Sandy Brown and The Leach Pottery

On the 8th of October our final year BA Ceramics group took the bus down to Cornwall where we stayed overnight at the Penzance YHA. The purpose of the trip was to introduce us to St Ives and the surrounding area – a part of the UK which has been attracting artists to its beautiful coastline and unique light for hundreds of years. The vibrant community of artists on these shores have included Barbara Hepworth and even JMW Turner chose to paint here.

On our journey down we stopped off at the village of Appledore in Devon to visit the studio of Sandy Brown, a contemporary ceramic artist. Sandy’s brightly coloured, expressive ceramic forms range from domestic tableware to monumental abstract sculptures and ceramic chairs to be sat on. She showed us her current commission – an exploration of surface textures and colours on giant wall tiles and explained how she fires them standing up to prevent warping. There is a child-like joy to her making and an emphasis on playfulness and an abandonment of self-consciousness over precision and neatness. Interestingly, the high energy surfaces which have become characteristic of her work came about after she tried wood firing. The random and vibrant surface qualities you achieve from this kind of action-packed firing made her want to recreate similar effects but with the colours and patterns coming from her own actions instead of the kiln’s. Ironically, she wanted control over the randomness.

When asked if the landscape influenced her work she said that it wasn’t important, and that her memory of being in Australia and the vividness of the natural landscape there was more of an inspiration. However, she explained that she was drawn to being near water and spoke about the importance of stillness in her practice – not starting a piece of work unless she felt still and centred in her mind. Her colourful pieces don’t immediately strike you as to do with restraint, stillness and tranquillity as she suggests in her exhibition guide to Still Point, they lean more towards Jackson Pollock’s action paintings. However there’s a lot to be said about feeling in the right calm and ready mindset before beginning a piece of work. Speaking to porcelain artist Alison Graham at this year’s Made in Roath, she explained that yoga and breathing exercises help her get into a positive frame of mind for making. There’s a lot I can learn here as I often find myself battling against the clay when I’m in a frustrated or stressed mood and only making things worse when it doesn’t work.

Our second visit in Cornwall was to the Leach Pottery which was founded in 1920 by Leach and Hamada. Roelof Uys, head pottery at the Leach today showed us around and explained that about 20,000 pots are made on site every year, a third of which are sold in the shop there. The others go to a group of about 30 wholesalers including David Mellor who sell a selection of craft pottery and woodware by the likes of Svend Bayer and John Leach.

Apprenticeships at the Leach pottery are also sponsored by Sea Salt Cornwall, a local clothing company. As a beginner apprentice you are expected to make 600 eggcups on a kick wheel before you are allowed to progress on to other forms and an electric wheel. Roelof explained that pots don’t really sing until you learn how to make slowly. A kick wheel encourages this as you are forced to conserve energy, resulting in larger, more expressive throwing rings and a fluidity of movement. Tools he also explained, are not particularly important in the leach tradition – hands are all you need. In a more controlled way, it is the expressiveness that springs from spontaneity and freedom that the workers at the Leach are trying to capture in their own way, just like in Sandy’s work.  As Bernard Leach said in his essay ‘Towards a Standard’ ‘It is the uniformity of perfection that kills’.

The colour palette of the standard ware however is a lot more muted – an ash, dolomite and tenmoku glaze are used on most domestic vessels. Sandy, growing up with the Leach tradition taught to her as gospel, rebelled against tradition and started using brightly bough commercial glazes to challenge what was accepted as being in good taste at the time. For myself however, having never being taught glaze chemistry until university and coming from a secondary school where we only had the option of a few primary coloured shop bought glazes in gaudy colours, the Leach tradition glazes hold a charm and beautiful subtlety which I’d never encountered before.

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Field: Development into 3D

In my tutorial with David last week we discussed colour theory and the way putting colour on the back of flat planes can reflect the light in a halo of that colour around the edges. As an example he suggested I look at the first year fine art project displayed on the third floor – I hadn’t looked closely enough at these to notice the optical effect before but it makes the images pop. I glued some coloured paper to the back of my cardboard cutouts and the result above shows a very subtle halo of green and red light shining behind them. It reminds me of the hazy reflection of light you get on overcast days like the ones we had at Port Eynon. If I manage to make some of these in porcelain paper clay I could glaze the backs to get a similar effect.

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After Laura’s plaster casting workshop I was keen to try printing onto plaster because I hadn’t tried it before and I saw the opportunity to make more slab-like forms which I could assemble as a kind of theatrical scenery. I rolled coils of clay and pressed these onto an inked up plate, creating walls around different sections. Next I poured in plaster to a thickness of about 1cm and reinforced the back with scrim. I mixed up two lots of 2 pints water/plaster so I didn’t have to do the whole plate at once. I should have been much neater with the clay by cutting walls from a slab because I would have had to file down the edges less this way. The resulting sections are a bit too thick – maybe I could have poured the plaster sooner. On the plus side, lots of detail came out from the intaglio plate.
I then set these upright in a bed if plaster (4 pints) which again, was poured a bit late so looks like icing slapped onto a cake with a palette knife. The scene looks a bit naff and reminds me more of a snowscene with ice and glaciers than a beach. I like the idea of placing a second inked up plate onto the drying plaster then hanging up the sections when they’re dry so the print is shown on both sides.

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I also tried using coloured slips and sgarffito on slabs of clay. Inspired by Morgan’s Vicarious Wednesday talk I tried using paper resist stencils but discovered I have very little patience when it comes to decorating. Hopefully the slabs below will fire black and white.

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Slips brushed on White St.T

I’ve also been working on making paperclay for the first time. Porcelain casting slip can’t be used for this purpose so instead I had to use porcelain from a bag. I dried out the clay then ground it to a powder in a pestle and mortar, added water, then let it slake down overnight. In the morning I poured off excess water and soaked the paper pulp (ratio of 1:3 to the clay) for 2 hours before sieving it (60 mesh) to get rid of excess water. I mixed the paper and slip together by hand but the consistency was very lumpy so Matt showed me how to use the glaze mixer which blends the paper pulp into a smooth consistency.

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Sieving the slaked down porcelain before adding paper pulp
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Glaze mixer

I made up an ink with black underglaze, a small amount of borax frit to make it less powdery (about 5% is ideal) and copperplate oil. The powders were sieved through 200 mesh then the oil was added gradually, applied to the plate and rubbed off with scrim the same as with the intaglio ink. This afternoon I built a wall around the plate and poured in the porcelain paperclay slip with the hope it will be dry by tomorrow with the ink printed on. The underglaze should stay on when fired but it will need a transparent glaze to seal it. I’m worried the clay might not dry in time for tomorrow’s assessment so I may try using a heatgun to speed up the process.

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Inking up the plate

Frank Stella/Verity Howard

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La Penna di Hu

A sculpture is just a painting cut out and stood up somewhere – Frank Stella
David suggested I look at the work of American abstract painter Frank Stella. I’m particularly interested in his sculpture, in particular the series of monumental metal wall reliefs he made during the 1980s and 90s. The sculpture above is mixed media on etched magnesium, resin and fibreglass. It’s really hard to get a sense of what it’s like in life from the photo but the shadows behind make it float almost weightlessly. Wall reliefs are something I’ve never thought much about before but they’re interesting because they tread the line between painting and sculpture, 2D and 3D. I like this ambiguity.

My paper cut outs remind me of the work of ceramic artist Verity Howard who exhibited at ICF this year. She creates slab built work which is drawn and monoprinted onto exploring a sense of place. Verity’s mountain-like forms called ‘A Ley Landscape’ are a response to Victorian photographs documenting Alfred Watkins’s research into ley lines in rural Hertfordshire. The surfaces were monoprinted onto with grey slips which give the shapes a grainy, mysterious quality much like old black and white photos. She also created a series exploring windows and looking through them. A chiaroscuro effect is created by contrasting the dark clay body with porcelain inlays to suggest warmth and light inside buildings. I’m drawn to how her work conveys a sense of stillness and contemplation of the landscape.

I’ve been thinking lots about how the flat forms I am printing onto and constructing with are a lot like the painted scenery ‘flats’ for shows at the theatre. Painted sceneries are similar to the way the landscape of our everyday lives manifests itself in our memories and dreams. They are two dimensional and simplified and similarly, the landscape in our minds doesn’t exist in reality. It’s distorted and intangible, made up of two dimensional snapshots.

Images: http://www.toledomuseum.org
http://www.canwoodgallery.com
http://www.degreeshow.mmu.ac.uk
https://www.verityhowardceramics.com/

Mythical Geographies

David suggested I work from my Port Eynon drawings on a larger scale using charcoal and to consider positive and negative spaces in order to think about how to start working three dimensionally from my sketches. I used the graphic work of Spanish sculptor Eduardo Chillida as a source of inspiration. His balance of black/white and positive/negative space has fed into today’s charcoal drawings below. Chillida’s 2D work translates well into sculptures because of how well defined the lines and forms are. My drawings are a little more ambiguous, the forms melt in and out of the paper and it’s difficult to say where lines start and end, which make it hard thinking of these as objects in clay. These drawings are inspired by the landscape but are not of any landscape we would recognise – they are almost Dali-esque in their blobiness…

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I started exploring space by photocopying my drypoint/monoprint, sticking these to mountboard then cutting out forms which slot together. These remind me of the rock formations higher up on Port Eynon beach. I like the way cutting up the forms distorts the surface pattern, the lines are no longer recognisable to me and take on a kind of life of their own. I also like the way these flat objects remind me of theatrical scenery.

I’m thinking of recreating the decoration by using slips and transfers on porcelain slabs. I like the quality of line and depth of tone/pattern a lot, they remind me a bit of the illustrations of Dave Mckean. I don’t feel very confident working with slabs and I don’t know much about printing onto ceramics so this is an opportunity to gain some new skills. Verity Howard’s work might be worth looking into in more depth.

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Working from Memory

Now that we’re back from Port Eynon, the rest of the work we make will be exploring our memory of the landscape, extending our direct experience into the realm of fantasy. This is where exciting things happen, the boundaries blurred between imagination and reality to create what David called ‘mythological landscapes’.
‘Mythical space is… a conceptual extension of the familiar and workaday spaces given by direct experience. When we wonder what lies on the other side of the mountain range or ocean, our imagination constructs mythical geographies that may bear little or no relationships to reality. ‘ Tuan, Yi-Fu. (1997). Space and Place. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota. Pg.86.

Our first step was to unravel our drawing machines and stick up the realms of paper in a strata formation along the seminar space wall. These representations of our journeys were fascinating – although we had all been to the same places on the same trip, our experiences and documentations of these appeared as varied as if we had been travelling in different parts of the world. The tools, colours and forms we chose, the lines we made, were all unique to our own personal and individual subjective experiences of the landscape.

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Next I cut up my long drawing and grouped the images together to try and tease out the recurring motifs in my work – simplified forms which are typical of my drawing style, Rocks featured heavily, in my photographs too. Perhaps working in ceramics, predominantly creating physical objects, I am drawn to the three dimensional, tangibleness of these formations. The play of dark and light and shadows in the cracks on their surfaces interested me.

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The 5 motifs

We spent Thursday in the printmaking room learning how to create drypoint plates with monoprint on top. First we created textures on a sheet of plastic using a dremel, sandpaper, tape and scalpels, drawing shapes and using templates inspired by our five chosen motifs. Next we inked up the plates with a black soya based ink and used scrim to rub off the excess. On top of this we used a stickier oil based ink rolled out in a thin layer to draw into and create a monoprint. I used seaweed from Port Eynon bay to create an impression. I really like the contrast of the flat areas of white where the stencils are against the rest of the layered background. The sheet of paper was soaked for about 8 mins before being blotted and put through the printing press with the plate, to help lift off a more detailed impression of the ink. The intaglio print can be repeated over and over if the plate is inked up again but each monoprint will be unique. The fuzzy, messy look of this print captures my experience he wildness of the weather on top of the clifftops on the Gower.

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Drypoint and monoprint
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Encausic painting with shells, oils, collaged drawings and gouache.

Yesterday we learnt another technique – encaustic (or hot wax) painting which I was completely new to. This involves painting a gesso primed wooden board with glaze washes of coloured gouache before building up layers of collage and coloured beeswax. I impressed shells into the wax and rubbed oil paint into the crevices, similar to the drypoint intaglio process, which brought out a much more defined texture. Scratching back into the wax to reveal white lines of the basecoat was particularly effective. I preferred this process to the printmaking because the results with dripping wax are less predictable. It’s easy to go on changing the painting by re-melting the wax with a heat-gun which is completely different to the finality and precision involved with printing. The drypoint process was long and laborious to create a single print so I’m going to work with photocopies of the one I made to bring about three dimensional forms.

Port Eynon, The Gower

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Port Eynon Bay

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360 degree panorama drawing from one spot

As part of L5 Field I spent three nights staying at a youth hostel at Port Eynon bay on the Gower where we spent our days on the beach and surrounding coastal footpaths documenting our response to the landscape and environment. The cold, windy weather made it uncomfortable to draw much of the time, and like in the Neath Valley, it was a battle against the rain. I worked almost exclusively in black and white the whole time I was there, which relates to my current subject work. I wanted to focus on form, texture and contrast rather than get distracted by colour. Until the last morning our days spent there were grey and overcast but despite being colourless there was lots of inspiration to be found, in the crushed shells on the beach, the rockpools, the rhythm of the tide and the ever changing skyscape.
A change of environment was what I felt I needed. Although I love city life, having grown up in the countryside, I feel far more at home alone on an isolated cliff edge! There was certainly a feeling of the sublime, of wonder at the immensity of space and time in relation to our puny existence. I thought of Tennyson’s ‘Break, Break, Break‘ and how the waves carry on despite everything. Nature is indifferent to our everyday struggles. It just puts everything into perspective for a little while, a break in the routine.

I’ve started to think a bit about routines – our daily ones such as the walk to university, as well as others like checking our phones and mundane ones like putting on a washing load once a week. Repetition can cause things to become dull and predictable but the trick to be good at anything is to practice it routinely. We can become stuck in routines like patterns of thinking and become trapped by them but equally the structure of a routine can make us feel comforted. I keep thinking of the series of plates by Juliana Rempel on which a single new line or block of colour is added along the sequence, slowing down the decorating process to highlight each individual decision process. I also think of our wacky Field project last year where we thought of the way people enter the university and how the experience could be made more exciting if we hopscotched in, or skipped, or rode a spacehopper.  I take pretty much the same route in every morning because it’s direct and saves time. But what if my emphasis was switched from time to space and I took a different route each morning and explored all the roads I’ve never been down?

Trip to Neath Valley and Port Talbot

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Drawing machine

Last week we travelled north towards the Brecon Beacons to visit the Neath Valley Waterfalls and then to Aberavon beach at Port Talbot as part of my field project this term called ‘Things Behind the Sun’. The aim was to document our experience of the journey and environments through drawings in a psychogeographic way, responding to how we move through the landscape and the things that interest us, rather than trying to recreate any landscape in a traditional, realist manner. I chose the project because having lived all my life in Wales and spending many happy holidays down in Pembrokeshire throughout my life, the Welsh landscape and coast especially are meaningful to me and evoke many memories. I’m interested in how my experience of places can be brought into my work, the sculptor-ceramicist Gordon Baldwin being a huge inspiration.

Rather than working in sketchbooks we used drawing machines made ourselves using folded cardboard, string, a till roll, tape and cable-ties. The roll of paper can be folded over and over so you can generate lots of drawings quickly. Frequent rain showers meant lots of the drawings became blurry as the ink ran, and this effect in itself becomes a record of the experience.

At Aberavon I found myself drawn to the interruptions where sand ripples made marks in the otherwise flat beach. When we think of waves in the sea, we imagine the surf coming towards the beach, but what does an entire wave actually look like? Like a sound-wave, it’s just a disturbance in a medium, a transport of energy. Perhaps the most famous depiction of a wave is Hokusai’s ‘Great wave off Kanagawa’, but this is just what a stereotypical wave appears like from our human perspective. Thinking of the Blue Planet episodes I’ve been watching, to a fish who has never left the sea, the experience of a wave would be very different. So who’s to say these forms in the sand below are not just as valid and truthful depictions of what waves look like as Hokusai’s famous woodblock print?