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.
January 19, 2015 § 9 Comments
Towards the end of last year I wrote a post that was part of a blog hop; in it I mentioned that I haven’t really done much in the way of experimenting. As I said in the post, this is entirely to do with the desire to repeat the same forms endlessly in an attempt to increase my skill level. I also mentioned that there were a couple of shops wanting me to create something unique for them and this might be an opportunity to begin an experimentation process.
This I have now started to do. I had a meeting at Tate, in London, at the beginning of December to discuss the possibility of supplying the exhibition shop for the duration of their Barbara Hepworth exhibition, scheduled for this summer. For the meeting I needed to produce some images of a range that I might create for them – those images, that range, needed to be inspired by the sculptures that will be on display. The prospect was a little daunting and, initially, I found it quite hard to respond to the list of works I was sent. I make useful, functional, practical tableware: the sculptures are modernist, abstract forms created in the 1940s and 50s.
If you need thinking time, though, I find a four and a half hour coach journey back from London usually does it!
The forms of Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures are often spherical or elliptical; they are self-contained, held within their circumference. The lines are extremely clean and sharp, precise. There are no frills, there is nothing extraneous to the form. I struggled in front of these sculptures looking for a way in, looking for how I could respond to them. But thanks to my coach journey, I found a route. It was all in a particular line of a particular sculpture. I was always drawn back to the same sculpture (posted below), which immediately felt vessel-like; and this became the inspiration for the range.
Apart from the bowls, the pots that I currently make are not turned, they are all taken directly off the wheel-head. The Hepworth sculptures, though, as I said, tend to be rounded and clean lined, ‘finished’, if you like. I decided, therefore, that all the pots for Tate needed to be turned to reflect this aspect.
The photographs of the drawings are a bit dark but you should be able to get the rough idea. I have tried to make a coherent range, I want them to feel unified – and they are very different to what I have been making. This is both exhilarating and terrifying. As I said at the beginning of the post, I have been extremely one-dimensional in my making. My fingers have just pulled outwards in a curve for bowls and straight up for everything else. By the end of this month, I have to send a photograph of each piece of the range finished and glazed to my contact at Tate, so since the New Year I have started to get a feel for the shapes. It has been the most liberating experience!
Here are two examples: the coffee cup and milk jug. I have loved making my fingers do things on the wheel, with the clay, that they wouldn’t normally do. Making them push and pull the clay in directions they have never done before. It is mind-altering. Working with your hands and brain together, finding solutions together – your whole body engaged in discovering new paths. I am beginning to have a little confidence in my throwing now, so that I can think through shapes on the wheel as I throw, concentrating on the form rather than the throwing. The throwing is becoming a deep pleasure, whereas before it was really a deep frustration as the throwing continually let down the form. At the wheel is an exciting place to be.
The order is relatively big – the pots will also be sold at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, Tate St. Ives and online – but it is a new phase in the workshop. The workshop is busier, I have taken on an assistant one day a week and ordered a larger kiln. The year has certainly begun with a bang! There are orders, too, from some other great shops and galleries. The work starts here…
December 15, 2014 § 2 Comments
I thought that a good way of tidying up the blog year would be to post about three things that have transformed life in the workshop this year. It’s hard to believe that we’re actually at the point of wrapping up the year but here we are. I am very much looking forward to some precious time with the family and forgetting about the workshop for a while.
As I spend time in the workshop making pots, I am constantly refining, refining, refining. How do I make that process better, smoother, more efficient? How do I improve that skill or technique? It usually comes out of the realisation that a particular standard isn’t good enough anymore. To improve that standard, it often boils down to a tool not being good enough. There have been three things, relating to tools, that have changed my life in the workshop. The first has been the purchase of a hydrometer.
This is an amazing, transformative tool. It measures the specific gravity of your glaze and tells you the proportion of glaze material to water. It is the simplicity of it that is so surprising.
It sits in the glaze bucket and you measure the reading. The glaze in the picture reads 31. Every time I do any glazing the hydrometer needs to read 31. If it reads 34, I need to add more water – 28, I need to wait for the glaze to settle out, then take some water away. Having a hydrometer has encouraged me to more vigilant about the consistency of the glaze, and consequently, more considered of the end result, the glazed pot. I have found that I am constantly needing to check and adjust the consistency of the glaze outside of mixing a new batch and the hydrometer helps me do that quickly and efficiently. A revelation! I had been scared of getting one, now I can’t do without it.
The second point of change has been understanding the benefits of using sharp tools, particularly in relation to turning. Blunt turning tools are extremely inefficient – they make for slow and imprecise turning. When the tools are blunt, you have to press harder and they don’t cut cleanly. Your best pots are never going to be made this way.
My turning has improved immeasurably as a result of taking proper consideration of my tools. I only use one type of tool and replace it regularly. It does mean I get through the tools but once you’ve stopped using blunt tools, you’ll never want to go back again. A revelation!
The third change is maybe the more helpful of the three – and that is writing down the height and width measurements of the wet pot on the wheelhead. Previously, I was quite lackadaisical about not only writing down the measurements but sticking to them. I have always written down the clay weight for each pot but I have not been strict with myself regarding the measurements. I have a natural inclination to keep pulling a wall far beyond the requirements of the pot. The trouble with this is that if I want a wall height to be 8cm, I often end up pulling it to 9/9.5cm. The part that suffers most with this is the lip, whether it be of the bowl, mug or beaker. Also, consistency suffers. Because often I only have the measurement across and not the height, the height can alter markedly at different throwing sessions. This can be extremely frustrating.
I was reading James and Tilla Waters’ blog one day and read in a post that James (who does most of the throwing) is meticulous about writing down the wet measurements of the pots. So, I have become meticulous also. This leads me to my third and a half point – a reminder for me, really. Thinness isn’t everything. It is not a matter of simply throwing as thin as you can, without regard for the shape and proportion of the pot. Weight, balance and form are what matter.
It has been a good year for Dove Street Pottery – I hope it has been for you, too. I wish you a very merry Christmas and New Year, and hope that they are everything you want them to be.
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
October 6, 2014 § Leave a comment
‘The Old Ways’ by Robert Macfarlane – I imagine a number of you will have heard of and read this book. It has received much favourable press and knowledge of it has spread, as much as anything, via word of mouth. It is a stunning book, beautifully crafted. It is a book about walking; about landscape; about relationships with the land, with one’s community, with oneself; about ancient tracks and drove-roads, pilgrimages and sea-paths and the stories that they inspire. It is a book about the imagination. It is breath-taking in its scope and in its writing.
One of the passages that has intrigued me is within one of the chapters titled ‘Gneiss’ (a type of rock), which has as its main character the artist Steve Dilworth. On one of Robert Macfarlane’s seafaring journeys, Steve Dilworth gives Macfarlane a ‘kist’ to throw into the sea in case of bad weather. ‘Kist’ is from Old Norse meaning chest but Dilworth’s object is much smaller and was being used as a ‘votive offering: a storm charm’ to placate stormy waters. It was made of a phial of seawater gathered some twenty-five years previously during a big storm, bound with bronze wire and capped with dolerite and some old ivory. ‘Steve’s kist was sacrificial in kind…a minor loss sustained in the present (the object lost to the sea) replacing a future greater loss (the boat lost to the sea).’ Fortunately, Macfarlane didn’t have need to use it.
One of the first kists, or hand-held objects, that Dilworth made was for a friend of his who was dying of cancer. He sealed inside a vial seawater collected on a day of absolute calm, which he then sealed in a polished, hollowed out piece of oak, bound with rope. The third layer or casing was the fingers of his friend.
Dilworth is shaman and imbues objects with power and symbolism. I don’t relate to objects in the same way but I get a real sense of the power of these two objects, they move me deeply. What moves me is the fact that these are gifts but they are gifts with no built-in reciprocal intention. They are given for the sake of giving, for the good of the other, with no sense of self. The objects are filled with compassion. The other significant factor is that they are made, not bought. They move from hand to hand: the hand of the giver to the hand of the receiver. I am reminded a little of Edmund de Waal writing about his Netsuke. There is a rare humanity to be found in these objects.
September 29, 2014 § 7 Comments
Change usually comes from the point when after months of something failing one finally says (shouts out in frustration), ‘This still isn’t working and I can’t go on like this anymore!’. I have reached this point yet again recently with the consistency of my glazes and in the process I learnt a good lesson about tools. There are many moments in the rhythm of the workshop like this. Times when I say enough is enough, I need to change the way I am doing this or that. The motivation for change is often driven by necessity.
Keeping the consistency of glazes consistent across batches is a difficult thing. I’ve been told that glazes need to be the consistency of single cream, that the hairs on the back of a finger should just break through the glaze left on the finger after dipping it in the glaze, that the glaze should just run off the back a spoon… I used to work with each of these three methods. I would stand for half an hour spooning glaze back into the bucket asking myself if it was the consistency of single cream, or was it the same consistency as I remembered the last batch to be, or how did my hairs look through the glaze. Hopeless, totally hopeless.
So, out of necessity I really needed to change the way I checked the consistency of the glazes. I had been told that you could also measure out a set volume of glaze, say 300ml, and weigh that amount. Each time a new batch was mixed, it should weigh the particular weight for that glaze recipe. This was a revelation! Consistency! I have been using this method for the past year or so (and telling other people to use it!). But, out of necessity, again, I have needed to change this method, which is only slightly less hopeless that dipping a finger in the glaze bucket.
This is my heather grey glaze. To achieve the colour and surface texture that I want, using the weighing method, 300ml of this glaze should weigh 410g. According to my measuring jug and weighing scales, both the batches that glazed these two bowls weighed 410g. The right-hand bowl has the look I want. It is a little difficult to see from the picture but the left-hand one is much paler and on the curve of the bowl near my mark and towards the bottom, it is brown where the glaze is much thinner. I was extremely frustrated when this bowl came out of the kiln – and provoked me into another, ‘This can’t go on!’ moment. The problem I found was that I couldn’t measure 300ml accurately – and a small difference in the measurement made a large difference to the weight. I found it to be really hard to control.
So, I looked up online what a hydrometer was, discovered I could get one at my local home brew shop, and went and bought one. ‘A hydrometer’ has been lurking at the back of my mind for some time but I was terrified of the thought of it. I knew I should probably get one but it was bound to be terribly scientific and complicated, and way beyond me. Anyway, it turns out to be dead easy! As I say, I looked online and it was this video from Pitter the Potter that did it for me. If you don’t already use one, the hydrometer measures the specific gravity of your glaze, which sounds quite complicated. But all it means is that it measures the ratio of water to glaze materials in your glaze. The hydrometer looks like a kind of thermometer and floats in a quantity of your glaze.
If you put the hydrometer into water, it would float so that the zero measurement was level with the surface of the water. If there is 50/50 ratio of glaze material to water in your glaze bucket the hydrometer floats so that the ’50’ mark is level with the surface of the glaze being measured. If that is the proportion you wish to replicate, keep adding water to your new batch until the hydrometer floats with the ’50’ mark on the surface.
Accuracy is essential for potters who need to repeat, reproduce as near as they can, a colour on an on-going basis. It is absolutely fundamental. There seems to me to be only one way to do properly – and that is with a hydrometer. There seems to be hydrometers with different measurement markings on for different purposes, so be a little wary if you are intending to buy one. The one from the home brew shop didn’t work, it sat too high in the glaze, and I had to buy another one that said it was for glazes.
It has been a revelation using a hydrometer! A one of those ‘I can’t believe why I didn’t do it sooner!’ moments. My three glazes are 31%, 36% and 40% water to glaze material, which in itself tells me so much about the glaze that I didn’t know already. I need to make some more glaze tomorrow and, with doubt, I know it will be far more successful, and more efficient, because of my new best friend.
July 28, 2014 § 3 Comments
This post is following on from a visit Dan Hogan made to my workshop at the beginning of the year. While he was there we discussed glazes and things, and I said that I had picked a third colour from a selection of 8 test tiles, not necessarily because it was the colour I was after but because it looked the best of the 8 and I needed to pick one for a trade fair that I was participating in a couple of weeks’ time. The glaze went from a test tile to a third colour on pots at a trade fair without much in between. A couple of weeks after the show, Dan asked me how the colour had turned out and I said it had turned out fine.
So, 6 months later and how is the colour fairing? I like it more and more.
A lady who owns a shop in London, called Maud and Mabel, ask me last year if I would make a grey. It was something I had been thinking about myself anyway, as the white that I had as my original third colour had not been selling as well as I would have liked. It is so difficult to find a colour that you are happy with and it can take months of trying and still you struggle. There is a beautiful Goldmark Gallery film of Jim Malone working in his studio and glazing pots, in which he talks about finding the ‘right’ glaze. He says that it is possible to make hundreds and hundreds of tests to find the ‘one’, which can blinker you to all sorts of possibilities that you just don’t see.
Since the beginning of the year, I have adjusted the weight of the glaze, so that I feel the consistency is right. This, obviously, affects the colour. I have called it ‘heather grey’ because there is the slightest hint or wash of pink/purple through it. I love the three colours together now. They are, in the loosest sense, variations on grey. There is charcoal black (deep grey/black), teal blue (which is actually a kind of slate grey/blue), and then this heather grey. I feel they sit well together. All three glazes have Nickel Oxide and Cobalt Carbonate in them. The black has the addition of Red Iron Oxide and the blue Copper Oxide (it is the same base glaze for each of the three). The grey is just Nickel and Cobalt. So there are incredible similarities/harmonies across the three of them.
I would like to add a yellow, as a contrast. Not to the whole range but as an accent, certain pieces picked out. This is one of the jobs for between here and Christmas.
July 7, 2014 § 1 Comment
This last week in the workshop has been extremely busy. I am currently on a push to deliver orders delayed by the fire and make stock for Potfest in the Pens. I had such an enjoyable time last year at Potfest that I can’t wait to return, less than a month now. And following on from my good fair in Devon recently, I am hoping that my luck continues. But this means having enough stock… I have another week making for orders, then I will be concentrating on Potfest. I am slightly concerned as it hasn’t left much firing time but I’ll do what I can. If you haven’t been to Potfest, it is a clay-lover’s paradise and well worth a visit. As an incentive, if you mention the fact that you read this blog, I’ll give you 10% off any purchase of DSP pots!
So, this is what I have been doing, amongst other things.
Mixing up larger batches of glaze. The need to buy larger glaze buckets has been an indication of the increasing scale of my pots.
I’ve been given a small tub of wood ash and I’m excited about trying it out in a glaze.
And I have a friend back in the workshop. Actually, not the original friend but a close relation. I broke my treasured Lisa Hammond mug that I used everyday in the workshop and went to Earth and Fire recently in search of replacement. I found one, much to my delight.
June 16, 2014 § 2 Comments
I have been in need of a bag for a long time; one in which to carry my daily things. I ran over one – don’t ask! – and my last one fell apart through use. I am currently using a stand-in until I can find one that I like. The problem is that it is taking me a long time to find something I really like. I have been looking and looking in the shops and have found nothing approaching what I want. At The Contemporary Craft Festival, last weekend, I saw Wolfram Lohr wearing one of his stunning leather bags and realised that I have been looking in the wrong place.
So, here are 5 craftspeople (or small group of craftspeople) who make beautiful, useful things by hand: