Aliens

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To keep away the Wednesday blues I decided to work from my recent train doodles, enlarging them and working into the drawings with pastels, oil pastels, gouache and marker pen. Perhaps the next step is, how do I transform these drawings into three dimensional objects?

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Art in Clay Hatfield

Just back from a magical few days volunteering (for the first time) at the 23rd Art in Clay on the grounds of Hatfield House. This was a great opportunity to meet makers of all sorts of styles and techniques and learn more about their work, while at the same time learning how to display work for sale and interact with the public. Saturday night’s BBQ was a highlight and it was great to meet like-minded ceramics students from Farnham. Definitely one for next year’s calendar!

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Another of the show’s highlights for me was Matthew Blakely’s talk about sourcing the rocks and materials he uses for his glazes. Seeing the vibrant range of effects he could get with as little as wood ash and clay has inspired me to start sourcing my own glaze materials from places I travel as well as my local area. He described how he uses a ball mill to grind down materials and how some rocks (like granite) will become soft when heated in a kiln while flint is dangerous because it will explode. He also spoke of the importance of getting permission to gather materials from the landscape, especially when selling the work afterwards, and of taking photos of where the natural rocks, clays and ashes were sourced. I agree with the audience members it would be great to see the finished pots photographed in the landscape they are linked to, like Adam Buick does. Matthew explained how buyers would receive a CD with their pot with information about how it was made.
It was insightful to see how different potters wrapped theirs work too, some using bubble wrap, newspaper, brown paper and elastic bands…some having to use round boxes with lots of sponge for fragile work.

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Melissa Pritchard runs Parade Mews pottery in South London and creates stunning soda fired pots. Some of the glazes shimmer like fish scales.

 

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Kathrin Najorka’s wood and salt-fired stoneware (above) is modest and homely, effectively displayed on these dark wooden shelves to make them look even more rustic. I really admired her work as well as the porcelain and stoneware thrown tableware of another German artist – Susanne Lukas-Ringel. I’d like to learn more about firing in these alternative ways to an electric kiln.

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As I mentioned in a previous post I find myself drawn to works made in a black clay body with surface decoration in white. Naturally, I got really excited when I saw Margaret Curtis‘s work! She began using black clay after visiting the studio of Japanese potter Miwa Kyusetsu X1 and admiring the crawling snow-white shino glazes on the black clay body of his tea bowls (chawan). She achieves crusting white textures with thick porcelain slip.

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Tim Lake is a potter based in Carmarthenshire who makes eastern inspired pots, bowls and tea bowls, all on a kickwheel. I was drawn to the natural, muted colours of the glazes and impressed decoration.

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Surprisingly though, my favourite piece in the whole show was not a ‘pot’ in the traditional sense at all, but this adorable ‘little ugly being’ by Chiu-i-wu. It’s a fat little creature with sharp teeth that clearly just wants to be loved! Her work is hand-built and she draws influences from her love of English summers as well as her home country Taiwan. Her forms remind me of illustrations in children’s books and this dry, green surface makes me think of the oxidation you get on copper roofs.

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