Roundness in Still Life

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Juan Sanchez de Cotán – Quince, Cabbage and Cucumber 1602, oil on canvas

In Jon Clarkson’s lecture ‘The Metaphysics of Presence’ we discussed the painting above. A trend in dutch still life paintings was to dissect an object in the composition to depict not just what it looked like but to convey an essence of what the object was in different dimensions. For example, a lemon would be painted peeled, cut in half, sliced and whole all upon the same platter. Similarly bread would be shown as a whole loaf, cut in half and as breadcrumbs.
It might be argued that what the painter above is trying to explore is not a particular object but a more abstract idea of what roundness is. He does this by juxtaposing four different forms of roundness in the fruit/vegetables. First we have the quince, a fairly clearly defined and solid sphere. Hanging below we have the blurrier roundness of the cabbage, a kind of messy roundness wrapped up in leaves but with an underlying sphere as perfect as that of the quince nonetheless. Vegetables would often have been suspended like this in pantries to keep them fresher but here the hanging forms serve the double purpose of outlining a sweeping curve in the composition, a uniting roundness of form. The melon is a more complicated roundness. Lengthways it is oblong but cut across in sections you would have round sections. The cucumber is one step further – not round in any way lengthways but still hiding cross sections of roundness in its cylindrical form.
Why is this interesting to me then? Making forms on the wheel I am confined to roundness, at least until I remove the vessels from the spinning wheel and alter them. My composition for Llantarnam Grange plays with roundness in that I am exhibiting an open bowl, explicitly round in two dimensions since it’s a hemisphere. The jar beside it however is a more subtle roundness in that looking at it side-on it appears as a rectangle but from above it has a clear dimension of a circle. There is an interesting juxtaposition in Cotán’s painting between roundness as we come across it in nature and roundness that we make as humans. The sweeping curve of the composition could however also be implying a natural curve such as the alignment of planets in the solar system. It’s fascinating how universal the themes of roundness and cycles are so it feels significant to explore this on the wheel somehow.
Edmund de Waal’s work has parallels with Cotán’s painting in that both are drawing similarities to subtle differences by depicting forms that are very similar. De Waal works with very subtly different thrown porcelain cylinders in shades of blue and white which are almost indistinguishable. Perhaps making altered round forms such as oblong casserole dishes and photographing them beside round sectioned forms would create an optical effect similar to the slightly wrong angled still lives of Cezanne and by juxtaposing roundness with an almost-roundness I could comment more strongly on what it is.

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Edmund de Waal installation

Image sources: http://www.khanacademy.org
http://www.nytimes.com

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Gwen John

Last Wednesday we visited the National Museum of Wales with Jon Clarkson in order to explore the still lives in the collection. While wandering the museum we came across a corner space dedicated to a collection of Gwen John paintings. I instantly felt an affinity with the hazy domestic interiors and muted colours as they reminded me of my own recent ceramics and their subtle palette of glazes. What interested me more though was the tension held in such quiet paintings of women in interiors. The paint seemed to be painted on extremely thoroughly and carefully with a very small paintbrush, in complete contrast to the expressive and dramatic brushstrokes in her brother Augustus’s paintings. Although her portraits appear on the surface serene and calm, the stippled application of paint infuses their atmosphere with a kind of tightness, a holding in of breath as if the subjects of her paintings are simmering with a bottled up force of power as yet unleashed. Critics have suggested that she painted many women reading because she wanted to show women as educated and independent but I would argue that placing them within the domestic scene suggests that women are still to some extent confined within the home and domesticity. The paintings of contemporary artist Shani Rhys James could be seen as a darker extension of this narrative.
Models who sat for Gwen have said that she often painted them to look similar to herself, as if every painting had an essence of a self-portrait in it. Was she using painting in order to investigate her own self-identity deliberately or can we not help painting our own image into other peoples’? If that is true then in the making of a ceramic vessel do we also put a little bit of our own self portrait into that? In my artist statement for Llantarnam Grange I mention how tensions and anxieties in my own mind bubble to the surface when I’m throwing on the wheel. While engaged in such a repetitive process it’s easy to let your mind wonder and I find that often what it wonders to are worries and negative feelings. Drawing attention back to the clay dispels this focus on the negative things but it is difficult to maintain focus for a long amount of time, just like meditation. So as a result the pots are a result of that place we all go to as a result of solitude, when our mind only has itself for company and often the niggly little problems and forgotten things that need to be done creep out of the cracks in the walls. Our mind isn’t always in the present then, it’s drawn into memories of the past and hopes for the future.
Discussing John’s paintings in the gallery it was suggested that they almost look like memories half forgotten, the colours and restrained forms clouded by a film of time.
I’m interested in extending the tension of forms thrown on the wheel to the surface qualities by applying glaze in the fuzzy way that John applied paint, tiny brushstrokes in every direction built up to form a thick and almost crusty layer. I want to try and find resonance in her forms and colours with the shapes I make. Perhaps finding a series of glazes which respond to the paintings – tenmokus and grey-greens and seeing how anthropomorphic I can push my vessels could be a way forward.

Image source: https://www.terriwindling.com/

Variations on a Matt Glaze

Test num (800x279).jpgLast week I mixed together a few variations on the Nepheline Syenite matt white which was itself a variation on a white base glaze in Jeremy Jernegan’s Glaze Handbook . This glaze has been working really nicely in reduction so far with a smooth, soft satin finish, blushes of pink and lilac and minimal running. I wanted to see if variations in the colour were possible with the hope of pale mint greens and turquoises reminiscent of the hazy, sunny colours in a Wes Anderson film. The additions of colourant to the base glaze were:

  1. 1 Cobalt carbonate, 2 Chrome Oxide  =  Turquoise
  2. 1 Cobalt carbonate, 2 Nickel Oxide  =  Grey-blue
  3. 2 Ilmenite, 2 Rutile  = Brown
  4. 1 Cobalt Carbonate = Blue

The colours on the right indicate what colour the metals add however the glazes are all a little more brown and dark than I expected. The iron rich clay body I use is probably a factor in this, as is the fact that the glaze includes Nepheline Syenite which I already know adds a pinkish hue to this recipe. Swapping the feldspar back to the original potash or soda and using a porcelain slip underneath might remove the red tint from the colour and lighten the glaze. I’m hesitant to change the clay body itself. I’ve had problems over the past two years with jumping from one clay to another which results in lots of reclaim and the problem of keeping the different clays apart or the unpredictability if you mix them. I’ve decided this year to have fewer variables and hopefully learn something by working to get this clay to suit my artistic expressions.

Chrome oxide gives glazes a green colour (in percentages up to 2%) and mixed with the cobalt carbonate, a common blue colourant, gives turquoise. Cobalt carbonate is different to cobalt oxide in that it is a slightly less powerful colourant and since it’s a lighter powder, it can spread more evenly through the glaze.
Nickel oxide on its own produces green/brownish grey and in combination with chromium oxide creates more attractive shades of those colours, however here it serves to dilute the brightness of the cobalt.
Ilmenite is the name for the combination of iron and titanium oxide and as well as giving brown speckles in glazes is used in many crystalline glazes. Rutile is again titanium oxide but this time with up to 25% iron oxide.
Source: The Potter’s Dictionary of Materials and Techniques

Gas Firing Gallery

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Eight weeks into this first term I’ve succeeded in getting two loads of work fired in the little yellow gas kiln, although I haven’t quite been able to fill it myself yet and have relied on sharing space. I’ve been focusing so far on two simple forms – bowls for the Llantarnam Grange project, alongside jars which I began experimenting with over summer. Drawing from my experience of wood firing at HDK I am attempting to create a collection of classic/timeless and uncluttered shapes on which the activity of the glaze is brought to the foreground. Hopefully my exhibition statement for Llantarnam Grange can shed light on my thinking process:

Working with clay can teach us the value of patience, something which has become scarce and undervalued in our current society. The experience of time in relation to making is central to my practice. Through the stilling of clay as it slowly centres on the wheel-head, I enter into a different time zone where the material has control over my experience.
Throwing on the potter’s wheel becomes a method of quiet introspection where tensions in my subconscious manifest themselves in the finished vessels.  I find a place of refuge in this sphere of stillness, a meditative zone reflected in the soft curves of the forms and subtlety of glaze.
My practice is characterised by the balance between imposing my own design on the clay and surrendering control to the vitality of materials. Rather than painting on patterns, I prefer to leave the surfaces of my pots at the mercy of the kiln. Flames from the reduction firing leave traces of the action and movement of the firing process in the form of flushes of colour and fluidity of running glaze.
As a result the vessel surfaces become as American writer Harold Rosenberg said of Abstract Expressionism: ‘not carriers of images but [carriers] of events’.

My intention originally was to undertake a technical in researching ash glazes however after a series of unsuccessful line blends and a realisation that brushing on the glazes resulted in patchy, unattractive finishes, I have decided to focus more broadly on the effects I can achieve in reduction with other types of glazes. I realised that the large quantities of ash I would need to glaze the amount of pots I had would be difficult to get. The unpredictability of ashes from different sources meant my tests would be largely pointless unless I had a singular plant source. Upon visiting the Leach Pottery I discovered that an ash glaze made from one type of plant ash can vary wildly in colour depending on whether the plant comes from a heavily mined area or not since pollutants in the ground can affect the chemistry. Although I embrace unpredictability to some extent in the way the glaze varies over the form with iron spotting from the clay body, pooling in the centres of bowls and crystallisation on the glaze, I want some idea of what the glaze will look like.

All the glazes above result from layering one or a couple of the five glazes below:

Chun, Celadon and Shino – Tested at HDK
Matt pink Nephelyine Synetite Glaze 
Phil Rogers ‘Fake Ash’ Glaze :

Potash Feldspar      19
Whiting                    31
Talk                           2.4
Bone Ash                  2.4
Ball Clay                    6
Quartz                        9
Cornish Stone           15
China Clay                 15

I had a lot of trouble with a Derek Emms red reduction glaze recipe. The heaviness of the copper carbonate meant the suspension was terrible and the sediment fell to the bottom immediately no matter how much I mixed the liquid. I tried dipping, pouring and layering but the red was very patchy still. Perhaps this was due to the atmosphere of the kiln being not reduced enough though.
Although I’m happy with the subtle qualities of these glazes so far, without the right light the quiet shades of green, blue, pink, purple and red  can end up looking dull and grey. My next step will be to work with the same body (Reduction St Thomas) but applying a porcelain slip to the surface before bisque. Hopefully the colours will be a little more vibrant on a whiter surface. I’ve used a slip recipe from Jasper, adding 10% Potash Feldspar to porcelain to stop the slip cracking with shrinkage.

It might be useful next time I fire the measure how much the clay shrinks with each firing. – Measure Jars on the bisque shelf.

What is Contemporary About Craft?

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The building of Electric Mountain, the Dinorwig hydroelectric power station in Snowdonia

In her 2013 essay ‘What is contemporary about craft’ Julia Bryan-Wilson puts forward eleven propositions about the nature of contemporary craft, encouraging debate about  the relationship between art and craft today. Many of the propositions are paradoxical – Craft is contemporary because it can be found everywhere in contemporary fine art/craft is irrelevant and a romantic leftover of the past. Craft is contemporary because it is a rebellion against capitalism/ craft is contemporary because it is thoroughly capitalist and obsessed with the market. Craft is contemporary because it embraces the digital/craft is contemporary because it retains its tactile quality and connects people in the flesh rather than the digital world.

In all propositions it’s possible to see both sides of the argument. However, I’ve been attempting to define which statements I agree with more and less in order to reach my own definition of contemporary craft. Proposition 5 is problematic to me. It puts forward the idea of craftivism as craft intermingled with activism, something radical and revolutionary. I like the idea of contesting the tyranny of mass production such and the advertisements run by members of craft collectives and the makers movements every christmas to buy handmade presents. Proposition 5 also states that ‘Craft is environmentally conscious and respectful of the earth’s diminishing resources’ which is something I vehemently disagree with. There seems to be some assumption in the ceramics community that what we do is somehow good for the environment because we are learning to be respectful of a natural material and are working ‘slowly’ or in alignment with a  philosophy of the vitality of things. How many ceramic students know exactly where their clay came from or where the cobalt, manganese, chrome oxide etc. was sourced or how it was processed? In the glaze room we are lucky enough to have jars of powders already ground down to mix into glazes but there is nothing to teach us what these materials looked like in their naturally occurring state. I don’t know anything about the workers involved in the chain of events that led to the materials reaching my desk at CSAD, the processes of purifying the chemicals, the impact of the processes on the environment. The electricity and gas used for the kilns are finite resources. The only way the work that would be environmentally friendly is if I dug my own clay, sourced my own glazes and used a sustainable method of firing e.g. using wood from sustainable sources. Close to my home in North Wales, hidden in the hills outside Corris is the CAT (Centre of alternative technology). I wonder if it could be possible to fire ceramics through truly renewable resources – harnessing energy from solar, tidal, wind or hydroelectric resources to fire a kiln without leaving an imprint on the environment.

Image source: https://www.dayoutwiththekids.co.uk/electric-mountain