February 23, 2015 § 3 Comments
There seems to be a resurgence of interest in craftsmanship at the moment – and particularly process. Recently, I have had quite a lot of correspondence with shops, galleries and students all interested in the work that goes on in the workshop. One such exhibition I am taking part in in March, called Craft Industrialism (Sunday 22nd – Wednesday 25th March), is curated around the process of craftsmanship and the maker’s creative process.
The other day, I was asked why someone should/would spend £28 on one of my bowls when they could buy one for £4 from Asda. It was a question seriously asked and we had a 15 minute conversation where I attempted to put across the ‘handmade’ argument. Unfortunately, I don’t think he will buying a set of bowls from me in the near or distant future. But it is a serious question. A wonderful book (thank you, Joseph), Potters on Pottery, contains a collection of essays/biographies on 16 potters who work in various styles. The text is based on interviews the authors did with the potters and is full of musings, recollections, anecdotes and thoughts about pottery. It is absolutely fascinating and I recommend it thoroughly. One of the potters is Barry Newman, who seems to have made some functional pieces but his output is/was (?) mainly sculptural. He says he is not a ‘rustic potter’. He says that ‘At ceramic symposiums, people start to talk about the iniquities of industry. They have all come by train or car, most of them watch television or go to the cinema. Except for pottery, their lives depend on industry. Yet, for some reason they make it the fall guy, the baddy. Maybe we deserve the fey reputation as a group, because we do rail against modern civilisation, while at the same time living in it.’
He goes on to say that craftsmanship is basically an ‘intellectual movement’. You become a potter today ‘like one is a painter or sculptor’ rather than because your father had done it. What differentiates a potter from an architect or a film director is that a potter works on his own. It is quite compelling and, I imagine, slaps a few of us round the head.
Peter Starkey salting (courtesy of www.studiopottery.co.uk)
One of the other potters profiled is Peter Starkey. He also wonders whether making pots by hand is ‘anachronistic’, when industry is making them more efficiently and at considerably less expense. He questions whether a maker is ‘some quirky flat-earther who refuses to relate to the reality of modern life’ or does he ‘really make a contribution, however small. to improving the quality of his own life or that of his customers’. Starkey’s heart resides with the latter. He believes that ‘industrial pots are often bereft of humanity and totally lacking in communication between maker and user’. ‘”So what?” asks the layman, “I just want something to drink from”. He may be right, who can say?’
I like Starkey’s attitude and his humility. When I talk about objects being made by hand, I also talk about the communication between maker and user, and the humanity associated with it. As part of my involvement in Craft Industrialism, I have to give a talk about my practice as a potter, which needs to include something on what I think about the future of craftsmanship. It is this humanity that Starkey talks of that I want to focus on, which I feel is the heart of it. The object, the pot, is the conduit between the maker and the user. It is made by and with the maker’s fingers, there is evidence all over the pot, and it is held and felt by the user’s fingers. There is a connectedness there and a humanity that is deeply needed.
February 9, 2015 § 2 Comments
I had planned to write this blog post about workshop productivity, which is a vexing subject for me at the moment, but after a trip to The Bridgewater Hall, in Manchester, last night, I’ve decided to write about continued history instead. As a Christmas present, I bought my partner and I tickets to go and listen to The Sixteen perform a concert called Poetry in Music, and we went last night. The Sixteen specialise in performing early English polyphony (two or more voices singing simultaneous lines of independent melody). For the concert at The Bridgewater Hall, they sang a programme of music that set scores written in the seventeenth century alongside scores written during the nineteenth and twentieth.
They sang, amongst others, works by Robert Ramsey, Benjamin Britten, Ivor Gurney, James Macmillan, as well as Herbert Howells. I have posted above a clip of The Sixteen singing Howells, though it is not the piece that we listened to. Their singing was utterly extraordinary and compelling. What I hadn’t realised was that polyphony was the simultaneous singing of independent lines. You don’t get any sense of this from listening to a recording. When you are there, and they are singing live in front of you, witnessing this interweaving of voices is spell-binding. You experience the melody being passed around the group – layer after layer after layer that creates such depth and richness. The quality of the voices was outstanding – the piercing, powerful soprano; the bass, as low a note as I have ever heard that hung in the air long after the others had ceased; and my favourite, the male alto, a voice you’ll never hear in any other kind of music.
On the drive back to Bradford, my partner spoke about how she felt that the contemporary works were so imbued with the history and tradition of the genre. Placing the works written in different centuries side by side in the programme, laying them open to comparison, ably illustrated the fact that we are nothing without that which came before. We only gain an understanding of ourselves, of our place, of our time through an appreciation of the history out of which we were born.
Reflecting on this conversation, I feel the strength of this tradition. It is like an armature holding up fragile limbs. It is quiet, yet sure. It feeds the present with the concentrated nutrients of the past. And so with music, this holds true for pottery. Functional ceramic vessels have been made for millennia going virtually unchanged until relatively recently – simple vessels created for a humble purpose. We make for our time, for our culture, for our communities but each new bowl carries within it every bowl ever made.