Salt dough is a perfect material for sculpture making. It can be mixed up from scratch from ingredients gathered from the supermarket. It is easily manipulated with just fingers and morphs smoothly between forms. Sinking hands into it transfers knowledge of its traits through the skin.
Salt dough is an imperfect material for sculpture making. Its plasticity is limited. Shape is altered easily but it is indelicate and hunches, shrugging off the forms imposed upon it. Even when dry, it is never impervious to its environment, absorbing damp and growing mould. It is unknowable and unmasterable.
- Ann-Sophie Lehmann, “How Materials Make Meaning,” in Netherlands Yearbook for Art History 2012, ed. Ann-Sophie Lehmann, Frits Scholten and H. Perry Chapman, (Leiden: Brill, 2012)
I’ve been working with salt dough as a material for sculpture making for almost five years. Spending time with my hands in it has granted me an intimate knowledge of the stuff. I can mix it up without thinking, only touching.
A lengthy period of putting salt dough to work practically in the studio reveals tension between the points at which the material acts in support of what I’m trying to do and the points when it acts against me.
Material engagement in the studio is not a fixed, linear progression towards completing a sculpture, but is constantly interrupted by unanticipated discoveries, successes and failures. One of the reasons I choose salt dough to work with is due to its lack of existing technical processes. It represents experimental freedom; rather than following existing methods attached to traditional materials such as plaster, clay, metal or stone, I can attune myself to the ways salt dough wants to work. Operating outside of existing processes with a substance outside of traditional sculptural materials means that the dough’s impact on the making process - its influence on the discoveries, successes and failures - is much more visible.
Paul Carter, Material Thinking (Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 2004)
Salt dough’s two sides - the compliant and the resistant - can be expressed as “pragmatic” and “vibrant”. Pragmatism implies a practical, rational, organised and accommodating way of working. Vibrancy is anarchic and rebellious, unwilling to collaborate. It repels me.
Pragmatism and vibrancy do not sit at odds with one another. Both operate consistently throughout the making process and resonate in the artwork once it is complete. Whilst I identify “pragmatism” as salt dough absorbing my intention and “vibrancy” as rejecting it, my sculptures are entirely the product of the interaction between the two. When I began working with it, I set out with a limited knowledge of the material’s characteristics and put these to work as I understood them. My knowledge was limited and the works reflected this, small and unimposing. It is through the salt dough’s vibrant intervention - its unwelcome sticking to my fingers; its unexpected collapse - that I respond and adapt to it, increasing my awareness of its creative potential. Vibrancy reveals hidden weaknesses in my process, and pragmatism allows me to strengthen it.
 Artistic production operates in the interchange between these two forces. The image of the artist as master of materials - which mirrors the image of the human as master of their environment - disintegrates, dissolving into the sweaty, savoury mass. In reality, we are only the mediator between our own creativity and the vibrant material. Understanding this model, and applying it beyond salt dough to all our physical exchanges, can illuminate the nature of material interaction both in the context of art making and other physical encounters. Material is not dormant, but an active participant in construction of all kinds.
Carter, Paul. Material Thinking. Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 2004.
Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010. 
Edwards, W.P. The Science of Bakery Products. Cambridge: Royal Society of Chemistry, 2007. 
Lehmann, Ann-Sophie. “Showing Making: On Visual Documentation and Creative Practice.” in The Journal of Modern Craft, volume 5, issue 1 (2012): 9-23. 
Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2008. 
Shannon, Joshua. The Disappearance of Objects: New York and the Rise of the Postmodern City. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.
Scholten, Frits. “Malleable Marble: The Antwerp Snow Sculptures of 1772.” in Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art 2012, Volume 62, Meaning in Materials: Netherlandish Art 1400 - 1800, edited by Ann-Sophie Lehmann, Frits Scholten and H. Perry Chapman, 266-295. Leiden: Brill, 2012.
Ellie Barrett is an artist and researcher exploring the ways in which material manifests critical meaning in sculpture and how this illuminates broader social interactions both internally and externally to contemporary art practice.
Ellie combines different methodologies, including practical experimentation in the studio and qualitative data gathering via interviewing materially-engaged sculptors. This enables her to identify specific phenomena in which material contributes to our understanding of the artwork - linking to both its physical behaviour and cultural associations - and generate concrete language for analysing material meaning. 
Ellie’s sculpture is constructed predominantly from “non-art” materials such as salt dough, tin foil and soap. These materials represent democratic access, experimental freedom and tactile encounters beyond art making.
Beyond her practice, Ellie is a part-time lecturer at Lancaster University and co-director of GRAFT, a community arts organisation seeking to increase public access to contemporary art.