore the difficulties facing their nonhuman neighbours when we cut down the trees that form their habitats, or install non wildlife-safe netting to ‘protect’ our fruit trees (Donaldson and Kymlicka 2011, Yabsley et al. 2021). In Liminal Animal Denizens, Donaldson and Kymlicka remark that our propensity to overlook liminal wildlife can result in the ‘de-legitimization of their very presence’(2011:211), there is little room in our human dominated landscape for nonhumans that do not follow our rules or serve a distinct purpose (i.e. the companionship of a pet, or livestock raised for food)(Donaldson and Kymlicka 2011). My work attempts to reverse this delegitimisation by bringing together human and nonhuman (in the form of an animal headed, human created vessel) and making a space for the ‘invisible animal’ in the human-centric setting of a university and gallery.

To render the ‘invisible animal’ visible through the ceramic process, I have made a number of deliberate choices in both material and technique. From a multitude of differently coloured and textured clay bodies I chose to make my work in Southern Ice porcelain – an Australian formula renowned for its whiteness and translucency. By sculpting these animals from porcelain, I refer to the European tradition of porcelain figurines, both human and nonhuman – but situate it within a decidedly Australian context. The translucency and thinness of the vessels reflects the fragile and precarious position of these synurbic species, although they benefit in some ways from urbanisation, they are still at great risk from climate change and human interference. Flying Foxes, for example, are listed as vulnerable in Victoria (DELWP 2019), and Ringtail Possums are often illegally trapped and relocated, which can result in their death due to stress or increased vulnerability to predators in an unfamiliar environment (Whiting and Miller 2008, DELWP 2019).

In Liminal, the ceramic vessel serves as a means of connecting the human and nonhuman. The vessel is a deeply human object, something only we make, each pot bearing the marks, even fingerprints, of its maker. My aim in incorporating ‘functional’ vessels in a decorative[4] work is to bring together the human and nonhuman in a form that invites interaction – in the hope that the audience will be tempted to pick up the works and remove the animal head stoppers to peer inside the vessels. This interaction with the artwork is intended to recreate, in some small part, an affective, ‘transspecies encounter’ (Huggan 2020:210) in a way that might challenge the viewer’s apathy towards liminal animals.

In the summer – weather permitting – I tend to sleep with my bedroom window open. Recently, I have been alerted to the presence of ringtail possums by the tell-tale scratching sound of their tiny claws as they run up and down the fence only a metre or two away. When they realise they are being watched they tend to freeze- and I find myself frozen too. We look at each other for a moment, before they move on.[5]

This moment, in which the animal and I are both frozen, is one of attention, defined by O’Sullivan (2001:127) as ‘a suspension of normal motor activity which in itself allows other “planes” of reality to be perceivable’. One of these planes is that of the Possum’s reality, into which I am allowed a momentary glimpse as we look at each other – the possum assessing the level of threat I pose as I attempt to make myself appear friendly and unintimidating. Psychoanalyst Carla Freccero writes of a similar experience: ‘if I am still and if I carefully arrange my body and my gaze in postures of passivity, submission, or general nonthreat, the creature overcomes his or her fear and simply looks’(Freccero 2018:4). This ‘returned gaze’(Parkinson 2019:50) tends to startle a person into acknowledging the nonhuman animal ‘as [a] bodily, expressive and vulnerable being’(Huth 2016:173), not unlike ourselves. In rendering this moment in clay, I aim to envelop the viewer in their own “attention” and encourage them to consider the liminal animal’s “plane” of reality. 

‘Our gaze is ever turned towards Creation; we know only the surface of that glass, its clouded image, by our selves obscured. And yet, sometimes a silent animal looks up at us and silently looks through us. We call it Fate to be in opposition. Nothing but that. Forever opposite.’

-Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Cohn in Grén (2017:99)

In this excerpt, Rilke puts into words the feeling of being looked at, or rather looked through, by the nonhuman – precisely the experience I aim to replicate through this work. In creating this artwork it was vital to consider the gaze of the nonhuman animal as an equally important part of the equation; a sentient being capable of ‘looking’, rather than reducing the nonhuman to merely ‘a surface upon which our own gaze is reflected back’(Daly et al. 2020:272). To enable the works to ‘return’ the viewers gaze I chose to glaze only their eyes in a glossy black. The reflective quality of the glaze simultaneously draws the eye and gives the animal ‘a hint of consciousness’ (a term used by author Claire Parkinson in Animals, Anthropomorphism and Mediated Encounters(2019:46) to describe the way light reflected off the eyes of a praying mantis makes it appear more ‘alive’), helping to recreate the experience of encountering the real thing. To intensify the feeling of being seen, I have modelled their eyes ever so slightly larger than life.

A white possum face with dark black eyes made from porcelain
Figure 2: Detail of Liminal, by Jennifer Pattinson 2022.

In my experience, and in that of writer Vanessa Berry, humans tend to feel more sympathetic towards a depiction of an animal when it has the ability to look at them, for example, a ceramic figurine of an otter described by the author as having a ‘yearning expression’(Berry 2020:591). Berry describes the process of cleaning the dust from the otter (which she feels guilty for not doing sooner) as though she is caring for an actual animal – ‘the sink and the figurine are a surreal, domestic substitute’ for its natural environment (Berry 2020:591). This otter figurine is an example of what author Amy Scott would call a ‘sympathetic animal character’(Scott 2012:131), able to invoke an emotional response from its human audience(Scott 2012). In Liminal, I too am attempting to garner sympathy for my beloved animals, so giving them the ability to gaze back at the viewer is crucial.

Australian ceramicist Vicki Hamilton creates porcelain animals which confront the viewer with pure white, unglazed eyes (Sinnott 2013). Their ‘gaze’ is one of desperation and fear. Hamilton’s work portrays species under direct threat of extinction from climate change and other anthropogenic pressures (Sinnott 2013). Here, the (human) viewer’s gaze is not simply reflected back, it is returned, unlike in the ‘mediated animal experience[s]’(Parkinson 2019:50) in which the viewer would normally encounter such animals, such as wildlife documentaries or photographs (Parkinson 2019). Hamilton has chosen to leave one of her works, Flux (n.d.) unfired and subject it to a steady drip of water- which causes the clay to dissolve as though melting, mirroring the loss of arctic sea ice in the polar bear’s natural habitat (Sinnott 2013). These works are affective, they bring about a strong emotional reaction in their audience by striking a balance between aesthetic appeal and ‘deeply disturbing’(Sinnott 2013:61) connotations. Hamilton’s work highlights the potential of clay as a material for thought provoking artworks inspired by the natural world or created in defence of it.

As is often the case in my practice, these theories of the gaze, animality and affect were not at the forefront of my mind while making the work, but they are inherent in my relationships with these animals, always somewhere in my subconscious as I sculpt my animals and throw my vessels. This work stems not only from an appreciation of the beauty to be found in nature but the joy I experience when I am privileged enough to feel, if only momentarily, as though I am a part of it. Under the conditions of synurbisation, in the words of Whatmore and Thorne (1998:437) ‘the everyday worlds of people, plants and animals are already in the process of being mixed up’ and I intend to use my ceramic practice to mix them up even further.



Berry V (2020) ‘The Ceramic Zoo: Writing with Animal Representations’, Life writing, 17(4):591-598, doi:10.1080/14484528.2020.1769857.

City of Greater Bendigo (2014) Rosalind Park Recreation Reserve Precinct Masterplan and Management Framework, City of Greater Bendigo website, accessed 16 June 2022.

Daly A, Cummins F, Jardine J and Moran D (2020) Perception and the Inhuman Gaze : Perspectives from Philosophy, Phenomenology, and the Sciences, Taylor & Francis Group, Milton.

Donaldson S and Kymlicka W (2011) Zoopolis: a political theory of animal rights, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 210 – 216.

Freccero C (2018) ‘Animated Encounters’, Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 19(1):3-6, doi:10.1080/15240657.2018.1419686.

Grén R (2017) The Concept of the Animal and Modern Theories of Art, Taylor & Francis Group, London.

Huggan G (2020) ‘Affective Animals: Transspecies Encounters in Modern British Animal Writing’, Humanimalia, 12(1):210-235, doi:10.52537/humanimalia.9436.


Luniak M (1-5 May 1999) ‘Synurbization – adaptation of animal wildlife to urban development’ [conference presentation], 4th International Symposium on Urban Wildlife Conservation, University of Arizona, Tuscon, accessed 16 April 2022.

Morcombe M (2000) Field Guide to Australian Birds, Steve Parish Publishing, Archerfield.

Museum of Victoria and CSIRO (2006) Melbourne’s wildlife : a field guide to the fauna of greater Melbourne, CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne.

O’Sullivan S (2001) ‘THE AESTHETICS OF AFFECT: Thinking art beyond representation’, Angelaki, 6(3):125-135, doi:10.1080/09697250120087987.

Parkinson C (2019) Animals, Anthropomorphism and Mediated Encounters, Taylor & Francis Group, Milton.

Rupprecht C (2017) ‘Ready for more-Than-human? Measuring urban residents’ willingness to coexist with animals’, Fennia, 195(2):142-160, doi: 10.11143/fennia.64182.

Scott A (2012) ‘Paths into Wilderness: Wildlife Art and Environmental Thinking’, in Harris AD (ed) Bob Kuhn: Drawing on Instinct, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Sinnott P (2013) ‘On the Edge: An exhibition by Vicki Hamilton’, The Journal of Australian Ceramics, 52(3):61–63, doi:10.3316/informit.144713471397047.

The State of Victoria Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (2019) Victoria’s flying fox colonies, DELWP website, accessed 8 June 2022.

The State of Victoria Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (2019) Possums, DELWP website, accessed 19 June 2022.

Whatmore S and Thorne L (1998) ‘Wild(er)ness: reconfiguring the geographies of wildlife’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 23(4):435-454.

Whiting AE and Miller KK (2008) ‘Examining the Living with Possums policy in Victoria, Australia: Community knowledge, support and compliance’, Pacific conservation biology, 14(3):169-176, doi:10.1071/pc080169.

Yabsley SH, Meade J, Martin JM, Welbergen JA and Saunders ME (2021) ‘Human-modified landscapes provide key foraging areas for a threatened flying mammal: The grey-headed flying-fox’, PLoS ONE, 16(11):1-19, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0259395.


[1] I dare say the generous serving of nature documentaries fed to me from a young age has something to do with this.

[2] It is worth noting that while the animals I am depicting are native to my area, I am not- and as a settler Australian I find it all the more ironic that as a society, we think it acceptable to treat native animals as though they do not belong- “forgetting” that they were here long before colonisation.

[3] Bendigo’s Rosalind Park is an example of this, hosting a colony of up to 2,000 Grey-headed Flying Foxes which roost primarily in exotic trees (DELWP 2019, City of Greater Bendigo 2014).

[4] I am avoiding describing this work as “non-functional”(as sculptural work often is in the ceramics community) because I disagree with the idea that a ceramic artwork is only “functional” if it can be used as a traditional vessel.

[5] To eat the buds off my mother’s rose bushes or leave little bite marks in my neighbour’s prized lemons, I presume.

Essay – A Love Letter to the Liminal: recreating affective animal encounters in clay