On Thursday we presented our findings for the summer project, outlining some of the key themes and characteristics of our ceramic practice. For each person, the rest of us took down a few key words or phrases that we see as defining the other person’s practice. Among the words that were used to describe the artists and ways of making I chose were nostalgia, transient, poetic, traveller, kinetic and sensory geographer. Natasha also suggested possible links to Edward Soja’s theory of ‘Third Space’.
My past work has dealt very much with notions of memory and place, real and imagined. However I’m struggling to consolidate my love of traditional, Leach and Japanese inspired ceramics by the likes of Lisa Hammond, Phil Rogers and Richard Batterham, with my need to somehow also make concrete my feelings and interest in the themes above. I like the idea of being a technically proficient functional maker but I don’t know if that alone would be enough to satisfy me creatively. I also struggle with the idea of making inspired by Japanese aesthetics, it feels false and shallow considering I have never left Europe and know very little about Japan and its culture. On the other hand I recognise that much of the history of British Studio Pottery since the early 1900s with Bernard Leach, has been hugely influenced by Japanese ceramics.
Looking at the chosen words by my peers, some were expected, others like ‘nostalgia’, I hadn’t predicted. In Imogen Racz’s article ‘Sculptural Vessels across the Great Divide’ (Ceramic Reader pg. 79) she describes Alison Britton’s attitude that craft cannot be nostalgic in the contemporary world. In answer to David Pye and Peter Dormer’s desire for recognition of traditional skill, Britton replied that although technical skills are a good starting point, it’s necessary to go beyond these to make appropriately relevant work for today’s world. I recall Geoff Swindell voicing a similar progressive attitude when he came to visit CSAD. Perhaps when Britton rose to prominence in the 1970s, there was an air of rebellion against the Cardew and Leach tradition but I feel that at the moment, there is a place for nostalgia in the ceramics world and that looking to the past isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
In order to better understand how our ceramics practice may fit in and contribute to the wider field, we have been tasked with identifying a journal from the Cardiff Met collection which aligns with our methods of working and which can support us in our future practice. My chosen literature is ‘The Log Book‘, the international wood-fired ceramic publication. Having tried out wood and anagama firing at HDK’s Nääs site outside Gothenburg last spring, I feel that I’ve finally found a method of working which suits my values and the qualities I admire in ceramic art. The close connection of the potter to the final work and our primitive ancestors imbues this method with a kind of magic and lack of control which excites me.
The Log Book (ISSN 1470-1812) began in 2000 and has been published quarterly ever since by a duo based in Ireland – Coll Minogue and Robert Sanderson. Currently, subscription is £25 annually. The most recent publications each include about six or seven 1000-1500 word articles which are all contributed to the magazine by artists , kiln builders and those with an interest in wood firing. Over the 18 years it has been running, the log book has published articles about wood firing from close to every continent in the world.
Article submission guidelines can be found on their website (www.thelogbook.net) and suggest a proposal for your desired article is discussed with the journal before sending a first draft in. First person writing from the artist/potter themselves is preferred and articles are checked for accuracy before publishing in order to avoid inaccurate or misleading information. In their online guidelines they state that in order to write about a new kiln design, the kiln must be fired successfully at least twice before it’s details can be shared publicly.
In the first couple of issues, a correspondence section is included at the back which is mainly comments from potters showing support for the new magazine. In the later issues however, there is no section for letters from readers which is a pity as it could open up the journal to a closer relationship between readers and writers, enriching conversations.
There is very little advertising in the journal. You’ll find nothing like the pages full of pug mills, pottery tools, kiln and workshop adverts like you do in Ceramic Review. Instead, the journal occasionally dedicates a couple of pages to a review of a new book about wood firing or wood stacking and advertises where to buy it from. At the back of each issue is a ‘backlog’ which is a list of up-coming wood-fire related events, fairs, exhibitions and conferences which readers can contribute to. Some articles inconspicuously advertise workshops such as the most recent issue in which is an account of EMA-CNIFOP, a prestigious but unfortunately named ceramic centre in France which offers short courses and claims to welcome 300 professional ceramic artists for short specialist courses each year.
The journal is interested in any articles relating to wood-firing, whether they be about functional or sculptural work, contemporary or historical. Technical details are important, many include diagrams and firing cone temperatures and times, although it was difficult to find glaze recipes. While issues at the beginning seem to take a more practical approach, recent articles are more storytelling and philosophical in their style. An article that particularly interested me was called ‘New Wave’ by Angus McDiarmid and was featured in issue 72 from 2017. In it he discusses the potential future of wood-firing and issues surrounding the environment (such as carbon emission levies) as well as economic viability. He asks ‘Can we move forward from our Japanese influence and all that wabi sabi speak?’ which is something I find myself questioning often. It has become fashionable to make work influenced by traditional Japanese ceramics in the west, but by doing so are we losing touch a little with the folk pottery of our own culture in the UK? McDiarmid also suggests that in a world of digitisation and virtual realities ‘woodfiring offers something very human.’, a comfort and connection to reality.
I hope that reading further into these journals will help me find opportunities for workshops/residencies which I may otherwise have not found. They will also be useful for learning about the journeys different potters take to get to the stage they are at currently, since lots of the articles are autobiographical. I am considering proposing an article describing my own recent experience of wood firing. Overall I’m very impressed with this valuable resource and of how international it is with writers from a multitude of different culture contributing.
During my time in Sweden, being away from home led me to work with the themes of place and placelessness. I also found myself building on concepts about memory and space from the Port Eynon field module I did months before in which we worked with ideas of mythical and imaginary landscapes. For our ‘room and space’ module I worked in particular with the idea of ‘non-place’ as defined by French anthropologist ‘Marc Auge and became particularly interested in the spaces of transience in cities. Following tags such as ‘non-place’ and ‘imaginary cities’ on Instagram I stumbled across artist Sapphire Goss’s Eternity City project for Milton Keynes. The project developed over the summer of 2018 and culminated in September with a series of film installations projected onto the city’s architecture, showing plants from the ‘edgelands’ of the city as they decayed.
Inspired by this project and the work of ceramic artists using natural materials sourced from the landscape (in particular Adam Buick and Matthew Blakely) I want to work with the urban surroundings in Cardiff. I am interested in the city’s natural gardens such as roadside verges and overgrown areas of weeds beside parks and along the Taff trail. These spaces are deemed ugly and overgrown but through an in depth technical exploration of these overlooked, undesirable plants, I hope to emphasise the potential beauty in the overlooked. Having a father who is a botanist means I have grown up hearing about invasive species such as rhododendron and Japanese knotweed at the dinner table but also about the necessity for protecting rare species under SSSIs. Studying English literature at college I became familiar with the nature vs man opposition in literature (Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Mower Against Gardens’ pops to mind as does John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids and the musical Little Shop of Horrors.) I intend to root my work over the next three months in this ecological urban context.
While the overriding context of the work may be broad and drawing from many different sources, I intend to approach this project practically as a product designer. My focus for the next few months will be throwing a collection of functional tableware and improving my skills on the wheel through disciplined practice. My aim is to create a series of products with similar design characteristics in form and unified by the glazes sourced from these urban edgelands. I intend to have a mixture of traditional and non-traditional pots in this group of products. Traditional functional objects such as those discussed in Bernard Leach’s ‘A Potter’s Book’ and Michael Cardew’s ‘Pioneer Pottery’ will feature (such as storage jars and mugs) but I am also interested in making series of thrown utensils which are not so common. Ceramic cocktail shakers, butter, casserole dishes and other pots which are made up of more than one part are of particular interest to me. Since these items all have moving parts they continue with my interest in the first year of participatory ceramics and are objects which need to be touched and moved to be understood.
I hope by the end of these three months to have a large body of work with series of near-identical products and to have developed a range of around four stoneware reduction glazes which will then be used to decorate the body of work. I hope the work questions relationships between humans and our urban and natural landscapes. I like the idea of juxtaposing desirable, neat, functional objects with these city spaces we consider worthless, messy and unfunctional.
My favourite projects from my study time in Sweden were the anagama and wood firings. I enjoyed creating series of mugs, bowls and bottles on the wheel and discovering the different ways the flames and ashes had affected the surfaces after firing. I’ve realised from visiting exhibitions and fairs including the 2018 Hatfield Art in Clay, that I’m particularly drawn to vessel forms so I’ve decided that this form will become one of the pillars of my practice. During the vessel course in Sweden we discussed how there is something in humans which means we need to create containers for everything. We build houses to contain ourselves, then create boundaries to make countries. Our entire reality is conceived in the container of our mind through our senses and the narrow field of vision that contains what we see visually. The vessel/container is a powerful metaphor.
Themes of trace and memory of place have dominated my practice for a while now. I see the surface effects from the woodfiring as a continuation of this. Working on the Port Eynon Field project last year we worked with ideas of imaginary and mythical landscapes and it was interesting to see how working from the memory of a place is different to working directly with a place.
The Pembrokeshire coast is a place which holds a lot of memories for me. I’ve been visiting the area with my family since I was a child. Over the summer I went to visit Adam Buick’s studio and felt very drawn to his direct relationship with the environment. I liked his all embracing approach –the studio didn’t just happen to be in the environment it was part of it and what he made seemed to grow organically from the hills and the seashore. I want to return to using naturally sourced materials for my own work, for the aesthetics but also in order to make sure glazes are food safe.Matthew Blakely similarly uses materials collected from the environment. His focus is on rock glazes, samples of which he collects from various locations in the UK. Both potters use simple pot forms which act as a blank canvas for the random effects of crushed rocks , organic materials and ash to play on. In my own practice I’ve decided to focus on simple , functional forms, the complexity coming with the interplay of colours in the glazes on the surface.
Following on from my interest in spaces of transience in the city and ‘non-places’ and inspired by the artist Sapphire Goss’s recent interventions in Milton Keynes with a series of installations called ‘Eternity City’ I want to explore the flora particular to the urban habitat of Cardiff – the weeds and plants along the Taff trail and messy, overlooked roadside verges where we get a glimpse of what the city would look like if suddenly all people disappeared.
At Hatfield I found I was drawn to functional ware – Ruthanne Tudball’s demonstration stood out. I like how she takes into consideration every aspect of the making including the waste product. She uses the pieces she took from the sides of the pot during faceting to decorate the knob on the lid. Her spouts and handles are made in an unusual way too – the teapot spouts are bellied out then folded over on top before being connected to the gallery rim. For the handles she first throws clay donuts before pulling them. I want to apply this same careful consideration of design to my own work. The idea of using something which is considered undesirable (in this case the waste clay) also ties in with the idea of using ash from undesirable weeds and plants in the city.
Over the summer I borrowed a table top wheel to practice throwing. I tried making jars with galleries and flanges for the first time and really like the way these two pieces work as one, fitting snugly and satisfyingly together when you get the correct measurements. I threw the lid knobs up first then made the lid flanges hollow by trimming into them later. I want to try throwing the lids upside down so it’s easier to measure the flange against the opening of the jar. Each of the lids and jars is slightly different but I’d like to be at a stage where I can decide which design I like best and replicate it.
Rusty oil cans and water boilers outside an antique shop in Machynlleth. Inspiration for form – I like the sharp lines and precise geometric shapes. These, like the overgrown spaces and weeds in the city I want to work with, are unwanted and uncared for.
I’ve identified that I particularly like teapots and jars. Their lids mean that the pots become objects you feel invited to participate/play with more than you do with mugs or bowls. Something about the complexity of two or more pieces coming together to create one whole is exciting. Lidded pots call for the viewer to look inside and discover the purpose of the pot, what mystery it holds inside.
The first self -led project I ever did in clay was an exploration of my environment in North Wales and the qualities of form, materials, colour and texture I could find in my natural surroundings. I took a sketchbook and camera out on walks around my home in the mountains of Snowdonia, collecting earth and sheep wool to mix into the clay and seaweed, sheep poo, dead branches and lichen for saggar firing. My second taste of firing raw materials came with our summer project before the start of university when we collected clay from our local area to test.
Over the past couple of years I’ve drifted away from the use of my own dug up materials but I feel more and more drawn to the idea recently. Perhaps studying abroad, homesickness and my recent enquiries into non-space have made me even more keen to pursue work which explores a sense of place.
Above: Vessels from 2015 incorporating raw materials from my environment in rural North Wales.
While volunteering last year at Art in Clay, Hatfield House I felt particularly drawn to the work of Matthew Blakely (http://www.matthewblakely.co.uk) whose rock-glazed wood fired vessels are decorated with geological samples taken from all over the UK. When you buy a pot of his you also receive with it a CD documenting the journey of collecting the raw materials which make up that individual glaze.
Adam Buick (http://www.adambuick.com/) is another potter who works with the landscape, collecting natural materials and inspiration from the Pembrokeshire coast. On a visit to his studio last week he showed me an old corn grinder machine he uses to grind down his rocks before he mixes them with minerals such as Wollastonite to create line blends. He showed how he uses syringes to accurately measure the blend combinations. For some recently thrown porcelain moon jars he had incorporated the ground stone into the clay body itself. Both Adam and Matthew use simple, rounded forms as a kind of blank canvas for showing off the effects of these natural glazes.
I began to worry that returning to work with my own materials sourced from the landscape might be a big shift from the rest of my work at CSAD but I realise that much of my work has been concerned with memory and place and working in this way will only be a continuation of these themes. I want to follow up on a post about Katharine Pleydell Bouverie’s ash glazes –collecting my own ash to mix up has been something I’ve wanted to do for a while. I plan to get out the book ‘Natural Glazes: Collecting and Making’ by Miranda Forrest which I know we have at my local library.
I spent the weekend at the home of jeweller and ceramic artist Linda Unsworth (Pampeliska) in the Preselli hills where a group of us had got together under the leadership of potter and expert kiln builder Joe Finch to build Linda a small wood kiln in the garden.
We began with a flat concrete base into which holes had been drilled to let the moisture escape. It’s also possible to build onto a base of hollow concrete blocks with insluating blanket over the top. Firebricks had been laid out on top of the concrete in the shape of the kiln’s base and we built up onto this one layer at a time, photographing each layer. On the outer brick layer were light insulating bricks and heavier firebricks on the inside wall against where the flames will be. The chimney was built in a more aesthetic red reclaimed firebrick.
Joe’s kiln design is five bricks across and four wide and he’d built a model from Lego to guide us. Joe advises working out the size of the kiln you want after deciding how many kiln shelves you want to fit inside. The two chambers either side are fireboxes into which the wood will be fed through two openings at the front creating a ‘fast fire’ down draft style of kiln – the chamber in the middle will pull the flames back down and out the chimney. You can see in the photo that the second layer of bricks is pushed out slightly in the firebox to create a ledge. This is for the perforated brick layer to sit on. The idea is that the embers from the logs burning on the firebars above will drop down onto these and the oxygen through the holes will help combust them, meaning you don’t have to rake out the embers so often like in other kilns. In the chimney you can see a space where the bricks are missing – this is where the damper will be placed and bricks can be pulled out here to create reduction.
As the kiln got taller we added the firebars – hollow tubes of refractory fireclay onto which the logs will be placed. These need to be loose enough so they can be pulled out and replaced if needed. We continued to build up the bricks layer by layer, insulating on the outside and firebricks on the inside, sometimes having to saw bricks in half to fill in cracks and filling smaller gaps with gaskets of insulating ceramic fibre. Things became more complicated when we began the kiln chamber floor. We placed the flattest kiln shelves we could find on top of the fireboxes, leaving two gaps for the back for the flames to flow through and one at the front in the middle. We covered the flue to the chimney too.
Things picked up after this stage when the job got easier – we simply built the insulating bricks up in layers around the perimeter of the kiln chamber. Once the desired height was reached (about 2m high for the entire kiln) Linda painted numbers on the bricks that will make up the door using watered down red iron oxide. Joe then sawed out the door.
We began Sunday morning by mixing up a mortar for the reclaimed molar bricks for the outside kiln cladding. This second layer of insulating bricks isn’t necessary but makes the kiln look more aesthetic. As a cheaper alternative it’s possible to cover the inner layer of bricks in insulating fibre then add a corrugated iron shell.
The mortar was a mixture of ball clay, sand, water and red iron oxide (the iron colours the mixture pink so it blends in better with the red bricks). The bricks were each soaked in water for a few seconds before building with so they absorbed the mortar better. Since the bricks were reclaimed we spent some time scraping the layer of old mortar off the surfaces before we could begin the next stage.
The cone spyholes in the back had to be adjusted for this second layer of bricks so we made new longer ones which can be pushed in at an angle. After completing one wall of outer layer we added the supporting angle irons on the outer corners and secured these together with a 12mm threaded rod (could use 5mm), then slid in horizontal ones between them.
The roof was constructed with three layers of insulating bricks cut at angles to make an arch. A D shaped wooden arc support frame was held up by planks underneath and we built the arches over the top, supported either side by bricks cut in half length-ways. Once the other outer walls have been completed the frame should be able to drop and slide out through the kiln entrance leaving a freestanding roof. Unfortunately by the end of the weekend we’d run out of the reclaimed bricks so we couldn’t complete the outer layer fully but Linda has promised to send photos of the finished kiln – I’m looking forward to see the results! More information about kiln building can be found in Joe’s book ‘Kiln Construction: A Brick by Brick Approach’.
I’ve just come across a text in ‘The Ceramics Reader’ called ‘Reconsidering “The Pissoir Problem”‘ by Bruce Metcalf. In it he describes conceptual art using the definition of artist-philosopher Adrian Piper who suggests we think of conceptual art ‘as being art that subordinates its medium, whatever its medium, to intellectually interesting ideas’.
Metcalf proposes that the difference between being an artist or a craftsperson depends on what you sacrifice. For an artist, the medium is subordinated by the idea. Art is intellectual, or according to Arthur Danto ‘art is embodied meaning’. Craft on the other hand puts the material first, the idea comes second since craft practice is more about labour. These days, Metcalf says, ‘everybody wants to be an artist‘. It’s something I feel resonates with me as someone who came to ceramics from a fine art background. Recently my work has become so much more about the idea than the joy of working with clay. I don’t want to forget what drew me to working in ceramics in the first place through. The ability wet clay had to reshape itself and ‘remake/re-model’ like the Bryan Ferry song (‘Next time, is the best time we all know’) drew me to it, perhaps as a metaphor for a way of continually reshaping and changing my own self. The stubbornness of clay I felt had a lot in common with my own stubborn attitude.
I began to define myself while at HDK as an artist who happens to work in clay. I realised from feedback in tutorials that a lot of the things I made could equally have been made in metal, wood or plastic. Superimposing shallow metaphors about clay suggesting the fragility of human civilisation onto these objects afterwards felt superficial and false. I realise I am starting to sacrifice my material for the idea. But the results from the anagama firing and the fantastic material qualities of the alchemy and metamorphosis of glaze and clay during the process has made me remember that this magic is the thing which really excites me, these objects mean more to me than anything else I made while in Sweden.