Since I don’t have regular access to a wheel over the holiday, I’ve gone back to the technique that got me hooked on working with clay in the first place – coil building. Being surrounded at home with sculptures from my final college project has inspired these body-like organic forms. Strangely though, the catalyst for making them came after watching the colourful Bollywood romance film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. Perhaps the fluid, energetic movements of the dancers was some spark of inspiration. While making I listened to the film’s soundtrack on repeat for hours. I’d like to think that contributed the way the sculptures look almost like dancers in motion, full of tension, with bulging muscles and sinews as if living things are trying to push out of them.
I didn’t really have a plan in mind, only to get back into making and experiment with the new Potclays premium craft crank I picked up at ICF. It’s great to work with, full of grog so you can build up and up in no time with hardly any trouble. I was considering painting the surfaces but it dries to a pale fleshy colour which is what I wanted.
Over the summer our task is to look for different types of collections and I’ve been thinking: How many of something do you need before it can be called a collection? I’d say three us a safe number, I’d be happy to call these a collection of sculptures. A group of three has a magical significance and conjures up fairy-tale stories: Goldilocks and the three bears, the three witches in Macbeth, three blind mice, but it may also have religious significance e.g. the three wise men or the holy trinity. Despite the cross, I didn’t intend for the work to have any religious significance. Symbols and the way they are loaded with meaning interest me. In Eastern philosophy the swastika is a symbol of good luck and prosperity but in the west we can’t help but associate it with the Nazi party. All it is is a collection of lines but it’s potent with underlying meaning.
I left these forms out in the garden to see how the rain would distort them. I like this visual contrast of the controlled with the randomness of where the water has disintegrated the form.
It’s not every day you find one of your friends has secured a place invigilating the welsh pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale, so when I was invited by the fabulous goblin queen herself Heledd Evans (check her out!) to spend a weekend in Venice I jumped at the chance.
Arriving Friday evening, my first impression of Venice was the city at night, which I discovered is when it becomes truly magical. The tourists retreat to their hotels on Lido and the other islands, leaving the dim streets of the centre empty but for the odd watchful cat. The expensive boutiques and tacky tourist shops with their Murano glass, lace and sparkly masks close up for the night. Alleyways and courtyards, lit up by warm lamplights, take on an otherworldly quality of light, the closest I can think of is the chiaroscuro of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks or Magritte’s ‘The Dominion of light’. The air is warm and smells richly of flowers, vaguely of incense and spice. Music seems to surround you but you can never seem to pinpoint where it’s coming from – a saxophone solo beckons in the darkness, a pounding bass thuds across the bay from a cruising party boat.
Since Heledd was working, I spent most of Saturday alone, making my way around the Arsenale in the morning. At the entrance is the Viva Arte Viva exhibition. In the Pavilion of the Earth, Michael Blazy, a Parisian artist, has arranged a stack of magazines printed with bright photos of travel destinations like those from a tourist brochure. From somewhere high up drips water, gradually eroding the paper, revealing contour lines of colour like the topography on a map. This image of erosion reminds me of the deteriorating of the building facades around Venice where plaster is peeling to reveal a palimpsest of bricks underneath. I read this time based installation as a kind of ticking clock comment on climate change as well as the effect of increasing tourism on the environment of Venice and other tourist destinations.
Further along, in the romantically named Pavilion of Time and Infinity I found Belgian artist Edith Dekyndt’s ‘One thousand and one nights’. Behind a shimmering curtain of silver leaf lies a rectangular carpet of dust, illuminated in the dark by a spotlight. The lamp turns over time and a gallery attendant sweeps the dust back up under the light, lifting dust clouds into the air. The effect is mesmerising.
The pavilion that had the most memorable and powerful impact on me though was undoubtedly the Italian one. The exhibition here called ‘Il mondo magico’ included a very unsettling and yet utterly captivating installation called ‘Imitation of Christ’ by Roberto Cuoghi. Entering into the factory-like setting you’re confronted with a stage on which a mould of a crucified body lies, with all manner of machinery surrounding it. You feel as if you’ve just entered into Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory.
Beyond this, there’s a kind of Eden project biosphere tunnel flanked at the entrance by two shrivelled body forms cast in a silica-like organic material. A sign warns you of the presence of mould spores inside – hinting at what lies beyond. In the dim space, you enter the plastic tunnel lit from the inside with harsh white fluorescent lighting. At intervals there branch off small rounded pods, domes which can be entered by parting the industrial PVC curtains.
You wouldn’t really want to go inside. Each pod is filled with a couple of peculiarly shaped operating tables, on top of which, on beds of black foam lie a couple of cast bodies, shrivelled, shrunken and withered, their surfaces crusted in mould or oozing with slime. The whole thing feels like walking into a dystopian computer game like Fallout, the bodies could be those of the feral ghoul zombies that haunt the radiation polluted wasteland. It’s very disturbing but at the same time you can’t help yourself taking a peek into the next dome, and the next, in the same way many people can’t help turning to have a look when they pass and accident on the road.
Exiting the giant igloo at the far end you come to a wall where dis-formed cast body parts are arranged into crucified Christs but with limbs missing and displaced. The juxtaposition of futuristic space domes and scientific equipment with the religious undertones of the body in the position of crucifixion is an unsettling fusion of past tradition and science fiction. According to the guide booklet Cuoghi is ‘inspired by the Imitation of Christ, an ascetic medieval text that he reinterprets from the standpoint o what he calls a “new technological materialism”. ‘ The tunnel may symbolise the tomb where Christ was buried, and the mould might represent the Resurrection in that it’s a new life form that only blooms and thrives following the death of others.
I’ve been thinking about what it is these artworks have in common. What is it that really interests me? There’s definitely an element of collaboration with outside ‘non-human’ forces – the ability of the dripping water to erode, the randomness of the shapes of the dust clouds and the lack of control over how the mould on the ‘corpses’ grows. There’s also a time based element, these artworks change and develop over time rather than staying static. Might I explore this in my own work, thinking about the constant weathering of rocks and forming of clay that goes on around us all the time? Phoebe Cummings’s work springs to mind.
I spent Saturday afternoon getting lost in the back alleys of Venice, happily stumbling across the design pavilion at the Palazzo Michiel by chance.
I feel this year I’ve focused (although not as much as I could have) on improving my throwing skills. It’s a process I enjoy, but rather than viewing it as a means to an end, I see it as more as a starting point for the process of construction, much like artists Wouter Dam, Carina Ciscato and Walter Keeler.
I began the first project ‘Many a Slip’ trying to repeat throw a particular form – that of a distinctively shaped mug I remembered from home. I discovered though, when I found a picture of the actual mug, that my memory of the object was distorted, a caricature of a mug. This made me think of how unreliable memory is and blind drawing exercises in the New Materialisms Constellation study group explored these ideas of how we perceive with our senses further. This idea of memory and trace fed into the ‘Cafe Society’ project. My cafe was to be a piece of home in Cardiff, somewhere I could go to escape the busy city and feel I was back in the wild, mountainous landscape of North Wales. The layout of the place would be similar to my favourite coffee shop in Dolgellau – T.H.Roberts, the old ironmongers, the top floor kitted out with second hand sofas, and they would serve the local speciality – Popty’r Dre’s honey buns.
I made a series of my ‘home’ mugs which I hope to saggar fire tomorrow with combustibles sourced from the Dolgellau area – seaweed and shells from Barmouth beach and sheep wool and lichen from the farmers fields on the foot of Cader Idris. I want the surfaces of the mugs to show a physical trace of my home. The project has made me think of the things I take for granted and how your memory of a place can change when you move away and grow older. It makes me think of Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth Noir novel series – about an alternative underworld Aberystwyth which he only began to write about when he moved away from the place.
With the handbuilding of thrown forms I find myself returning to the theme of balance, which happened to be what I wrote my final Constellation essay about. I find my making process if becoming more and more process driven rather than schematic and pre-planned. I find I like to play with the material and discover ways sections want to fit together harmoniously and naturally rather than trying to bring a drawing or plan into being. This thinking has definitely been influenced by learning about ideas of the agency of materials in Constellation. I feel as a result though that I’ve abandoned research a bit and work in sketchbooks less than I used to.
I noticed this change of thinking most when I came to the final ‘Centrepiece’ project and originally wanted to make an interactive piece or a game, but realised I didn’t want to work to a plan. It’s also becoming more and more important to me that what I make shows a trace of how it’s been made. This is why I like the flow of throwing lines and marks where the fire has licked the clay in kilns that aren’t electric fired. I hope to move away from the standard oxidation electric kiln firings next year. I’d especially to learn how to use the gas kilns for reduction firings and look more in depth at alternative firing methods like raku, saggar and wood firing. I liked the unexpected, uneven results and surface textures you get this way, like the ones on my final centrepiece.
Looking through my blog I feel it would help to post a summary of my developing ideas at the end of each week next year so I can see a more clear progression. Also I’d like to upload films of myself working so I can more dynamically document the skills and techniques I’m learning.
I’ve been invited to sell my work in my local hometown and want the glazes to reflect the colours of the rural landscape of North Wales. These thrown vessels have been painted with the glazes I made at the start of the year as part of the local clay project. The bowl has been pained with a glaze made from a 2:3 ratio of Potash feldspar to my clay while the rounded pot has a 2:1 mixture of Whiting and my clay. It flows very much like an ash glaze but luckily wasn’t too runny that it stuck to the kiln shelf. I’m going to add more whiting and feldspar to these glazes because the colours are much darker than I expected.
With the Chartism ‘In their footsteps’ launch event planned for this Friday morning, I took the train to Newport yesterday to meet up with Dylan, one of the project’s organisers, to figure out the placement of my sandals for the installation.
Following the march of the Chartists down Stow Hill, a series of footprints have been etched into the pavement at intervals, with the hope that members of the public will interact with them, literally following ‘in their footsteps’. The ones here face Bethel Community Church and when standing on them, the pair of ceramic African sandals below will be visible. The Sanctuary project at the church works with international communities and offers support to asylum seekers and refugees in Newport. I spent time with an English class there earlier this year where we welcomed the men to make clay shoes for the installation at St Woolos cathedral at the top of the hill. Interestingly many of them ended up making sandals, so this pair will sit outside the sanctuary project to represent them.
The glaze turned out much patchier than expected, probably because I had to wipe the previous layer of reduction glaze off when I realised my mistake (these are oxidation fired). However, when seen from high up on the street the white stands out pretty well.
Inspired by the pit firing on the Pottery throw down, Nina, Nam and I tried our own smoke firing over Easter with the help of the fabulous Ian Hinchliffe, potter at Quarry Pottery in Corris Craft Centre. We took a similar approach to the oil lamp bin firing Mick Morgan helped us with before the holidays – lining a bin with newspaper then dried wood chopped down as kindling.
The pots were wrapped in copper and steel wire then generously sprinkled with copper carbonate, cobalt oxide, black nickel oxide and a mixture of blue, yellow and pink commercial stains. Dried ferns, pine needles, leaves and banana skin were also added before they were wrapped up in tin foil. Once surrounded by the kindling we set the bin alight though the holes in the bottom and kept adding wood for a good few hours, the metal gradually turning red hot.
More stains, salt and oxides were sprinkled on during the evening, which, if they didn’t make much impact on the surface colours, definitely made for some spectacular electric blue coloured flames for us to watch. The experience of sitting around a fire with a group of people as darkness gently fell over the welsh hills, our shared hopes invested in our kiln babies and mesmerised by the flickering light and warmth of the flames, was an unforgettable experience. The raw power of the flames made me feel connected to something primal. I suppose our early ancestors would have felt the same awe sat around their bonfires at night. Although perhaps it’s just that every potter is a bit of a pyromaniac.
Opening the kiln in the morning, we were surprised to find all the foil burnt away but the pots hadn’t turned as dark as we expected. The colours came out best on the slipcast porcelain vessels with striking flushes of pink and constellations of smokey greys and browns on their smooth surfaces. Burnishing the pots beforehand would have improved the surface quality and leaving them in a reduction atmosphere for longer may have turned the surface darker.
Wandering along Pencarnan beach in sunny Pembrokeshire this afternoon I discovered these fascinating textures – limpets and barnacles cluster together in creases of rock like frightened sheep and pits and hollows like pockmarks carved into stone by the waves remind me of Wendy Lawrence’s expressive surfaces.
These organic forms have got me thinking of additives that will leave texture in clay – pressing seeds and pulses or nuts into the material that will burn out and leave hollows… I wish I’d brought some clay with me to press into these rocks.