Friday, 19 December 2014

A moment with Shoji.

The nearest most of us get to a work by Hamada are glossy pictures in coffee table books or as close as you can press your nose against a glass display case in a museum.

I did get the chance to handle a piece from the York Museum archive once. A splendid press moulded bottle, beautifully decorated in that free and sure way that Hamada had. The form was classic and unmistakable, but when I lifted it there was somewhat of a shock to feel the weight of it. Thick walls and hefty base and when I flipped it over to examine the base, as everyone does when given a pot to hold, it was crudely finished. Running an exploratory finger around the inside of the neck revealed a slug of clay and an unfinished joint. The fantasy ruined.

Recently another opportunity came my way to get up close and personal with a Hamada bowl. Mine was a small part in an elaborate journey. The bowl had somehow found its way to the USA and then onto Ebay. It was offered as a Hamada, but this had not been verified. It was purchased as such and shipped by the vendor in a very flimsy box with minimal bubble wrap, arriving in England to it's eager new owner in several pieces.

Deciding that having indulged and gone down the road so far, sure that these pieces of pot were a Hamada, he set about making arrangements to have the bowl repaired and restored. It was given to a friend to transport to Rufford and entrusted to me to look after and pass on the the next person in this long chain, who knew the restorer ... Simple.

It stayed with me all weekend, in it's flimsy box, tucked carefully under my stall, checking frequently that it was still there and still ok, even though it was a busted pot in a crappy card box. No one came to collect it, it's journey stalled. It looked very sad, so I carefully packed the box making sure it was secure and safe in my van for the journey home and further instruction.

The temptation to open the box and have a peek at this precious work was just too much, gingerly unwrapping the biggest of the shards, (Should I have worn white cotton gloves)? revealed the extent of the break. How on earth do you put that back together? Some of the splinters were tiny. I decided to record the shattered bowl best I could. I never give my pots the care and love I gave this shattered bowl as I unwrapped each fragment.

I am no expert on Shoji Hamada's work but I am aware that he must have made hundreds of these bowls. They were made as utensils to be used, enjoyed as part of daily use, not museum pieces or even gallery icons. As part of the Mingei movement in Japan, Hamada did not sign or mark his work, he made pots as he was trained, to sell and make a living, not believing that 60 years on they would change hands for hundreds of pounds.

Now, even to my untutored eye this bowl is no masterpiece. There are air holes in the clay walls and gaps where vegetive matter has burned away. The decoration not fluent or assured. If I didn't know otherwise it would be just another stoneware dish. So I dutifully packed it all in a better box, wrapping each piece of the ceramic puzzle and it went on it's way on the next leg of it's amazing journey.

Now finally restored, it is possible to see and appreciate the bowl as it must have been when it emerged from the kiln. Not many humble dishes could boast such an interesting journey and maybe it doesn't end here.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Working in Bucolic Bliss

I gave up having a landline telephone in my workshop.
A mobile phone gets no signal.
It's an oasis of calm, just me, some clay and the radio. The radio is turned down low. It's there for background, it sets the mood and music is something I've always enjoyed. It's damp, the radio is covered in clay and slip, the parts that are not made of plastic are getting rusty. The arial has to be in a certain position to work, the on off switch does not always work and it is locked on to BBC radio 6. When I'm working I am focussed onto what I am making and the music that does not appeal gets filed away in the back of my consciousness.
If it's good, I'll ramp it up, cut a jig around my pot. Throw a few shapes as it were;  Dad dancing in private bliss.

It's not that I want to return to a bygone era. Lone craftsman forging a meagre existence next to nature. It's more of a desire to escape from twenty first century hassle. All those unwanted phone calls, spurious faults with Microsoft on my computer ... er I have a mac!
Did you know you may be eligible for a government grant for insulation/new boiler/solar panels ... no thanks, not old enough!
Our records show that you may have been involved in an accident in the last two years ... Grrrrr, really?

Get three of those in a morning and the simmering anger builds. I whack the pots harder and concentration goes, thinking of all the rude things I should have shouted instead of my polite reply.
It's difficult to ignore the ringing phone. If it's away in the house I can't hear it. Spam callers invariably don't leave a message so I am none the wiser to their scam. The phone doesn't get covered in clay and I don't get high blood pressure. Folks that know us call later when the nuisance callers have long gone, having dialled their quota of guile from their list of numbers.

Nearly everything we do now is on line, so straight after breakfast, do the emails, see what amusing antics are on Facebook, send stuff.
And then the computer switches itself off. No blue smoke, no fireworks, just a blank screen and nothing, that's it. Kaput.
A case of HAL turning off Dave. Not even "Sorry Dave, the answers in the affirmative, you can't get in".

So where's the yellow pages when you need them?
Find numbers for the Apple shop and end up talking to another computer. To book an appointment with a Genius (?) can only be done on line ... But I DON"T HAVE A BLOODY COMPUTER!
Our mobile phone is a museum piece. Make calls, receive calls, send text.

I am screwed, marooned in my idilic bliss. Do I flag down a passing tractor?
Catch a pigeon?
Message in a wood fired bottle?
It seems that I can't make simple pots without technology.

So, leave your name and your number, and I'll get back to you.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Yo Dude.

It happens every year about this time.

I am a mature student, ( well that's a good start, might be able to spell and string a sentence together without text speak).

Hey dude like, r u cool 4 a few words like? LOL

It goes on... As part of my studies as an aspiring ceramics practitioner I am contacting other practitioners to gain insights they may feel they would like to share to help in my own work and new career.
Ceramic practitioner?  Sounds like someone who makes false teeth!
There usually follows a whole bunch of questions.
What led you to working with clay?
What is it that drives you forward?
There are other questions that revolve around why, how and what for, but you can bet the headline question will be 'What is your inspiration'?

Answering these requests is never easy, there are no one line answers, but it does make one reflect for a few moments about the meaning of potting life. So I've made a template for next year:-

Dear (enter name),

There are no easy answers to your many questions, I had no training to be a potter, but that's what I am. I make vessels, it is important that what I make can have a use even if it is not always obvious to any one else. I make pots, I am uncomfortable being called a ceramicist.
I went to Art College and it was all about drawing, so I found myself studying graphic design and was encouraged to be an illustrator. No one pointed out to me that it was difficult to get work without a portfolio of work and without work you can not build up a portfolio. I took a job in a swanky Mayfair  advertising agency and hated it. So I went to evening classes out of a desire to make things with my hands, clay satisfies that desire although I like working with wood also. I now combine those materials.

Evening class taught me the very basics, I never learnt to throw very well. Centrifugal force gets in the way and I love the simplicity of using just my hands, a ball of clay and a few tools, without all that water and slurry everywhere. The rest I have learnt by observation and making a lot of mistakes. Drawing is about observation, it encourages you to ask questions, so my early arts education has served me well.

Inspiration?   I went to an exhibition of work by Lucie Rie and Hans Coper back in the 70's. I was blown away by their quality of making, the understanding of form and the sheer simplicity of what I saw. Pick up a Coper, it's a masterclass in construction, form and simplicity. Just texture, black, white and form. I don't understand this preoccupation from graduates to state their inspiration...
" I am inspired by the rugged coast/sea/natural world" when what is placed in front of you is a 10cm cylinder with an oxide splash and you find out the maker lives in a comfortable, urban area of a big city.
Inspiration comes from within, what I do is driven by circumstance, what is available to me, limited space and a strong desire to do it better next time. I explore those 'what if ' moments, rarely consider the commercial or will it sell well. Most of what I have made has ended up somewhere and most are cherished.

Being self taught makes one self reliant, there are no grants, bursaries, one year one shows, University stalls at markets, so grab what you can, but enjoy at all costs.

Inspiration was in short supply in Halkin street in 1950

Monday, 16 June 2014

Egg of Columbus

When you go to Italy the Italians will tell you that Columbus was an Italian and came from Genoa. If you go to Portugal, they will say that he was Portuguese and there is a large monument in Lisbon to celebrate the fact. Go to Barcelona and there is a monument there also. Maybe he was Catalan too.
Ask the English and they say you can find him on Google and shrug their shoulders.
The King of Spain paid for the trip so the Spanish may have a claim also.

However, when Columbus returned from the Americas to spread the good news; remember he had to get back, there was no Skype to say "Hey guys just found this great place". He was met with both acclaim and scepticism. Feeling slightly miffed that there were those that claimed, it was nothing, it was easy, anyone could have done it, he set forth a challenge.

So stand an egg on it's end, he demanded.

Now we all know that this is not possible. Chickens are not stupid, they don't want people standing eggs on their ends, you wouldn't need those little racks in refrigerators or egg boxes.
Everyone failed the challenge, so Columbus picked up the egg and stood it on it's end.
Columbus was a sailor and to navigate he used a compass and he understood magnetism so maybe he employed a magnet and a nail to stand the egg.

The Egg of Columbus was the challenge set this year at Swalmen Keramiekmarkt for the Larouche prize.

Wood fired box with oak lid. Ceramic egg and magnet

Monday, 2 June 2014

No Plan B

Now the ash has settled and fluxed there has been time to reflect on firing No. 19. Not to bore you with the mundane task of placing pots in a kiln, shovelling ever increasing amounts of wood into a hungry furnace until little pyramids bend over. The object being to get the ones at the top of the kiln, where it is hotter, to bend the same as the ones at the bottom where it is cooler. When that is done, you clam up all the air gaps and go lie down somewhere cool and have a beer.

On the surface one firing is much the same as another in this little kiln, but when I go back through the log sheets I can see that I now fire for longer and get much hotter, with much more confidence than those first few firings. Some potters give their kilns exotic names:- Eclipse, Solstice, Phoenix,  which suggests an intimacy I don't yet feel I have earned. I don't have a name for mine; just little kiln. It's a tool that completes the final part in the long process of making a pot.

We have a love hate relationship. I hate it when the temperature resolutely refuses to climb. I love it when I take down the bricks to the wicket and there are treasures within.

So was firing No. 19 any different? There seemed to be a few more pots squeezed in. The box shapes were placed diagonally this time, so that a corner faced the flame, instead of being broadside on. There were more bigger pots at the top and their shapes were more aerodynamic in profile, hoping to coax the flame through the kiln, there were less open spaces with little sacrificial pots placed in gaps between  big bottles. The wood was dry but it was mainly Poplar, which did not produce the heat I was looking for, so there was much playing around with dampers and amount of air being allowed into the kiln. We got there in the end, but it seemed at one stage that this firing might take a while longer than usual. As it turned out, thirteen hours was about the same as the last four or five firings.
The start and finish are always the same, what happens between varies slightly, but compare the log sheets and the similarities are amazing, it just doesn't seem that way when the concentration is full on and the outcome so critical. This little kiln knows it's own way home now and the stoker is an interloper, fussing and messing, not always listening or alive to the signs being given out.

The results? Some splendid pots from the top, some pleasant surprises from the bottom cooler places. Longer at mid temperature, but more even throughout. A bit more carbon trap maybe but no significant differences overall and diagonally placed boxes fire more evenly with less warping.
So some small lessons learned that can be taken on to firing no. 20, the quest for knowledge about what really happens inside that red hot, bricked up space continues.

Kiln and stoker consider themselves satisfied, both are doing well. There is only one plan and that is plan A.

Friday, 25 April 2014

In Search of a Pedigree

When I first started making pots it was for no other reason than to make something from clay. I had never worked with earth before, I knew nothing, never heard of Shoji Hamada, Bernard Leach could have played inside right for Accrington Stanley for all I knew.
It's amazing that such simple desires can lead on to something completely absorbing and signposts where your life path may lead you. What starts as nothing more than an inner need to make a few things has become a much longer journey. Making a few pots, or perhaps they would be better described as vessels, one is encouraged to launch them on the wider world and exhibit these very personal attempts in a glass case, in a dingy corridor, to show not very interested people what clever students go to evening classes.
Then someone else asks you to "Do a stall" at a local school craft market, and you are on your way, taken the Queens shilling as it were and it all starts to get very serious.

I have always made the kind of pots that I want to make, not for any commercial reasons. I'll make a bottle and then another. I'll look at the form and try a variation and over the years they have moved quite significantly from where the journey started, not knowing where it may end, adding skills along the way. I've declined to make little bowls to replicate some that were bought in Greece years ago. These requests happen from time to time. That's someone else's work, besides I don't throw and why would it make sense to make domestic pots in volume with coils? It takes too long, what takes me an hour can be thrown in minutes on the wheel.

Now this is where it gets more complicated. You make pots - you need to find somewhere to sell them. (Very quickly one learns that relatives and friends prefer gift vouchers for presents - they can make their own choice and a David Wright vase is not always on their radar).
Local school craft fairs are not the answer either. Home made cakes and cuddly toys are a much better option for folks to indulge their five pounds. So you find yourself applying for ceramic events and this is where the requisite CV is required.

Mine is very brief and without some creative writing and a list of events participated in, it's sparse, very sparse. What I need is a pedigree.

Not from a pottery dynasty, my dad is not a well known potter either. An apprenticeship would be useful, someone with a big reputation or a few months at several workshops would work well.
Failing that a degree at one of the ceramics courses, difficult now as they are all closing, but if I could boast that Harrow was my alma mater, then so much the better. Going the ceramic degree route  opens other doors, grants and opportunities for those starting out or continue with further education or take a residency or even teach.
There are always chances for newcomers or emerging artists of course.

Too late to emerge, hardly a newcomer, no wish to do modules, research and write about clay bodies, don't want to teach. There are regular enquiries from youngsters wanting to work here, learn to hand build,  fire a wood kiln, so me being an apprentice is kind of ...  well, late.
 I don't want to wear a frock either and my dad threw my bedraggled teddy bear away when I was eight.

I just want to make things, sell enough to pay for my clay addiction. I want to make quiet, understated pots, create the maximum with the minimum. Explore the possibilities of simple hand built forms, make glazes from local/found sources and fire with scrounged wood. Will that do?

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

An intriguing shino with hints of liquorice

Potter heh?
What sort of pots do you make then?

You get asked that a lot.
In an instant one has to make a snap decision as to what sort of answer to give.
Is the inquirer a knowledgeable pottery buff or someone just making polite conversation with little real interest.
So do you shrug and modestly state:-
"You know, one off hand built pots, inspired by traditional shapes, wood fired with simple ash glazes."
The blank look tells you that what you thought was a simple précis of thirty years of pot making summed up succinctly and without waffle is way over their head.
Maybe the other tack was the correct approach, go the whole hog, take the marketing guru stance and phrase ones reply along the lines of that on the back of a bottle of wine. Go to the supermarket, pick up any bottle of wine, even the cheap ones and there it is. The marketing wordsmiths finest offer:-

'Aged in the special large oak barrels we call 'Botte' our precious Riserva strikes an elegant balance between the classic sour cherry fragrance of the best Sangiovese and intriguing hints of liquorice-infused mocha. The palate is well rounded, with very fine tannins and a long, savoury finish which lingers long after the last drop has been finished.'

Wow! got to get some of that.

It seems more and more ceramists have got some of that already and after downing the whole bottle write their sales pitch. I spotted this one recently:-

'My inspiration is found in everyday themes and daily routines. I am fascinated with materiality and the tension that operates between two and three dimensions. Repetition, construction, de-construction and the mundane emerge in the abstract and architectural forms of grids, nails and portraits.'

Wow! Not sure I understand any of that, especially as the image that accompanied those words resembled a shape, press moulded from a paper party plate. No elegant balance, definitely not well rounded. No finish that lingers. That's art I suppose or is it the Emperor's new clothes?

So do you try and then fail miserably to be smart and very commercial or make honest, gnarly pots and get on with it and let the work speak for itself?

Does anyone read this stuff anyway?

Pictures say a thousand words.

'Boite' showing elegant poise, fine shino's with mature yew closure.


Thursday, 20 February 2014

Pinny Lady - the sequel.

Google 'Potter's Apron' and there she is - Pinny Lady and the Original Potter's Apron.
It's been tweaked a bit since it was first supplied to a few potter friends. A more substantial snap buckle, adjustment to the split skirt so that it keeps all of the legs covered when on the wheel. A nip and a tuck here and there, but the 170 metre roll of denim that took four of us to lift into the workroom has long disappeared.
There have been a number of specials along the way. Extra long ones, extra short ones, some in bright pink, some in bright blue. There are a couple of stripy ones underway, but who could forget the multicoloured, patchwork version for Richard?

They have gone off to America, Australia and who knows where else. Used by smart chefs at posh barbecues and rock star potters at their demonstration gigs. At Christmas the emails pop up wanting the Original Potter's Apron for Christmas presents. Potters sidle up to us in the oddest of locations and ask Pinny Lady if she has any aprons with her. Strange as it may seem she usually does or out comes the tape measure and another pinny is conceived.

Wider bib? - No problem.
Bucket scoop to the front to catch clay fettlings? - No worries.
Pink with black spots? - I dare say it can be done and always with a smile.

Pinny Lady will never be a threat to the might of Industrial China and they are made so well that they hardly ever wear out, but saying that, the Potter's Apron page on the website still gets the most hits.
Obviously there is a demand for a well made, hard wearing, quality apron, made by potters for potters, who understand what is required to do the job.
Meanwhile Pinny Lady surfs along on a sea of denim, helping to keep the potter's wheels spinning, the foot rings turning, the pug mills ...  er... pugging?

The aprons are available on request from David and Laura Wright

Thursday, 16 January 2014

A Wet Arse and No Fish

Hard work and effort often go unrewarded. You spend time making what you believe is your best work, yet it remains on the shelf, no one has paid any attention and you move on.
Grandad summed it up well. After a day out fishing; one man in a small boat out on the vast ocean, to return at the end of the day with nothing to show. He would exclaim "A wet arse and no fish", yet he would be back out there again, waiting for the big one, the pay day, to land with a decent catch and a smile on the face.

Cleaning out the kiln and the surrounding detritus from the previous firing, I look into the empty chamber and all the empty shelves in the workshop, save for a couple of bisque pots that did not make it last time and realise that it's going to take the next two months to fill the beast again.
To put fire in the kiln, I need to put fire in the pants and get stuck in.

Faced with a blank canvas as it were, where to start and what to make first always poses an interesting dilemma. Getting started is like setting out on the vast ocean and wondering where to place the bait.
A phalanx of beakers

I usually start with simple things like beakers, to get into the groove. Box bases follow and these are the platform for experimentation with slips, pressing shapes into the wet clay, seeing how much I can distort the shape before it ceases to be a usable box and fitting a wooden lid is going to be a big ask.
They line up on the shelf to dry, the ones I am happy with on the left, those that I have doubts about on the right. These might hang about for a week or so whilst I decide their future and probably end up in the recycle bin to start life as a pot again.

A battery of bisque boxes

Having some bisque fired pots starting to arrive gives comfort and the angst about producing a hundred or so pots fades. I want to make wooden lids again, but without any fired box bases it will have to wait a while yet. With some pots on the shelf I can tackle the bigger pieces and start to have some real fun. It does not matter now if I go up a few blind alleys, cock it up and relegate a pot to the recycle bin.
Alternating making, drying, fettling and processing wood for the kiln, the army of pots, in neat rows, surely grows and the nagging question now is, will I have enough to fill the kiln yet? Inevitable the answer is no. Some won't fit the space left or be the wrong pot for that particular slot, so a few back up pots are required. These are the most difficult, I don't want to make pots just to fill a kiln, they have to be the right pot. So I kid myself they will be for a future firing. The problem is I cherry pick when I load the kiln and some will never make it ... ever.

A tasty dish

And after all this effort, I'm going to subject all this to flame and great heat in a little brick box, wait two days and find out if there is a reward of tasty pots. Carefully, the bricked up wicket will be removed and the still warm pots taken out for inspection.

Hot hands and great dishes?