The Role of the Potter

While I make objects that explore the expressive nature of the material of clay, breaking the rules of traditional wheel-thrown pottery, by choosing to make vessels I am placing myself in a centuries old tradition of making clay pots. My glazes and forms reference back particularly to Western traditions in the past few hundred years – the Leachean fusion of Eastern and European aesthetics, the classic forms of cider jars, harvest jugs and art nouveau vases and on the other side of the sea more recently, the macho, violent, destructive nature of works by Jackson Pollock and Peter Voulkos.

I am particularly interested in the idea of the ‘country potter’, a role which at one time would have been necessary for society but now with the mass-production of tableware becomes a synonym of sorts for the ‘British dream’ of moving to the countryside and living slowly at one with nature. The role of the potter today is perhaps more as a wellbeing guru, a reminder for us to return to our roots, respect the materials in the world around us and respect slowness too, in the form of the patience it takes to learn skill as well as the presence of mind we attain when interacting with objects made lovingly by hand.

My own work seeks to take inspiration from these traditions and complicate things, by removing the work from its functionality and placing the pieces on legs to remove their stable, humble nature as domestic objects. By fracturing the familiar ‘pot’ forms, they become more and more amorphous, the focus shifts increasingly from the ‘pot’ and form to the clay and material. Similarly the idea of the ‘potter’ for me has been amorphous and shifting during my time at university. The desire to encourage mindfulness and celebrate nature through making objects by hand sits at direct odds with the environmental impact of making ceramics, digging clay from the ground, mining for precious minerals and using up finite resources of gas or burning wood for firings.

These narratives surrounding the potter interest me and therefore I have attempted to situate my work in the overlapping region of the venn diagram between fine art and craft, on the outside looking in. The vessels for my exhibition sit on a scale between the almost intact jar form with a functioning lid at one end and a piece which can almost longer be called a vessel at the other, its base twisted out, walls slashed and punctured. Collectively they pieces work like a tug of war, jostling amongst themselves for superiority, some asserting that it is the virtuous nature of the humble pot which is best, others that it is the mysterious nature of sculpture.

Jo Taylor very ardently situates her work within the field of sculpture, even going so far as to join the Royal Society of Sculptors, and despite using a very similar technique to her of joining together thrown sections, because I make vessels it feels slightly uncomfortable for me to call mine sculptures. The additions of the legs moving them away from the domestic realm has swayed me somewhat but I still feel that because my work is so rooted in tradition, process and involves skill (even if I sometimes implement that skill in a sloppy way) it has much more in common with contemporary craft. Through the vessel form the viewer can trace back the objects to the simple rituals of everyday life.

 

 

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Building the Plinth

20190505_175735 (583x800)I hoped to build my plinth at home in North Wales over the Easter holiday, thinking that having family around to help would lessen the stress of building my first construction in wood. As it turned out, the plinth I had in mind would be too long to fit in the car boot (rookie error) but luckily there was still time to order materials to CSAD. Having planned out compositions before the holiday, I came up with the design on the right to begin with, an upside down U shaped structure with hollow legs, a cross between a white plinth and a high table. I had trouble figuring out how the legs would attach to the top however. On a visit to Huws Gray building suppliers I came across the cross sectioned 4.3cm lengths of wood which I thought would make much more graceful legs.

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20190430_141434 (600x800)As a result I adapted my design to the one above, a rectangular box with 15mm MDF board on top. Nigel suggested I would need supporting struts around the middle to support the weight on top but thinking this would disrupt the minimal aesthetic of the ‘ghost plinth’ I compromised instead by decreasing the length 30cm to 140cm (which as it turns out, is more than enough space). I used half-lap joints on the corners, like a canvas structure to strengthen the shape, cutting these on the bandsaw and joining them together with two 100mm screws in each. The MDF top was stuck down with a nail gun. I didn’t use glue for the leg joints which means the plinth can be taken apart, transported and re-assembled for other exhibitions, really handy!

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Plinth ready to be painted white

The biggest worry was that after assembling the structure was very wobbly. Thankfully this was mainly to do with the timber being warped rather than my own shoddy building technique. Next time I would drill the countersink holes deeper since lots of my screws sit proud of the surface and this made it hard to cover then over with polyfilla and paint. I’m glad I left a centimetre ledge around the edges, the shadow underneath creates a nice sense of lift for the top which will frame my pieces. I’m very pleased with my design overall too. I wanted my pieces high up but a big narrow conventional plinth would look like a wall, bulky and jarring in a space which is light and airy. Hopefully there will be some visual dot the dots between the extruded forms in my work and the square cross-section frame. The bars across the bottom are great too, they stop the structure looking too much like a table while also adding strength and stopping people getting too close to the plinth.

My plinths are also partly inspired by coming across the work of American artist and professor Peter Christian Johnson on Instagram. The plinths that have been made for his ‘Acts of Contrition’ series are beautiful but complicated architectural-looking assemblages of square cross-sectioned wood. Having looked further into these and looking back at my own design I realise I could have been far more playful with the structure, creating shelves of different height on which vessels could sit. The plinth itself becomes a container in some way then, carrying on the thread of the vessel theme into the whole of the composition itself. Having no experience of building with wood this was beyond my capability but now I have some knowledge of the jigsaw puzzle that is building a piece of furniture, I can be braver with my plinth designs in the future.

Image sources: http://www.peterchristianjohnson.com/

 

Photoshoot / Thinking Titles

Not happy with the previous photographs I took of my work in the photography studio, the light being too dramatic and the darker colours of some of the glazes not standing out against the dark background, I decided yesterday to stage a photo shoot in the concrete and glass walled exhibition space of the CSAD foyer, with much more successful results. Being more diffused the light didn’t bounce too harshly off the surfaces from one direction like before. Uploading the new photos to my website this afternoon I realised I’m lacking details about each of the pieces, firstly their dimensions and secondly, the pieces don’t yet have names. While this isn’t crucial to my degree, it will help if I want to use the images for other purposes later on.

Over Easter I visited Kate Haywood’s exhibition ‘Traces’ as part of The Language of Clay at Aberystwyth Arts Centre’s ceramics gallery. The mysterious and delicate porcelain pieces, highlighted in places by flashes of blue, green or pink glaze with details gilded in bright gold leaf, hint towards function but leave us guessing. Coloured ropes like curtain tassels are attached to some of the pieces, suggesting they are somehow to be hung or worn on the body. The visual link to jewellery pieces is not surprising considering Kate’s background in jewellery design.

One of the things I particularly liked about this collection is the choice of names given to the individual pieces. The names could have come straight out of Douglas Adams’ The Meaning of Lif they sound at the same time so bizarre and familiar. Gads, Lidden, Peggle and Cora are just some of the examples. Others, such as ‘Shirr’ seen below with a gold covered brush model sitting on top of it, have links to the visual object. To shirr is to gather fabric into parallel rows and the sculpture shows porcelain carved into a mimic of gathered fabric. Dalloop is more of a mystery as there is no record of it in the dictionary but it still conjures up the idea of a ‘ye olde’ tool or utensil of some kind. Seeing the objects laid out as they were in the glass cabinets reminded me of the objects on display at the Viking Ship museum in Oslo, pieces of broken equipment and jewellery, often with extremely detailed and intricate carvings, sometimes gold and often difficult to figure out how they would have been worn or used without reading the museum guide. Detached from time and context the everyday objects we use today would similarly be objects of mystery – paperclips, screwdrivers and washing-up sponges all require a network of other things around them on which they depend for us to understand their function.

In a similar way to Haywood’s work my vessels also bring with them an expectation of function with their familiar utilitarian forms of jugs, cider jars, vases and a teapot as well as the mysterious legs some of them sit upon, connecting them to cooking tripods and architecture. In other ways our work is very different however. Key to my own sculptures is the contrasts in processes involved in the making, a play between the flowing, undulating thrown forms and the harsh, clean lines of the extruded shapes that pierce through them. The fight against gravity during the making process is also illustrated through the slumping clay walls, warped supports and pooling glazes. Haywood’s sculptures are so meticulously carved, to some extent you forget they are made from clay. There is though, an intimacy to both our work I feel, to hers because of the small, pocket sized scale and because the objects are placed so carefully together. Each piece is unique too which suggests a kind of personalisation. I think mine are personal in the way they are cut and put back together. When things break that we don’t particularly like, we throw them away to get a better one, but when things important to us break, we fix them.

Having considered these things, what then should I call my sculptures? Giving them individual names moves them even further away from the traditions of Leachian pottery and traditional craft they are references of, placing them much more in the sphere of fine art objects. Since the underlying mission of my degree show project has been to understand the vessel through a cyclic process of dissection and repetition, it could be fun to choose for each one a title that’s a synonym for vessel or container. There are over 50 Swedish words for snow, and the English language has similar gradients of meaning I could use ‘receptacle’ to ‘bin’…

Above: Images of Kate Haywood ‘Traces’ at Aber Arts Centre.

Billy Adams Demonstration

On Saturday we were lucky to have potter and Made by Hand pottery showdown compère Billy Adams come to demonstrate at a South Wales Potters event at CSAD. Billy has a fascinating process of making which involves layering different kinds of clay as well as firing multiple times, starting with a bisque before a glaze firing at 1260C then lower and lower glaze firings each time before finishing with a lustre at about 750C.

I especially liked his resourcefulness in the way he doesn’t throw any pots away even if they are not successful. Instead, he re-glazes and re-fires them to the point of cracking, preheating the already glazed work to 200C before re-applying the glaze so it adheres to the surface. I had a glaze disaster with my large green vessel where the glaze flakes off but I wonder if I could peel off all the gaze which chips then re-fire it with a different surface?

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Billy Adams. Image: foundandseek.co.uk

Billy also spoke of how he ends up with lots of offcuts of clay on his table while making, much like myself. He showed us a dampbox he has had for years which keeps the clay damp permanently. It’s a lidded plastic box with plaster poured into the base which keeps the moisture trapped so the clay can be reused. Another point he raised was the importance of having smooth, clean bases on the pots so that they don’t scratch surfaces. He suggested using silicon carbide with water and washing up liquid to smooth the bases.

I feel many of the questions which are relevant to Billy are also important to myself since we both work with the sculptural vessel, using thrown sections (although he hand-builds up most of his). He often plays with how much you can show of the inside of the vessel while still keeping it as a vessel as well as where the openings should be situated, on top, on the side…

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Rock-a-billy jug Billy Adams. Image: http://www.ceramics-aberystwyth.com

Taking part in different exhibitions has pushed his work in different directions. An arts council grant allowed him to experiment with casting his vessels in bronze. The way he felt distanced from these objects made him realise that the colour and texture is what makes his forms more than the shape. Another exhibition required him to make work to fit in small, portable boxes so needed him to make miniature versions of his pots. Doing this, the marks became more pronounced and any mistakes were amplified. Each gesture becomes crucial to the overall form. It could be a useful and quick exercise to see what happens if I try and make my sculptural vessels on a small scale, giving them a greater connection to tableware with their scale.

Finally, he advised that a potter have a couple of base glazes that they know like the back of their hand, understanding how to adjust their viscosity, colour, dryness/shininess and knowing how the glaze looks on different clays, at different temperatures.

Professional Practice – Website Research

I’ve spent some time this weekend becoming familiar with the kinds of web layouts used by professional ceramic artists in order to begin designing the website for my own practice. One of the things which strikes me is the importance of having good quality images on the home page, immediately after you’ve clicked on the website, preferably images filling the screen. Phoebe Cummings, Clare Twomey, Rebecca Appleby and many others all use this format to some extent.

JACK DOHERTY

One of my favourites however is Irish potter Jack Doherty’s site which has a minimalism and lightness to the format which reflects the delicacy of his porcelain vessels. ‘Doherty porcelain’ is an interesting name choice for the site too, rather than putting his name foremost as a brand he is emphasising the importance of the material to his practice. To do this though requires a very definite idea of your practice which I’m not confident to commit to yet. Other things which make Doherty’s site stand out include the great quality images blending seamlessly into the white background, the small social media buttons in the top right of each page and an exciting to navigate site with lots of pages and content. This isn’t always necessary but it works for him since you get information about how the work is made and an appreciation of the process. Concerning the small details, I find it looks better when the artist’s name is written in block capitals, generously spaced out. The uniform height of the letters gives a cleaner aesthetic. Layering some writing over images too gives a depth to the visuals which I also like (Adam Frew and Rebecca Appleby have good examples of this). Doherty’s home page, like Adam Buick’s is also a slideshow which gives the page some dynamism and life.

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https://rebeccaappleby.co.uk/
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https://dohertyporcelain.com/home

 

ADAM FREW

One of my favourite things about the layout of Frew’s site is that the gallery has a sideways format. As a result, instead of dragging down a scroller, you just press an arrow to the right of the screen to see a new image which feels a lot more neat and compact. I also like how each image has a title, description of materials and dimensions. Other potters whose websites I found, Tom Kemp for example, don’t include titles or dimensions for the work. Perhaps this is more important for functional pieces but for my own website I would like to provide a little background to the materials and firing method in a caption. I don’t want the process to remain a complete mystery to the buyer as I feel that devalues the material of clay. Another think I value about Frew’s site is that the first option on the top menu is a film about his work which is a great introduction to the artist’s process.

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http://www.adamfrew.com/

STEVE HARRISON

Having met Steve, I can vouch that his quirky website is a perfect reflection of his quirky personality! While I struggled to find much variety in the layout of the websites of ceramic artists (admittedly most from the UK), Steve’s is a breath of fresh air and succeeds in standing out in my memory because of it’s surreal humour. The home page is a giant image of his salt glazed vessels laid out in grid form on terracotta tiles on a porcelain smeared floor (presumably the artist’s studio). Beneath these is Steve himself, in the same outfit he was wearing when I met him, holding a sample of work. I want my website to include photos of myself too. I realise it’s important to me not only to show my face but to show some aspect of my personality which will help others to understand my work in the context of the maker. I need to get some good photos of myself for my website plan!

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http://www.steveharrison.co.uk/

Visit to Jason Braham and Steve Harrison

Last Saturday I took the opportunity to visit the potter Jason Braham whose studio is located outside Llandrindod Wells in mid Wales. I first saw Jason’s salt fired functional ware at Ceramic Art Wales a few years back and had originally hoped to pay him a visit before going to study abroad. Like many potters who still make traditional country pottery, he lives out in the middle of the countryside as far away as possible from cities, a location difficult to access unless you have your own four by four. I was rewarded for my efforts though by a warm welcome and Jason’s generous and enthusiastic desire to share his knowledge and passion for pottery.

Behind the house is a roofed structure which contains the two kilns. Back to back, a curved chambered bisque/conventional glaze kiln and the salt kiln share the same chimney which can be blocked off with a sliding kiln shelf depending on the firing. Until recently Jason didn’t bisque the work before glaze firing. At the early stages of the firing wood is used which builds up a small layer of ash inside the kiln but after about 650C oil is the main fuel instead. Salt (16 pounds/ 7kg in total) is introduced into the kiln from 1260C and pushed in through the side with a long metal tray and a rod to push.

The salt kiln especially has warped and bulged from years of firing so that every time the entrance is bricked up it needs different sized bricks cut at the top. This is a problem I’m familiar with having struggled to seal he door of the wood kiln at Nääs. Jason suggested that the problem could be fixed if springs had been added to the metal frame rods in the construction of the kiln to allow some room for movement. Signs of wear too can be seen in the large quantity of broken kiln shelves lying around. Over time the inside of the kiln gets eaten away by the salt leaving a thick layer of glaze coating the inside walls. This salt affects the kiln shelves too so that after six or seven firings they become brittle and crumble apart. The kiln chamber’s inside walls too had to be propped up with flying buttresses to avoid collapse. Salt firing isn’t perhaps then the most economical way to make ceramics, especially as beginner, but there’s no doubt the orange-peel texture achieved by this method has a unique beauty.

The studio space is housed in a long wooden shed, kept warm from a log burner at the centre. Lining one end is a collection of wheels, one which Jason built himself is based on a traditional Leach style frame with an old heavy printing press flywheel acting as momentum wheel on the base. Jason explains how he enjoys turning on kick wheel’s like this, challenging himself to complete the turning of a section before the momentum runs out so the forms feels more fluid. He advises that unlike in his studio, the glazing and making spaces should be separated so it’s easier to keep the space tidy when holding workshops.

Our last stop off was the showroom. Here you can see the rewarding results of the months of hard work –  jugs, tankards, yunomi, casserole dishes, espresso mugs, plates, footed bowls, bowls without feet, butter dishes, utensil pots and so on in range’s subtle colour scheme of blue-backs, ash greens and tan with some tenmoku and tea-dusts scattered in between. Richard Batterham style, some of the outer rims of the lids have been left without glaze and a thin red iron oxide wash brushed over to encourage a toasted look. It’s clear Jason has been very much inspired by Batterham’s work. There is a collection of the pots in the kitchen and he speaks highly of the DVD ‘Richard Batterham – Master Potter’ produced by the Joanna Bird Foundation which I’m currently trying to get my hands on. I too have been drawn to Batterham’s gorgeously balanced vessels with their lines of blue-green glaze and toasted, unglazed clay in the Aberystwyth Arts Centre collection. Similar to our visiting potter Stefan Andersson at HDK and Phil Rogers glaze recipes,  Braham uses a glaze recipe with the proportions 2:2:1 for many of his glazes, using the three glaze ingredients of a feldspar (usually potash), hyplas 71 ball clay and mixed wood ash. To encourage bursts of iron in the body sometimes rust has been sieved and added to the clay. The stoneware clay is often a French clay from close to La Borne which is also favoured by Micki Schloessingk.

In the afternoon we paid a visit to another salt firing potter working in the area called Steve Harrison. Unlike Jason, Steve sells his work exclusively in Japan and lives most of the year making his work in London, coming down to mid-Wales only to fire. This set-up is common it seems, Deiniol Williams is a wood-firing potter who makes all his work in Yorkshire and returns to his family farm in west Wales to fire work a few times a year. Steve had just unpacked the contents of his last firing when we arrived, his wife Julia was rubbing off the wadding that has glued itself stubbornly to the bases of the pots with carborundum stones. 

Steve, who was taught by Emmanuel Cooper, has devised an ingenious way of combining stoneware and porcelain, making delicate vessels with intricate handles and sprigs attached. While both potters salt fire, Steve’s method is a bit different to Jason’s as he uses a funnel which he calls a hopper though which the salt flows down a tube into the gas flame and instantly volatilises. Both potters appear to start putting in salt at about 1260C, at this point the glaze is fluid enough to be affected by it. Steve soaks are longer though, two hours usually instead of Jason’s half hour or so. It’s clear that Steve and Jason are part of a community of potters (including Phil Rogers) who have chose to situate themselves in this particular part of the country, working with similar processes but very different results. While Jason spent most of his career as a teacher and continues to invite groups to his studio for workshops, Steve’s focus since leaving art school was very much about pushing his work to a technical perfection and trying to make a living solely as a potter. Thinking about different kinds of websites in yesterday’s professional practice session we have two very different examples here – Jason’s as a shop and showcase for his  enthusiasm to share skills and knowledge, and Steve’s as a very visual, interactive kind of gallery catalogue. I’m extremely grateful to both for their time and I hope I get the opportunity to try salt-firing one day. I’m still very drawn to learning about traditional firing methods and hope one day to build my own kiln.

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Potter’s websites links:

https://www.jasonbraham.com/

http://www.steveharrison.co.uk/

 

Extruding and Throwing Combined/Adam Silverman

This week I’ve began extruding with crank and constructing what I’ve started to think of as frames or scaffolding onto which my vessels will sit. I’m interested in the contrast between precise and imperfect, soft and sharp, human and inhuman. The grounded quality of pots is something I wish to challenge. Their humble nature lies partly, I believe, in the fact they have a solid footing in their surroundings, growing almost like plants from the matter of daily life itself. By elevating them and subjecting them to forces of gravity I hope to highlight the way the material slumps and flows slowly, almost like a liquid over time, to fill the gaps in the containers of its environment. While the grogged crank’s strength makes it great to hand-build with, I’ve chosen to continue throwing with a St Thomas stoneware to save the skin on my hands.

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Adam Silverman –Ghosts Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com Photo: Edward Goldman.

Thinking of my extruded pieces as frames or plinths brings me to Adam Silverman’s 2017 exhibition at Los Angeles’ Cherry and Martin Gallery. A circular section is cut in a gallery wall through which a long beam of dark timber protrudes, supported on breeze blocks. Silverman’s training as an architect is bought to the forefront in his manipulation of the gallery space and the vessels become monochrome components or metaphors in the installation space. The round hole references the openings on the vessels and frames the gallery space as a vessel in itself. It may also reference the circular wheelhead on which the forms all originated. It feels almost as if the vessels aren’t been celebrated for their clayness and individual qualities though, only for their power through repetition in a wider narrative.

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Adam Silverman Source: philipmartingallery.com

Another interesting example of framing is Silverman’s piece for the 2015 exhibition Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better. A composition is placed in what looks like the bottom section of a toploader kiln. While I’ve become interested in showing traces of making and process in my work I’ve never thought to directly include the tools and equipment I use in the finished piece itself, they have always been the back of the canvas, the scaffolding that supports the outer facade. Writing my dissertation I came across the chapter in Tim Ingold’s Making that discusses how we think of things as either objects or materials depending on the context. Kilns for me have always been objects but to a scrap metal dealer they are materials. Silverman has used them in the same way with parallels to the circular frame in Ghost.

Silverman’s technique of joining thrown sections together on the wheel is an avenue I haven’t explored yet. As seen in the vessel above I always throw and join them together separately. My vessel above is terracotta, thrown and stuck together and sat on extruded legs. Later as it dried, the base fell out so I may have to create a new pair of legs with a more stable connection. This form took on a lot of personality in the making. It slopes with attitude and the sections stuck on look like hands posing on hips giving it an air of sassiness. The images above show the progression as I manipulated the surface over a period of a couple of days. I’ve become much more patient with the vessels, allowing them to dry more before cutting into the surface. The extruded cross section in the hollow cone looks almost like a cartoon plaster. Patching up and mending is as much part of what I do to these vessels as deconstructing and cutting. 

The thrown sections on the bats in the image at the top here were made into the vessel below. Unhappy with the asymmetry, I pushed a dry terracotta section made by connecting extruded tubes into the tall body. Reading this then as a kind of handle, I added a spout to the opposite side, making the more familiar form of a jug. If the structure hasn’t collapsed by Monday I plan to work more into the body to unite the sections better, not hiding the joints but drawing them together as part of a whole. I’m beginning to get a feeling for when they are finished, once I have paid attention to every little part of the surface. At the moment the making is very spontaneous and improvised. Perhaps to make more complex structures with parts sitting on top of one another and extruded frames and plinths, I will need to work from preliminary drawings in a more design focused manner.

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The Underside: A Ceramic Parergon?

This afternoon Jon Clarkson introduced us to the idea of the parergon. This can be thought of in art terms, as something subordinate to the completed work of art, an embellishment of sorts. A frame is a parergon to a painting, a plinth to a sculpture. It is something which is an integral part of how we experience the artwork but at the same time almost completely hidden from view as our focus is directed elsewhere. Some artists in the past have drawn attention to these invisible elements of the artwork. Howard Hodgkin is famous for continuing his paintings onto the frame, literally thinking ‘outside the box’. As a result of treating the wood inside the frame and the wood of the frame in the same way, we start to interpret ‘object’ as ‘material’. Constantin Brancusi also created ambiguity in his stacking of plinths, creating a conversation between finished, unfinished and not even started sculptures. In my past post I mentioned how the base and the rim of the pot are two of the most important parts to think about since they define the start and end points making up the line of the object’s profile. How can I begin to make use use of the base of the vessel, a part which is so often overlooked?

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Howard Hodgkin ‘Indian Sky’ 1988-89 Source: https://howard-hodgkin.com/artwork/indian-sky

Gareth Mason / Mudfondler

Of all the contemporary artists whose vessels follow the principle of form follows function, Gareth Mason’s hold a special place in my heart. His 2015 demonstration at Aberystwyth’s biennial International Ceramics Festival was the turning point that led me to decide to pursue ceramics at university. Under the stage name ‘mudfondler’ he regularly updates his avid Instagram followers with close up details of his pots’ varied surfaces, videos of the bold and labour intensive making process and, er, seemingly random photos of polished apples. While the photos of his amorphous, tension charged vessels are undoubtedly stunning, interestingly the poetic, stream of consciousness style of his writing which accompanies these images shows there is a lot more here than meets the eye.

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Gareth Mason ‘Tricolour’ 2006-2013

In terms of thinking about time in making, Mason’s work is a perfect illustration of the layering of different durations. Viewing his work on display in the online catalogue for the Jason Jaques gallery, it becomes clear that many of the pieces have been created over a period of about five or six years during which his vessels are made, remade, broken and remade again, sometimes fired multiple times. Working as a production potter making terracotta garden ware at Franham Pottery for three years, he learnt the tacit knowledge required for his current practice. He also spent a while focused on traditional functional ware inspired by Leach and eastern traditions, the chuns and copper red glazes of which can still be seen in his work now.

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Gareth Mason ‘Mammon, Tarnished’ 2010

He states that his pieces stem from a rejection of the pretty but that he continues to value skill. It is after all, the base from which he works up. Interestingly he writes about how not every thrown form he makes goes the right way and he has had experience of vessels collapsing in public demonstrations (I’ve read this happened to Peter Voulkos at times too). I admire the way he pushes the porcelain to its very limits while throwing in his videos. It shudders and warps dangerously but it is this sense of vitality in the material being pushed so far that gives his work so much life. I hope I can be as courageous in my own throwing.

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Gareth Mason ‘Insulator Flask’ 2010-2014

Mason’s vessels sometimes incorporate lots of different clays and found objects. In a recent firing he used a broken break pad which melted, eating away at the pot. Inspired by Henry Hammond’s pottery philosophy that “it’s the rim and foot that are the main thing. The middle will take care of itself”, he takes into careful consideration how the vessels leave the ground. With my own current experimental vessels, I need to start carefully considering the same thing. I’ve been thinking recently about the masculine nature of the work of ceramic artists like Voulkos and Gareth Mason. The vessels are large scale, thrown with huge quantities of clay that are difficult to control and require brute strength. There is a violence to the mark-making too, of the piercing and scratching in defacing the surface.

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My own slab built vessel

I hadn’t thought of my pots in terms of masculine or feminine before until Yixia pointed out today that a slab construction I was working on looked very masculine with it’s rectangular building blocks. Without the thrown forms which act as a base, I struggled with this construction. There were no marks or textures to respond to and the form lacks a visible tension.

Artists working with deconstruction of Vessel: Glenn Barkley, Kathy Butterly, Nicole Cherubini, Babak Golkar, the Haas Brothers, King Houndekpinkou, Takuro Kuwata, Anne Marie Laureys, Gareth Mason, Ron Nagle, Gustavo Pérez, Ken Price, Brian Rochefort, Sterling Ruby, Arlene Shechet, Peter Voulkos, Jesse Wine and Betty Woodman

Gareth Mason photos from: http://www.jasonjacques.com/contemporary/gareth-mason

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