Answers on a Postcard

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The Answers on a Postcard exhibition is a collaborative project between ceramics courses in Wales, Iceland, Ireland and Sweden with the idea being that the postcards we make in some way represent the country from which the objects are being posted. My submissions arose from a process of making which is relatively new to me – throwing and altering the thrown sections, destroying, re-inventing and re-building forms. The process illustrates my own turning inside out of and re-defining my own definition of what it means to make pots. Working previously with functional ware, I am trying to contain traces and references to this tradition but also questioning the values of this tradition and skill in the contemporary craft world.

In a wider sense, my shift in process and attitude towards making stems from my six months abroad in Gothenburg where, living away from the culture I was familiar with, I began to redefine what it means to be Welsh. My relationship with this country where I was born and grew up has always felt complicated. Bad memories of Eisteddfodau as a child and the isolation of growing up in a tiny Welsh village where everyone went to church as well as my disinterest in rugby give my a confused Welsh identity. I am proud to be from Wales but as a fluent welsh speaker without an accent my identity feels distorted from what is expected of me.

My identity as a Welsh person is still shifting constantly as I grow older. With Brexit on the horizon as well comes a new definition of what it means to be British. My fractured, torn and warped postcards reflect these ideas about Welsh identity. Rather than giving answers, these postcards perhaps raise more questions and uncertainties. High-fired to 1280C, past it’s optimal firing temperature, is the terracotta stronger or more brittle?

 

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Copper Red and Post-Human Pots

I’ve come to a point this week where I need to start bringing some of my forms through to completion in order to know what glazes I should develop and which clay works best. I want to focus on traditional reduction glazes for now. As well as being glazes with depth, richness and variability, they offer a familiar base from which to draw narratives and play on tradition. I am eager to see the effect a Leach style tenmoku or a Phil Rogers ash glaze would have on a thrown and distorted/reconfigured vessel. Last week I tested a couple of new glazes from Swedish potter Anders Fredholm’s glaze book. The shino was almost identical to the one I have been using up to now except that it had a slight green tinge (perhaps due to containing lots of Potash Feldspar which the other didn’t have). The oxblood was very successful however, unlike the Derek Emms reduction red I’ve tried using before. The recipes are almost identical except that Anders replaces flint with quartz as a source of silica, uses a standard frit instead of a high alkaline one and substitutes copper carbonate for half the quantity of copper oxide (because it’s a stronger colourant). I like the idea of using this red on the inside of some of my vessels, a metaphor for the inside of the body and a way to highlight the cracks and lines in the form.

I’m starting too to think critically about the place of pots in the modern world, in particular in relation to words like ‘post-human’ and ‘transhuman’. We can think of many of us in the today’s world as being almost bionic people in some sense. We wear contact lenses, glasses, hearing aids, braces to strengthen our teeth, have birth control implants and titanium prosthetics, not to mention having our phones at our fingertips as direct and immediate extensions of our knowledge and communication. We extend into our environment just as the environment and materials in it extend into our body. The pot is easily thought of as a metaphor for the body – it has a belly, neck, foot, lip, skin and takes up a volume of space. How far can I push the familiar pot/vessel before it is no longer recognisable as one? One defining feature of functional pots seems to be that they have a flat base, designed to sit stably on a flat surface. After Jon’s lecture about parergons  I’ve began playing with ways the underside of the vessel can be rethought, for example balancing on supports (above). Balancing the forms this way creates a tension and play of positive/negative space. I want to play more with how gravity can change the form, making plinth-like structures from extruded sections then squeezing vessels over the top. What would my bionic pot look like, something along the lines of the aliens from War of the Worlds?

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Floppy Pots to Postcards

After thinking further about how my vessel forms will be decorated, I started this week working in terracotta with the hope of high firing the forms or even firing them at a lower temperature in reduction (I predict the high iron content of the clay would turn the body a very dark colour). I thought about using coloured slips but I’ve decided it’s actually better to touch the outside of the vessels as little as possible (and with clean hands) in order to preserve the expressive throwing lines. I press out only from the inside to preserve the clay’s cracks and traces rather than smooth over them and leave traces of my own fingers. Perhaps rubbing in oxides after bisque firing would better accentuate the grooves and hollows which give the pot fluidity.

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Constructing thrown sections in this way with terracotta proved to be very difficult. The first two sections looked good – the base a round bowl and the top an inside out cylinder. The bottom shape holds tension but the top one having been turned inside out flops and loses structure but creates a pleasing asymmetry. Although the thrown sections had been left overnight to dry, in my impatience to build bigger I added another narrower section on top to the one shown above and when I came back to it later it had collapsed into a pile. It was disheartening but an important lesson in how far I can push the clay. Once the thrown bowls and cylinders have been left to dry overnight, I want to build something in the morning to completion. I keep adding pieces on, tweaking, fiddling and overworking the clay but I need to learn to be patient. My plan is to work not on one or two vessels at once but to have many more at different stages of completion so that I don’t get tempted to rush one.

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Rather than reclaiming the broken pot, I decided to slice it up into postcard sized sections and play with surface texture and pattern on these flat slabs rather than on a curved form. It was much more difficult to push out and manipulate the clay from behind without the tension of the three dimensional form holding it up. Throwing and hand-building with the terracotta alone has been difficult, but I plan to combine the stoneware and earthenware clay I have to create a red coloured clay body with more strength.

Finding Your Voice…The Log Book

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In order to better understand how our ceramics practice may fit in and contribute to the wider field, we have been tasked with identifying a journal from the Cardiff Met collection which aligns with our methods of working and which can support us in our future practice. My chosen literature is ‘The Log Book‘, the international wood-fired ceramic publication. Having tried out wood and anagama firing at HDK’s Nääs site outside Gothenburg last spring, I feel that I’ve finally found a method of working which suits my values and the qualities I admire in ceramic art. The close connection of the potter to the final work and our primitive ancestors imbues this method with a kind of magic and lack of control which excites me.

The Log Book (ISSN 1470-1812) began in 2000 and has been published quarterly ever since by a duo based in Ireland – Coll Minogue and Robert Sanderson. Currently, subscription is £25 annually. The most recent publications each include about six or seven 1000-1500 word articles which are all contributed to the magazine by artists , kiln builders and those with an interest in wood firing. Over the 18 years it has been running, the log book has published articles about wood firing from close to every continent in the world.

Article submission guidelines can be found on their website (www.thelogbook.net) and suggest a proposal for your desired article is discussed with the journal before sending a first draft in. First person writing from the artist/potter themselves is preferred and articles are checked for accuracy before publishing in order to avoid inaccurate or misleading information. In their online guidelines they state that in order to write about a new kiln design, the kiln must be fired successfully at least twice before it’s details can be shared publicly.

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Wood-fired Earthenware by George Metropoulos McCauley in The Log Book No.72

In the first couple of issues, a correspondence section is included at the back which is mainly comments from potters showing support for the new magazine. In the later issues however, there is no section for letters from readers which is a pity as it could open up the journal to a closer relationship between readers and writers, enriching conversations.

There is very little advertising in the journal. You’ll find nothing like the pages full of pug mills, pottery tools, kiln and workshop adverts like you do in Ceramic Review. Instead, the journal occasionally dedicates a couple of pages to a review of a new book about wood firing or wood stacking and advertises where to buy it from. At the back of each issue is a ‘backlog’ which is a list of up-coming wood-fire related events, fairs, exhibitions and conferences which readers can contribute to. Some articles inconspicuously advertise workshops such as the most recent issue in which is an account of EMA-CNIFOP, a prestigious but unfortunately named ceramic centre in France which offers short courses and claims to welcome 300 professional ceramic artists for short specialist courses each year.

The journal is interested in any articles relating to wood-firing, whether they be about functional or sculptural work, contemporary or historical. Technical details are important, many include diagrams and firing cone temperatures and times, although it was difficult to find glaze recipes. While issues at the beginning seem to take a more practical approach, recent articles are more storytelling and philosophical in their style. An article that particularly interested me was called ‘New Wave’ by Angus McDiarmid and was featured in issue 72 from 2017. In it he discusses the potential future of wood-firing and issues surrounding the environment (such as carbon emission levies) as well as economic viability. He asks ‘Can we move forward from our Japanese influence and all that wabi sabi speak?’ which is something I find myself questioning often. It has become fashionable to make work influenced by traditional Japanese ceramics in the west, but by doing so are we losing touch a little with the folk pottery of our own culture in the UK? McDiarmid also suggests that in a world of digitisation and virtual realities ‘woodfiring offers something very human.’, a comfort and connection to reality.

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The Log book Issue No.72

I hope that reading further into these journals will help me find opportunities for workshops/residencies which I may otherwise have not found. They will also be useful for learning about the journeys different potters take to get to the stage they are at currently, since lots of the articles are autobiographical. I am considering proposing an article describing my own recent experience of wood firing. Overall I’m very impressed with this valuable resource and of how international it is with writers from a multitude of different culture contributing.

 

Masayoshi Oya

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Top half Japanese inspired, bottom half Swedish aesthetics

As part of our theory course today where Dominique and I discussed the different approaches to our disciplines in Sweden and the UK, we were visited by Gothenburg based Japanese ceramic artist Masayoshi Oya. He explained that since moving to study in the city years ago, his way of working is a fusion of the aesthetics of the two countries. Oya explained that in Japan functional tableware has a higher status than ‘art objects’, which is radically contrary to the west. Since the times of the samurai the society’s approach has been that the most beauty can be found in objects made for ordinary people.

He also described the difference in how both countries expect an object to be viewed over time. The Japanese concept of wabi sabi as he explained it means pots are glazed with a matte surface so that they pick up marks and scratches with use as they age. These imperfections make them more beautiful. On the other hand, in the west we want our ceramic to stay the same over time, to always look as brand new as the day we bought it.

His comments about time reminded me of the Chiharu Shiota exhibition at Goteborgs konstmuseum in which thousands of individual threads have been stuck together showing that an immense amount of time and effort went into making the installations. Similarly to the wabi sabi aesthetic, time has become tangible. By being able to visualise the time taken ( or the age in the case of wabi sabi) we have a greater respect for the art.

Oya explained that his black stain on porcelain signature decoration is inspired by calligraphy and specifically, calligraphy as approached by someone in the west who is more interested in the way the ink breaks at the edges than creating the lines of a Japanese master calligrapher. He spoke of the way swedes like to stack their tableware and have everything matching whereas in Japan it’s more common to have mismatching vessels to serve food it. Rosa recommended a book called ‘A feast for the eyes: the Japanese art of food arrangement’ which discusses further the relationship between Japanese food and utensils from the Jomon period to the present.

Artist website: http://www.masayoshi-oya.com/

 

Images: http://ceramicartistsnow.com/2018/02/04/studio-oyama-swedish-pottery/
http://www.masayoshi-oya.com/index.php?/works/hei-nippon/

Firing Fail

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I felt my heart sink when I went to open the kiln this morning. Instead of a rainbow of bright colours – lime greens, turquoises, salmon pinks and cobalt blue, I found my series of white earthenware thrown plates had all turned a yellowish off-white. Checking back over the glazes I’d used I realised I’d made some mistakes with the calculations when I tried to double the ingredients. I’d added 1% of coloured stain to the new glazes instead of 10% to the base glaze. 

I should have realised something was off by the pale colour of the glazes in liquid form. I was hoping to display these colour experiments on the wall for next week’s corridor exhibition but I’ll have to think of something else instead. The firing itself didn’t really go to plan either. The first time I though I’d put the kiln on, I came back in the morning to find the kiln still on 50C. I hadn’t pressed and held the start button down to begin the program!

Hopefully I’ve learnt a lesson to keep neater notebooks so I’m not cramming illegible glaze recipes into every area of free blank space.

Colour Compositions

After a conversation with Alice about Italian Still life painter Giorgio Morandi, I went searching for sheets of coloured card on which to experiment with photographing my series of sculptures from the ‘non-spaces’ project.  It’s fascinating to see how much the glare from the coloured card effects the objects. The dark blue which is my favourite gives a kind of softness and warmth to the glazes. The yellow is too sharp and harsh while the grey and light blue make everything look washed out.

It’s fun to take the shapes, forms and colours out of the context of the original project. Instead I’m simply working with their material properties in a kind of collage. This method has a lot in common with the work I saw recently at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm about ‘Concretism’. Concrete art ”accustoms man to a direct relationship with things and not with the fiction of things” by rejecting the creation of the illusion of space and three dimension on canvas. Similarly, I don’t want to create an illusion her. I am not interested in conveying any deep meaningful message, I’m only concerned with the balance of form, colour and of positive and negative space.

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In other news, I’ve started constructing larger sculptures using repeated press moulded sections in a white molochite stoneware. I’m really excited by the possibilities of working in this way. I like the control over the overall shape from the press mould. It restricts the decisions I can make so I only have to decide where to place them. This new clay is great to work with too – it dries quickly , supporting itself, and so far none of the joins have cracked. I want to see if it’s possible for the shapes to interlock and interact once they have been fired to form one larger piece.

 

https://www.modernamuseet.se/stockholm/en/exhibitions/concrete-matters/

 

Cultural Differences between Sweden and the UK: Holistic Ceramics

“I think for Swedes, art and design and craft—woodwork, furniture, textile, lighting, ceramics, glass, architecture—very much inform one another,” …“There is not always crossover, but it’s a symbiosis; you can’t have one without the others.” – Saskia Neuman, Global Art Manager at Absolut, Stockholm.[1]

A couple of months ago my course visited Borås Museum of Modern Art to see something I was surprised to find in a modern art museum. Not one, but two exhibitions showcasing artists working in clay. The first was by contemporary Swedish artist Eva Mag and the second a retrospective of work by the more traditional potter Kerstin Danielsson. Clay and ceramics, often designated to the realm of ‘craft’ as opposed to high art worthy of a white wall contemporary gallery space, are something I’m not accustomed to finding at a modern art museum. This surprise encounter led me to think about the role of ceramics in Sweden in contrast to the British scene and ponder the more holistic attitude towards art that seems to be present here.

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Figure 1

Eva Mag’s multimedia work consisted of a film alongside life sized ‘body-forms’ made with clay filled fabric skins, wood and wax. In the video ‘Directions and shapes in a woman’s body’ (2013) Mag very physically manipulates blocks of clay into human form, constructing, deconstructing and finally wrapping the broken off clay pieces in the fabric of her dress. Through the film, the process of moulding the clay is shown to be more important than the final piece itself. Another artwork in her exhibition was a block of clay encased in a sewn fabric shell, suggesting the form beneath but hiding all surface. The design tenet of truth to materials is turned on its head. Like in Jone Kvie’s current ‘Metamorphosis’ exhibition at Göteborgs Konstmuseum where aluminium mimics cardboard, concrete and wood, in Mag’s work the materials are mysterious, disguised as other.

But it wasn’t just Mag’s work that made me question the traditional way I know of working with clay, on my course at HDK I have encountered a similar attitude of openness to other materials. I am surprised by the acceptance of mixed media approaches and alternative decorating techniques to glazes. Third year graduate Sara Kallioinen Lundgren often sprays her distinctive pop art style creations with bright spray paint. Others incorporate concrete, thread and fabric into their work and it seems common to introduce elements other than ceramic in displays – earth and gravel, photographs, video and sound. On our recent ‘Room’ course, one of the ceramics students worked exclusively with weaving and fabric. We have also collaborated with students from the jewellery and textile department to work on performance art pieces. There is the attitude that working things out in a different material first can be valuable.

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Figure 2

Back at my home university however I feel there is a more ‘purist’ and perhaps snobbish attitude to ceramics regarding surface in particular. Glaze chemistry and research is something we are encouraged to master while exploring ceramic surfaces through paint, collage and other techniques is perhaps seen as a ‘lower’ form of decoration as it requires less skill and knowledge. This desire to define ceramics according to more traditionalist attitudes appears to extend to the UK ceramics scene in a wider sense too. In contrast to Sweden, Britain has a huge selection of Ceramic festivals every summer – Art in Clay, Potfest, International Ceramics Festival, Earth and Fire and Ceramic Art Wales to name a few. These are exclusively ceramic fairs that typically last over a weekend. While these, alongside the popular TV show ‘The Great Pottery Throwdown’ have helped bring ceramics to a wider audience and give makers a great platform for selling their work, it may be that they are also contributing to the wider society seeing ‘pottery’ as something distinctly separate from other forms of art. As an example to illustrate this rift in thinking about ceramics, I can take the names given to the BA courses both here and in the UK. In Cardiff I study on an undergraduate course called BA in ‘Ceramics’ while at HDK the course’s title is ‘Ceramic Art’. The names alone suggest less division between ceramics as a craft and as a fine art in the Swedish art world.

After further research I discovered I’m not the only one to feel that Sweden has a more holistic art scene than the UK. Stockholm based artist Stuart Mayes (originally from London) in an interview with ‘The Local’ (Sweden’s English language news website) explains: ‘I find the Swedish art world to be more holistic, academic and sustainable. Swedes have a much more inclusive and open attitude towards art. I think the English government has quite a conservative perception of art; they don’t really value it as something important and that doesn’t empower me as an artist.’[2] Mayes isn’t a ceramic artist but his observations may also be true for the ceramics scene. To some extent though, the conservative attitude towards ceramics in the UK and desire to hand down pottery skills in the tradition of the British godfather of ceramics Bernard Leach, can be seen as something positive. Schemes like ‘Adopt a Potter’ in which potters are assigned apprentices to learn their ‘trade’ make sure that traditional skills live on and that the sloppy craft of ceramicists like Rebecca Warren and Grayson Perry have something to contend with.[3]
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Figure 3

As a result of working in what feels like a more interdisciplinary environment, my current work has evolved. I have begun to experiment with wrapping fired clay in thread as a form of surface decoration. Our text seminars have encouraged me to look at ceramics in a wider sense too. In these discussions we are each invited to choose a text to explore the theme of the course, however these texts can be anything ranging from a poem to a legal document to an exhibition review. After discovering an article about Rachel Whiteread’s concrete casts during our recent ‘Vessel project’ I began working with plaster in a different way to how I have before – creating plaster casts as the finished piece instead of moulds from which to slipcast. The unspoken rules to which I’ve stuck to in the past have been broken. However, since the casting of these forms wasn’t possible without the original clay moulds, isn’t this still ceramic art? Like in Eva Mag’s video, I am still working with clay but it isn’t the final outcome. I find myself eager to explore new ways of making which challenge the idea that a ceramic artist is exclusively a maker of clay objects.

 

Images

Figure 1. Detail from How Much Does a Mountain Weigh?’ by Eva Mag. Source: http://www.evamag.se/works.html

Figure 2. Artwork by Sara Kallioinen Lundgren. Source: http://sarakallioinenlundgren.com/

Figure 3. Detail from sculptural piece I made for the Vessel project. Ceramic and thread.

 

 

[1] Van Straaten, L. (2017, November) An Insider’s Guide to the Stockholm Art Scene. Retrieved from: https://www.departures.com/art-culture/stockholm-art-scene-travel-guide#intro

[2]  “The Art Scene in Sweden in Less Competitive” (2010) Retrieved from: https://www.thelocal.se/20150209/my-love-for-stockholm-has-no-limits

[3] Read more about ‘sloppy craft’: Adamson, G. (2008, March/April) When Craft Gets Sloppy, from Crafts no.211, 36-40

HAPTIC Exhibition, Arcade Cardiff

A selection of my work is currently on show at Three Doors Up, Queens Arcade in Cardiff as part of ‘HAPTIC’ – a tactile exhibition of ceramics sculpture curated by my very talented friend and flatmate Heledd Evans. Proud to have my sculpture featured on the poster! If you’re in Cardiff, drop round to see what the ceramics students at CSAD have been up to! The show runs until the 24th of March.

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