First Reduction Firing

Last Friday I fired the little yellow gas kiln at CSAD for my first time. Starting from about 8.40am the kiln climbed fast to begin with (up to 220C by 9am) and then rose steadily by about 100C per hour, a little slower than in previous weeks because of fluctuations in gas pressure (probably because gas was being used in the foundry). At 1000C, just before 1pm, the flue at the top back of the kiln was covered over in order to create a reduction atmosphere and was left this way for most of the final part of firing. As you can see in the image below two large pyrometric 1280 (09) cones were placed in the spyholes in the front top and back. By 3pm the top cone had completely melted while the bottom one was still only bending a little so in order to reach an even kiln temperature Gemma opened up the flue at the back which had been covered for reduction, encouraging air flow in the kiln. The firing was finished by 3.20pm.
In order to get a better impression of how the gas kiln behaves it could be an idea to place cones at the back on the right side too to see if there are hotter or cooler spots. Since the pyrometer was placed in the right side of the kiln and only read 1237C when the top cone was gone, it suggests to me that the right side might be a little cooler. It might also be valuable to place a 1300C cone at the top too to get a more accurate reading.

I was a little disappointed upon opening the kiln on Sunday since lots of the glazes hadn’t behaved as I hoped, although there were a handful of beautiful bowls and jars – my own nephyline syenite matte pink glaze worked particularly well. The main problem was that lots of the glazes were applied too thinly. My glaze application has improved since first year when I was painting them on and had lots of patchy results. Now I make a big enough batch of glaze to dip the pots in and this results in a much more even coverage. The chun and celadon which I had tested in Sweden turned out ugly patchy browns but perhaps they were just not thick enough. The best pieces seemed to be the ones most enclosed in the centre of the kiln shelves. More reduction could have been encouraged by packing the kiln tighter or even putting work in saggars. The insides of the lidded jars had a lot more brighter colours than the outsides because they’d reduced better.

While I only used one layer of glaze on the vessels, I tried layering different glazes on the test tiles above and the results turned out to be a lot more exciting this way. The shino over matte pink results in a matte lavender while the pink over chun creates a purple/blue crystalline – like glaze breaking to pale yellow where thin. The pastel colours in blues, greens, pinks and lavender have a quality of delicacy, lightness and quietness much like the glazes of Katherine Pleydell-Bouvarie. I’m drawn much more to the matter surfaces and they way they soak up the light in a soft, introverted manner. Somehow these surfaces feel more organic than the glistening, glassy ones which have an almost sticky, plastic texture. Shinyness distracts from the form too.  My next step will be to experiment with overlaying these glazes on vessels in a gas firing hopefully later this week.

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Sandy Brown and The Leach Pottery

On the 8th of October our final year BA Ceramics group took the bus down to Cornwall where we stayed overnight at the Penzance YHA. The purpose of the trip was to introduce us to St Ives and the surrounding area – a part of the UK which has been attracting artists to its beautiful coastline and unique light for hundreds of years. The vibrant community of artists on these shores have included Barbara Hepworth and even JMW Turner chose to paint here.

On our journey down we stopped off at the village of Appledore in Devon to visit the studio of Sandy Brown, a contemporary ceramic artist. Sandy’s brightly coloured, expressive ceramic forms range from domestic tableware to monumental abstract sculptures and ceramic chairs to be sat on. She showed us her current commission – an exploration of surface textures and colours on giant wall tiles and explained how she fires them standing up to prevent warping. There is a child-like joy to her making and an emphasis on playfulness and an abandonment of self-consciousness over precision and neatness. Interestingly, the high energy surfaces which have become characteristic of her work came about after she tried wood firing. The random and vibrant surface qualities you achieve from this kind of action-packed firing made her want to recreate similar effects but with the colours and patterns coming from her own actions instead of the kiln’s. Ironically, she wanted control over the randomness.

When asked if the landscape influenced her work she said that it wasn’t important, and that her memory of being in Australia and the vividness of the natural landscape there was more of an inspiration. However, she explained that she was drawn to being near water and spoke about the importance of stillness in her practice – not starting a piece of work unless she felt still and centred in her mind. Her colourful pieces don’t immediately strike you as to do with restraint, stillness and tranquillity as she suggests in her exhibition guide to Still Point, they lean more towards Jackson Pollock’s action paintings. However there’s a lot to be said about feeling in the right calm and ready mindset before beginning a piece of work. Speaking to porcelain artist Alison Graham at this year’s Made in Roath, she explained that yoga and breathing exercises help her get into a positive frame of mind for making. There’s a lot I can learn here as I often find myself battling against the clay when I’m in a frustrated or stressed mood and only making things worse when it doesn’t work.

Our second visit in Cornwall was to the Leach Pottery which was founded in 1920 by Leach and Hamada. Roelof Uys, head pottery at the Leach today showed us around and explained that about 20,000 pots are made on site every year, a third of which are sold in the shop there. The others go to a group of about 30 wholesalers including David Mellor who sell a selection of craft pottery and woodware by the likes of Svend Bayer and John Leach.

Apprenticeships at the Leach pottery are also sponsored by Sea Salt Cornwall, a local clothing company. As a beginner apprentice you are expected to make 600 eggcups on a kick wheel before you are allowed to progress on to other forms and an electric wheel. Roelof explained that pots don’t really sing until you learn how to make slowly. A kick wheel encourages this as you are forced to conserve energy, resulting in larger, more expressive throwing rings and a fluidity of movement. Tools he also explained, are not particularly important in the leach tradition – hands are all you need. In a more controlled way, it is the expressiveness that springs from spontaneity and freedom that the workers at the Leach are trying to capture in their own way, just like in Sandy’s work.  As Bernard Leach said in his essay ‘Towards a Standard’ ‘It is the uniformity of perfection that kills’.

The colour palette of the standard ware however is a lot more muted – an ash, dolomite and tenmoku glaze are used on most domestic vessels. Sandy, growing up with the Leach tradition taught to her as gospel, rebelled against tradition and started using brightly bough commercial glazes to challenge what was accepted as being in good taste at the time. For myself however, having never being taught glaze chemistry until university and coming from a secondary school where we only had the option of a few primary coloured shop bought glazes in gaudy colours, the Leach tradition glazes hold a charm and beautiful subtlety which I’d never encountered before.

Preliminary Research: Gesamtkunstwerk Bowl

We have been tasked with creating our ‘ideal bowl’ – a bowl which distils into concrete form the main features and characteristics of our ceramic practice. I began by attempting to define vaguely the key elements which make up a bowl – an inside and outside, the ability to contain something, a top and bottom, a wide and narrow part. It appears the bowl is made up of opposites. Roundness I realise defines a bowl in that a bowl which isn’t round is defined by its quality of being a ‘square bowl’ or a ‘triangular bowl’. When asked to contemplate a bowl in our minds, mine is undoubtedly round.

I have written before about the roundness of things and have been recently looking at how time is connected with roundness and vessels. The bowl can be used as a metaphor for the day in that we often speak of having a ‘full day’ into which we ‘couldn’t fit enough time to do everything’. Time is often cyclical too which reflects the motion of the throwing wheel, my preferred method of working. The philosopher Roger Pol-Droit in ‘How Are Things’ muses poetically on his meetings with unremarkable things in the world; a bowl is one of them. He says of bowls ‘When the Bardo Tbödol , the Tibetan Book of the Dead, gives as its unit of time for a prayer or a ceremony, ‘the length of a meal’, it means this: the interval of a stomach, a bowlful of time.’ He goes on to say the bowl is ‘a thing of thresholds, of beginnings and endings…the thing is present when life starts up and gathers strength, and when it wanes and grows languid.’

In order to help me think about what the qualities of my ideal bowl would be I’ve chosen three bowls by other artists whose work I admire. I first came across Kathleen Standen‘s (http://www.kathleenstanden.com) sculptures in her book ‘Additions to clay Bodies’ and was instantly attracted by the contrast between the smooth insides and rough outer surfaces of her forms. Adding organic additions and coloured stains to porcelain she succeeds in making unique thick walled asymmetric, raggedy vessels which reference tools used in the fishing industry such as buoys and floats, hinting to her past as a marine biology student. I like how her work references geology and the weathering of rock in a very tactile sense which ties in with the interest I have in what Natasha calls ‘sensory geography’. In order to create the forms Standen presses stained clay bodies into plaster moulds to create defined stratified layers of  coloured clay. Although I’m not particularly interested in this making technique, I’m drawn to the asymmetry of form and organic quality of the torn rim.

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Kathleen Standen http://www.bluehousegalleryschull.com

Martina Lantin ( http://www.mlceramics.com)is a ceramic artist I only came across recently while browsing a magazine. She works in a similar way to Brazilian Potter Carina Ciscato – throwing forms then cutting them up and altering the shape at leather hard stage. This technique was something I became very interested in last year on L5 since it throws in another challenge of timing on top of the throwing process. Playing with balance and asymmetry on a near-perfectly symmetrical thrown form appeals to me. Perhaps this wouldn’t have to come from altering the form itself however – presenting an odd number of bowls in a collection could similarly interrupt the equilibrium. Without leaning too much on the Japanese concept of wabi sabi which I believe is over used and inappropriately relied on to excuse a badly made piece of ceramics, there is something very appealing and human about asymmetry. However at odds with this is that things that are human often come in pairs too – meet, eyes, hands, ears etc – it’s an interesting dualism.

I fist saw a collection of Julian Stair‘s bowl shaped cups at CoCA York. Stair’s work is embodied by the clean lines and muted colours which are typical of today’s trend for minimalist pottery (take Jono Smart for example). His vessels suggest the possibility of function even if their unglazed surfaces celebrating the naked clay surface, aren’t designed with function in mind. Stair explores the anthropomorphic nature of vessels through different scales from domestic to monumental funeral urns and by grouping small vessels together creates an almost human dialogue between them. By placing different colours together, much as an abstract painter would he draws our attention to the subtleties in shades of grey, brown, green and blue, creating quiet compositions of contemplation.  There is a solemnity to all his work, not just those focusing explicitly on the theme of death.

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Julian Stair ‘Three Cups’ http://www.artfund.org

 It’s important for me to remember the humbleness of the bowl and its connection to eating and comfort when getting lost in researching ‘art bowls’, bowls which are more sculptural than functional.  While browsing through my flatmate’s Simply Nigella cookbook the other day I came across a section titled ‘Bowlfood’. For Lawson ‘‘bowlfood’ is a simple shorthand for food that is simultaneously soothing, bolstering, undemanding and sustaining’. Eating from a bowl is about comfort eating in the most innocent, infantile sense. Of the three artists above, Stair’s is what I feel most closely correlates to what I want to express artistically at this moment in time. For me the artwork above  embodies the familiarity of the bowl vessel form and the elemental entanglement of the human-clay-natural world relationship.

 

Craft, Art and Design

At the start of the month we began as a group to consider the characteristics of what Natasha calls the ‘three old chestnuts’: craft, art and design in order to better understand in which field/fields we position our own practice.

The word ‘craft’ conjured up words like traditional, skill, accessible and multicultural. The biggest difference for me seems to be that craft is material or process-led in contrast to art and design in which the idea dominates over the material (see the sacrifice for art and craft). What differentiates my ceramics course from Stoke’s Clay College or an apprenticeship at Leach St Ives is that we balance a process and ideas-driven method of making – we are encouraged to constantly question why we are making rather than focusing on honing a skill through constant practice.

If design and art are at either ends of a scale craft may be somewhere in the middle, bordering both. While design is associated with function and art less so, for a potter considering functional ware, craft may be associated with functionality. Craft has connotations of humbleness and integrity and also a sense of being personal, similarly to art. Design on the other hand, implies less a focus on the individuality of the maker and more on the demand of the market.

Going back to ‘Sculptural Vessels across the great divide’ which I also quote from here, Anthony Gormley and Tony Cragg share a similar definition of what art does: ‘Whereas art, Gormely states, questions the world and complicates things, craft objects reconcile the needs of human life and the environment’ (pg.74 , Racz, I. Ceramic Reader), ; ‘Art, he feels, occupies a special category of objects that offers itself as ‘complex symbols for new experiences’ (Cragg 1985: 59, Ceramics Reader). Both speak of art as a complicating of things, often rich with symbols and layers of meaning. Words we associated with art included emotion, reaction, controversial, experimental and political. While craft is supposed to appeal to our senses, art nowadays with its depth of conceptualisation and minimalism is perhaps more inclined to appeal to our intellect. Many people have written about art’s oculacentric  hierarchy and preciousness over craft and design which give value to our sense of touch.

Design might make us think instead of mass-production and and an end-focused method of making rather than process-focused. Once striking difference between the three categories is that design as opposed to art and craft seems to be the most focused of the three on pre-design. While visiting the Leach Pottery in St Ives a couple of weeks ago we spoke to Clementina Va der Walt, a South African artist in residence there and she told us that she doesn’t like the way these terms craft, art and design are constrictive and considered separate. It’s a view many makers share from my experience. I consider myself to be all three. Since my work isn’t sketched out and planned meticulously (at least at the early stage of idea generation that I’m in ) I consider myself less of a designer and as the development of skill and links to traditional ceramics play an important part in my work I would say craft is central to my practice. However, if I’m asked I say I’m a ceramic artist or a potter. A potter because I am a vessel maker and an artist because my way of thinking about what I make is more aligned with fine art practice.

 

 

Sensory Geographer, Kinetic Poet

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.