Not-So-Great Pottery Throw Down

Collapsed pot

Apparently one of the reasons for the upsurge in popularity of pottery-making was the recent TV series The Great Pottery Throw Down. I never watched the series at the time and have only recently caught episodes of it on You Tube. Of course, I appreciate that these kinds of programmes are made to entertain the watching public, but some of the tasks the contestants were made to perform were pretty ridiculous.

One episode saw the participants having to make as many egg cups as possible in a certain length of time, five minutes I think. The results were, quite frankly, pretty poor, but that was purely because of the time constraints. I am sometimes pressed for time in the studio and need to repeat throw a number of vessels, mugs or bowls perhaps, but I’ve never been so pushed that I’d accept anything that comes off the wheel no matter how bad. Nor have I ever thrown anything blindfold, not even as a bit of a wheeze, (another exercise contestants were made to do). I accept that these tasks are pure entertainment and meant as a fun diversion to the main assignment, but I wonder whether they are giving a fallacious and unnecessary impression of difficulty to the whole process of making pottery.

I also wondered about the production company’s choice of contestant. The first series featured ‘twelve of the country’s best amateur potters’. Were they the best amateurs in the county to start with, or just twelve of the ones willing to go on TV and be criticised in public? There must be dozens of potters the UK who are better than those contestants. And by saying that I am in no way denigrating those individuals who did appear on the programme. I certainly couldn’t and wouldn’t do it. In fact I hold my hands up and admit that I am weaker in some of the areas of pottery making that were featured in the series, coil-building for example. Perhaps a Great Pottery Throw Down series with twelve accomplished and experienced potters who make fewer mistakes and are masterly at every facet of ceramic production would make pretty boring TV. Having said that, even the most skilled potters make mistakes. (For evidence of my own incompetence check out the previous blog post of December 17th).

Choosing Kilns

Cromartie kiln

It’s not everyday you buy a new kiln. Most of the time we make do with whatever is at the school, college or studio we’re used to working in, or we’re limited to a hobby kiln or one that we can operate on a small scale. So I’ve been thinking hard about what I want for the Earth Pig studio: what I want the kiln to do and how much ware I intend to make. Of course, I want the thing to fire my pots, but what kind of clay will I be using and what kind of glazes? I’ve spent quite a while trawling through manufacturer’s websites trying to find the right one.

I’ll be using both earthenware and stoneware clays, and some of the glazes I use will need to be fired right the way up to cone 10. I don’t want to be packing the thing every day so something big enough to do a bisque firing and a glaze firing once, maybe twice a week, will be necessary. A kiln with a chamber of at least 90 litres is probably about right; enough to cater for the firing needs of the gallery, but with enough room to fire the work of students’ attending classes. In the end I’ve settled for a model from Cromartie of Stoke-on-Trent, made under license by Skutt in the USA, with a firing capacity of 160 litres. I’m limited to an electric kiln because of where the studio is situated, there’s no gas supply there so, sadly, reduction firing is an impossibility. Yes, I could have a gas kiln fuelled by bottled gas but the nature of the premises, not to mention insurance restrictions, preclude that. On the other hand, a kiln powered by electricity means I can opt for a controller which, among other things, has a feature that calculates the cost of firing.

It’s been an exciting process researching the kiln and other equipment I’ll need for the studio and, for once, not have to worry (at least, not too much!) about the cost.

The Solitary Creator

Bernard Leach
Bernard Leach pictured in a corner of his studio. If only the life of a studio potter was really this relaxed!

There is great difficulty in balancing the process of creating art and running a studio. Even before I’ve made a single pot, the demands of planning, setting up the workplace, and managing finances take its toll on the imagination. I’m conscious that working alone has the effect of separating the creative flow from the whole process of making pottery, forcing one to focus on the mundane aspects of business. Of course, I know that you can’t have your cake and eat it; if only it was possible to have complete freedom to make whatever you want and not bother with the practical aspects of managerial control and direction. Perhaps it’s only the very rich and the unemployed who are able to do this!

Trying to balance aspects of the Eastern artistic philosophy and that of the West is incredibly difficult. The asceticism, austerity and spirituality to which I aspire is almost impossible within Western society. Short of finding a cave and living in it as a hermit there is no way of filtering out every tendril of western influence. The only way to proceed is to accept it and make the most of it, using whatever aspect of modern culture you can to help you, while trying to keep the simplicity, economy of style, and of course the spirituality, within one’s art.

Bernard Leach once stated that modern society has ‘increased the tempo of industrial slavery’, and although one may argue that is no longer the case in the twenty-first century, we are still shackled in many senses to the treadmill of institutional monotony, even in within the ‘freedom’ of our smartphone, internet-driven, selfie-obsessed modern world. My hope is that, as a craftsman, I am not ‘obliged to live parasitically or precariously because I have no recognised function’. §

§ See A Potter’s Book by Bernard Leach (Faber and Faber 1940, 2011)

Earth Pig in Buxton

Now for the exciting news! Earth Pig will be opening a studio in the middle of November at The Arches Artisan Mill on Fairfield Road in Buxton, Derbyshire. The Arches is a beautifully converted Mill in the centre of the town and is home to several small craft businesses. A base here fulfils our need for  place in a thriving town that is close to the inspirational countryside of the Peak District National Park.

As you can see from the photos above, there’s quite a lot to be done to get the place up and running in six weeks! The wheel and kiln will be in one arch and the gallery will be in the space opposite. (By the way, those aren’t my paintings in the picture – they’re someone else’s waiting to be removed). Of course, we’re planning to sell pots, but also run classes and, on selected days, have ad hoc taster session for visitors to the studio. So, if you’re a novice and fancy having a go at making a pot on the wheel you can just drop in! We’ll also be selling artwork – paintings, prints and greetings cards.

It’s an astounding thought that in a matter of weeks the studio, which has been little more than the germ of an idea for as long as I can remember, will finally be realised. Needless to say, developments will be posted in this blog. Watch this space!

A Studio Visit

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A relief by Jim Robison, depicting elements of Holmfirth’s cultural and historical heritage

It’s a surprise to find a great potter living almost on your doorstep. Today I visited the studio of Jim Robison, an American-born ceramicist who has his gallery in the outskirts of Holmfirth, West, Yorkshire. He has lived and worked in the area for over forty-five years and his pottery reflects the beauty and harshness of the moorlands as well as its industrial heritage.

Jim is a quiet, modest, affable man who talks about his work with an enthusiasm that belies his seventy-eight years. He produces both functional ware and larger scale sculptural pieces which are exhibited not just in his gallery, but in various places in the town – local schools and the Civic Hall to name two. As I arrived at the studio, pieces of his work are everywhere – as you drive up to the gallery, on the patio, beside the car park, in the nearby fields. The site is more like a ceramic park – smaller pieces inside, larger pieces sited strategically outside.

Jim Robison6a
Another relief in the same series above .

Much of Jim’s contemporary work is slab-built. He does little throwing these days; most of the functional pieces that come from the studio are thrown by his assistant. He prefers to concentrate on larger slabbed work, built from large, flat sections and extruded forms, either rolled or hollowed. Some of the pieces have been textured by throwing clay against stone wall sections to give a rough surface which he integrates into larger works, often depicting elements of the landscape. Some are turned into garden pots, planters, hanging plant pots and window boxes. Almost all his slabbed work is stoneware, and has been outside for years without any sign of frost damage, cracking or chipping.

His smaller functional ware has a Japanese look, (one of the things that first attracted me to his work). A dripped cross design is Robison’s trademark, a motif which is repeated on many pots in the manner of Shoji Hamada’s ‘sugar cane’ pattern. The forms he tends to use are simple – slender cylinders, mugs, jugs and plates – and the glazed design equally uncomplicated, as though seeking perfection of one item in a Zen-like way.

The smaller pieces are, of course, less original than the reliefs, but nonetheless they possess a restraint and honesty which is difficult to fake. Jim is candidly offhand, almost dismissive, about his thrown work, as though it’s something that has to be done in order to pay the bills so that he can continue with the sculptural work. However, it’s fair to say that I liked almost all of Robison’s work and I intend to pay another visit in the near future.

To contact Jim Robison visit http://www.boothhousegallery.co.uk

He is also the author of couple of excellent books:

 

Pottery Design

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A page from one of my own pottery sketchbooks

 

In chess there’s a saying ‘a bad plan is better than no plan at all’. This is true of pottery too. On working days I don’t expect to sit down at the wheel and expect to produce satisfactory work without some kind of an idea of what I’m aiming at. Even a vague thought like ‘I’m going to throw some bowls’ isn’t enough – I need to have drawings and a visual idea of what I’m trying to produce. This is particularly true when working on surface treatment – patterns, decoration and so on. Work that has been done with an attitude of nonchalance is rarely successful and I would urge anyone who makes pots, or is thinking about it, to make drawings of what they are attempting.

potterypage1
Another page from a sketch book with designs for a mug

 

Even if you don’t think you’re much good with a pencil, it doesn’t matter. No one will see your efforts unless you choose to show them. The point is that any plans or sketches you make are for your reference only. Having a visual cue sharpens the imagination, making it easier to realise what you intend, but these should be working drawings in the strictest sense – a means to an end, not works of art in themselves.

Working to a plan when glazing and decorating is particularly important. Picking up a loaded brush ready to paint a pot but having no idea of the design you intend to put on it is usually a waste of time; by having a design already on paper you at least save that precious commodity. I would encourage anyone, whether you make pots or not, to sketch. Even if you dismiss your efforts as meaningless on unworthy at the time, in months or years in the future you might think differently and the doodles you did can provide you with a wealth of ideas. Motifs derived from sketches of plants, trees, leaves, foliage, bricks, stonework, clouds, water, rocks and animals are limited only by one’s imagination.

Wabi-Sabi

Jim Malone tea bowl
A tea bowl by Jim Malone. I admire the simple, contemplative nature of his work.

As a potter and painter you can’t help but evaluate the work of other artists. It’s second nature that when you see a pot, sculpture or painting, particularly by someone you admire, the mind begins to scrutinise the way in which the article has been made or decorated. This isn’t a bad thing, of course. Mentally running through the process of how you would have made it, how you could incorporate such a technique into your own work, and just appreciating the beauty of the thing is always beneficial. What I am trying not to do is automatically dismiss work that I think is poor or don’t like. There should be some reason for my opinion and getting to the bottom of that – in the same way as evaluating stuff that I do like – is as much a part of improving my work as assimilating influences of artists I admire.

I was shopping yesterday and saw some drinking mugs which I quite liked. They were unusual in that they were a little different from the kind of stuff you see in there – Mister Men mugs and floral stuff in pastel glazes. These had been half-dipped with a reactive glaze, something like a chun, on the outside, the lower half covered with a darker matt glaze. The inside was completely covered with the reactive glaze. They were nicely done but I felt the attractive chun effect would be lost when tea or coffee was poured into them. How would I have done them differently? Would I have used the same colours? What glazes would I have used on the inside instead? My partner, Amanda, also pointed out also that the handles were too big for a woman’s fingers. They were too masculine and needed something a little less chunky and more elegant. However, I wasn’t too bothered about criticising and dismissing a factory made pot; no art had gone into the making of this machine-made item and I wasn’t hurting anyone’s feelings by condemning it.

In the run-up to the opening of the studio I’ve been immersing myself in the work of potters that I particularly admire: Shoji Hamada, Bernard Leach, Jim Malone, Sandy Brown et al. Trying to distill what it is I like about all of these artists is difficult. Why do I like these and not others? With most of the aforementioned potters it is their simplicity that attracts and their own embracing of imperfections. The Japanese call this wabi-sabi, which comes from the Bhuddist principle of aesthetics, an appreciation of austerity, modesty, economy and one might even say roughness. The rustic simplicity, freshness and quietness of such work is, for me, something to be aspired to. The anomalies and individualities that occur in the throwing and glazing processes are part and parcel of the beauty and serenity of pottery. One might say even a spirituality; there is definitely something transcendent about the act of throwing a pot that one might describe as approaching that state of mind. This is not to say that wabi-sabi is about being happy with whatever comes off the wheel. I’m not suggesting we accept work that is fundamentally flawed, but in striving towards perfection we should accept the individualties of our creations. This attitude is one of the principles underlying the Japanese concept of mingei or folk art.

Shoji Hamada pot
A pot by Shoji Hamada encapsulating everything that is wabi-sabi.

Shoji Hamada was famously quoted as saying that ‘making pottery should not be like climbing a mountain, it should be more like walking down a hill in a pleasant breeze’. Anyone who has lost themselves in the act of throwing will know what I mean. The stillness and contemplation of the creation of pottery is much like the enjoyment Hamada alludes to.