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).

Studio Opening

The day has finally arrived! The gallery is about to open, although at the moment there’s hardly anything in there! This coming week will see the place transformed from an empty space into a working gallery and pottery. Everything is ordered and there’ll be a constant stream of delivery vans dropping off equipment and supplies, at least that’s the theory!

Apart from frenzied work on the computer I’ve been trying to get paintings and drawings ready for hanging in the gallery; the photos above show a couple of paintings recently framed and ready to go. It’s all been hard work but very exciting. Amanda and I can’t wait to get it all up and running.

 

The Way of Tea

A yunomi by Jim Malone. A painted motif over a traditional hakeme slip decoration.

A cup of tea isn’t a simple matter, at least not to serious tea drinkers! Tea is as rich and intricate a subject as wine is for those who choose to investigate it and delve a little deeper below the surface. Drinking tea is inextricably linked with the whole eastern culture – mixture of the two principles of wabi and sabi. ‘Wabi’ is a word which denotes the spiritual aspect of life, characterised by simplicity, restraint and unadorned beauty. ‘Sabi’ represents the imperfections of life and the natural way of things in the outside world. For me, the tea bowl plays an important part in the appreciation of tea, a way of engaging with the cultural activity of the tea ceremony. By drinking from a tea bowl, or chawan, I feel spiritually connected, more relaxed and in-tune with myself.

A karatsu chawan from the momoyama period 

In fact, to be precise, chawan is the name given to tea bowls used in formal tea ceremonies; for everyday drinking the Japanese use yunomi. But whatever they’re called there is something inherently satisfying about using them. I’m not suggesting that everyone have a tea ceremony each time they have a cuppa, but by taking time out to relax, prepare the tea carefully and drink out of something beautiful they are participating in something transcendent and numinous.

Of course, I don’t use a tea bowl every time I have a cup of tea, but there is something infinitely pleasurable about drinking from an attractive well-made vessel. I do try to have a relaxing cup of tea at least once a day; using my favourite oolong tea, preparing it carefully using a tea pot, infusing it for the correct length of time and finally drinking from a tea bowl.

In the studio tea bowls figure quite highly on my list of vessels to make, although most customers still prefer mugs with handles to drink from. Personally, I think the fact that there isn’t a handle on a tea bowl seems to give the act of drinking from it a more sacred quality; it’s easier to cup the hands around it in an almost supplicatory way. The heat of the tea is easier to feel, and one is aware of a ‘closeness’ to the flavour and aroma of the liquid. In making tea bowls I rarely use a gauge (though I do weigh out the lumps of clay) and, keeping the wheelhead turning a little slower than usual I allow each bowl to take its own form. In that way I feel I am putting something of myself in the vessel – it becomes more of an individual item. I’m not bothered about making it ‘perfect’. I’m happy with whatever comes off the wheel, as long as it has character and feeling. A few uneven blemishes I can live with.

Grey teabowl by Ken Matsuzaki.

I urge all tea drinkers to try having their own personal ‘tea ceremony’ once a day, drinking their favourite tea from a chawan or yunomi, taking time to relax and chill out for at least a few minutes. Try it for a week at see what happens!

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

JimRobison7a.jpg
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: