Full Circle – A Return to Raw Materials

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.

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Pots by Matthew Blakely, Hatfield, 2017

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.

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Tiny moon jars by Adam Buick at Ruthin Craft Centre, 2015

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.

 

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Kiln Building with Joe Finch

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DAY 1

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.

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DAY 2

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’.

The Sacrifice for Art and Craft

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.