Artist Research: Bryan Newman

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‘Teapots’ stoneware, early 1970s from book: Studio Pottery in Britain 1900-2005
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‘Bobbin tree’ with ash glaze in the V&A
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‘Bobbin tree’ drawings showing different viewpoints
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Stoneware assembled from thrown sections, mid-1960s
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Thrown and reconstructed Bryan Newman sculpture in the V&A

I keep stumbling across and finding myself in awe of work by potter Bryan Newman. A graduate of Harrow School of Art, Newman became well-known in the 1960s for his sculptural pots of townscapes and bridges, but I’m more interested in his making process than his illustrative, popular work. I’m fascinated by the way he has perfected assembling pieces that have been thrown on the wheel into whimsical sculptures. I first remember coming across his work in the V&A when we visited in our first week at CSAD last year but didn’t realise at the time how much the piece I saw there would have an impact on me. When looking for inspiration for my centrepiece  the sculpture above was a catalyst for my idea development.
There’s something almost mathematical about the way his constructs are made up of mainly circles, cylinders, perimeters, circumferences, funnels and curves. They link in with the article I found in the archive about the ’roundness of things’ and have got me thinking about the symbolism of circles and what they represent. Working on the potter’s wheel you can’t escape that circular spinning motion and even working with clay itself is an endlessly repeating cycle of making, drying, firing, making etc. In my essay before summer I wrote about the philosophy of balance and it’s relation to Japanese ceramics in particular. What more fitting symbol of balance is there than the circle of yin and yang?

I really enjoyed the process of constructing with thrown forms for the L4 centrepiece project and inspired by Newman’s work I want to continue to develop this during the coming year. The quick production of thrown forms and the slow, patient and careful process of joining them together afterwards means two very different sets of pace of working are involved.

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Initial Research – St Fagans

Last Tuesday we made a trip to St Fagans National Museum of History just outside Cardiff – an open air museum which contains buildings from different historical eras from all over Wales. We were asked to identify the five things below as a starting point for making.

  1. Functional artefact that intrigues you: Tiny windows

Surprisingly for me, the artefacts that I found most captivating were the buildings’ tiny windows. Lots of the houses at St Fagans where built at a time when glass was expensive or even when windows were uncovered and protected only by cloth or animal hide. As a result most are tiny squares that you have to make a conscious effort to interact with, looking in or out of. To us today, used to big windows that let in lots of light, the tiny windows appear almost prison-like.

I began thinking of how windows are interesting metaphors and remember discussing how in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights they are an important symbol of the division between nature and society, the threshold between the outside and inside world. Looking out of a window you can only see so far, you have a narrow viewpoint. Thinking about today’s ‘Collections’ presentation and how some of the images I chose were linked by the theme of ‘journeys’ ( a journey through life, travel, a walk…) it strikes me that in films looking out of windows often prefigures a long, soul searching journey, or at least the decision that something needs to change.
While researching windows in popular culture I then came across this short but fascinating article called ‘The importance of staring out the window’ which says

The point of staring out of a window isparadoxically, not to find out what is going on outside. It is, rather, an exercise in discovering the contents of our own minds’.

The article goes on to suggest that in a better society people would not have to feel guilty for daydreaming while staring out of windows, it would be seen as time well spent and reminded me of words from a poem called Leisure by WH Davies:
‘What is this life if, full of care
We have no time to stand and stare.’

As a result of this train of through, I want to consider ways people could interact with objects I make by looking inside them through openings or ‘windows’ of sorts. I want to explore the spaces inside objects. 

Playing around making tall forms on the wheel last week one of my pots got twisted and resulted in a beautiful swirling form inside the vessel. I love the throwing lines that are visible, they have a rhythm to them like a pulse or heartbeat. Could this interior form reference blood vessels, or the concentric rings of a tree trunk? Thinking about the power of repetition relating to collections, what if I had lots of forms similar to this, growing together?

2. Decorative artefact that complements its environment: Hanging objects

Not exactly decorative objects, but the way kitchen utensils were displayed by being hung, especially in the castle’s kitchen interested me. Although they’re useful artefacts they almost become a form of decoration. The rhythm of the vertical lines put me in mind of soundwave graphics as well as the first piece of work I ever saw by Anne Gibbs – a collection of hanging slip-cast forms.

3. Restful space: The Castle gardens

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I came to the castle gardens toward the end of our day, looking for somewhere peaceful to sit down for a break. Thinking about working in this kind of environment I thought back to throwing at La Perdrix in France and how I enjoyed the peacefulness of working outside in nature. I decided if I was asked to create an outdoor sculpture to be situated at St Fagans it would be growing out of the lake like the lily pads.

4. Disturbing space: Bedroom at Abernodwydd Farmhouse

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Carved into the headboard of the large sturdy four-poster bed was the word ‘death’ and a stick man holding what looks like a bow and arrow. It made me think of how much history the bed had, generations of families must have been born and died in the very same one. This farmhouse and the other ‘long-house’ Cilewent Farmhouse were dark, smoky and claustrophobic spaces even in the brightness of mid-day and would have only been lit by dim rushlights.

5. A building with an interesting human narrative: Prefab house ‘Tin palace’

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Image: www.peoplescollection.wales

This aluminium bungalow is an example of the prefab houses that appeared after the second world war to house people who had lost their homes in the bombings. With so many refugee crises in the world today, the housing crisis and people losing their homes due to rising water levels, it felt relevant to today’s world. These bungalows were manufactured by factories that produced aircraft during the war. Rather madly, a factory which, during the war created war machines to destroy homes, in peace time became a factory to rebuilt homes.

On the roundness of things

On Friday we spent the morning with Jon Clarkson in the ceramics archive room discussing the relationship between art and ceramics before having a chance to explore the archive documents ourselves. I came across an inspiring article in ‘Australian Ceramics’ magazine (47, #2) dating from July 2008. Written by Phil Elson it discusses ‘the roundness of things’ 

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The article raises some interesting philosophical ideas

‘This is what pots can do for us: take us to places that otherwise may be inaccessible – places that remind us of the roundness of life.’

When explaining what he means by this metaphor he quotes Mr Curly (a Michael Leunig character): ‘what seems vital is whether or not the day is spacious, in which case the roundness of the day is perhaps the most important factor. After all a round day holds happiness most successfully  – happiness itself being a rounded shape… it is the roundness of life which matters. A round life is surely a happy life – and I dare say – it is a good life’. 

I was struck by how beautiful this idea is, and it speaks to me of how simple pots are often the most wholesome and honest. There’s a stillness to Elson’s work that suggests the ‘presence’ he feels while working ‘in the moment’ with clay.

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He describes how you lose yourself in the moment while working with clay as: ‘We allow ourselves to be still, to be lost, to be in our own skin‘. This reminded me of a concept called ‘flow’ described in Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s eponymous book about the psychology of happiness. In a state of flow you focus so much on something e.g. a particular activity that you feel a special kind of stillness and contentment. I definitely feel this is true of the throwing process for me.

Elson also mentions coming to a point of unease about the work he was making three years previously and even considering giving up making pots altogether until a friend told him “The greatest contribution you can make is to be as close to yourself as you can possibly be.” This is a profound sentence and can be applied to everything in life. Surely to understand ourselves, what motivates us, what our fears are and to be honest with ourselves about our feelings is the first step to understanding what we are going to make. It feels sometimes as if the shapes are making themselves, pushing themselves out from our actions into existence.

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Quoting Bernard Leach he further suggests the pots we make are us : ‘The pot is the man: his virtues and vices are shown therein…no disguise is possible’. As someone who constantly and painfully compares myself to others, to be reminded that everything I make is unique and only I could have created it in that exact way, is a reassuring thought that my place here is somehow valuable.

Identity

After visiting the Potteries museum in Stoke last week, visiting the V&A in London yesterday and looking at my own personal collection of ceramics, I’m beginning to see trends and patterns in the work I am drawn to and like to surround myself with. Much of my work in the first year was stuff I enjoyed making but didn’t necessarily like. By pinpointing styles and techniques I find attractive I hope to make work I can feel proud of and that speaks more clearly of me. 

Looking through my sketchbooks, notes and photos I’ve identified some key recurring themes and styles which I’m drawn to. Hopefully this can be a starting point for exploration when I return to university next month:

  • White glaze on black clay
  • Celadons
  • Dry glazes
  • Altered vessels
  • Asymmetry
  • Thrown forms