November 24, 2014 § 3 Comments
I’ve been thinking a lot about how one should approach the wheel and the clay when throwing – what technique does one bring, what frame of mind. Whenever I think too hard or attempt to make a really fine pot, I tend to fail; invariably to the extent that I need to cut the clay from the wheel-head. Praise, when it flashes in my mind’s eye, is usually followed, fairly swiftly, by exasperation. I was glazing a plate the other week; I held the biscuit fired ware in my hand and thought, ‘I like that plate’, ‘that is a nice looking plate’. As I lifted the plate to dip it in the glaze bucket, part of the rim snapped off in my hand. Recently, I was making a pouring bowl, something you might beat some eggs in and use to pour the eggs into a pan. I threw the bowl, using a gauge, a chopstick protruding from a ball of clay attached to the tray of my wheel that points to the height and diameter that I am throwing to. I usually use a gauge to make sure I am making the bowls to a standard-ish size. Having thrown the bowl, I thought, ‘I am pleased with that’. I pulled a little lip on the bowl to make the pourer and pressed my foot down on the pedal to turn the wheel-head, so that I could remove any excess water from inside the bowl with a sponge. As the bowl turned, the gauge sliced the lip clean off!
I have come to think of this moment of self-congratulation as a warning sign, a precursor to imminent failure. And I came across this quote in The Old Ways, by Robert Macfarlane, about a woman called Nan Shepherd, a novelist who spent much of her life walking in the Scottish highlands.
“As a young woman, she [Nan Shepherd] had been prone to a longing for ‘the tang of height’, and had approached the Cairngorms egocentrically, apprising them only for their ‘effect upon me’. Over time, however, she learnt to go to the hills aimlessly, ‘to be with the mountain as one visits a friend, with no intention but to be with him’…”
This is a beautiful approach to the mountains and I am trying to take a little of this into my making of pots.
November 3, 2014 § 3 Comments
I am delighted to have been asked by Josie Beszant to take part in a blog hop. I have known Josie for a number of years through Masham Gallery, the gallery she runs in North Yorkshire. It is s beautiful gallery showing beautiful work in beautiful surroundings and well worth a visit, if you get the chance.
A Tour de France commission (2014) by Josie Beszant
The hop consists of answering four questions and then linking to two other artists/makers to continue the hop. Here is the first question:
What am I working on?
Well, as you know, I make tableware and have a range that I have been developing over the last few years. Adding to the range is a slow evolutionary process. I decided early on, in the first few months of using clay, that I would stick to a small number of shapes. I did this so that I could give myself the best chance of improving my throwing ability in the quickest time frame – repeating the same forms over and over. So, I haven’t experimented much. At the forefront of my mind has been the desire to increase my skill level. Also, I thought that keeping the same shapes would give me a recognisable identity.
The range, though, has grown with time. An important element of the last year has been an increase in size/scale. This next year will be a development of form – lids, spouts. I have been speaking with three different shops that would like to sell something unique to them. It seems a good opportunity to experiment with some forms and see what happens. I would like to make a coffee pot and a casserole dish. If I could have one of those by the end of next year, that would make me very happy.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Hmm, I think there are a couple of things that make my pottery different from that of other potters making tableware. They are: lack of additional surface decoration and simplicity of form. My pots are extremely simple and pared back. They rely mainly on the form, as I don’t manipulate the pots after throwing through cutting, incising, stamping… They have a quietness that some people say has a Japanese sensibility. But I don’t make Japanese pots and don’t want to. I live in a Western culture. Using a smooth rather than grogged clay helps situate my pots in the culture in which I am a part. I throw thinly for stoneware clay, which I feel accentuates the form. I want the pots to be elegant and yet rooted in use.
I use three variations on grey for my glazes – black, blue and grey. I dip them in the glaze bucket and do nothing else. The glaze does its thing and how the pots receive the glaze as I dip them determines how the colour will lie on the surface. The pots basically decorate themselves. I love the element of chance in this. I have little control over the final look outside of the general sense of it. Where the glaze lies thicker or thinner will result in quite significant changes in colour but it is subtle and doesn’t shout out.
There are many potters that make lovely, gorgeous tableware. I think there are a small number that work with a similar simple, pared down aesthetic that are at home in a Western cultural context.
Why do I do what I do?
Because I’ve tried so many other things! No – because I absolutely love it. There is a deep, fundamental satisfaction in it. This has to do with working with my hands. This has to do with making something useful. This has to do with learning a skill. There is something elemental, sustaining about making something that is used to eat from. We have to eat, we have to drink – we have need of bowls and cups and jugs. I want to marry that basic utility with beautiful form. I want the forms that I make to have a timeless quality, as if they could have been made at any time. I love the fact that a humble material like clay can be transformed by the hands of a skilled maker into an aesthetically pleasing object and then used for a humble purpose, like eating porridge from.
I spent 10 years studying fine art but just didn’t have the same connection that I do with using clay. I found it much harder to find the use and the connection with everyday life. It is the everydayness and the utility that compel me – this is why I make tableware out of stoneware clay.
How does my process work?
I use clay and a wheel and a kiln. There are four distinct stages in the making process that take the clay on its journey from a soft lump of clay to hard, fired bowl. When the clay is on the wheel it is wet and soft and distorts easily. I find its plasticity amazing – the way it can be thrown into different shapes and will hold them. Then is becomes extremely brittle, as all the water needs to dry from it before it can be put into the kiln for its first firing. It is incredibly fragile in this condition and breaks easily. Lucie Rie used to take her pots on the bus across Vienna to be fired when they were in this condition. I don’t know how she managed it. They then have their first firing (bisque firing) in order to make them hard enough to hold and to glaze easily. This is the stage I like least. I find the texture of bisque fired pots a little weird. They are hard but if I tried to break an edge off I could achieve this fairly easily. They are the hardest they have been yet but still quite fragile. At this stage the pots are glazed. My favourite bit, I think. Not necessarily the glazing process but how they look with the addition of a coating of glaze. It looks like they have a dusting of colour and are silky smooth. The colour of the glaze at this point before it goes in the kiln for its second firing looks nothing like the colour of the final pot – they will be transformed by the magic of the kiln. And the pot is fired for the final time; up to 1240 degrees, in my case. And the pot becomes like stone, vitrified and will survive a thousand years.
Hopping into next week will be Claire Wellesley-Smith and Juliet Macleod. I am intrigued to read their stories, as part of the blog hop, and to learn a bit more about them. Juliet is a ceramicist living in the north of Scotland and Claire, well, is a textile artist and lives in the same house as me – she is my partner.
Pot by Juliet Macleod
Naturally dyed and stitched cloth by Claire Wellesley-Smith