Above is the process video I created on Premier Pro for our Research and Development brief. It documents my method of hand-building with pieces made on the wheel.
On Saturday we were lucky to have potter and Made by Hand pottery showdown compère Billy Adams come to demonstrate at a South Wales Potters event at CSAD. Billy has a fascinating process of making which involves layering different kinds of clay as well as firing multiple times, starting with a bisque before a glaze firing at 1260C then lower and lower glaze firings each time before finishing with a lustre at about 750C.
I especially liked his resourcefulness in the way he doesn’t throw any pots away even if they are not successful. Instead, he re-glazes and re-fires them to the point of cracking, preheating the already glazed work to 200C before re-applying the glaze so it adheres to the surface. I had a glaze disaster with my large green vessel where the glaze flakes off but I wonder if I could peel off all the gaze which chips then re-fire it with a different surface?
Billy also spoke of how he ends up with lots of offcuts of clay on his table while making, much like myself. He showed us a dampbox he has had for years which keeps the clay damp permanently. It’s a lidded plastic box with plaster poured into the base which keeps the moisture trapped so the clay can be reused. Another point he raised was the importance of having smooth, clean bases on the pots so that they don’t scratch surfaces. He suggested using silicon carbide with water and washing up liquid to smooth the bases.
I feel many of the questions which are relevant to Billy are also important to myself since we both work with the sculptural vessel, using thrown sections (although he hand-builds up most of his). He often plays with how much you can show of the inside of the vessel while still keeping it as a vessel as well as where the openings should be situated, on top, on the side…
Taking part in different exhibitions has pushed his work in different directions. An arts council grant allowed him to experiment with casting his vessels in bronze. The way he felt distanced from these objects made him realise that the colour and texture is what makes his forms more than the shape. Another exhibition required him to make work to fit in small, portable boxes so needed him to make miniature versions of his pots. Doing this, the marks became more pronounced and any mistakes were amplified. Each gesture becomes crucial to the overall form. It could be a useful and quick exercise to see what happens if I try and make my sculptural vessels on a small scale, giving them a greater connection to tableware with their scale.
Finally, he advised that a potter have a couple of base glazes that they know like the back of their hand, understanding how to adjust their viscosity, colour, dryness/shininess and knowing how the glaze looks on different clays, at different temperatures.
After my previous blog post about the kinds of surfaces I want on my sculptural vessels I created a series of glaze tests. Realising that I wouldn’t be able to fire my terracotta vessels or those with terracotta extrusions in the reduction kiln because of the risk of the clay melting or becoming too brittle, I decided to test some in the oxidation test kilns too. Above are my results from the gas kiln which all give a bright but slightly earthy dry surface that I thought would be less distracting than the shiny surfaces of my previous vessels.
The oxidation glazes (above) turned out a lot more glossy and gaudy than I expected. I’ve turned instead this week to the dry glazes book for simple recipes, quick to mix because of a small number of ingredients. Yixia suggested I use ordinary stoneware glazes but fire them to a lower temperature so they don’t mature completely and remain dry and pastel coloured like she has been doing. It was interesting speaking to Hannah too who has been using ferric oxide raku glazing. For her the firing process is the most important part and she decides on her forms based on how to show these firing effects best. For myself it’s the other way around, starting with form and thinking which surface will work best afterwards. I think most makers prioritise either the form or the surface.
The large glazed vessel forms shown here were all fired in the large red gas kiln, the first time I’ve fired work in this kiln since starting university. While the top half reached 1280C, unfortunately the cone at the bottom looks to have only reached about 1220/1240C. Perhaps as a result of this, on the largest of my thrown and altered constructions the glaze flakes off and hasn’t fused to the clay body. The glaze on the sculpture above is the same speckled blue-green that you can see on the first test piece at the top of the page, but because of the nature of the firing has instead become a very fluid dinosaur green, too variegated in shades to work well with the complex forms. It’s a set-back as it was one of my favourite shapes and as I don’t have time for in-depth glaze refining in these last few weeks, I’m going to abandon this glaze completely for the time being.
The photos above show two pieces almost completed and with surfaces I would be happy to show in my degree show. The sculptural jar was made in the spirit of some of the vessels I saw in Sandy Brown’s studio – bottomless because there is no concern with function here. Like her vessels which were often just canvases, not designed to hold anything except for surface decoration. I like to think of mine as sketches of pots in three-dimension. They look like pots and reference traditional vessel forms but are completely impractical and stitched together, optical illusions that subvert our expectation. The mustard yellow glaze works very well and gives a buttery texture that’s not too shiny to distract from the form. Iron oxide in the glaze gives it this colour but I wonder if I substituted that for cobalt, rutile or manganese, could I create similarly textured glazes in different colours?
The Answers on a Postcard exhibition is a collaborative project between ceramics courses in Wales, Iceland, Ireland and Sweden with the idea being that the postcards we make in some way represent the country from which the objects are being posted. My submissions arose from a process of making which is relatively new to me – throwing and altering the thrown sections, destroying, re-inventing and re-building forms. The process illustrates my own turning inside out of and re-defining my own definition of what it means to make pots. Working previously with functional ware, I am trying to contain traces and references to this tradition but also questioning the values of this tradition and skill in the contemporary craft world.
In a wider sense, my shift in process and attitude towards making stems from my six months abroad in Gothenburg where, living away from the culture I was familiar with, I began to redefine what it means to be Welsh. My relationship with this country where I was born and grew up has always felt complicated. Bad memories of Eisteddfodau as a child and the isolation of growing up in a tiny Welsh village where everyone went to church as well as my disinterest in rugby give my a confused Welsh identity. I am proud to be from Wales but as a fluent welsh speaker without an accent my identity feels distorted from what is expected of me.
My identity as a Welsh person is still shifting constantly as I grow older. With Brexit on the horizon as well comes a new definition of what it means to be British. My fractured, torn and warped postcards reflect these ideas about Welsh identity. Rather than giving answers, these postcards perhaps raise more questions and uncertainties. High-fired to 1280C, past it’s optimal firing temperature, is the terracotta stronger or more brittle?
This week I’ve began extruding with crank and constructing what I’ve started to think of as frames or scaffolding onto which my vessels will sit. I’m interested in the contrast between precise and imperfect, soft and sharp, human and inhuman. The grounded quality of pots is something I wish to challenge. Their humble nature lies partly, I believe, in the fact they have a solid footing in their surroundings, growing almost like plants from the matter of daily life itself. By elevating them and subjecting them to forces of gravity I hope to highlight the way the material slumps and flows slowly, almost like a liquid over time, to fill the gaps in the containers of its environment. While the grogged crank’s strength makes it great to hand-build with, I’ve chosen to continue throwing with a St Thomas stoneware to save the skin on my hands.
Thinking of my extruded pieces as frames or plinths brings me to Adam Silverman’s 2017 exhibition at Los Angeles’ Cherry and Martin Gallery. A circular section is cut in a gallery wall through which a long beam of dark timber protrudes, supported on breeze blocks. Silverman’s training as an architect is bought to the forefront in his manipulation of the gallery space and the vessels become monochrome components or metaphors in the installation space. The round hole references the openings on the vessels and frames the gallery space as a vessel in itself. It may also reference the circular wheelhead on which the forms all originated. It feels almost as if the vessels aren’t been celebrated for their clayness and individual qualities though, only for their power through repetition in a wider narrative.
Another interesting example of framing is Silverman’s piece for the 2015 exhibition Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better. A composition is placed in what looks like the bottom section of a toploader kiln. While I’ve become interested in showing traces of making and process in my work I’ve never thought to directly include the tools and equipment I use in the finished piece itself, they have always been the back of the canvas, the scaffolding that supports the outer facade. Writing my dissertation I came across the chapter in Tim Ingold’s Making that discusses how we think of things as either objects or materials depending on the context. Kilns for me have always been objects but to a scrap metal dealer they are materials. Silverman has used them in the same way with parallels to the circular frame in Ghost.
Silverman’s technique of joining thrown sections together on the wheel is an avenue I haven’t explored yet. As seen in the vessel above I always throw and join them together separately. My vessel above is terracotta, thrown and stuck together and sat on extruded legs. Later as it dried, the base fell out so I may have to create a new pair of legs with a more stable connection. This form took on a lot of personality in the making. It slopes with attitude and the sections stuck on look like hands posing on hips giving it an air of sassiness. The images above show the progression as I manipulated the surface over a period of a couple of days. I’ve become much more patient with the vessels, allowing them to dry more before cutting into the surface. The extruded cross section in the hollow cone looks almost like a cartoon plaster. Patching up and mending is as much part of what I do to these vessels as deconstructing and cutting.
The thrown sections on the bats in the image at the top here were made into the vessel below. Unhappy with the asymmetry, I pushed a dry terracotta section made by connecting extruded tubes into the tall body. Reading this then as a kind of handle, I added a spout to the opposite side, making the more familiar form of a jug. If the structure hasn’t collapsed by Monday I plan to work more into the body to unite the sections better, not hiding the joints but drawing them together as part of a whole. I’m beginning to get a feeling for when they are finished, once I have paid attention to every little part of the surface. At the moment the making is very spontaneous and improvised. Perhaps to make more complex structures with parts sitting on top of one another and extruded frames and plinths, I will need to work from preliminary drawings in a more design focused manner.
After thinking further about how my vessel forms will be decorated, I started this week working in terracotta with the hope of high firing the forms or even firing them at a lower temperature in reduction (I predict the high iron content of the clay would turn the body a very dark colour). I thought about using coloured slips but I’ve decided it’s actually better to touch the outside of the vessels as little as possible (and with clean hands) in order to preserve the expressive throwing lines. I press out only from the inside to preserve the clay’s cracks and traces rather than smooth over them and leave traces of my own fingers. Perhaps rubbing in oxides after bisque firing would better accentuate the grooves and hollows which give the pot fluidity.
Constructing thrown sections in this way with terracotta proved to be very difficult. The first two sections looked good – the base a round bowl and the top an inside out cylinder. The bottom shape holds tension but the top one having been turned inside out flops and loses structure but creates a pleasing asymmetry. Although the thrown sections had been left overnight to dry, in my impatience to build bigger I added another narrower section on top to the one shown above and when I came back to it later it had collapsed into a pile. It was disheartening but an important lesson in how far I can push the clay. Once the thrown bowls and cylinders have been left to dry overnight, I want to build something in the morning to completion. I keep adding pieces on, tweaking, fiddling and overworking the clay but I need to learn to be patient. My plan is to work not on one or two vessels at once but to have many more at different stages of completion so that I don’t get tempted to rush one.
Rather than reclaiming the broken pot, I decided to slice it up into postcard sized sections and play with surface texture and pattern on these flat slabs rather than on a curved form. It was much more difficult to push out and manipulate the clay from behind without the tension of the three dimensional form holding it up. Throwing and hand-building with the terracotta alone has been difficult, but I plan to combine the stoneware and earthenware clay I have to create a red coloured clay body with more strength.
The images above show my first attempt at making a larger composite form. I threw two bowls (approx 3 kg each), a 4kg ring and a 2kg cylinder with the aim of making a kind of narrow necked bottle shape. However, I made the mistake of not covering the clay overnight because I thought this would leave it at a leather-hard state for me to construct with in the morning. The sections dried too much but I manage to just about salvage them by spraying lots of water over the surfaces and wrapping them tightly in plastic for a couple of hours. Although they were workable, they split easily and it was a battle to get them to join together at all. The bottom bowl had too much weight on it and started to bend and split, leaning the pot to one side. This jaunty angle, although initially unintended, does lend the pot character and life. It speaks of the struggle of making and the active nature of a material in constant flux.
I spent yesterday going back and forth, altering the pot little by little over the course of the day – pushing out cyst-like lumps, gouging, slicing with kidneys and pin tools. I added on more protruding thrown clay sections, trying to find a pleasing balance in the asymmetry. Today I decided that what the vessel requires is a foot-ring to elevate it. The form is in such a precarious state I was worried that lifting it up to work on the base would destroy it completely. Jasper suggested I make separate ‘feet’ for the pot to balance on, much like plant pot feet (below) so I’ve thrown a thick ring of stoneware clay which I plan to cut up into sections tomorrow. I hope having space underneath the pot will give it a sense of weightlessness and elegance which will juxtapose strangely with the pot’s warty, scarred and slumping appearance.
I intend to bring up the issue of glazing in my tutorial tomorrow because I don’t know if I want to carry on gas firing for this exhibition module. On one hand, I have already tested many reduction glazes, am familiar with this clay and I like the variation in effects from reduction – it’s more exciting. On the other, the gas kiln has broken down a few times in the past months and could cause problems closer to the exhibition deadline, and firings can only take place a few times a week so it might take a long time to get larger work through. As well as this, gas kilns are hard to find outside of university so it may be a while before I have access to one after I graduate.
Of all the contemporary artists whose vessels follow the principle of form follows function, Gareth Mason’s hold a special place in my heart. His 2015 demonstration at Aberystwyth’s biennial International Ceramics Festival was the turning point that led me to decide to pursue ceramics at university. Under the stage name ‘mudfondler’ he regularly updates his avid Instagram followers with close up details of his pots’ varied surfaces, videos of the bold and labour intensive making process and, er, seemingly random photos of polished apples. While the photos of his amorphous, tension charged vessels are undoubtedly stunning, interestingly the poetic, stream of consciousness style of his writing which accompanies these images shows there is a lot more here than meets the eye.
In terms of thinking about time in making, Mason’s work is a perfect illustration of the layering of different durations. Viewing his work on display in the online catalogue for the Jason Jaques gallery, it becomes clear that many of the pieces have been created over a period of about five or six years during which his vessels are made, remade, broken and remade again, sometimes fired multiple times. Working as a production potter making terracotta garden ware at Franham Pottery for three years, he learnt the tacit knowledge required for his current practice. He also spent a while focused on traditional functional ware inspired by Leach and eastern traditions, the chuns and copper red glazes of which can still be seen in his work now.
He states that his pieces stem from a rejection of the pretty but that he continues to value skill. It is after all, the base from which he works up. Interestingly he writes about how not every thrown form he makes goes the right way and he has had experience of vessels collapsing in public demonstrations (I’ve read this happened to Peter Voulkos at times too). I admire the way he pushes the porcelain to its very limits while throwing in his videos. It shudders and warps dangerously but it is this sense of vitality in the material being pushed so far that gives his work so much life. I hope I can be as courageous in my own throwing.
Mason’s vessels sometimes incorporate lots of different clays and found objects. In a recent firing he used a broken break pad which melted, eating away at the pot. Inspired by Henry Hammond’s pottery philosophy that “it’s the rim and foot that are the main thing. The middle will take care of itself”, he takes into careful consideration how the vessels leave the ground. With my own current experimental vessels, I need to start carefully considering the same thing. I’ve been thinking recently about the masculine nature of the work of ceramic artists like Voulkos and Gareth Mason. The vessels are large scale, thrown with huge quantities of clay that are difficult to control and require brute strength. There is a violence to the mark-making too, of the piercing and scratching in defacing the surface.
I hadn’t thought of my pots in terms of masculine or feminine before until Yixia pointed out today that a slab construction I was working on looked very masculine with it’s rectangular building blocks. Without the thrown forms which act as a base, I struggled with this construction. There were no marks or textures to respond to and the form lacks a visible tension.
Artists working with deconstruction of Vessel: Glenn Barkley, Kathy Butterly, Nicole Cherubini, Babak Golkar, the Haas Brothers, King Houndekpinkou, Takuro Kuwata, Anne Marie Laureys, Gareth Mason, Ron Nagle, Gustavo Pérez, Ken Price, Brian Rochefort, Sterling Ruby, Arlene Shechet, Peter Voulkos, Jesse Wine and Betty Woodman
Gareth Mason photos from: http://www.jasonjacques.com/contemporary/gareth-mason
My work so far has been concerned with the functional vessel. However, as a result of my dissertation research into the relationship between ceramics and time, I am interested in turning my focus away from the object to the material itself. The vessel form will still be central to my work but I want to better communicate duration and transience, and to celebrate the unique quality clay has of preserving traces. I want to juxtapose two times of making in my work. Firstly, the process of throwing on the wheel and secondly the hand-joining together of these thrown elements. Throwing on the wheel as the first stage of the process is important to me because it enables me to start with a controlled, symmetrical shape. I also like the tension held in thrown vessels. I plan to re-work into the pots at different stages of dryness in order to build up a chronology of traces made at intervals in time. Jasper has suggested setting time limits on my actions such as allowing myself only 20 minutes on a pot or only 5 seconds to draw a line in the surface.
I have experience of sculpting with thrown sections before and know it is a challenge to get the timing right, so I plan to invest in a heat gun. It may also help to research additions to clay bodies so I can create a strong clay, smooth enough to throw but strong enough to be altered and built on top of afterwards too. In terms of technique I am very inspired by the work of Jo Taylor and Bryan Newman. However the aesthetic qualities I’m searching for are the lack of self-consciousness, spontaneity and bravura characteristic of the works of Peter Voulkos, Gareth Mason and Wayne Clark where lines are blurred between making and performance art. I want to see how far the traditional vessel can be deconstructed and reconfigured, stratifying layers of time in the making. I find I am interested in how our personalities shape what we make and whether the art we make can, vice versa, shape our personality. I would like to see what happens when I decide to address my character traits of perfectionism and self-consciousness and discard any previous prejudices about what I think is a ‘good pot’.
I intend to begin by somewhat imitating the styles of work I admire with the hope that an embodied, tacit knowledge of the mark-making involved will help guide me to find my own visual language. Slivka and Tsujimoto’s book ‘The Art of Peter Voulkos’ will be my starting point but I would also like to see Voulkos’ work on display in the V and A at some point. I find I can spend a very long time contemplating the photos in the book. The lines of cuts, fractures and joints lead the eye on a journey over the surface of the form. The flashes of ash on the wood-fired surfaces complement the forms well but I will have to think of alternative ways to decorate my sculptures.
This week I began with a couple of basic moon jar style vessels, connecting together two thrown bowls. I decided to sketch the first of these in order to pay closer attention to understand the form and from this exercise, realised that I hadn’t pushed the disfigurement far enough. I want to achieve a similar looseness of quality that’s in my drawings, in my vessels. While gouging, squeezing, slicing and punching the pot’s surface I try my best to touch the outside of the pot as little as possible. I think this was advice from Gareth Mason when he demonstrated at ICF a few years ago.
At the moment my throwing isn’t thin enough so the pots are a lot heavier than I want them to be so I need to get better at throwing larger quantities of clay. I don’t feel what I’ve made this week is dangerous enough. I need to feel a bit of a sense of trepidation that the thing might collapse. Perhaps I could attempt to build a vessel in the spirit of Johnny Vegas’s one minute teapot challenge to really encourage a sense of immediacy. Alexandra Engelfriet approaches her markmaking without pre-thought or self-consciousness in a complete of the moment response to the material and this is the kind of state of mind I aspire to too. At the moment these vessels still feel too careful, too contrived.
In Jon Clarkson’s lecture ‘The Metaphysics of Presence’ we discussed the painting above. A trend in dutch still life paintings was to dissect an object in the composition to depict not just what it looked like but to convey an essence of what the object was in different dimensions. For example, a lemon would be painted peeled, cut in half, sliced and whole all upon the same platter. Similarly bread would be shown as a whole loaf, cut in half and as breadcrumbs.
It might be argued that what the painter above is trying to explore is not a particular object but a more abstract idea of what roundness is. He does this by juxtaposing four different forms of roundness in the fruit/vegetables. First we have the quince, a fairly clearly defined and solid sphere. Hanging below we have the blurrier roundness of the cabbage, a kind of messy roundness wrapped up in leaves but with an underlying sphere as perfect as that of the quince nonetheless. Vegetables would often have been suspended like this in pantries to keep them fresher but here the hanging forms serve the double purpose of outlining a sweeping curve in the composition, a uniting roundness of form. The melon is a more complicated roundness. Lengthways it is oblong but cut across in sections you would have round sections. The cucumber is one step further – not round in any way lengthways but still hiding cross sections of roundness in its cylindrical form.
Why is this interesting to me then? Making forms on the wheel I am confined to roundness, at least until I remove the vessels from the spinning wheel and alter them. My composition for Llantarnam Grange plays with roundness in that I am exhibiting an open bowl, explicitly round in two dimensions since it’s a hemisphere. The jar beside it however is a more subtle roundness in that looking at it side-on it appears as a rectangle but from above it has a clear dimension of a circle. There is an interesting juxtaposition in Cotán’s painting between roundness as we come across it in nature and roundness that we make as humans. The sweeping curve of the composition could however also be implying a natural curve such as the alignment of planets in the solar system. It’s fascinating how universal the themes of roundness and cycles are so it feels significant to explore this on the wheel somehow.
Edmund de Waal’s work has parallels with Cotán’s painting in that both are drawing similarities to subtle differences by depicting forms that are very similar. De Waal works with very subtly different thrown porcelain cylinders in shades of blue and white which are almost indistinguishable. Perhaps making altered round forms such as oblong casserole dishes and photographing them beside round sectioned forms would create an optical effect similar to the slightly wrong angled still lives of Cezanne and by juxtaposing roundness with an almost-roundness I could comment more strongly on what it is.