As an experiment to see how our environment affects us, we took three balls of clay and modelled something from each in three different locations along the Taff trail.
Stop no.1: The woods My eyesight doesn’t respond well to low light levels, so being in the shade of the trees made my surroundings very blurry. I felt enclosed by the darkness and as a result felt slightly panicked and anxious. My cold only added to this feeling of anger and frustration and probably contributed to the spikiness of the shape. This capsule form I made encloses an acorn cap, the tentacle forms referencing the twisting branches overhead and the sense of being among living things. The air felt damp to breathe in and there was the earthy smell of decay all around.
Stop no.2: The River Taff
This next stop was much more pleasant. It was open and bright, warmer than the woods and the burbling sound of the flowing water inspired a meditative state. The place we sat down underneath the bridge looked vaguely familiar and I wonder now if parents took me here when I was younger. I found myself contemplating the geology of the river, rock layers and sediment, and began rolling lots of tiny clay balls which I sandwiched between thin clay sheets. Watching the downstream motion of the water I pinched and twisted the layers into a wave like form. Off the public footpath itself it felt a lot calmer and I built more slowly, taking time to look up and watch the dogs splashing and birds flying overhead. The layers of clay might also represent layers of memory – distorted by time just as the rock layers are.
Stop no.3: Close to the main road, by the river I felt most self-conscious working here because there were lots of people passing through. The juxtaposition of natural and artificial made for interesting subject matter although I struggled to create the sharp, geometric shapes I wanted without any tools. I pressed clay into the bolts holding down the railings which made some nice impressions then tried to form the clay into square blocks, pressing it into the flat surface of the metal. I tied the clay like beads along a shoelace I found, thinking how the line of the rope might represent the river and the clay the bridge over it.
From my childhood obsessions with the Jonathan Creek series, reading Patricia Cornwell and religiously watching Tim Burton movies, it seems I’ve always had a quiet fascination with the macabre. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that when deciding on a piece of work to write about from the Coca York ceramics collection, there was no question in my mind it would be one of Kerry Jameson’s creepy creations.
The one piece in particular I’ve chosen is ‘The Dancing Bears’, a 2010 work from her dark and disquieting series ‘Collect’ which also features a frenzied fox and a crying monkey. It’s a pair of standing bears, the tallest about 30 cm high holding a red concertina and with a rope tied around its neck (although hanging loose as if he has just broken free); the shorter one leaning on a gnarled walking stick. Both bears are covered in a mangy, matted, woollen texture which looks as though it would be rough to touch. They peer at you from terrifyingly animated glass eyes. Something about the fur reminded me of an old teddy I used to own, threadbare and worn from years of use. I expect the piece was made in the artist’s windowless west London studio although according to her website she currently she lives in Singapore, teaching at the school of arts there.
Jameson’s absence from social media and the lack of personal information on her website adds to her sculptures’ intrigue and mystery. However lack of information also means I don’t know exactly how the bears were made but I hazard to suppose they’re most likely hand built from earthenware. I’d like to know what kinds of supports she uses when building. Might there some kind of armature to begin with? Despite the sharp claws and gaping mouths I thought the smaller bear looked almost comical with his squat legs, too small to support the bulky body. His fur stops halfway down, below which is a sgraffito texture made with angry looking marks to give the impression of fur with what looks like black and red slip. This gives him the appearance of wearing a pair of high-waisted trousers (could this in fact be a caricature of Simon Cowell?!)
What I find most exciting and unique about Jameson’s work is that to her, the process of firing is just the beginning of a piece. Rather than despairing over unexpected cracks and things gone wrong she sees these ‘failures’ as opportunities to create something new so her sculptures become collages of fragments stuck together. To re-assemble them she uses a mixture of kaolin (china clay) and glue. The breadth of materials she incorporates into her work is astounding: seeds, buttons, stones, shells, glass eyes, feathers, canvas, hessian, jute (a course material derived from vegetable fibres), clay cement, lead glazes, oxides and acrylic to name a few. There’s an immediacy and spontaneity in the way she decorates without too much deliberation which gives the work life. It’s interesting to see so many sketches on her website. It seems drawing is an important part of her thinking process and there’s a fluidity and child-like nature to her large, expressive ink drawings which is reflected in her making and decorating.
Other pieces by her in the museum included a series of big pots illustrated with people being chainsawed and having their limbs pulled apart by wolves, in a slip-decorated technique that reminded me of red and black figure panting on Greek vases. There was also a series of six terracotta figures on horseback, swords brandished in the air and a curious headless statue holding six tiny kittens in each arm. Maybe I’m particularly drawn to the surrealism in her work and the humour this brings. There are definitely undertones of violence throughout much of it though. But then who doesn’t enjoy being unsettled once in a while? Why else would we watch horror films?
In Ceramic Review issue 267 (2014) Jack Tan draws parallels between Jameson’s work and a particular Dr Who episode ‘The empty child’ In which a boy in a gas mask haunts the streets of the London Blitz at night calling ‘Are you my mummy?’ He argues it’s this juxtaposition of familiarity or nostalgia (dressing the sculptures up in a ‘soft’ material skin like a teddy bear) with horror (distorting the figure and gluing on sharp teeth and piercing eyes) that gives the sculptures their power and appeal. In ‘A Time before Wolves’ (Ceramic Review 271, 2015) Andy Christian aptly refers to her work as ‘cuddly toys that bite’.
I was surprised to discover that Jameson first studied ceramics at Central St Martins before completing an MA at the Royal College of Art in 2009. Her work is so darkly unorthodox and peculiar, it’s easier to believe it sprung out of some grotesque nightmare than that it was the result of years of hard work and experimentation. Images from her degree show suggest an interest in myths and legends (Romulus and Remus), religious iconography, museum artefacts and themes of death and fear but with animal imagery throughout. A large proportion of her earlier works were dog sculptures in buff grogged clay, covered in an opaque white slip with colour on top.
Her work took a new turn in 2010 after she visited the exhibition ‘The Sacred made Real’ at the National Gallery in London, a collection of religious art from the Spanish golden age which included polychrome wooden sculptures. Artists like Gregorio Fernandez (1576-1636) wanted to achieve the same level of realism in sculpture as they could on canvas so they added details like glass eyes and human hair to their works. ‘The Dancing Bears’ have a definite visual reference to traditional salt-glazed stoneware bear jugs that were popular in England in the 18th century when bear baiting was still a legal sport. African fetish figures are another major influence– idols worshipped for their magical powers often with staring eyes, gaping mouths and decorated with nails and shells. Her choice of sombre and earthy colours reminds me of prehistoric and aboriginal art.
When first introduced to the ceramics course, we were each asked to choose from a selection of ladybird picture cards which most appealed or best described us. One of mine was the ladybird ‘Story of clowns’. Something about the fine line between the humorous and sinister had resonance with me. It must have too with Anthony Shaw who’s recently become an avid collector of Jameson’s work.
I was fortunate enough to watch Walter Keeler (the legend himself!) give a masterclass today as part of the Made by Hand craft event at Cardiff city hall. Although familiar with his pots for years, I’d never properly appreciated how innovative his work has been. Combining different techniques including extruding, throwing, slab building, press moulding and lathe turning he explores the full potential of clay’s qualities.
He demonstrated how he makes two kinds of jugs, the first from an extruded pipe with extruded handles echoing the twisting branches of trees; the second using more traditional techniques – thrown sections with a pulled handle. We watched as he transformed a stiff jug with what he called ‘a personality disorder’ into his distinctive ‘articulated’ jug design by simply replacing the thrown sections together at a jauntier angle. This new jug, he said, was one you knew you’d have a fun conversation with.
Interestingly many of the different sections are joined together with slip but no scoring. This often leads to a much neater joint and the parts still stay together! Maybe I should be less painstaking when joining next time and trust in the clay more.
I like Keeler’s sense of humour in how he plays with our relationships to his objects. He makes mugs that are intimate and homely, alongside thorn encrusted dishes which we almost feel afraid to approach. What he makes is both traditional and contemporary, organic and geometric. He wants his work to be used not only appreciated for its aesthetics.
Yesterday we had our first introduction to slip decoration with technician Matt, who demonstrated a range of techniques including paper resist, sgraffito, slip trailing and inlay. The inlay technique was new to me but one I found exciting. It involves carving into the surface of a leather hard slab (usually with a looped turning tool) then painting wet slip into the indentation. After this has dried the extra slip on top is scraped away to reveal the line. The result reminded me of the incised designs on the work of one of my favourite ceramic artists, Gordon Baldwin.
I’m also eager to try out rolling slabs of clay onto carved lino to create surface pattern, a technique Jacqui Atkin describes in her book ‘250 tips, techniques and trade secrets for potters’.
The first drawing is of an object (a metal fastener) perceived by touch alone. The ones below were drawn while looking at that object afterwards.
Drawing the object from touch, there was no pressure to create a ‘good’ drawing. I knew that even my best efforts would probably result in inaccuracies and because of this the drawing appears looser and more carefree than the other two. I took the approach of a continuous line drawing, since this technique felt more appropriate to translate my perception of the object through touch. Holding the fastener in my hand, my finger worked to feel around it in a continuous line motion. In contrast, in the second drawings the lines are much more confident and precise but lack expression and spontaneity.
I find it interesting how my mind imposed memories on the object as I felt it. It made me think of a specific carabiner I thought I’d seen my dad use, so I drew the criss-crossed texture that one had on its grip instead of feeling carefully and discovering the texture was instead vertical lines. I imagined the metal to be dark purple in colour, probably thinking back to the smooth metal texture of a purple camera I owned years ago. I had a much more personal experience of the object by just feeling it.
In the first drawing the metal is a lot thicker than perceived by sight. Might this have something to do with the perception of temperature? The metal felt cold to touch, could this have led me to feel it occupied a larger space, that there was more of it?
The drawing from touch is also noticeably larger, maybe because I felt the need to leave room to accommodate future details on the object I might perceive later on. I felt this approach focused my attention on the process of drawing in contrast to when I drew the fastener while looking at it. This instead focused my attention on the outcome of the activity rather than the activity itself.
Today’s visit was to Craft in the Bay, Cardiff to take part in a workshop organised by Dr Natasha Mayo. We worked alongside local A level students to problem solve and took a look at Craft in the Bay’s new exhibition ‘Drawing Inspirations’ which examines the relationship of drawing to the artists work.
We discussed different ways artists use drawing to inspire designs such as printmaker Claire Florey-Hitchcox who uses drawing as a pre-design for her woodblock carvings and ceramicist Richard Heeley who explores the energy and rhythm of markmaking to create a decorative surface.
We began with the challenge of joining two strips of paper together by folding only, then were asked to transform a rectangle of A2 paper into a vessel. Our pair’s approach drew on my previous knowledge of how to make an origami cup although we had to improvise and make the paper more flexible so it would stand upright.
The next task was to create a spoon from paper. Aware that we had drawn from past knowledge for the previous task we tried a more intuitive approach this time, folding the paper with the idea of making a plaited stem like a love spoon. I feel our designs were very economical – we were careful not to waste any of the material.
Next we used the spoon to mark make with Indian ink, then to draw the paper spoon using the spoon which was a lot more challenging exercise. We developed our markings from the first sheet but rather than running wild, we took a more linear approach and thought of how our marks could convey the presence of a 3D object rather than only drawing 2D patterns.
Over lunch we were tasked with finding objects in the environment around Cardiff bay to make drawing tools from. We then used our new tools to draw with the ink, free to take any approach we liked. My plan was to work in a generally organised manner from the left to right of the page exploring mark making with typography (our previous mark-making with the ink had reminded me of calligraphy) but still working freely enough to explore the limitations of the new tools.
Today’s experience has taught me that the process of playing with materials and developing ideas is just as, if not more important than the final outcome.