At the moment the vividly coloured pieces are dotted around Sandy Brown’s studio, a former sailmaking loft in the north Devon shipbuilding town of Appledore.
In a few weeks they will be transported to a Cornish town and slotted together to become the tallest ceramic sculpture in the UK, possibly the world.
Earth Goddess will soar 12 metres high over the town of St Austell, becoming south-west England’s answer to the Angel of the North.
It is hoped the sculpture – made from materials as diverse as Appledore estuary mud and Cornish china clay – will draw tourists and give a further boost to the area’s growing reputation as a place to view and make art.
“I’ve lived with her for two years,” Brown said as she gave the Guardian a sneak preview of the almost-finished work. “It will be sad to see her go. The place will feel a little empty without her.”
Earth Goddess was commissioned as part of an art and regeneration project celebrating the amazing history of china clay in St Austell.
The discovery of the material, used in the manufacture of a products including paper, rubber and paint, made St Austell the Silicon Valley of the 18th and 19th centuries. It created thousands of jobs and a striking addition to the landscape – the bright white and sharp-tipped spoil tips nicknamed the Cornish Alps.
Earth Goddess is to be the centrepiece of a ceramic sculpture trail in the town. She began with what Brown described as a “doodle” in clay at her desk in the corner of her studio.
“I wasn’t thinking or planning, just doodling, but as far as I’m concerned that’s where the best stuff comes from.” What emerged was a “vaguely female form” – and the idea of a giant earth goddess.
Brown took advice from an engineer friend who pointed out that the original shape she had envisaged was not practical because flat bits sticking out would catch the wind. So a sleeker, curvy form emerged.
A limiting factor was the size of the studio kiln. Brown has one of the biggest in the UK but she had to make the body in 15 separate pieces to be able to fire them.
Brown said she was confident Earth Goddess would be the biggest ceramic sculpture in the UK and she has yet to find a bigger one in the world. “I keep expecting people to tell me there is one, but they haven’t yet.”
As well as being big, the sculpture is also very bright – a riot of swirling reds, yellows and cobalt oxide blues. Like the great Cornish potter Bernard Leach, Brown studied in Japan.
While Leach is better known for more muted tones, Brown went down a brighter route. “When I started 50 years ago, there seemed to be a belief that studio ceramics should be brown. I preferred colour.”
The sections are decorated with circles. “I call them rounds,” said Brown. “The circle is a symbol of unity, harmony – so it feeds into the idea of the earth goddess.”
She has used china clay as a base layer. “It’s an extremely fine material and shows off the bright colours beautifully – it makes them shine.”
Brown is currently working on tiles made out of china clay that will be used to create a base around the statue. They are coated in Appledore mud that she scoops from the river just in front of her house.
“It’s creamy and buttery, it feels like you could spread it on toast,” she said. When fired, it turns a lovely rusty colour with golden flecks.
Earth Goddess will be presented to the world at the start of April. “I can’t wait to see her installed,” said Brown. “I’ve got no idea what people will make of her. I hope they’ll be proud.”