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.

London Visit Day 1

Collect 

I visited Collect for the first time a couple of years ago but at the time I don’t think I understood exactly that it was a bringing together of international craft and design galleries, each with their individual focus and themes, and that many of the galleries were nearby enough in London to visit within the same trip. This time, one of my first impressions was surprise at the use of bright acrylics to decorate ceramic in Matt Sherratt’s work. Perhaps my views are prejudiced having studied on a purely ceramics BA, but having tried it myself, I now view painting ceramics as a lazier, quicker alternative to glazing and value much more the depth and subtle variations in glazes. In the same gallery as Sherratt’s sculptures (the Joanna Bird Contemporary Collections) I also found one of my favourite works in the show, Danish artist (and recent RCA graduate) Theis Lorentzen’s ‘Remnants’, £3000 assemblages of what look like collapsed terracotta vessels with a tin/lead glaze breaking at the edges. To create them, slabs of clay are cut or torn straight from the bag and thrown down to form a random but confident balancing composition. The work reminded me of my own recent vessels which have collapsed when I’ve sliced, patched up and stretched the clay too far. The quality of line where the glaze breaks to allow the clay’s iron to seep through is something I’m hoping to draw attention to with my newest glazes as well – it highlights the ragged silhouettes and adds a textile-like feel to the fired clay, like a seam running along the edges. Of all the gallery spaces, Officine Saffi was my favourite which their surreal, whimsical collection of objects. This Milan based contemporary ceramic gallery is one I’ll be looking out for at Collect in the future.

 

Marsden Woo

The Marsden Woo, although just around the corner from the Saatchi where Collect was held, was difficult to find because we didn’t expect the upstairs to be full of designer ballroom dresses. The ceramics gallery space is hidden down some stairs in a small room, but is a fantastic collection representing artists such as Alison Britton, Gordon Baldwin, Philip Eglin, Kerry Jameson and Nao Matsunaga. It felt a little uncomfortable to have the gallerist following us around since I’m not used to visiting these kinds of galleries which I expect are targeted more towards rich collectors than the general public. It has made me think much more about gallery structures which are different to the usual open gallery/museum (e.g. Craft in the Bay or the V and A). On the other end of the scale it seems you have appointment only exhibitions such as Claire Curneen’s current exhibition at Oneroom. Tabish Khan writes an interesting article on appointment only exhibitions here , discussing art’s accessibility and the ‘private sales room’ structure some galleries have. In between these two I found the Corvi Mora, a strange hidden away gallery which you have to ring a doorbell to enter.

Corvi Mora

Sam Bakewell’s (UWIC graduate) exhibition ‘Time for Waste’ at this gallery was the highlight of my London trip. The collection of objects centres around a series of brightly coloured ceramic block assemblages and the coloured clay dusts which were collected from sanding the blocks down. Although the dusts look as if they might blow away if you breathe too close, they’ve been re-fired onto the rectangles as you can see on some piles which show traces of sintering. The parian clay which has been used gives the blocks an almost milky, translucent quality like a panna cotta dessert. The choice of colours tingles the taste buds too, reminding me of trips to the sweet shop as a child, jelly beans, starbursts and sherbet powders. The texts written by Alison Britton and Edmund de Waal to accompany the exhibition are beautifully written and draw attention to the complex relationships between clay, waste, dust, time and things forgotten and lost.

 

Contemporary Applied Arts

I was very pleasantly surprised by the size of this gallery and the variety of ceramics in the collection. While the Corvi-Mora is more orientated towards Fine Arts and Mint which I visited yesterday has a much more home decor/furniture vibe, this venue has a much more craft orientated approach. To exhibit at CAA you must be a member, the call for which goes out around April time each year and costs £130. Among the work I was most drawn to were the large thrown vessels by Chris Taylor (priced at £510 for the smallest). He appears to first paint on coloured slips, then apply transfers, then loosely apply a transparent glaze to change the colour of the slip darker in some areas, then apply over-glazes in floral patterns on top. The work is low fired but I imagine it still costs as much as stoneware to fire the work multiple times to build up layers.

 

As a result of my trip I’ve began to pinpoint figures who align closest to my current practice and the deconstruction /sculptural qualities of the vessel. Dylan Bowen’s fun, sketch-like vessel caricatures at CAA and Alison Britton’s forms at Marsden Woo which reference domestic vessels but use almost symbolical shapes for spouts and handles are exciting to me in terms of shape. Surface-wise I’m very much drawn to the dry, matte glazes of Sun Kim’s porcelain vessels at Collect which appear to absorb the light, as well as Sam Bakewell’s glutinous tiny cityscapes.

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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What is Contemporary About Craft?

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

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

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

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