L4 Subject Summative PDP

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Things can be otherwise – I’m a bucket becoming a fire

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.

 

 

The Philosophy of Balance: Japanese Ceramics and Material Agency

In the 1920s the renowned potter and so called ‘Father of British studio pottery’ Bernard Leach brought to the UK from Japan a ceramic aesthetic completely at odds with the ware being produced by UK companies and studio potters at the time. These pots, greatly inspired by Leach’s close friend and master Japanese potter Shoji Hamada, exhibited an elegance and naturalness of form and spontaneity of decoration that had no counterpart in the west. Emphasis was on abstract patterns, natural coloured glazes (often derived from wood ash) and evidence of the potter’s hand in response to materials. Leach’s work was a marriage of artistic aesthetics from the east and west and my aim is to further explore the nature of his work’s beauty.
I propose that not only was his pottery a balance between east and west, it was also, in the tradition of Japanese ceramic aesthetics, a balance of maker and material, of human and non-human forces and therefore has connections with modern ecological interpretations of material agency. To understand better the nature of this beauty we must first explore some of the Japanese philosophy central to the culture’s ceramic tradition.

Much Japanese thinking, and as a consequence its art forms, stems from a mixture of Shinto, Taoist, Confucian and Buddhist ideology and in contrast to the west, philosophy and religion are often intertwined. In the Shinto tradition of the cult of nature all things natural and even those inanimate; the sun, the mountains, plants and rocks are worshipped and viewed as divine, rejecting the idea of the human mind at the centre of existence. This reverence of nature can be seen as a recognition of the power of matter and materials which is supported by less human-centric philosophers today such as Harman who believes ‘tool-beings unleash their forces upon us’ (Harman, 2002) and describes anything that has an effect on the world as a form of technology, whether manmade or not. In this way, a volcano could be said to be technology, although it behaves independent of human forces. Therefore we might say the volcano has agency and with this thinking comes the suggestion that we are shaped by the world around us as much as we shape it.
This theory has parallels with what political ecologist Jane Bennett calls ‘the vitality of things’: ‘By “vitality” I mean the capacity of things – edibles, commodities, storms, metals – not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own.’ (Bennett, 2010 pg.viii). Bennett challenges the notion that matter is passive and inert. She surmises ‘Humanity and nonhumanity have always performed an intricate dance with each other’ and proposes we look ‘beyond the life-matter binary’. To sum up the western human-centric view of agency ‘The philosophical project of naming where subjectivity begins and ends is too often bound up with fantasies of a human uniqueness in the eyes of God’(Bennett, 2010 pg. ix).
Potters and craftspeople already have an innate understanding of this ‘intricate dance’ of agencies. Working specifically with natural materials reinforces the notion that materials have their own agency and I believe Leach’s work to be an example of an artist exploring Bennet’s ‘vitality of things’, respecting and co-operating with the clay. This is something missing from much of the art history of the west which has traditionally adopted a Cartesian attitude to making, with the belief that everything has an original essence or nature that it derives from. This idea of a ‘perfect original’ may have influenced our emphasis on schematic design in the west. In pottery factories across Europe, imperfections were discarded because they didn’t meet the quality of the perfect original. Rather than celebrating the accidents and individual reactions of the materials in the kiln, they were seen as ‘wrong’, as rejects.
This contrasts directly with the Japanese philosophy of aesthetics where imperfections are seen to be beautiful. For hundreds of years, Japanese ‘unomi’ (tea bowls) have been prized, precisely for their imperfections. Their asymmetry, cracks, uneven rims and crazed glazes were taken to be a unique kind of beauty, a notion we struggled with to understand in the west perhaps until recent times when the aesthetic of ‘shabby chic’ has become fashionable and furniture with signs of wear and tear (whether authentic or not) have become desirable in the home. Traditional Japanese tea bowls for tea ceremonies, when cracked, were not discarded. Instead the cracks were fixed with gold lacquer, emphasising their imperfections. The realisation that the tea-bowl will continue after you are dead is supposed to raise an awareness of the transience of life. This style of Japanese aesthetic characterised by simplicity, natural materials and admiration of imperfections is called ‘wabi-sabi’. Leach’s inspiration is derived from this philosophy and way of living.
I propose that wabi-sabi, as an aesthetic that relies of the co-operation of man and the environment, is a celebration of what we now call material agency or as Bennett calls it ‘thing-power’. Like Bennett, Tim Ingold has similarly explored ideas of a craftsman making as a co-operation of agencies: ‘far from standing aloof, imposing his designs on a world that is ready and waiting to receive them, the most he can do is intervene in worldly processes that are already going on  (Ingold, 2013, pg.21)’.
Soetsu Yanagi, a close friend of Leach, summarises this idea of making best in a letter to Leach ‘we enjoy those pots most which are born and not made’ (Leach, 2015, pg.288). Similarly Ingold describes making as a process of growth, of an interaction, or reshaping of ‘active materials’. Do works of art continue to grow after they have been made? If a tea bowl develops cracks after being used ritually to drink tea from, is the material still growing?

It might be helpful to think of things wabi sabi then as indexical drawings, documentations of the ways human and non-human forces have an effect on one another. Iversen describes indexical drawings as ‘a registration of something unique’ or ‘graphic traces’ (Iversen, 2012) but more generally we can think of them as an action that causes something to have an effect on another thing. So a tea bowl with cracks from use might be viewed instead as an indexical drawing of time, use or the weather. I would loosely describe Leach’s work as indexical drawings in that his pots are celebrations of the agency of materials. Leach’s work exhibits the tenet of ‘truth to materials’ which became popular with the British arts and crafts movement in the late 19th century after the Industrial revolution and later with the Bauhaus artists working as his contemporaries. The idea of this philosophy was to celebrate materials in their natural state, not to disguise them as something else.
But how exactly do Japanese ceramic aesthetics and Leach’s pots illustrate this co-operation of agencies? Firstly, I propose we look at the style of decoration. Decoration on Japanese ceramics and many examples of Leach’s work can be characterised by two main distinctive features; the presence of large amounts of empty space, and loose, gestural brushwork. Regarding the presence of emptiness, thinking back to the main philosophies of Japan, Taoism teaches that the wholeness that exists in the universe is all in the expression of dual forms e.g. hot and cold or light and dark and so perfection and completeness can only be achieved with the balance of forces. The prevalence of empty space in Japanese art may be an expression of the importance of this Taoist duality – of space and emptiness, or ‘In view of the influence of Taoism and Zen on this art form, the relative emptiness of the canvas can be understood as an evocation of the nothingness that forms the context of all particular things’ (Parkes, 1995 pg.90). This dichotomy of yin yang can be seen in the co-dependency of the will of the human mind and the random forces of nature to create what Leach calls an aesthetic of ‘supreme beauty and truth (Leach, 2015).

Confucianism more practically focuses on how this emphasis on duality can be a force for creating a better society, with a balance of forces between the intuitive and rational. For much of western history, the natural, intuitive side of human nature has been repressed when it comes to art. The focus of western ceramics at the time of Leach was on traditional, precise decoration which contrasted starkly with the spontaneous and intuitive brushwork decorating the ceramics of the likes of Japanese potters. Pattern rather than realistic depiction was seen as the highest form of decorating for them. Yanagi hypothesises ‘there are many ways of seeing, but the truest and best is with the intuition…pattern is born when one reproduces the intuitively perceived essence’ (Yangagi 1974, pg.114). Pattern therefore is seen as less removed from nature than what we would call a ‘realistic’ image, since pattern is born from our intuition and bypasses the rational side of our brain, making it more true to reality.
Patterns in the Japanese tradition are closely related to calligraphy. The term ‘hakeme’ is given to the loose brushwork effect of slip applied with simple materials such as cotton rags or slip brushes made of hemp or fibre. Drawing from Dogen’s idea of ‘body-mind’ the Zen aim was to paint with the condition of no-mind with awareness distributed through the whole body so you become the subject and the brush becomes an extension of the body. This union of mind and body is the crux of Eastern philosophy and so many Japanese art forms including the tea ceremony. This has similarities to Ingold’s proposal of ‘making longitudinally rather than laterally’ and the co-operation he describes in ‘Making’: ‘in the act of making the artisan couples his own movements and gestures – indeed his very life – with the becoming of his materials, joining with and following the forces and flows that bring his work into fruition’ (Ingold, 2013). Leach and Hamada’s free style of decorating recognise and respect the agency of clay, glaze materials and tools.
In Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie’s TED talk ‘How to truly listen’ she talks of the difference between someone making music thinking of themselves as a ‘technician’ and someone who sees themselves as a ‘musician’. Good musicians become at one with their instruments, they no longer play the instrument, but play themselves. She describes the way holding drumsticks looser, as if they’ve become part of the arm means she feels ‘at one with the stick and at one with the drum’ (Glennie, 2003) and can play more expressive dynamics but with less effort. The same can be said of the calligraphic style of glaze decoration on Leach and Hamada pots. You can tell from the vitality and energy of their mark-making that the brush wasn’t held stiffly but that the movement was a union of body and tool. Like Glennie, they thought of the arm as a ‘support system’ for the tool rather than as a detached thing.

I suggest this questioning of where the ‘mind’ or ‘body’ ends and tools and materials begin has parallels with one of the main characteristics of Buddhist existence: ‘anatman’, in other words a rejection of ‘the self’. The Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna proposed that not only is there no ‘self’, ‘there is no such thing as fundamental essence of nature of anything’ (Billington, 1997),arguing that since the world is in a constant state of changing and ageing, we can only know one thing in relation to another. The Buddhist belief in reincarnation might reinforce the idea that matter is in a constant state of flow and the objects we perceive are only a pause in the flow of materials for a limited amount of time. They may go on changing indefinitely. In his essay ‘On the undermining of objects’ Graham Harman includes Giordano Bruno’s views on matter: ‘there is no genuine form in the world other than the world soul (Harman, 2002)’. This description of the impermanence of things resonates with the wabi-sabi aesthetic. The beauty of forms lies in the fact they are ever changing. Growth and decay is part of life and Eastern philosophy, especially Zen Buddhism teaches that it is crucial to accept this.
Leach writes of Japanese ceramic aesthetics ‘the nature of the beauty discovered by the tea masters is in the first place – non individualistic’ (Leach, 2015). This unique beauty of non-individualism can be seen to stem from the necessity of early Eastern pottery, especially that of white Korean slipware, to be functional: ‘utility is the first principle of beauty (Leach, 2015)’. These pots and bowls were simple utensils made for peasants without any need to be beautiful. In these simple, unpretentious pieces the Cha no yu (tea masters of Japan) recognised an unusual form of beauty which can be summed up with the idea that “merely doing” something is in itself a great source of beauty, implying as it does a state of freedom not bound by concepts of beauty, much less fear of the ugly’ (Yanagi 1972, pg. 173). The freedom in this non-individualistic form of beauty may also refer to a co-operation between material and the human mind rather than the human mind’s imposition on nature.
The focus on dual forms is important to understand Buddhist ideas of beauty. In Buddhism true beauty only exists where there is no distinction between beauty and ugliness. ‘If an article is beautiful, we may say it has achieved Buddhahood (Yanagi, 1972, pg.129) because, like Shinto, Buddhism also seems to recognise of the agency of materials in that it is not only humans who can achieve enlightenment. Objects too can be released from duality. It is only by making objects that are co-operations, that rise above the dichotomy of human and non-human that they can be truly beautiful and honest.

My research into the subject has brought me a greater appreciation of the beauty of Japanese aesthetics and a greater understanding of how making can be more ecologically interpreted as a joining of forces. I have explored the way Eastern philosophies are tied up with theories of material agency and the way this resulted in a ceramics aesthetic that emphasises the vitality of matter and the importance of working intuitively with materials. This focus on the balance of opposites, of intuition and rationality, freedom and constraint, perfection and imperfection, has stood out as being central to most of the Eastern philosophies and one of the main influences on Leach ceramics. It’s a theory that true beauty lies in the centre of polar opposites, not in any extreme.

Bibliography

Bennett, J. (2010) Vibrant Matter: A political ecology of things. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Billington, R. (1997) Understanding Eastern Philosophy. London: Routledge.

Brown, S.G. (2007) Practical Wabi Sabi. Carroll and Brown Publishers Limited.

Bryant, L, Srnieck, N, Graham, H (2011) The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. Australia: re.press.

Cazeaux, C. (2000) The Continental Aesthetics Reader. London and New York: Routledge.

Glennie, E (2003). How to truly listen [online] Available at <https://www.ted.com/talks/evelyn_glennie_shows_how_to_listen#t-366097&gt; [Accessed 16 May 2017]

Harman, G. (2002). Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects. Chicago: Open Court, pp. 15-44.

Hume, N.G. (1995) Japanese Aesthetics and Culture: A Reader. Albany: State University of New York Press. Pgs. 77-108 ‘Ways of Japanese Thinking’.

Ingold, T. (2013) Making: Anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture. London and New York: Routledge.

Iversen, M. (2012). Index, diagram, graphic trace. Tate Papers Issue 18. Online.

Leach, B. (2015) A Potter’s Book. London: Unicorn.

Yanagi, S. (1972) The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty. Kodansha International Ltd.

L4 Constellation PDP

Coming to Constellation with no background of studying philosophy, I found the arguments and concepts difficult to grasp at first. I feel I’ve been introduced not so much to a new field of knowledge but more to a new way of thinking about the world and my place in it. Initially I didn’t feel confident engaging in class discussions, worried I would say something ‘wrong’ or worse, silly, but as the year progressed I’ve realised these debates are more about questioning and thinking independently than knowing information, and I’ve started to grow in confidence and enjoy them. I feel I’ve significantly developed my critical thinking skills as well as my ability to listen to others and engage in debate. I’ve realised that I don’t have to agree with anything or everything, all things can be questioned and picked apart. Previously I’d considered my work in a historical context but not a philosophical one. Constellation has made me think about the theory that underpins my work and I feel it also gives me a deeper understanding and appreciation of the artwork of others.

During the first term my study group was Martin Woodward’s ‘New Materialisms’ – an exploration of the debates surrounding phenomenology. Each week, as a group we took part in a different drawing or making activity and analysed the results. I felt this was a fantastic introduction to constellation because I was able to ground complex theories and ideas in something that felt real and concrete. In contrast, Clive Cazeaux’s ‘Things can be otherwise – an introduction to philosophy’ (my second term study group) was more centred on group discussions. Although I found these more and more valuable as the term progressed, I felt more engaged and remembered what I’d learnt better with interactive activities.
Previously I hadn’t questioned why I wanted to work with clay in much depth but learning about theories such as the agency of materials discussed by writers like Ingold and Jane Bennett have helped me better understand why I’m studying ceramics. For last term’s formative essay I wrote about the hierarchy of senses in society, and the more I researched about society’s oculacentric culture, the more I felt that ceramics and craft have an important role to play in making people aware of a more embodied existence where we pay attention to all our senses.
A book I received for Christmas about practicing mindfulness (which focuses on paying attention to all our senses) was an important catalyst in getting me interested in Eastern philosophy. I felt a breakthrough came for me during a class discussion in ‘Things can be otherwise’ about theories of technology which led to discussions about agency and the difference between eastern and western thought. I felt I’d fallen across something that really excited me. Finally, I could begin to draw connections with the ‘New Materialisms’ study group about how much we shape the world and are shaped by it in return. I found that eastern, specifically Japanese ideology was more in line with my definition of beauty and the values I hold important, so I chose to explore how eastern philosophy relates to material agency in my essay, using the work of Bernard Leach as an example.

Having spent time in the study groups analysing small passages of complex essays in detail, such as Joseph Jastrow’s ‘The Mind’s Eye’ I have learnt that by dedicating time and attention to pieces of writing that at first glance seem inaccessible, I can slowly begin to understand what the author is saying. As a next step I need to spend time practicing reading the style of academic writing I’m becoming more familiar with through Constellation. I feel the time I’ve already spent has been rewarding and enlightening as I begin to find connections between the theories of different writers. Although, having read Tim Ingold’s ‘Making’ I now know that academic writing doesn’t have to be dry and difficult to follow and this has reinforced the importance of knowing the audience you are writing for. What I especially like about Ingold’s writing is that he gives examples of activities he’s done to illustrate his theories, and like the activities we did in our study group, it makes them more memorable.

I felt the keynotes were a bit of a lottery, some being worthwhile but others not so much. One that really stood out for me was Cath Davies’s ‘Purple Haze’ in which she discussed how Art Nouveau had a heavy influence on 1960s Psychedelia culture. I became interested in the theory that nothing is really new, elements of past trends are just re-configured and combined with the present. I recognised this was why I’ve had an obsession with Quentin Tarantino films, because of how well Tarantino knows his film history. When potter Geoff Swindell visited CSAD to demonstrate his making techniques, he spoke openly of his distaste of potters today who work in the tradition of Bernard Leach, making pots that resemble those from ancient Japan. Although I agree it’s important to move with the times, before I dismiss this ceramic tradition as being old fashioned I want to better understand it so I can learn from it, hence why I wrote the essay about Japanese ceramics and philosophy. While constellation addresses theory, I feel what may be missing from my course is the historical context. I attended some of Jon Clarkson’s fine art lectures, but we have no equivalent for ceramics.

Above all constellation has taught me to ask questions even if at the present moment I can’t answer them. While subject deals with what and how I make, constellation deals with the equally important ‘why’. It has given me a more holistic approach to life and making, now that I begin to see the interconnectedness of materials, tools, the body and the environment. As a practitioner, this has made me more interested in exploring art that can be interacted with and is currently feeding into my centrepiece project where I hope to make a table centrepiece that can be played as a game.

SO MUCH WINE

I swear time moves differently in the French countryside. No way could I have fitted a lip sync battle, building a reliquary kiln with relics to fire inside, ping pong, building a stackable camping set, visiting a mysterious cave church, two French markets, putting on a play, more ping pong, dressing up in silly hats, cooking a three course meal, origami cranes, directing another play, and SO MUCH WINE into a week in Cardiff. I’m practically an alcoholic now.

Last week we returned, sore hands and throbbing heads from Mick’s deadly mojitos, from an unforgettable week at La Perdrix, Johnny and Ingrid’s gorgeous getaway in the Dordogne countryside of south-western France. To any future ceramics students at CSAD I urge you – GO! It’s so worth the hangovers.

Some combination of being in such a beautiful setting and eating three course meals each day resulted in us all being super productive and inspired. I’m struggling a bit to hold onto the energy I felt there now that we’re back in the UK but the trip has definitely shown just how much stuff it’s possible to get done when you put your mind to it (and the sun makes it feel like you’re on a Caribbean beach resort).

I think the problem I’ve struggled with this year has been the length of the projects. I end up procrastinating for weeks and changing my ideas and designs rather than getting on with the making. With such a short amount of time in France, it was necessary just to get stuck into it ASAP, and this is the kind of mentality I want to bring to my future projects. One of the things I enjoyed most was working outside in the open air which felt so much more spacious and peaceful than the studio back home.

Our first challenge was to make a raku fired set of nesting camping utensils. I began with sketching some concepts, trying to work out a way of fitting the different sections together snugly and maximising the use of space. Initially I planned to have a steamer above the casserole dish but it would have taken me a long time to throw pieces that fit together neatly, so I opted for a simpler ‘one storey’ design.

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The final piece is composed of six separate sections – a couple of bowls (the smaller was supposed to be more of a mug), a sort of casserole dish with a lid, and a spoon and fork. All the handles, including those on the spoon and fork were pulled – I thought they might be stronger this way.

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The main downfall is that I didn’t create a gallery and flange for the lid of the dish, it just sits on top instead. I’ve never thrown vessels with lids but I think it’s about time I addressed this gap in my knowledge and gave it a go.

I’ve just realised this could be something that ties in with my centrepiece project. I was thinking about drawers to put objects in, but why not make this an exercise in throwing lids? I could make a sculpture of sorts that holds condiments, napkins or knives and forks…

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The outside of the camping set was dipped in transparent glaze but the insides were painted in a thin wash of brightly coloured under-glazes with the transparent on top. I like the effect of having eye popping colours as a surprise  when you open it up, a bit like cutting into a plain icing- covered rainbow cake to find it’s got all those layers inside. The only issue I had with the making was that I had to trim the smallest bowl so the lid would fit. The bowls are also very heavy but then they’re to take camping…of course they need to be sturdy.

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Drawing Inspirations

Today’s visit was to Craft in the Bay, Cardiff to take part in a workshop organised by Dr Natasha Mayo. We worked alongside local A level students to problem solve and took a look at Craft in the Bay’s new exhibition ‘Drawing Inspirations’ which examines the relationship of drawing to the artists work.

We discussed different ways artists use drawing to inspire designs such as printmaker Claire Florey-Hitchcox who uses drawing as a pre-design for her woodblock carvings and ceramicist Richard Heeley who explores the energy and rhythm of markmaking to create a decorative surface.

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Stunning seascapes by Richard Heeley

We began with the challenge of joining two strips of paper together by folding only, then were asked to transform a rectangle of A2 paper into a vessel. Our pair’s approach drew on my previous knowledge of how to make an origami cup although we had to improvise and make the paper more flexible so it would stand upright.

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Our paper ‘trophy’ vessel

The next task was to create a spoon from paper. Aware that we had drawn from past knowledge for the previous task we tried a more intuitive approach this time, folding the paper with the idea of making a plaited stem like a love spoon. I feel our designs were very economical – we were careful not to waste any of the material.

Next we used the spoon to mark make with Indian ink, then to draw the paper spoon using the spoon which was a lot more challenging exercise. We developed our markings from the first sheet but rather than running wild, we took a more linear approach and thought of how our marks could convey the presence of a 3D object rather than only drawing 2D patterns.

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Paper ‘Llwy Gariad’/ love spoon
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Mark making with the spoon
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Basking shark or spoon?

Over lunch we were tasked with finding objects in the environment around Cardiff bay to make drawing tools from. We then used our new tools to draw with the ink, free to take any approach we liked. My plan was to work in a generally organised manner from the left to right of the page exploring mark making with typography (our previous mark-making with the ink had reminded me of calligraphy) but still working freely enough to explore the limitations of the new tools.

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Cardiff Bay tools

Today’s experience has taught me that the process of playing with materials and developing ideas is just as, if not more important than the final outcome.

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Mark making with home-made tools

I make my own clay

Welcome to the new blog! If all goes to plan this online journal will document my next three years of ceramic exploration and (hopefully) discovery as I embark on the BA Ceramics course at Cardiff Met University.  Join me as I voyage into the magical world of clay and attempt to find out more about this material which has been a source of wonder to humans since prehistoric times. The adventure begins…

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This summer I was asked to source a sample of clay from the area I live in north west Wales, break it into grape sized lumps and let it dry thoroughly. Today I learnt the next step in the process – how to refine the clay.

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I pounded down the dried clay lumps into a fine powder

I began by pounding the dry clay into a fine powder with a pestle and mortar (improvising with a rolling pin and washing up bowl – it does the job). Next I added the powder to a bowl of water and mixed thoroughly until I had a kind of sloppy mixture. It’s important to do these stages with adequate ventilation since the clay dust easily becomes airborne.

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Mixing the clay and water

The next step was to pour the mixture into a fine mesh sieve and push the clay through using a paint scraper, letting the liquid clay drop into the bowl below. On a plaster bat (n. a slab on which pottery is formed, dried or fired) I arranged four coils of pre-prepared clay into a rectangle and poured the slurry inside. The coils contain the clay while it’s in this liquid state otherwise it begins to flow off onto the floor (which we found out when some of the coils weren’t pressed down hard enough).

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Sieving the clay – all the remaining grit is visible on top

As if by magic the plaster sucked up the moisture and within minutes I could scrape it off dry. Kneading came next to get it of even consistency throughout then I was left with a plastic ball of my very own dug up clay, cleaned of all the grit and pebbles that were merged in.

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My sieved clay with a suspicious film of what looks like oil on top

I’m curious as to what gives my clay its distinctive dark green colour and what caused the film of black oil that formed on top of it in a liquid state. The next step will be to see how the clay fires at different temperatures!

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My kneaded ball of refined clay in fetching khaki green