April 20, 2015 § 5 Comments
Fine art is all about the head, an intellectual engagement – it’s a non-contact sport. Craft, on the other hand, is all body, where touch is central. Art is an experience; craft a relationship, and it means nothing without the utility. Tailoring, carpentry, jewellery, pottery – it’s all the same. The relationship is borne out in the ritual of use within the domestic setting.
This domesticity is important to me as a maker of functional ware. The moments when I am at my most glad are when we, as a family, surround the kitchen table on a Saturday or a Sunday lunch or tea-time. There is much noise and laughter, and, when the girls are on form, plentiful singing. Or quiet days when it is just my partner and I, and our youngest, pottering about the kitchen, doing separate things together – making chutney, drawing, tidying. These are glad times, too; some of our favourite. Since I started making pottery, my pots have increasingly been a part of these occasions.
The catalyst for using my pottery in our kitchen was my partner – I would have been/was much more reluctant – but from very early on she encouraged them to be used in the house. As you can imagine, I had just started to throw, so the pots were crude to say the least. It was a bold move on her part. It was, though, one of the most supportive things she could have done. It gave me first-hand experience of the objects in use. This is a simple and obvious thing but in the daily use you get a feel for how the aesthetics actually work. It is not, cannot be, a beautiful object if it doesn’t function well. The beauty or elegance is only there when these elements dovetail into one another. So, there are pots in the house that I stay well clear of and others that I gravitate towards. And it gives me enormous encouragement when the table is laid, primarily with Dove Street Pottery ware, the piano is being played, food is brought over and the family dives in…
March 30, 2015 § Leave a comment
Recently, I was very fortunate in having the photographer Paul Crowther come and take some photographs in the workshop. He was a lovely man and took some great shots, for which I am extremely grateful. Here is a selection below:
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.
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.