Tutorial with Claire Curneen

Yesterday’s tutorial with Claire was really helpful to clarify my thoughts about my practice and where I’m headed next. I explained to her how I have started to feel as if making only functional ware is not satisfying me creatively and that I want to bring ideas from my dissertation research into my ceramics. I’ve been researching time and temporality in relation to art and ceramics in particular with focus on artists like Keith Harrison (the firing as a durational event), Phoebe Cummings (exploring the ephemeral nature of raw clay) and thinking about how we visualise time either linearly or circularly. Already my functional ware is linking a little into these ideas…the subtle glazes from the reduction firing appear almost grey when they are taken from the kiln. However, over time, the subtleties of colour reveal themselves to me, as I’ve noticed having the pieces on my desk for weeks – they are blue, green, orange, purple and red. Spending time with these objects is similar to spending time in nature, a contemplation where beauty and complexity reveals itself to us gradually.

Claire suggested I visit potter Jack Welbourne, a graduate from the ceramic programme at Cardiff. She suggested it might be interesting to consider the role of the contemporary ‘country-potter’ in the modern world where many potters choose to have urban studios because it is cheaper and they have supportive networks in the community.

I’ve been thinking about the functional vessels I make in relation to the still life lectures we’ve had, in particular the way transient things like food and flowers are displayed in Dutch still life painting. I plan on setting myself a number of experimental tasks to begin next term. One of these might be throwing a series of my forms – jars, bowls and mugs in clay and positioning an unfired still-life of these in a plastic container, kept moist with water spray. I hope over time mould will develop on the greenware, creating a kind of Meret Oppenheim-esque repulsive juxtaposition of the comfortingly functional and the grotesque. Last year I left a load of thrown porcelain cylinders for weeks in a lidded plastic container and they developed a spotty orange mould on the surface. Working with raw clay isn’t necessarily the path I want to take but I need to begin to think of ceramics in terms of change and duration, of something temporal but immortal, evolving, re-configuring and holding in itself traces of the past.

Jasper suggested I look at the work of Anita Regek and Tamsin Van Essen who both explore decay and decomposition in their ceramic forms and surfaces. I’ve identified from my functional work the kind of forms and qualities I want to work with. The Vessel is a core characteristic as it links me to the lineage of ceramics historically and gas reductions firing’s qualities that allow the materials and chemicals to come alive and for the surfaces to become almost traces of events, are central to moving forward. Next term I want to make bigger and push myself to a place where the making becomes physically demanding on my strength and stamina. I feel very inspired by the work of Peter Voulkos and his macho, daredevil performance pieces in which he would throw over 20kg in one go. I’ve been a huge admirer of Gareth Mason’s work for years and his work too with it’s physicality and sense of stratified time is the kind of space I want to propel my work to next. Setting myself a task to construct a ceramic object and then deconstruct and reconfigure it in a new way over and over may be a way of drawing in ideas about time’s circular nature.

Aneta Regel: http://www.sarahmyerscough.com
Gareth Mason: http://www.architecturaldigest.com


The Eternal Return

The Eternal Return by Brian Swann

In fall I stomp, bomb and spray them with worse than
agent-orange. They fall as black rain on soup and sinner
alike. And still they come. The locals say, Just sweep ’em up.
I do, again and again, and by first snow they’re gone.
In spring I find fly nurseries in riddled cowpats and think,
well, maybe this year they’ve gone somewhere else, and
I forget them. Until fall when they seep in again through
cracks and they’re everywhere, crawling up windows to
the sun, clustering as satanic clots in corners. Then they fall,
hit the floor singing high-pitched death-songs, dog-soldiers
staked to the spot, spinning on their backs, break-dancing,
flailing legs of thread, flapping mica wings, coming apart.
So I sweep them up, toss them out into the cold where
they will sleep their sleep, dream the same dream all winter
till in spring it comes true again, and the wake, born of dung
to no end save that which made them, serious as the sun into which
they vanish, to return, reconstituted, unresolved.

Swann, B. 2018, “The Eternal Return”, Salmagundi, , no. 199, pp. 68-68,227.

Ruminating on roundness again, a consequence of working with the wheel and the circular nature of wheel thrown vessels, I find myself interested in Nietzsche’s theory of the eternal return. Intended as a thought provoking experiment instead of an explanation of the universe, eternal return is the theory that life is endlessly repeating. Existence repeating itself in an infinite cycle through reincarnation is nothing new, cyclical time has been present in many religions from the ancient Egyptians to Buddhism and Hinduism. The idea of cyclical time is something we are not so familiar with in the west because of the rise of Christianity.
Nietzsche’s eternal return differs from reincarnation in that no soul is involved and instead of a new, better or worse life, we experience the exact same one over and over again. The weight that comes with this thought is heavy. On one side, we have the endless, pointless and absurd repeated suffering of existence. On the other, we find a joyful truth, a motivation to live the best life we can so that we will want nothing to be different next time around. He called this joy amor fati, literally, loving one’s fate. I find this a more appealing philosophy to life than the contemporary often reckless and selfish attitude of YOLO.
Nietzsche’s Eternal Return contrasts with the Christian attitude that this life is seen as inferior to the next one, a linear progression from one state to another. In the American Drama series ‘True Detective’ Cole’s character describes time as a flat circle, a closed system on which our lives are played out like films over and over again. Many films have played with the idea of time repeating itself – Groundhog Day, The Truman Show and more recently Happy Death Day and one of my favourites, The Frame. The Frame tells the story of two characters, each watching the other’s life through a TV show in parallel separate universes, and eventually each trying to save the other’s life.
The Big Bounce Theory of the universe postulates that matter and energy is a cycle of contraction and expansion. It’s perhaps not the most popular theory of the universe but it’s interesting to think of this in relation to the things I make. In an Eternal Return I would have made them an infinite amount of times before and will make them over and over forever. In that case there would be repeated, identical vessel forms superimposed on top of one another. What would this look like?




Shino Glazes

IMG_0160 (800x800)

One of the glazes that I’ve been firing in the gas kiln over the past couple of months seems to yield very different results each time it’s fired. Depending on the application, the thickness, the amount of reduction and placement in the kiln, the shino glaze (recipe here) I have sometimes turns out a bubbling bright orange, a thick opaque white, a smooth fiery red or a heavily crazed salmon pink (as it did in the wood kiln). Some beautiful results with it came on a mug from a recent reduction where the glaze was speckled with lustre-like iron spots on a shiny cream and orange glaze.

I’m interested to learn more about what gives a Shino its distinctive qualities. Researching in the library I discovered that Shino glazes probably originated in the Mino area of Japan around AD 1573-1615 and were named in honour of the shogun at the time, Shogun Shino Soshin. While Chinese ceramic aesthetics at the time were moving towards industrial perfection, shinos with their imperfections, strength of character and individuality were developed under the influence of the Japanese tea masters who had a very different ideal visual aesthetics. Historians suggest that shinos developed from Japan’s attempt to make a white ceramic to rival the pottery made in China and Korea at the time. Prior to this, Japanese ceramics had been glazed with a mixture of earthy ash and iron glazes.

Shinos can be loosely divided into three main categories – traditional, carbon trap and high alumina. Traditional shinos are around 60-80% feldspar and 20-40% clay. Since they are high in feldspar and clay they contain large quantities of alumina and silica whose natural impurities cause texture and imperfections in the glaze, part of their charm. Australian shino recipes developed from Japan adjusted the traditional recipes to contain Nephelyine Syenite (70-80%). The more nepheline syenite, the shinier the glaze .

Carbon Trap shino’s were developed by Virginia Wirt in America in the 1970s and are characterised by an addition of 3-17% soda ash to the recipe. The soluble soda ash leaves deposits of ash on the surface of the pot as the glaze evaporates which can result in grey or black flashes on the surface. With 8.1% soda ash my shino from HDK could be classified as a carbon trap shino recipe. The soda should be dissolved in hot water before adding the other glaze ingredients as I found out when the glaze started forming hard lumps and sticking to the bottom of the mixing bowl when I made it. Another chemical in the recipe is spodumene, a high lithium feldspar which could have been added to the recipe to help thermal shock resistance. I’ve read that a better carbon trap can be achieved if the work is dried for longer and also that putting lids on pots after glazing will encourage the puling of soda ash to the outer surface of the jar.

Ian Currie in his book ‘Stoneware glazes’ divides shino into three different subsections depending on the surface they are on: Firstly, ‘normal’ shinos which are a thick crackle white where applied thickly and a ‘fire colour’ where thin. Secondly he talks about gray shinos which are shinos over a traditional iron bearing slip. Gosu slip (also known as mouse gray) is a traditional slip coloured with iron and cobalt pigment. The third he calls marbled shino which is shino applied to marbled dark and light clay. The red/orange colour from shinos depends on the iron oxide being activated in the reduction firing. While most shinos don’t contain iron oxide in the recipe, iron can be introduced in a number of ways – either from the clay body itself, clay in the glaze recipe or an underlying slip. It’s interesting to note that the heavy iron spotting in my shino might be a result of using high iron reduction st Thomas clay. The high iron content is visible when the pots are bisque fired and turn a salmon pink.

Unfortunately the small gas kiln at CSAD is temporarily broken after last Friday’s firing. I hope to experiment further with shino recipes in the new year though, especially layering them over slips. I’ve read it’s possible to colour shinos effectively too with stains and oxides.

Roundness in Still Life

fruit (800x644).jpg
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.

13MILLER-jumbo-v2 (800x598).jpg
Edmund de Waal installation

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

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

_MG_3792 (798x800)

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.