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).

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:

 

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.