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.
For our first collaborative field project with the maker and fine art students we worked in the ceramics studio. Our project was to create a clay sculpture on the theme of light by exploring the way still lives can create abstract patterns of light and shadow.
We began by setting up still lives of objects we found interesting then used projectors to cast shadows from these onto large sheets of paper. Charcoal and biro were used to trace the patterns of light and shadow, rendering the objects together in abstract form.
We tried using a photocopier to enlarge sections of these collaborative drawings but found it difficult to get the settings right. I wish I’d put my name down for a workshop on how to use the photocopier effectively! Some materials like the scrunched up strips of masking tape above made crisp shapes of flat shadow however others like glass bottles, were a lot more difficult to render because of the distorted way light reflects through them.
The next stage was to create a relief using cardboard and we decided to each recreate sections of the drawings we liked the most then make an abstract collage of these aspects of the still life. We spent a long time arranging and re-arranging shapes to get a sense of balance. From the start we were drawn to the green netting we found because of the delicate, intricate lattice pattern it cast. We noticed our still lives reminded us of underwater scenes – the forms looking like seaweed and sunken treasure.
The next step was to use this cardboard relief as the basis for a clay sculpture. We decided to explore through pre-reflexive play to begin, trying to recreate details we liked individually from this collage in clay. We tried pressing the clay into the cardboard shapes, pressing the netting into clay and using the cardboard shapes as stencils.
We had a lot of fun during this stage of the process but frankly the result just looks a bit naff! In it’s earlier stages the design looks considered but we ended up throwing everything at it with an enthusiastic approach of ‘more is more’. The final piece looked like the crumbling, ivy entwined ruin of a fairy-tale castle (one who’s architect was fond of geometric shapes). Since none of us had used the extruder before we were eager to have a go even though the forms it created had nothing to do with our original design. The task taught us an important lesson – that a work of art can be pushed too far! Our approach was one of ‘see what happens’ rather than a pre-planned design. We spent lots of time trying to achieve a sense of balance in the cardboard collage and should have spent the same amount of time with the clay. It was a struggle to construct because we discovered pieces with intricate detail cut in dried a lot faster than other slabs and tended to crumble. Making the lattice forms in paper clay may have made them stronger or we could have dipped material in slip.
The finished first piece
On reflection, we would have been more successful making a series of small sculptures rather than throwing everything at one piece. We had lots of interesting patterns and forms – the geometric circles in squares combo, the lattice clay sheets, the plant-like slabs and the repeated leaf pattern. There was just too much going on! During the rest of the week we managed to create a new, simpler sculpture. We tested to see what results our sculpture would produce by taking it back to step one – placing it in front of a projector. It has an interesting juxtaposition between the geometric box form and the organic flowing vine-like slab sitting on top.
I was fortunate enough to watch Walter Keeler (the legend himself!) give a masterclass today as part of the Made by Hand craft event at Cardiff city hall. Although familiar with his pots for years, I’d never properly appreciated how innovative his work has been. Combining different techniques including extruding, throwing, slab building, press moulding and lathe turning he explores the full potential of clay’s qualities.
He demonstrated how he makes two kinds of jugs, the first from an extruded pipe with extruded handles echoing the twisting branches of trees; the second using more traditional techniques – thrown sections with a pulled handle. We watched as he transformed a stiff jug with what he called ‘a personality disorder’ into his distinctive ‘articulated’ jug design by simply replacing the thrown sections together at a jauntier angle. This new jug, he said, was one you knew you’d have a fun conversation with.
Interestingly many of the different sections are joined together with slip but no scoring. This often leads to a much neater joint and the parts still stay together! Maybe I should be less painstaking when joining next time and trust in the clay more.
I like Keeler’s sense of humour in how he plays with our relationships to his objects. He makes mugs that are intimate and homely, alongside thorn encrusted dishes which we almost feel afraid to approach. What he makes is both traditional and contemporary, organic and geometric. He wants his work to be used not only appreciated for its aesthetics.
Yesterday we had our first introduction to slip decoration with technician Matt, who demonstrated a range of techniques including paper resist, sgraffito, slip trailing and inlay. The inlay technique was new to me but one I found exciting. It involves carving into the surface of a leather hard slab (usually with a looped turning tool) then painting wet slip into the indentation. After this has dried the extra slip on top is scraped away to reveal the line. The result reminded me of the incised designs on the work of one of my favourite ceramic artists, Gordon Baldwin.
I’m also eager to try out rolling slabs of clay onto carved lino to create surface pattern, a technique Jacqui Atkin describes in her book ‘250 tips, techniques and trade secrets for potters’.