Clay in the Dolgellau area

North West Wales is not known for it’s clay. The area is dominated by slate and igneous rock and as a result Dolgellau is a town (a very grey town) built almost exclusively of granite walls and slate roofs. I could find no evidence of potteries nearby although it has a rich history of mining and other industries. Granite from quarries on the Lleyn peninsula supplied stone to pave the streets in English cities to the east such as Manchester and Liverpool.

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Dolgellau

Dolgellau nestles inside the  Snowdonia National Park so it’s no surprise that tourism is the major industry in the area. Much of the surroundings is rural countryside and sheep farming is another important industry. Interestingly, gold was discovered here in the 1850s and as a result the area was hit by a mini gold rush. Two of the most famous gold mines are Gwynfynydd near Ganllwyd and the Clogau St David’s mine in Bontddu. Clogau was originally opened as a copper and lead mine but gold veins were soon discovered and at one point the mine employed over 500 workers and the total output from the mine so far has been recorded at 4 tonnes. All rings for the royal weddings since the Queen Mother’s marriage to King George VI have been made from Clogau gold.

Earlier, during the 18th century the area had a thriving wool trade and coarse wool from sheep in the surrounding hills was exported to New Zealand via the Mawddach Estuary. Leather tanning was another big industry in the town and the large tannery business closed as late as the 1980s.

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Superficial deposits in Dolgellau

The map above was taken from the Geology of Britain Viewer on the British Geological Survey website. The faded yellow on either side of the town, along the river Wnion indicates alluvium deposits of clay, silt and sand left by flowing floodwater in a river valley (producing fertile soil). In the bottom left peat has formed which suggests the environment nearby below the slopes of Cader Idris was dominated by swamps and bogs. The town itself sits on an alluvial fan deposit of sand and gravel (in orange) which formed up to 3 million years ago.

My first effort to find clay took me to the banks of the Mawddach Estuary, down one of the tributaries. In the riverbank here I found a small amount of greyish clay but mixed in with it was lots of sand, brown soil and vegetation. The texture was crumbly and it didn’t have much plasticity, so I decided to look elsewhere.

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Mawddach River from top of Moel Faner hill fort
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River feeding in to the Mawddach at Arthog where I found clay
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Clay with lots of vegetation

After consulting Natural Resources Wales I decided to look a little further afield. I finally came across what I’d been looking for. Just over 10 miles away from Dolgellau in the direction of Trawsfynydd just off the straight line of the Roman road, lies the village of Bronaber with it’s collection of holiday chalets. Turning right here we followed a road into the hills and drove parallel to the Afon Gain until coming to a landslide at a turn in the river. It was clear from a distance that this bank was oozing with blue-grey clay. This clay turned out to be much more plastic than what I found previously. Although it had no vegetation in it, it turned out to be full of small pebbles which I sieved out later while processing it.

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Sun setting on the Afon Gain

Clay is formed when igneous rocks (such as granite and basalt) break down over millions of years. It’s made up of three main ingredients: alumina, silica and water. 

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Clay in the bank of the Afon Gain

Around a mile away from this site at Pen y Stryd there are the remains of two Roman tile kilns which would have been in use between the 1st and 4th centuries AD. Nearby is a waste heap into which the broken tiles and bricks went. It’s believed these kilns once supplied tiles to the Roman fort of Tomen y Mur above Trawsfynydd.

The cross on the map below indicates where the clay by the Afon Gain was found (grid reference: SH743321). The yellow colour running along the river indicates a superficial deposit of alluvium. Alluvium is composed of silty clay which can also contain sand, peat and gravel. Further downstream the circle indicates the site where Roman tile kilns were found. These also sit upon a deposit of clay silt, sand and gravel which is indicated by the purple colour.

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Superficial geology only

The map below shows the same area from above but with only the bedrock visible. The grey green seam that the clay site sits on is Maentwrog mudstone: sedimentary rock of sandtone and siltstone. The nearby purple seams represent Igneous rock formed in silica rich magma and the blue lines are part of the Clogau formation of mudstone and sedimentary bedrock formed on the ocean floor 502-508 million years go.

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Bedrock only
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Dot on the end of the arrow shows where I found clay on the banks of the Afon Gain
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Clay straight from the bag and ready to be processed.
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Sensory Hierarchy and the Arts

We live in a visually hegemonic society. In our western culture seeing is synonymous with thinking and knowing the truth of the world, therefore vision is privileged as the noblest of the senses (Pallasmaa, 2005, pg.14). In contrast our other, cruder senses such as taste and smell are privately experienced and consequently associated with ‘feeling’ the world. Touch especially is downgraded as the lowest, dirtiest sense. We can trace this view of senses as far back as Aristotle: ‘Hearing and smell, thinks Aristotle, are purer than taste, so similarly superior [to sight], and touch remains at the base’ (Paterson, 2007). We have only to look at everyday sayings to see that vision has become analogous with understanding e.g. the idioms ‘that’s clear now’ and ‘brought to light’. This illustrates our ‘dis-embodied’ mode of thinking where truth is associated with knowledge from seeing and thus removed from the body.

In the art world this hierarchy is visible in the dichotomy of art/craft. The sacred, serious ‘fine art’ we come across in galleries like the Tate e.g. paintings, videos and installations are experienced visually and aurally. We are discouraged and most of the time prohibited from touching these works of art. Meanwhile consider the twee and lowly ‘craft’ that we find in the gallery gift shops or at a Christmas market. At craft fairs visitors are actively encouraged to pick up and physically feel the work on display.
Of course this frowning upon of touching art in galleries is often because the artworks have accumulated value over time and are historically significant so must be protected from damage. But what of work that is contemporary? So occupied are we with the idea of the object itself being precious, how we experience the object is overlooked. There is something almost surreptitious about touching work in a gallery that is not advertised as ‘participatory ‘or ‘sensory’ art: ‘Vision and hearing are now the privileged sociable senses, whereas the other three are considered as archaic sensory remnants with merely private function, and they are usually suppressed by the code of culture.’ (Pallasmaa, 2005, p.16). In other words, touch appears to be something which embarrasses us.

Likewise, with this hierarchy of senses comes a hierarchy of materials. It could be argued the more you manually use your hands, the less status the object you make has as a piece of art. Arguably the most superior ‘high artworks’ are purely conceptual and have not even been touched by the artist at all: ‘Some art is more equal than others. Like a urinal – bringing that into a gallery, that’s really radical. And a shark, bringing that into a gallery – oh my God that’s an amazing thing. But a pot, now that’s craft’ (Grayson Perry, 2014).
As a ceramics student I work with what could be considered as the lowliest of all materials. In Descartes’s ‘chain of being’, clay would rank alongside mud and gravel, far below metals, plants, animals and humans in the hierarchy of importance. However, working with this ‘lowly’ material emphasizes the significance of the sense of touch. The consistency of the clay must be felt before you begin to work with it – how plastic or short is it, how wet or dry, fine or grogged and what the texture is like. Ceramics is a field which forces us to challenge our oculacentric way of thinking. When throwing it’s necessary to feel the thickness of the vessel’s wall and to weigh the balance of a cup in your hands.

According to the anthropologist David Howes ‘sight is opposed to touch as mind is opposed to body’. In his essay ‘Sensory Basket Weaving 101’ he explores the basket weaving tradition of the Amazonian Desana Indians and explains how ‘the different colours, odours, and textures of the reeds, vines, wood fibres, and palm fronds which are used in basketry refer to elements of Tukanoan mythology, sexuality, and ecology’. However, despite the uniqueness of these multi-sensory objects, Westerners prefer to collect the more visually striking work of other Amazonian tribes. Because of the way we are conditioned to perceive, we are blind to the layers of meaning that can be contained in objects that need to be ‘sensed’ not only seen: ‘Our experience and knowledge is more than visual; it is embodied’ (Johnson, 2001).
Likewise, in museums it is often only the most visually striking art and artefacts which are on display. Objects that are less exciting to look at are concealed in the storerooms, despite the fact they may have unique auditory or tactile qualities (Howes, 2007). Because of our oculacentrism we are missing out on a deeper, more embodied experience of our cultural history. On a recent trip to the Centre of Ceramic Art in York we were invited to handle a selection of fragments of work by Gillian Lowndes. They were not part of the collection on display because they were small and not visually as exciting, however by physically feeling the work I discovered a landscape of rich texture which my eyes were unable to perceive. As a result I felt a whole new appreciation of Lowndes’s work and her innovativeness in combining materials and pushing the boundaries of studio ceramics.

In addition to Howes, Pallasmaa argues that our Western society’s oculacentrism and this accepted idea of the ‘dis-embodied mind’ have led to ‘alienation, detachment and solitude in the technological world of today’. Despite the benefits of social media, the importance of touch in relation to human contact is lost as we increasingly use technology to communicate and socialize. Although the use of technology in the context of art and craft presents wonderful new opportunities, we should not forget the importance of the handmade.
As a result, we need to begin to take craft seriously. We live in a society obsessed with immediate gratification, be it fast food, our obsession with consuming and accumulating material wealth which is often disposable. We surround ourselves with plastics, distancing ourselves from the processes of making and the source of the materials themselves. By supporting craftspeople and the handmade over the mass-produced, addressing this visual hegemony and appreciating a more embodied existence we can begin to create a more environmentally aware and sustainable society.

Bibliography

Alfoldy, S. (2007) Neo Craft: Modernity and the Crafts. Nova Scotia College of art and design: The Press.

Auther, E. (2010) String felt thread: the Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art. Minnesota: Regents of the University of Minnesota.

Johnson, M. (2007) The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press.

Pallasmaa, J. (2005) The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the senses. London: John Wiley and Sons.

Paterson, M. (2007) The senses of touch: Haptics, Affects and Technologies. Berg Publishers [E-book] Available through Google books website <http://books.google.co.uk&gt; [Accessed 4 December 2016]

Perry, G. (2014) Playing to the gallery: Helping contemporary art in its struggle to be understood. UK: Penguin.