I no longer update this blog, for updates and contact details please visit my website at www.elinhughes.co.uk
Nid wyf yn diweddaru’r blog yma rhagor, am newyddion a manylion cyswllt ewch i’r wefan www.elinhughes.co.uk
I feel pleased with the way I have tackled the challenge I set myself for this exhibition project. I have pushed many of the boundaries of my making comfort zone over the past five months, making larger scale and more ambitious work than ever before and leaving the expressive qualities of the malleable clay instead of removing the traces of process like I had previously. Writing my dissertation on the relationship between ceramics and time was a huge influence on my practice. Through analysing artworks by three contemporary ceramic artists I identified different ways in which we experience time when making or viewing art, for example waiting, anticipating and recognising traces from the past. This led me to challenge the linear method of making I was using previously and try working in a more cyclical, improvised way, responding instinctively to the nuances of each individual form.
I came up against lots of difficulties during these past terms. Early on I struggled to control the larger clay pieces, both on the wheel and when building with them. By now though, I have developed skill and confidence in throwing with larger quantities on the wheel and have a tacit knowledge of when the clay is ready to be constructed with. I experimented with using heat guns at the beginning but discovered that although the clay was drier to touch, it was not necessarily strong, so I decided patience was the best way of ensuring the walls of my vessels were the same dryness throughout.
Inspired too by artists like Gareth Mason and Peter Voulkos whose methods of making are almost like a performance with such bravura and risk of collapse, I hoped though a cyclical process of deconstruction and reconstruction I could create a sense of stratified time. I have come to think of the fractured nature of the pots as a series of snapshots of actions in the making process, like a college by Picasso or Braque. In retrospect, one way I could have more successfully realised this vision is if I had worked in a closer way to Mason, taking parts from one vessel and incorporating them into another to make a new piece rather than keeping them separate. It was suggested to me that this would reflect the way we interact with other humans, a trace of an interaction with another person is left in our mind afterwards and plays a role in forging our identity.
Visits to potters also influenced my thinking. Last term’s visit to the Leach pottery and then trips to meet Jason Braham and Jack Welbourne this year (two potters working in the country potter tradition) made me begin to think about the role of the potter in today’s society and the confused role they play now that it can be argued potters are no longer needed to make functional objects. Reading The Ceramics Reader and visiting shows such as Collect in London made me much more aware of the amorphous role of ceramics in the art world today and as a result my work attempts to bravely defy classification, blurring boundaries between contemporary craft, pottery and art, not quite obeying the rules that define value through skill and neither subscribing to the cult of sloppy craft.
Above is the process video I created on Premier Pro for our Research and Development brief. It documents my method of hand-building with pieces made on the wheel.
In order to think about where my work would fit it helps to think about two things. Firstly, where do people who make work similar to mine place their pieces? Secondly, considering the context of my work and how it derives from British pottery traditions, where does it make sense to show it?
Starting by looking at Cardiff to begin with, there are many opportunities for me to have work on display, although at this point in order to fill the kinds of spaces they have at Arcade Campfa and BayArt, it would make sense to get a group of peoples work together. My degree show work is sculptural and suited better to a fine art/contemporary craft gallery context than a makers market, but its intended layers of metaphor twinned with the objects being ceramic vessels makes them quite flexible. While the work could be showcased in Craft in the Bay as a way of bringing to attention material processes and alchemy, it could just as easily be curated to sit beside a body of other three dimensional work or even accompany two dimensional pieces in a space like Arcade Campfa.
I have spoken to John Bennett from the Ceramics MA about the possibility of us putting on a show at one of these venues since we both work in a similar way deconstructing thrown vessels but with different goals and inspirations in mind. I really think my work would be well suited to display beside someone who works with collage too for example James Green’s whimsical creations. There is humour to both our work and a remaking of something new from the old. Albany Gallery also occasionally showcases guest makers working in ceramics and Made gallery put on exhibitions too (their smaller, more intimate space might be better suited to my work which references the domestic).
I don’t think my exhibition work would suit a museum shop. The vessels work better together in a kind of installation and their strength comes from their differences beside each other. I think I would like to see my work in the ceramic gallery at Aberystwyth Arts Centre. Having parts of the university ceramics collection in the background – Leach, Hamada and Pleydell-Bouverie would provide an interesting juxtaposition to my work. Parallels could be drawn between glazes and form. It might even be more interesting if pieces from the collection were placed immediately beside my work, like in the Ken Stradling collaboration so that the work becomes more of a contemporary installation with ‘found’ or ‘readymade’ objects. The Philip Eglin and Robyn Cove exhibitions in Aberystwyth did something similar.
Looking further afield, I was very drawn to the work at Contemporary Applied Arts in London. While you must be an established maker to become a member, there are many members working in a similar way to me with expressive vessels who are CAA members – Dylan Bowen, Akiko Hirai, Sandy Brown, Gareth Mason and Takeshi Yasuda so my more ‘complete’ vessels might fit in there. I also think a space like the upstairs gallery in the Corvi Mora where I saw Sam Bakewell’s work and where they often hold group exhibitions of ceramic artists working with the vessel would be an interesting place to exhibit.
While the work is suited for white walled gallery spaces, I really enjoy how the sculptures look beside the concrete walls in the CSAD foyer space. The details that draw attention to the materiality of my vessels also draw attention to the beauty of details in the surrounding architecture – cracks and fissures in the concrete, holes in the walls… Perhaps the work would be well suited to an industrial space, I’m thinking of somewhere like the renovated boiler plant turned contemporary art gallery Röda Sten in Gothenburg. It would be interesting to see the work in such a huge space, I expect it would look diminutive and lost, perhaps precious like jewellery or maybe just like an abandoned picnic in the park, the warm and domestic eclipsed by the cold, impersonal industrial.
Image sources: https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=aberystwyth+ceramics+collection&safe=strict&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjyzqygxpjiAhVs1-AKHWkTBjgQ_AUIDigB&biw=1366&bih=625#imgrc=1FMR2e3MHk83CM:
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.
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.
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!
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/
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.
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been to visit various artist studios in Cardiff with the hope to get a better impression of the Cardiff art/ceramics scene in preparation for after graduation. One of these was One Wall studio, a ceramics workshop in Adamsdown set up by Jack Welbourne and Arthur Goodfellow in 2017, both graduates of the ceramics course at CSAD. The upstairs of the industrial unit building houses an exhibition space while downstairs is the workshop with shimpo wheels for pottery classes. Jack showed us the kick-wheel he works on that sits in the corner, explaining that he built it while still at university. His pots are functional, reduction fired stoneware, intuitive rather than designed to be precise and following in the rich tradition of British country pottery and the likes of Leach and Batterham. He uses local clays and wood-ash on a rich, coarse clay body, the ashes with additions of different feldspars to give them subtly different surface textures. It’s fascinating to see someone working almost as the archetype of a country potter in such an urban setting.
Interestingly Jack doesn’t sign his work which raises the question of why do I sign my own pieces? Shoji Hamada famously never signed his pots believing instead that the work was signed by the nuances of each individual maker’s hand at the different stages of the making process. Is it romantic to put your work out into the world as the product of an ‘unknown craftsman?’. I have begun this year to sign and date my sculptural pieces, partly as a way to keep track of when I made things for myself, partly out of pride and partly out of a hope to one day help future educators in ceramics. It’s of great interest to me that many younger potters like Jack and Wichford Potter Charlie Collier insist on making a living in the tradition of country pottery today. Rather than fully committing to a life of making vessels in this way, I feel like I prefer to peek in to this way of life and making from the outside, subverting this British/Eastern tradition by making forms that reference it but are distinctly function-less and sculptural while still not quite crossing the line into sloppy craft. Reading Leach’s potters book feels to me a bit dictatorial, as if there is a correct beauty, aesthetic and taste.
I really enjoyed reading this article I found today (below). It’s a few years old but I think still relevant and although designed to entertain more than to really critique contemporary craft, it raises the interesting point that ‘The serious modern potter is a priest of a nobler, simpler way of life’ but that the result of this is that modernist ceramics inspired by Hans Coper and Lucie Rie is dull because it has a ‘holier-than-thou morality, sexless artistic restraint, and oatmeal puritanism.’ It reminded me of Grant Gibson’s interview with Edmund de Waal for the Material Matters podcast on porcelain in which de Waal talks about ‘needy’ pots, pots which are so humble they are almost passive aggressive in their modesty. I love what these humble pots stand for, of quietness, mindfulness and introspection but equally I can find this minimalist aesthetic lacking humour, and their seriousness can be alienating. I appreciate a Morandi though as much as a Picasso painted jug and I feel my own work is an attempt to balance on a precipice between the dull and the excessive, the safe and the chaotic and fractured.
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?
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?