Home is where the art is

Mother and Daughter Feature: Ursula (mum) and Zoe Ruben(daughter).

Mother and Daughter Feature: Ursula (mum) and Zoe Ruben(daughter). - Credit: Archant

Ceramicist Ursula Ströh-Rubens and her sculptor daughter Zoë work well together creating art in their Ipswich studios, discovers Lucy Etherington

Mother and Daughter Feature: Zoe and Ursula Ruben (mum).

Mother and Daughter Feature: Zoe and Ursula Ruben (mum). - Credit: Archant

The Rubens family home in the middle of Ipswich feels like a slice of ‘70s bohemian North London. It reflects the fact that all four family members are artists, all in different fields, but clearly influencing and rubbing off one another to create a combined aesthetic.

Mum Ursula Ströh-Rubens is a world renowned ceramic artist, dad Maurice a famous set designer, elder daughter Sula is a painter and her younger sister Zoë is a sculptor. Both Zoë and Ursula have their work permanently on display in Gallery 2 in the town centre, in London and around the country.

“I have always said that my children inspire me more than me them,” says Ursula, leading me through her vibrant hallway filled from floor to ceiling with art and sculpture – including Zoë’s plaster cast head of her mum, amusingly strewn with hats and sunglasses – and down into her rustic basement studio. “It’s a mutual thing, we rub off each other.”

As I am given a plate of delicious homemade biscuits, proper ground coffee in a lovely handmade ceramic mug and made to feel totally welcome, I can understand why Ursula’s daughters, now grown up with their own families, still gravitate here.

“You know what it’s like with teenage girls,” she says, “but there was always this art thing between us, always this conversation going on, discussing, seeing exhibitions together. It’s a great connection. We were always close in that way.”

You often hear about female artists, like Tracey Emin or Maggie Hambling, saying they made a choice between art and children, that their art is their children.

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“It never worried me,” says Ursula.” I wanted children and when they were young was a really creative time for me.”

Born in Germany, Ursula came to England in the early sixties. Her husband, then a teacher at a boy’s school, sparked her passion for working with clay. She studied at Goldsmiths’ College in London – later the breeding ground for artists like Damien Hirst – then taught ceramics once a week, carrying her delicate pots down on the train from Ipswich to fire in the college kilns.

When the girls were small, she would let them loose in the art department while she taught. She would draw and make pots in the evenings, or when the babies slept, whenever she could, and later they would draw and create alongside her.

“As long as I can do my work I’m fine,” she says. “And later when they left home – I didn’t notice. People said, oh gosh when the children leave home you get empty nest syndrome. I just had more time to work. They come back often enough.”

Zoë has her own house and workshop on the other side of Ipswich, but pops by at least once a week to make the ceramic figures that feature in her metalwork sculptures.

“I enjoy coming here,” she says. “Not only to make ceramic figures but for a break from my welding workshop.”

But doesn’t her mum, as the senior artist and teacher, just tell her what to do all the time?

“That’s why we work in different areas,” says Zoë. “There’s a line when you need it. We do criticise each other and it’s not the nice gentle feedback you get at art college, more like: “You can’t do that!” Or “What are you afraid of? Why don’t you push yourself?” But also, why don’t you try this? I’m constantly learning new techniques.”

“Without even knowing it we feed off each other,” says Ursula. “We once did a family show and I noticed some similar themes – the colours, the distant boat, the use of etching.”

“That’s true, it just happens,” says Zoë. “Someone told me that my work was like a theatre set, and only then it occurred to me that maybe dad’s work had an influence. But mum is a good teacher. One thing she taught me was what to leave out. I remember once I said: “I can’t draw it’s too complicated”. Mum said: “Just draw what you want to! Leave out what you don’t want, put in what you do. Every drawing is your decision.”

“Art is the one thing that no one can tell you what to do,” Ursula adds. “You fall by your piece of work. You can’t say so-and-so told me to do it that way. No, you decided.”

I have a couple of friends who, having witnessed the trials of the artistic life close up, went completely the other way, getting sensible jobs and leading normal lives. Did Zoe ever think about being something other than an artist?

“Not really,” says Zoë. “Art was normal to me, although looking back I had quite an unusual upbringing, spending long holidays in Greece with my parents or going to the London theatres with my dad.”

“No one at the school understood Zoe’s potential,” says Ursula. “When she went to art college and got a first, I was delighted. It gave her the self-confidence she needed.”

After graduating from Manchester University, Zoë moved into a chilly lighthouse in Suffolk and developed her skills as a sculptor, popping back home to warm up occasionally. Then after a lot of dedicated hard work, her career took off. She was selected for the Sunday Times Business Awards and the Prince’s Trust and has since been inundated with commissions and exhibitions.

Meanwhile, she returned to Ipswich, married and settled down with Tony and became a step-mother to six children. But of course her home is far from conventional.

“There’s no furniture in the living room,” says Ursula laughing. “It’s not a house, it’s a sculpture gallery.”