Identity

After visiting the Potteries museum in Stoke last week, visiting the V&A in London yesterday and looking at my own personal collection of ceramics, I’m beginning to see trends and patterns in the work I am drawn to and like to surround myself with. Much of my work in the first year was stuff I enjoyed making but didn’t necessarily like. By pinpointing styles and techniques I find attractive I hope to make work I can feel proud of and that speaks more clearly of me. 

Looking through my sketchbooks, notes and photos I’ve identified some key recurring themes and styles which I’m drawn to. Hopefully this can be a starting point for exploration when I return to university next month:

  • White glaze on black clay
  • Celadons
  • Dry glazes
  • Altered vessels
  • Asymmetry
  • Thrown forms

Middleport Pottery

Burleigh-Red-Calico
Image: http://www.hearthomemag.co.uk

On Wednesday I travelled to Stoke-on-Trent to visit Middleport Pottery, home of the famous Burleigh-ware, named after the partners Burgess and Leigh who took over the pottery in 1862. The site the pottery is on lends much to its success – situated beside the canal, it was easy to import raw materials as well as export the finished pieces from the factory to market. However, the main reason for its success was that this was the first pottery that had a production line from start to finish in the same building.  The raw clay came into the factory one end and finished, glazed and boxed ceramics came out the other.
The company specialised in earthenware tableware, using a white clay body that included china clay from Cornwall and Ball clay from Devon. This way, if the wares chipped they would be white inside unlike white tin-glazed pots, which when chipped would show the brown underneath.
Although only one bottle kiln survives today, the original pottery had seven until a clean air act was passed and meant they had to be demolished. Because the firings used coal, the pots were protected in saggars – large fireclay containers. Nowadays the factory uses cave sized gas kilns.

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Old photographs of the factory workers at Middleport
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Filter press

Clay used to be processed using an industrial filter press which can be found in the slip reclaim room. Today the clay is brought in pre-prepared and fed through a pug mill to the correct size. Wooden canals from the casting rooms above run through the ceiling back into the blungers that are kept constantly whirring, moving the slip beneath the floor so it doesn’t coagulate in the tank underground. Originally, children would have been employed to do this job, keeping the clay particles in suspension by stirring the slip. The slip’s viscosity would have been tested by dipping your arm into the liquid clay, now samples are tested with a more scientific method – a viscometer. All greenware clay is reclaimed and any discarded fired pieces are broken up and sold for filling potholes.

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Greenware ready to be fettled and sponged

Making a teapot on the wheel is still something I’ve never attempted but I’ve learnt a bit about the difficulty of getting one that pours just right. These Burleigh ones have tiny holes in their lids and holes where the spout is attached inside so that they only pour liquid out as fast as air is sucked in, which stops them glugging.

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Cups are PVA’d together at the rims before firing to create a vacuum that prevents warping
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Inside the gas kiln for glaze firing
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The saggar maker’s bottom knocker. This heavy ( I can vouch for that) wooden mallet or ‘mawl’ was used to knock the clay into this iron hoop to make the base of the saggar. A long slab of clay would be wrapped around a wooden mould to form the sides. 
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Men who were in charge of firing the kiln (a big responsibility) were called firemen. They would have used Bullers rings like this one to measure time and temperature combined. To see when the kiln should be opened they would measure the shrinkage of the rings in a pyrometer gauge. 
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Inside the original bottle kiln is another cylindrical tower in which the saggars would have been stacked. 

Having had experience of slipcasting myself I was familiar with the technique but it was still fascinating to see it being done on such a large scale. Even though most things are done by hand, just like a production line in a factory, everyone has a specialised job, be it making the plaster moulds themselves, fettling and sponging the casts, applying paper transfers or packing and unloading the kiln. Even today, most of the mould-making and casting work is done by men while the majority of decorating and applying transfers is done by women. It helps to have small hands!
The original shapes that moulds are made form are turned on a plaster lathe. Plates are made in seconds using a jigger – discs of clay are cut to uniform width continuously on a cutting machine, they’re then spun into flat discs on one mechanical wheel, slapped onto a plaster mould and trimmed in another machine, then placed on a rotating drying rack. The most difficult job seems to be applying the transfer paper for the surface patterns. Once the paper has been attached with soft soap it can’t be moved again because the ink starts to seep in.
It’s a very different way of producing ceramics to what I’m used to seeing with studio potters, and although I wouldn’t argue making things in this way requires great skill on behalf of the individuals involved, I don’t know if I’d be happy working on designs I didn’t create myself. I think I’d rather have understanding and experience of all different stages of the process.

One thing that struck me was how as you move through the factory, each room has a unique smell, usually earthy mixed with the smell of an old building, heavy, industrial machinery and soot. Interestingly the brightly coloured Poole pottery is also produced in Middleport, the opposite end to the country!

Food for thought

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“People don’t live on the Disc any more than, in less hand-crafted parts of the multiverse, they live on balls. Oh, planets may be the place where their body eats its tea, but they live elsewhere, in worlds of their own which orbit very handily around the centre of their heads.” Terry Pratchett – The Last Continent

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“All we have to believe with is our senses: the tools we use to perceive the world, our sight, our touch, our memory. If they lie to us, then nothing can be trusted.” Neil Gaiman- American Gods

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“He wondered whether home was a thing that happened to a place after a while, or if it was something that you found in the end, if you simply walked and waited and willed it long enough.” Neil Gaiman – American Gods

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“Look at me, more than thirty years have passed and I am different. It’s not true that memories stay fixed in the mind, frozen: they, too, go astray, like the body. Yes, I remember a time when I was different. I would like to be the girl in the book: I would be happy also just to have been her, but I never was. It wasn’t I who attracted the Englishman. I remember that I was malleable, like clay in his hands. My love affairs…that’s what interests you, right? Well, they are fine where they are: in my memory, faded, withered with a trace of perfume, like a collection of dried flowers. In yours they have become shiny and bright like plastic toys. I don’t know which are more beautiful” – Primo Levi – A Tranquil Star

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“Distance and difference are the secret tonic of creativity. When we get home, home is still the same. But something in our mind has been changed, and that changes everything.” – Jonah Lehrer

Three’s a Crowd

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Since I don’t have regular access to a wheel over the holiday, I’ve gone back to the technique that got me hooked on working with clay in the first place – coil building. Being surrounded at home with sculptures from my final college project has inspired these body-like organic forms. Strangely though, the catalyst for making them came after watching the colourful Bollywood romance film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. Perhaps the fluid, energetic movements of the dancers was some spark of inspiration. While making I listened to the film’s soundtrack on repeat for hours. I’d like to think that contributed the way the sculptures look almost like dancers in motion, full of tension, with bulging muscles and sinews as if living things are trying to push out of them.

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I didn’t really have a plan in mind, only to get back into making and experiment with the new Potclays premium craft crank I picked up at ICF. It’s great to work with, full of grog so you can build up and up in no time with hardly any trouble. I was considering painting the surfaces but it dries to a pale fleshy colour which is what I wanted.

Over the summer our task is to look for different types of collections and I’ve been thinking: How many of something do you need before it can be called a collection? I’d say three us a safe number, I’d be happy to call these a collection of sculptures. A group of three has a magical significance and conjures up fairy-tale stories: Goldilocks and the three bears, the three witches in Macbeth, three blind mice, but it may also have religious significance e.g. the three wise men or the holy trinity. Despite the cross, I didn’t intend for the work to have any religious significance. Symbols and the way they are loaded with meaning interest me. In Eastern philosophy the swastika is a symbol of good luck and prosperity but in the west we can’t help but associate it with the Nazi party. All it is is a collection of lines but it’s potent with underlying meaning.

I left these forms out in the garden to see how the rain would distort them. I like this visual contrast of the controlled with the randomness of where the water has disintegrated the form.

Siri Aurdal and ‘The Elusive Artist’

I just bought Eline Mugaas’s book about Norwegian artist Siri Aurdal whose huge undulating fiberglass coated sculptures had a big impact on me at the Venice Giardini. After seeing a small photo of Aurdal’s work in a book, Mugaas got in contact with her to find out more. Aurdal’s monumental work was radical in 1960s Norway, crossing the boundaries between sculpture and architecture, but recently she seems to have become just another female artist forgotten in the pages of history.

The book is the resulting images Mugaas collected from Siri’s studio – choc full of photographs, concept sketches, found imagery, collages, design mock ups, work in progress and sketchbook pages and is a real insight into how the artist’s mind works. Wavelike, sinusoidal shapes have become her signature motif inspired by her interest in mathematics and desire for the pieces to become interactive forms to be climbed on, walked through and graffitied over by the audience. I find something fascinating in the cross between organic and geometric form, the raw, polyester pipes a direct link to Norway’s oil industry in the 60s. Her decision to invite artists from the Oslo art scene to graffiti over her work at the opening of her Omgivelser (‘surroundings’) exhibition at that time can be seen as a politically engaged reaction to the seismic social and political changes that took place in 1968. 

There’s very little written information about the artist herself but this mysteriousness just adds to the intrigue. Things, and people too, are always a bit more interesting when you don’t know their whole story. I suppose that’s why I’m so interested in the great unexplained mysteries from the past, from Jack the Ripper to The Dyatlov Pass Incident. When my grandparents were having a clear-out a few years ago the one book I asked to keep was ‘The Reader’s Digest of Strange Stories and Amazing Facts’ – a jumbled collection of sensational unsolved mysteries, myths, legends, hoaxes, superstitions an other curiosities.

That magical kind of halo effect things have when they’re more an idea in your mind that a solid, real thing, is very compelling. I remember being fascinated years ago when reading Lemony Snicket’s ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ because I couldn’t find any information about who the author really was, Lemony Snicket being a pen name. For the same reason J B Accolay’s Violin concerto No.1 in A minor will forever be one of my favourite pieces of classical music because nobody knows who he really was or even if a composer by that name really existed. Furthermore, I suppose that’s why Kerry Jameson’s dark work holds a certain kind of magic and intrigue because I can find so little information about her online and in books. Is there value to holding back information about your personal self and being an elusive artist? How does this change how we view the artwork?

 

Memory

“Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased, ” Polo said. ” Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.” – Italio Calvino

Reading Italio Calvino’s ‘Invisible cities’ is raising some interesting questions. The chapters on city and memory stand out in particular. In the book, according to Marco Polo, all the cities he describes are in fact Venice and having now visited the place myself I’m thinking about what my memory of the place was like. Someone else visiting the city might have a completely different impression of it. The word ‘Venice’ would conjure up two different realities for each of us, and who’s to say which is the ‘real’ Venice? Before you go to a city you have an idea of what it will be like based on your memory of other cities. When you go to a new one, you compare it to other places you’ve been, leaving you with a different view of what the past was like. The past is ever-changing.

To what extent does memory shape the self? Without my memory would I be just a shell? I think of Jason Bourne, battling against his amnesia, trying to piece together fragments of the past, being hunted down for somebody he used to be. I look back at old photos of myself and say that was me but sometimes I have no memory of being that person. Other times, when I do remember, I suspect the memories are warped and exaggerated. The cells that made up that old me died years ago, physically I have been replaced with new matter but my memory is the thread that ties me to these past selves.