Thursday, 5 January 2017

A whole year to make a pot?

Surely the question most frequently asked is:-
"How long do these take to make then"?
That is not easy to give a simple answer to. The most tempting answer is that it has taken a lifetime, but that is a cliche shared amongst potters and is way too flippant to dispense lightly.
Making pots is a multi process event with long periods of slow drying; multiple firings and it's a continual process interrupted by sleep and doing other stuff: Start a pot, leave it to stiffen up, add a bit more clay, repeat, let it dry partially and scrape it, modify the shape, leave it and think about it. If the shape is ok, let it dry slowly before bisque firing and that is only the half way stage.
It is true that it takes a long time to master the skills and gain knowledge, like any other art form it takes practice. You don't become a concert pianist without practice every day.

Ben Boswell came to take some photographs of me working, that was during September 2015. I was making two large bowls, and I started them the day before. They took a long time to dry, with bits of plastic and scrim on the rims otherwise the bowls would warp. They didn't get bisque fired until the end of December, due to lack of kiln space. They were glazed and set aside to fire in Mark Griffiths' new wood kiln, but that event was put back several times, finally the firing took place in June 2016. There was some wadding stuck to the bottom of the foot and it was another few weeks before I plucked up the courage to pick up a Dremel and grind it off.
So the first suitable event, where I had the space and a need to make a positive statement was Ceramic Art York in September, so that's a whole year.
They both sold almost immediately, so you have to ask why I messed around for so long.
Making pots purely judged by the clock is not something I set out to achieve. It's no problem to take my time, it's about getting it right that matters, neither is making large quantities a criteria. In fact I make relatively few compared to some who make their pots at the wheel. I can't fire the wood kiln until there are enough pots to fill it, so I only fire the kiln about every three months and during January and February I have learnt not to bother.

It's cold, grim and grey today, the rain hasn't let up at all. I'm in my little workshop waiting for a couple of pots to dry a little so that I can do a bit more. Stuck in my hermetic bubble, with nothing beyond the gloom through the window to distract, I'm happy with my thoughts and my own company and happy to take as long as necessary.
But if pressed for an answer to the question, I will usually say "Just a few days".

Monday, 31 October 2016

One Year On

I was moved to write about the 'Great Pottery Throw-down' (blog number 66). Beware, it is about to be thrust upon us again, filming was completed some time ago, so stand by for more tears. I received repeated invitations by email. I don't know, once you get on these mailing lists there is no escape. The dead line for submissions was extended a couple of times, call me cynical, but this is television and maybe the right kind of amateur could not be found in sufficient numbers.
I could not bring myself to view any of the programs past the second instalment last time. I found it highly edited, making a pot is a longer process than the telly can accommodate, I certainly don't have someone shouting out "Ten minutes left" every so often putting me in a tail spin and almost certainly inviting a major cock up. I found myself shouting and hurling abuse at the poor defenceless T.V. as minor disasters in clay unfurled. I was not moved to tears by any of the work that survived. Having failed to blub, I got on with making pots and listened to the on going debate amongst others.
The watching public seemed generally interested, they say they found it informative, exciting and it reminded some of something tried at school, they dismissed it then, but now realised they should have given it a chance. I thought the same about Chemistry and Latin, but I don't think I would enrol for courses, classes or workshops as droves of people have with pottery with such a frenzy.

On a positive note, we were deluged with enquiries for potter's aprons in the run up to Christmas. Who would have thought a pottery class and an apron were the 'Must Have' Christmas present?
Orders for potter's aprons are still trickling in, but I can't report on a massive increase in sales of pots. Instead hordes of fledgling potters have plonked themselves firmly in front of my stall at almost every event in the UK this year and asked endless questions, " What clay do you use". "What glaze do you use". "How do long does it take"? and other stupid questions which makes one wonder who is taking their money and teaching these guys? They almost never buy pots of course, so I don't expect they think about the implications of that. It costs money to apply and exhibit at a Ceramic Market. They get ever more expensive, then there is the cost of accommodation, fuel and 3 or 4 days away from the workshop. If we sell nothing, we can't afford to come back again, so no more free tuition. Nearly all the potters we know have amazing collections of ceramics, so why don't these new converts buy some inspiration too? You can learn a lot by handling and studying a fine piece of work.

May be I should have watched the rest of the programs to try and reach an understanding of what it is that makes us want to express ourselves in clay, try to create something only to fail, pick ourselves up, try again only to fail once more, yet still persist. My blood pressure would not stand another round of telly abuse, so I'll  save my angst for my own personal fight with clay. However one thing is certain, sales of kilns, wheels and pottery kit shows no abate. I'll bide my time for a new kiln, Ebay will be flooded soon and I can take my pick and save a bob or two.

Everything you need to make a pot...

and a good apron of course.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Dear Amanda

Dear Amanda,
Yes I am a numpty, I don't know what marking up a GIF file for a downloadable email is. I am sorry but I live in the sticks 'Up North', we don't have super-fast broadband, we hardly get broadband at all even in Mrs May's Brexit Britain. The mobile phone signal isn't that great either, it dips out unless I sit on the roof with the pigeons. There is electricity of course, but it comes in overhead by wire from a rickety pole covered with Ivy, so that when its windy the lights flicker and quite often the power cuts out and trips the kiln, cooker and broadband booster for the Wi-fi. Western Power have sent several men to look at it and scratch their heads and they have all gone away to get a more clever person to advise them what to do,  or maybe it's something to do with returning a dividend to the shareholders
We do have running water though and the 'Poo man' stopped coming to empty the dry toilet a few years ago. I am a Potter, I can make a decent pot, make glazes, design and build kilns, although I do  still fire with wood, but that's by choice not because we are still living under Roman rule.
I do all my own advertising, marketing and website, take photographs and have been known to write for International Ceramics magazines occasionally. I somehow manage to find my way to destinations all over Europe using only a thing called a map. Yes I can use a compass and I know which way North is.
I make things in clay, wood and metal, can weld, lay bricks and mend the electrics and plumbing when required. So reflect for a moment or two over your iced mocha-chino with Soya milk and quinoa muffin and please send your messages in plain English (or French if you prefer). My computing knowledge is not up to NASA standards...  ... yet.

Yours faithfully,


Sunday, 9 October 2016

Back to the Blog

It's been a while since I wrote a blog; a long while. Not a case of writers' block, more a case of writers' cramp.
First there was an email interview with Klei Magazine, lots of back and forth emails. I'm told it was a good article, my Dutch isn't too strong so I will go with that.
Then I was invited to write a profile for New Ceramics (Neue Keramik). That was a bit of a challenge, I thought that it ought to take a different slant and introduce another perspective from the stuff I wrote for Klei and another batch of photographs. It was a tight deadline, but I got no response or acknowledgement of receipt, so it sat on the editors desk in Germany. Having got revved up to writing, I decided to submit a draft to The Log Book. That was in March. Purely about my journey to wood firing my work.
After some time a favourable response came through from the editors, with apologies for the delay, they had been away at a wood fire conference. The draft was returned full of editorial corrections, suggestions and anything approaching light humour was red lined. This obviously was serious stuff and called for a bit of head scratching and a while to think about it.
I made corrections, wrote new stuff, did some research, took some new images and sent it off again. It was a while before it all came back with a few more 'suggestions' and a demand for images at high resolution. Really? I shoot all my pictures at high resolution, it has not been a problem before.
Sorry David we have been away at another confe
rence and we would like your material back straight away. Plainly picky people, The Log Book is an A5 quarterly aimed at wood firing folk, probably all those sitting in wood fire conferences.
Meanwhile, out of the blue my profile appears in the May issue of New Ceramics, it drops onto the doormat only seven months after writing it. Elated, it looks great, I am chuffed.
Our Broadband is the pits, so I send my retaken, high resolution pictures and revised text off on a CD to Ireland, emailing to say that I have done so.
The editors are off again on another jolly. It's now urgent, they want to publish in the August issue, please send straight away so we can pick it up on our travels.
I tried Dropbox, but it compresses the images, I tried MailBigfile, eventually I got them off.

Well into August an email pops up. "We are dropping your article - too close to the article published in New Ceramics".
Not so chuffed and not elated, so much time and effort, it may get published at a future date with some further alterations and some new pictures. We will see.

So you can understand why I haven't written for a while, apart from an artist statement for an exhibition at the Ropewalk, I'm fed up writing about me and have concentrated on making pots and firing kilns, but there is loads of stuff that I'm itching to write about, so here goes.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

All Dressed UP and Nowhere To Go.

Decided not to do any Christmas Markets this year, couldn't bear the thought of standing in cold marquees, draughty halls, theatre foyers watching folks walk by looking for stocking fillers and porcelain Christmas tree decorations. The last couple of years I have sold very little anyway and after coming down with flu just in time for the festive day and the long awaited Goose lunch, due to spending three days in a cheerless freezing tent, I came to the conclusion it wasn't worth it.

Yet it's very strange not to be whizzing around, packing the van, worrying about not having enough pots, never seeing daylight, coming back to a cold home at some ungodly hour and unpacking almost all the pots again.

Christmas Markets are not very Christmassy after all. We all do it in the hope of selling loads of stuff and there's not much Christmas spirit in that. The word Market somehow conjures up the thought of a bargain, something not too expensive, put it in a basket and folks think it's a good price and the basket soon empties whilst everything else still sits there despite the tinsel and holly. "What's yer best price mate" they all chime.

Instead it has been very enjoyable making the pots that I want to make, try and complete a few of the thoughts and ideas that have been banging around in my head for a while, but no real time to develop them. Play around with some wood and make lids for all those boxes I made and fired last summer that are just gathering dust. After all this is what I set out to do all those years ago before I got distracted by the lure of a bit of cash for Christmas. To make pots that speak for me, that say what I want them to say, not just provide a table full of pots to fill a need for someone else's perceived Christmas shopping list, when they really don't know what that is except that it must fit a budget, a number that they are not sure of either.

Best price?

Peace and goodwill to all.

Friday, 13 November 2015

'The Great Pottery Throw Down'

I've steered clear of the seemingly endless debate about 'The Great Pottery Throw down' (BBC 2). With huffy professionals claiming it would denigrate their art as crass T.V. entertainment, squiffey pots with handles like babies arms. The enthusiasts counter claiming that it would create public awareness of pottery, some even hoping for an increase in interest and sales given the high profile on T.V.

Like many others, I received the email from Love productions inviting an application to apply. Read the small print however and you find that the criteria eliminates professionals, those with experience of selling their work or of exhibiting work in a gallery or ceramics fair. There was nothing about possessing knowledge or skill, but that goes hand in hand with being a serious practitioner. Plainly the search for Britain's best potter is for amateurs only. A bit like finding the world's fastest sprinter, but not letting Usain Bolt take part.

Love productions sent follow up pleas too and well wishers forwarded the details also. It seemed the internet was cast, trawling for wannabe celebrity potters. It takes enormous self belief or a massive ego to even contemplate entering anything like this. I have enough problems confronting my pottery demons without doing it in front of two million others. Imagine being turned down from even taking part in making yourself look a prat?
Emails from Love looking for technicians followed. So you don't even have to be able to prepare the clay or fire a kiln to be a Great potter. The debate moved on to who would be the experts or host this vaguely desperate attempt to follow up on baking cakes or cooking overly elaborate dinners.

I don't do much telly, an hour is more than I can sit still for so I haven't seen a complete session of Bake Off, so tuning in to 'Thrown Down' was not high on my bucket list. I missed the first episode, but curiosity got the better and we watched the second episode, partly because the promise of making coil pots was widely trailed.
The challenge - To make a wash basin with coils. I would have thought throwing was the obvious method, so it was interesting that most of the contestants chose to employ moulds which they obviously had made or planned some time before. Plainly, making coil pots was not something any of them had much experience in. They were preoccupied with cracks and pots exploding in the kiln, so there was much scoring and slopping slip and water and the belief that a generous coating of glaze would mend or disguise bad workmanship. It was like a trip down memory lane, back to evening class where everyone found how difficult it was to make good coil pots, skip hand building and get back to the wheel.
It's not for me to to say if the creations were good or bad, the acid test is to stand for three days and try and sell them.
Was it good T.V.?
The experts were ill at ease with each other, there was no chemistry and they didn't say much either other than look for glimmers of positive creativity. Forgive the trendy haircut, real potters wear jeans and T shirts. Who wears bespoke, tight fitting, designer jackets in a pottery workshop with all that glaze flying around? - plenty of innuendo and chat from the presenter, but isn't it the promise of this format, that someone crashes and burns, ultimately failing that provides the entertainment?
The only star being Richard Miller the technician, providing measured, quiet comments as he loaded these creations into the kiln.

No doubt the debate will continue, but surely the only winners from The Great Pottery Throw Down will be the suppliers of kilns or wheels and clay. We will have to wait a year or so to benefit when all the kilns, wheels and gear appears on Ebay.

Wash basin?

As a foot note, a few years back I had an email from someone wanting to extend their pottery skills, especially hand building and knowledge of wood firing. We exchanged emails and kiln information and finally set aside a day so they could see the kiln and spend a day in the workshop. They didn't show up. Now they claim to be a conceptual artist and interestingly were one of the first potters to be shown the door from The Great Pottery Throw Down. Takes all sorts!

Monday, 28 September 2015

An Appointment with Mr. Boswell

I was familiar with the photographs by Ben Boswell. He photographed Dame Lucy Rie, David Frith amongst others, but I had only seen pictures, we had never met.
It was at Art in Clay, Hatfield this year, whilst I was lost for the moment, trying to coax some over dry clay back into shape, he appeared in front of me. He politely asked if he could take a couple of pictures of me trying to make a box shape and asked if he could visit me at my workshop sometime; take a little longer, take some studies of me working, when he would have all his camera gear with him.
In the summer months I can be elusive, I am not good at remembering my mobile phone and when I do, forget to switch it on. Most of the time I have been criss-crossing Europe and time in the workshop has been limited, so photographic sessions got forgotten.

I next met Ben at CoCA at the opening of the ceramics gallery in York. As usual he was behind a lens, covering the opening of the new Museum and Gallery, snapping the gathering of collectors, potters and academics.
He asked me again and we fixed up a few possible dates.
I don't like having my photograph taken, I freeze, don't know what to do with my hands. Force a smile that looks like I'm in pain and wish the whole occasion would be over quickly. Very quickly.
I hate even more, looking at the pictures afterwards. I have been very successful most of my life in avoiding people pointing cameras at me as my family will confirm. So there were a couple of days of anxiety and worry before he was due to arrive.

I decided that if I was to be immortalised, it would be making big coiled bowls. My favourite, I revisit this shape over and over. The failure rate in the kiln is high, because they warp or some foreign object drops into the bowl, no matter how scrupulous I am, but the pleasure and challenge in making is worth the disappointments. So by the time Ben arrived there were two or three in various states of completion, with bits of plastic and sponge and a pile of scrapings on the bench. Yeah, it looked pretty much like it always does, no tidying up or time for make up!

My workshop is tiny, so we had to prop the door open and shoot through the open window; it was a glorious day and the morning light was perfect.
I coiled and scraped, squinted and frowned as I worked, blocking out of my mind all thoughts of being captured forever in pixels in 500 photographs.

The two hours that we put aside became three, with the more formal portraits taken at the close of the session when I didn't care any more. A few poses in the showroom and we were done.

Making pots is something I've been doing for a long time, it's something I've always wanted to do and I am blessed that I can now make what I like, when I like. It's a very personal activity for me and sharing that is something I am not used to. Seeing the DVD of edited shots that arrived a week later was quite an apprehensive moment. The still frames capture exquisitely the making of a large coiled bowl. It's then that I notice what slender fingers and girlie hands I have, the intense stare and frown of concentration. I am bowled over by the beauty of the light on the surface of the clay, the ghost of a fingerprint on the wet clay, the almost abstract qualities held in the close ups. Even a couple of the portraits are acceptable to me, it's amazing how a true professional can make such beauty out of something as mundane as playing with mud!

Thanks Ben.
All photographs by Ben Boswell -