The Goblin Mugs (and Market) of Locke Jean-Luc Unhold

Locke Jean-Luc Unhold is a potter working in Dunedin. I came across his work when I visited the local pottery collective, and was immediately captivated by his goblin mugs with their bright, strange faces. I bought one: a one-eyed creature that reminded me of a cyclops, and I wrote to Locke to ask if he had been inspired at all by classical mythology in his work.

In fact, he replied, not at all: it’s goblins that grab him, with their mysterious ways, and the goblin mugs have a range of scrunchy expressions that connect with the ways we might feel on different occasions. You can see the goblins on Locke’s website here, and here is a picture of my cyclops goblin, wearing a crown of sweet basil.

Locke may not have deliberately designed this like a cyclops, but it reminds me of Polyphemus, who feel victim to Odysseus’s trickery in the Odyssey. I sometimes feel sorry for Polyphemus: in human terms he is a bloodthirsty creature, but I find him pitiable too: in terms of the damage wrought on innocent bystanders as heroes go adventuring by.

Locke’s goblin mugs have a bit of recuperative zeal to them, too: the sympathy for the ‘monster’–who decides what a monster is, after all? Why are goblins so often viewed as monstrous, and what happens if we think of them as friendly creatures, who express the variety of human feeling?

Something to think about while having a friendly cup of tea. And so I interviewed Locke to find out more.

— Elizabeth Hale

Interview with Locke Jean-Luc Unhold

How did you come to working in ceramics? 

I first experienced clay when I was little living in Georgia in the US. Georgia is renowned for its red clay deposits and I have fond memories of the childrens pottery classes I took at the local clay center there. Later as an adult, when I was attending the University of Minnesota studying English literature and anthropology, I lived around the corner from the Northern Clay Center and would walk by it nearly every day. I only ever actually went in once to get some Christmas presents but I was always fascinated by the place. Finally, years later when I had moved to Dunedin, NZ I saw that there were pottery nightclasses being taught at the Dunedin School of Art. I signed up for one and instantly fell in love. I joined the local potters club, Otago Potters Group, and in 2018 I started my NZ Diploma of Art and Design in ceramics part time. I finished level 5 in 2019 and level 6 in 2021. I absorbed as much knowledge about ceramics as I could and in 2020 took on the technician role at the Dunedin School of Art. I’m now the technical teacher for the ceramics department and still learning as much as I can!

I really like how you work across functional and decorative, and incorporate aspects of play into your creations.  

Thank you so much! 🙂 

I was wondering about what it is about ‘goblins’ that inspired you?  Were there any particular artists whose goblin work you feel influenced by?  

The whole ‘goblin’ thing I kind of fell into, actually. I was doing a clay play day for a rainbow community group I was part of and happened to make a little clay goblin as part of showing how to handbuild with clay. I really loved my weird little dude and made some more. I’ve always been a huge fantasy nerd (Tolkien, in particular) and video games, and I loved how making them was like a truly open-ended character creator in a video game. I’ve also always been fascinated with cryptozoology and had a book of cryptids that I read all the time when growing up. Also during my time here at art school, I came into my transgender identity and really truly began to embrace my queerness. The queer community (particularly the online queer community, I’ve found) has a deep love for cryptids and monsters. Queer people in media are often ‘othered’ and monsters are sometimes queer-coded, so the community has embraced monsters as our own. So that’s where the goblins come back into things! I realized that the goblins – in all their quirky, weird, imperfection – represented me and all my fellow queer community. I also drew on the poem “The Goblin Market” by Christina Rossetti – incorporating various animal-like qualities to them. The goblins in Rossetti’s poem are often read as queer, calling to the two women protagonists to join their hedonistic lifestyle. The goblins have evolved quite a bit over time, losing their animal-qualities and going in a more cartoonish, Muppet-like direction. For my final project of my diploma, I utilized them in conjunction with some functional pieces for a work called Transcending Bodies. I encouraged viewers to rearrange the goblin heads as they pleased on the various vase ‘bodies’, making them contemplate why one personality might ‘fit’ with a particular body or not. This work contrasted the bright, personality-rich, matte textured, sculptural goblin heads (or, at this point I started calling them ‘friends’) with wheel-thrown, traditionally glazed functional vases. It contrasted the personality and the body, something that as a trans person I experience every single day. 

Besides Rossetti’s poem, there were a few other ceramic artists’ whose work inspired me (and still does!). Molly Melican makes some fantastically whimsical goblins (or, ginklets, as she calls them). Natalia Arbelaez‘s work I also love, though it’s not really ‘goblins’, but hers is a great, cartoonish take on ceramics.

Because I work on a project that looks into how classical (greek/roman) mythology appears in contemporary culture, I was drawn to purchase a ‘cyclops’ mug.  Wondering if you had any opinions about cyclopes that you might want to share?  (no wories if not, of course).  

Unfortunately, I don’t have much to say about cyclopes, sorry! Other than that I generally empathize with them – there were a number of times growing up where I had to wear an eyepatch and had to rely on a singular eye, so I get it, haha.

Have you noticed any themes in people’s responses to the goblins? 

Yes! I’m happy to say that people are generally delighted with them and react how I was hoping – seeing themselves and others in them. I sell some of my commercial work at a local potters co-op, and love hearing people react to them when they see the goblins. If they’re in a group of people, they’ll take turns saying who they know matches up to each goblin. When they buy one for themselves, they tell me how the face reminds me of a loved one, or that the face is the same face they make when –whatever– happens. People really connect to their personalities.

What else do you work on, and where do you think your work might take you next?

Some work I’ve played with off-and-on for the past few years are some semi-anatomical heart sculpture pieces, that also deal with queer identity and experience. They usually feature experimental glaze and materials in wild combinations. I’ve started playing with merging this glaze-play with the goblins, but it’s still something I’m evolving. This concept was greatly inspired by artist Akiko Hirai’s work. She uses extreme amounts of glaze and added materials in her work that is about how, mental health wise, we all have layers and traumas that may or may not show at first glance. 

I’m also in the very early stages of planning my (first!!!) solo exhibition version of Transcending Bodies that will expand on the version I used as my final diploma project. 

Thank you!

You can read more about Locke’s work on his website https://www.lockeunhold.com

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