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.

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Collections

Over the summer we’ve been asked to explore the theme of ‘collections’ documenting each of the following five:

1. A collection you have visited in person
My friend’s dad collects old milk bottles. There’s a room beside their kitchen where they’re all kept, lining the shelves from wall to ceiling with even more flowing from crates on and underneath the table. Most come from Wales but some from London where it was discovered the family’s ancestors used to be milkmen. Most date from around the 1930s but some date as far back as he 1880s, the older ones having wider necks. Here the collecting is an action, an ongoing process, collecting for fun.

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2. An historical collection
I visited Middleport Pottery in Stoke-on-trent where they produce slipcast Burleigh ware. There they keep a collection of all the old plaster moulds the factory has used over the years and new designs are often inspired by this collection. It describes how tastes in ceramics have changed over the years from the flowery, intricate complex vessels of the past to the simple and sleek modern ones of today.
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3. An artist who references collections in their creative practice
I travelled down to visit my flatmate in Eastbourne over the holiday and she took me to visit the Towner Art Gallery where I found this unusual collection of discarded dogballs collected by Jo Coles, a Brighton based artist. Here is the statement from her website (http://www.jocoles.com/) : I walk and I collect. I connect with a place through the objects people leave behind. I use these small details from human life to evidence living history. I save these objects for posterity before they disappear into the ground or are collected by street cleaners and whisked away into landfill. I’ve created order by imposing a system of collecting on these seemingly random pieces of rubbish.
Coles’s collections describe our ‘throw-away’ culture, elevating the everyday to intriguing works of art.

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4) An unconventional collection
I came across this creepy collection of mannequin limbs and torsos in a field recently while working at a music festival. The theme of the festival was surrealism so I suppose that’s enough of an explanation for them to be there. It’s an interesting collection symbolically though, in an art gallery context it might be interpreted as a kind of anti- war protest with references to the horrors of concentration camps. Plastic bodies suggest that human lives are as disposable as mass produced goods.

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5) A collection you have encountered in your own home
This collection of junk sits underneath our bungalow, most of it only kept because of its sentimental value. It includes the dolls house dad built for me, the threadbare mustard yellow chair that used to be my granddad’s, random books, CDs, children’s toys and golf clubs that are unlikely ever to be used. It’s a pile of things that don’t really belong anywhere else in the house but to an outsider might communicate lots about the type of people we are. It’s a personal collection that wouldn’t have any resonance with people outside my immediate family and yet you’re likely to find a similar collection of ‘homeless’ objects in any house.

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Art in Clay Hatfield

Just back from a magical few days volunteering (for the first time) at the 23rd Art in Clay on the grounds of Hatfield House. This was a great opportunity to meet makers of all sorts of styles and techniques and learn more about their work, while at the same time learning how to display work for sale and interact with the public. Saturday night’s BBQ was a highlight and it was great to meet like-minded ceramics students from Farnham. Definitely one for next year’s calendar!

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Another of the show’s highlights for me was Matthew Blakely’s talk about sourcing the rocks and materials he uses for his glazes. Seeing the vibrant range of effects he could get with as little as wood ash and clay has inspired me to start sourcing my own glaze materials from places I travel as well as my local area. He described how he uses a ball mill to grind down materials and how some rocks (like granite) will become soft when heated in a kiln while flint is dangerous because it will explode. He also spoke of the importance of getting permission to gather materials from the landscape, especially when selling the work afterwards, and of taking photos of where the natural rocks, clays and ashes were sourced. I agree with the audience members it would be great to see the finished pots photographed in the landscape they are linked to, like Adam Buick does. Matthew explained how buyers would receive a CD with their pot with information about how it was made.
It was insightful to see how different potters wrapped theirs work too, some using bubble wrap, newspaper, brown paper and elastic bands…some having to use round boxes with lots of sponge for fragile work.

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Melissa Pritchard runs Parade Mews pottery in South London and creates stunning soda fired pots. Some of the glazes shimmer like fish scales.

 

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Kathrin Najorka’s wood and salt-fired stoneware (above) is modest and homely, effectively displayed on these dark wooden shelves to make them look even more rustic. I really admired her work as well as the porcelain and stoneware thrown tableware of another German artist – Susanne Lukas-Ringel. I’d like to learn more about firing in these alternative ways to an electric kiln.

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As I mentioned in a previous post I find myself drawn to works made in a black clay body with surface decoration in white. Naturally, I got really excited when I saw Margaret Curtis‘s work! She began using black clay after visiting the studio of Japanese potter Miwa Kyusetsu X1 and admiring the crawling snow-white shino glazes on the black clay body of his tea bowls (chawan). She achieves crusting white textures with thick porcelain slip.

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Tim Lake is a potter based in Carmarthenshire who makes eastern inspired pots, bowls and tea bowls, all on a kickwheel. I was drawn to the natural, muted colours of the glazes and impressed decoration.

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Surprisingly though, my favourite piece in the whole show was not a ‘pot’ in the traditional sense at all, but this adorable ‘little ugly being’ by Chiu-i-wu. It’s a fat little creature with sharp teeth that clearly just wants to be loved! Her work is hand-built and she draws influences from her love of English summers as well as her home country Taiwan. Her forms remind me of illustrations in children’s books and this dry, green surface makes me think of the oxidation you get on copper roofs.

Middleport Pottery

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Image: http://www.hearthomemag.co.uk

On Wednesday I travelled to Stoke-on-Trent to visit Middleport Pottery, home of the famous Burleigh-ware, named after the partners Burgess and Leigh who took over the pottery in 1862. The site the pottery is on lends much to its success – situated beside the canal, it was easy to import raw materials as well as export the finished pieces from the factory to market. However, the main reason for its success was that this was the first pottery that had a production line from start to finish in the same building.  The raw clay came into the factory one end and finished, glazed and boxed ceramics came out the other.
The company specialised in earthenware tableware, using a white clay body that included china clay from Cornwall and Ball clay from Devon. This way, if the wares chipped they would be white inside unlike white tin-glazed pots, which when chipped would show the brown underneath.
Although only one bottle kiln survives today, the original pottery had seven until a clean air act was passed and meant they had to be demolished. Because the firings used coal, the pots were protected in saggars – large fireclay containers. Nowadays the factory uses cave sized gas kilns.

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Old photographs of the factory workers at Middleport
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Filter press

Clay used to be processed using an industrial filter press which can be found in the slip reclaim room. Today the clay is brought in pre-prepared and fed through a pug mill to the correct size. Wooden canals from the casting rooms above run through the ceiling back into the blungers that are kept constantly whirring, moving the slip beneath the floor so it doesn’t coagulate in the tank underground. Originally, children would have been employed to do this job, keeping the clay particles in suspension by stirring the slip. The slip’s viscosity would have been tested by dipping your arm into the liquid clay, now samples are tested with a more scientific method – a viscometer. All greenware clay is reclaimed and any discarded fired pieces are broken up and sold for filling potholes.

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Greenware ready to be fettled and sponged

Making a teapot on the wheel is still something I’ve never attempted but I’ve learnt a bit about the difficulty of getting one that pours just right. These Burleigh ones have tiny holes in their lids and holes where the spout is attached inside so that they only pour liquid out as fast as air is sucked in, which stops them glugging.

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Cups are PVA’d together at the rims before firing to create a vacuum that prevents warping
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Inside the gas kiln for glaze firing
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The saggar maker’s bottom knocker. This heavy ( I can vouch for that) wooden mallet or ‘mawl’ was used to knock the clay into this iron hoop to make the base of the saggar. A long slab of clay would be wrapped around a wooden mould to form the sides. 
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Men who were in charge of firing the kiln (a big responsibility) were called firemen. They would have used Bullers rings like this one to measure time and temperature combined. To see when the kiln should be opened they would measure the shrinkage of the rings in a pyrometer gauge. 
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Inside the original bottle kiln is another cylindrical tower in which the saggars would have been stacked. 

Having had experience of slipcasting myself I was familiar with the technique but it was still fascinating to see it being done on such a large scale. Even though most things are done by hand, just like a production line in a factory, everyone has a specialised job, be it making the plaster moulds themselves, fettling and sponging the casts, applying paper transfers or packing and unloading the kiln. Even today, most of the mould-making and casting work is done by men while the majority of decorating and applying transfers is done by women. It helps to have small hands!
The original shapes that moulds are made form are turned on a plaster lathe. Plates are made in seconds using a jigger – discs of clay are cut to uniform width continuously on a cutting machine, they’re then spun into flat discs on one mechanical wheel, slapped onto a plaster mould and trimmed in another machine, then placed on a rotating drying rack. The most difficult job seems to be applying the transfer paper for the surface patterns. Once the paper has been attached with soft soap it can’t be moved again because the ink starts to seep in.
It’s a very different way of producing ceramics to what I’m used to seeing with studio potters, and although I wouldn’t argue making things in this way requires great skill on behalf of the individuals involved, I don’t know if I’d be happy working on designs I didn’t create myself. I think I’d rather have understanding and experience of all different stages of the process.

One thing that struck me was how as you move through the factory, each room has a unique smell, usually earthy mixed with the smell of an old building, heavy, industrial machinery and soot. Interestingly the brightly coloured Poole pottery is also produced in Middleport, the opposite end to the country!

Memory

“Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased, ” Polo said. ” Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.” – Italio Calvino

Reading Italio Calvino’s ‘Invisible cities’ is raising some interesting questions. The chapters on city and memory stand out in particular. In the book, according to Marco Polo, all the cities he describes are in fact Venice and having now visited the place myself I’m thinking about what my memory of the place was like. Someone else visiting the city might have a completely different impression of it. The word ‘Venice’ would conjure up two different realities for each of us, and who’s to say which is the ‘real’ Venice? Before you go to a city you have an idea of what it will be like based on your memory of other cities. When you go to a new one, you compare it to other places you’ve been, leaving you with a different view of what the past was like. The past is ever-changing.

To what extent does memory shape the self? Without my memory would I be just a shell? I think of Jason Bourne, battling against his amnesia, trying to piece together fragments of the past, being hunted down for somebody he used to be. I look back at old photos of myself and say that was me but sometimes I have no memory of being that person. Other times, when I do remember, I suspect the memories are warped and exaggerated. The cells that made up that old me died years ago, physically I have been replaced with new matter but my memory is the thread that ties me to these past selves.

 

Poetry in peculiar places

Three hours at Bristol airport and I’ve discovered how MGMT come up with their song lyrics…

53
Coniferous spaghetti
Object of admiration
Balanced obsequiously
Yearning for addition.

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68
Space spoke on winter illness and the energy.
Spice Girls in a never-ending information source
Sing Alpine-style commercials,
Barking in a high-pitched tone
Generated in the mind spirits.

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Venice Biennale Day 1: The Arsenale

It’s not every day you find one of your friends has secured a place invigilating the welsh pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale, so when I was invited by the fabulous goblin queen herself Heledd Evans (check her out!) to spend a weekend in Venice I jumped at the chance.

Arriving Friday evening, my first impression of Venice was the city at night, which I discovered is when it becomes truly magical. The tourists retreat to their hotels on Lido and the other islands, leaving the dim streets of the centre empty but for the odd watchful cat. The expensive boutiques and tacky tourist shops with their Murano glass, lace and sparkly masks close up for the night. Alleyways and courtyards, lit up by warm lamplights, take on an otherworldly quality of light, the closest I can think of is the chiaroscuro of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks or Magritte’s ‘The Dominion of light’. The air is warm and smells richly of flowers, vaguely of incense and spice. Music seems to surround you but you can never seem to pinpoint where it’s coming from – a saxophone solo beckons in the darkness, a pounding bass thuds across the bay from a cruising party boat.

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Wandering Venice at night – Chiaroscuro

Since Heledd was working, I spent most of Saturday alone, making my way around the Arsenale in the morning. At the entrance is the Viva Arte Viva exhibition. In the Pavilion of the Earth, Michael Blazy, a Parisian artist, has arranged a stack of magazines printed with bright photos of travel destinations like those from a tourist brochure. From somewhere high up drips water, gradually eroding the paper, revealing contour lines of colour like the topography on a map. This image of erosion reminds me of the deteriorating of the building facades around Venice where plaster is peeling to reveal a palimpsest of bricks underneath. I read this time based installation as a kind of ticking clock comment on climate change as well as the effect of increasing tourism on the environment of Venice and other tourist destinations.

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Michel Blazy – Acqua Alta
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Edith Dekyndt – One thousand and one nights

Further along, in the romantically named Pavilion of Time and Infinity I found Belgian artist Edith Dekyndt’s ‘One thousand and one nights’. Behind a shimmering curtain of silver leaf lies a rectangular carpet of dust, illuminated in the dark by a spotlight. The lamp turns over time and a gallery attendant sweeps the dust back up under the light, lifting dust clouds into the air. The effect is mesmerising.

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Roberto Cuoghi – Imitazione di Cristo

The pavilion that had the most memorable and powerful impact on me though was undoubtedly the Italian one. The exhibition here called ‘Il mondo magico’ included a very unsettling and yet utterly captivating installation called ‘Imitation of Christ’ by Roberto Cuoghi. Entering into the factory-like setting you’re confronted with a stage on which a mould of a crucified body lies, with all manner of machinery surrounding it. You feel as if you’ve just entered into Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory.
Beyond this, there’s a kind of Eden project biosphere tunnel flanked at the entrance by two shrivelled body forms cast in a silica-like organic material. A sign warns you of the presence of mould spores inside – hinting at what lies beyond. In the dim space, you enter the plastic tunnel lit from the inside with harsh white fluorescent lighting. At intervals there branch off small rounded pods, domes which can be entered by parting the industrial PVC curtains.

You wouldn’t really want to go inside. Each pod is filled with a couple of peculiarly shaped operating tables, on top of which, on beds of black foam lie a couple of cast bodies, shrivelled, shrunken and withered, their surfaces crusted in mould or oozing with slime. The whole thing feels like walking into a dystopian computer game like Fallout, the bodies could be those of the feral ghoul zombies that haunt the radiation polluted wasteland. It’s very disturbing but at the same time you can’t help yourself taking a peek into the next dome, and the next, in the same way many people can’t help turning to have a look when they pass and accident on the road.
Exiting the giant igloo at the far end you come to a wall where dis-formed cast body parts are arranged into crucified Christs but with limbs missing and displaced. The juxtaposition of futuristic space domes and scientific equipment with the religious undertones of the body in the position of crucifixion is an unsettling fusion of past tradition and science fiction. According to the guide booklet Cuoghi is ‘inspired by the Imitation of Christ, an ascetic medieval text that he reinterprets from the standpoint o what he calls a “new technological materialism”. ‘ The tunnel may symbolise the tomb where Christ was buried, and the mould might represent the Resurrection in that it’s a new life form that only blooms and thrives following the death of others.

I’ve been thinking about what it is these artworks have in common. What is it that really interests me? There’s definitely an element of collaboration with outside ‘non-human’ forces – the ability of the dripping water to erode, the randomness of the shapes of the dust clouds and the lack of control over how the mould on the ‘corpses’ grows. There’s also a time based element, these artworks change and develop over time rather than staying static. Might I explore this in my own work, thinking about the constant weathering of rocks and forming of clay that goes on around us all the time? Phoebe Cummings’s work springs to mind.

I spent Saturday afternoon getting lost in the back alleys of Venice, happily stumbling across the design pavilion at the Palazzo Michiel by chance.

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Lighting at Venice Design

 

Image credits:
https://www.theveniceinsider.com
https://news.artnet.com