Spring at Contemporary Ceramics Centre

For 2017 we have a slight change to our seasonal rotation of artists.  We are overlapping our display periods which allows us to bring new makers into the gallery more often.  Every two months we will be displaying four or five new makers, and as before, each maker will be on display for four months.

The rotation on display is an opportunity to showcase different members of the Craft Potters Association and to discover more about the artists and their work. This current display period runs between March 2017 and the end of June 2017 and features four artists whose diversity in approach to making and personal vision yet again shows how wonderful and versatile one material, i.e. clay can be.

It is noticeable how ceramics and pottery are commanding greater interest, helped by programs such as The Great Pottery Throwdown, now well into it's second season, and of course the internet and social media. Very exciting stuff! It is also nice to see studios and workshops springing up to fill the gaps made by the closure of ceramics courses over the past few years.  With this in mind, we are curious about the different experiences and routes makers took when first beginning with clay and we have asked these featured artists to tell us what first inspired them.

Each journey is different and whether through formal education, mid-career change in direction or by starting at a young age, these stories illustrate perseverance, strength in creativity and personal vision. Hopefully, these stories will inspire others.

We have been speaking to: David Brown, who had an inspirational teacher, Jo Davies, who was introduced to clay at school; her teacher was a ceramics specialist, Lesley McShea, who has been passionate about ceramics for as long as she can remember and Fiona Thompson, whose creative path has taken her through different stages when starting as an artist.

Lesley McShea 

Lesley McShea throwing
I am an established Ceramicist / (Punk) Potter
Born Lancashire, England.

I have been passionate about Ceramics for as long as I can remember.I learned to throw on the wheel when I was 17, and I gained my first Diploma in Ceramics where I trained in Melbourne, Australia at CIT (Caulfield Institute of Technology) in 1982.I returned to my homeland in 1984, where I started attending Adult Education classes for Ceramics, it wasn’t long before I was called upon to teach and offer my services as Ceramic technician for ILEA in 1985. 
Lesley McShea | Jug
I studied my BA Honours Degree at Middlesex University in 1992. I continue to produce unique one-off items since then. I worked in Adult Education, at Westminster Adult Education service for 15 years until I was made redundant. I also worked at various other jobs in similar institutes including Islington Mind; The Working Men’s College and Harrow College until 2013. I have also been Artist in residence in numerous schools. In total I worked in Adult Education for 32 years, continuing to produce my own work whenever possible. 

I have been based in my current studio for 20 years. There I have also taught adults with a more relaxed, less structured approach to teaching. My more recent work bears my Potters Stamp plus an N16 stamp to indicate the location, also the current year. 
Lesley Mcshea | Bowl
My work is mainly wheel thrown unique durable stoneware functional ware. Although each piece appears similar, there are subtle differences that make each piece unique and a one off. I like to think of my pieces as personalities, (my babies) with their own “foibles” and characters, even though I am still able to produce sets upon request. 

I purposely throw with very sandy clay to create a textured feel to the piece, and I contrast functional shiny glaze finishes with bare clay areas, to be true to the materials I use. I mix my own glazes to glaze recipes I have collated and adapted over many years. I did my “Sandwich” year placement with Emmanuel Cooper OBE, in 1991, where I tested 650 glaze recipes for his book “Glazes” Cooper Batsford. He gave me a signed copy. 
Lesley McShea | Jug
I have undertaken many commissions and collaborations which in turn have made the style of my work change, due to public demand. Personalised mugs and Vases are now my best selling items.

The Gothic interest and influence remain. I have been commissioned to make personal and pet Urns.

My interests are ancient architecture and memorials. I find the memorials, and their weathering textures, carvings, and uniqueness incredibly inspiring.

David Brown

A Fortunate Life

David Brown in his studio
Pondering what brought me to wherever I am today, I am minded of several seminal moments. I think the first such was going to Art College and choosing ceramics as my "craft" option. I was fortunate to have as my main lecturer, Keith Maskell. He allowed me to express myself in clay and supported my progress enthusiastically. Without his influence, I would never have succeeded.

There followed a year of post-graduate study to obtain my teacher's certificate. Then into the real world.
David Brown Vessels
Again, I was fortunate to obtain the post of lecturer in charge of ceramics at Yeovil College, where I remained for 31 years!, punctuated by two separate years on the UK/US teacher exchange programme, when I taught in community colleges in Virginia and Pennsylvania. A wonderful experience all round, which also gave me the opportunity to travel extensively across America and to see many amazing sights.

David Brown | Open dish
Retirement came in 1999 and although I had always practiced my own work throughout my teaching career, I was now able to concentrate more fully on my own production.

I was also able to travel more, which I have been fortunate again, to achieve in many parts of the world. A breathtaking opportunity to witness first hand so many beautiful and amazing natural phenomena around the world. Truly inspirational. My ideas all seem to develop indirectly from observation of sea, land or sky.
David Brown | Vessels
 Now I am able to look back on a long and fortunate life. I am still here, fortunate to be surrounded by my children and grandchildren. Still making pots and still traveling between spells of gardening and cups of tea.
David Brown | Open Vessel
 A fortunate life indeed.

Fiona Thompson in her studio

Fiona Thompson

'...once I’d successfully completed [a practice-based research degree] in 2010, I’d learned a vast amount and had a completely new approach to developing my ideas. '

It’s almost 23 years since I graduated from Edinburgh College of Art; prior to that, I took an art foundation course at York College. It was a formative, influential and exciting time; Edinburgh had a fantastic ceramic department which is sadly no longer. Experimenting with ideas and materials, pushing creative boundaries, drawing, and working in the department until 3 am were all encouraged. Pre-internet you went to the museums and the library for research. I also got to do a year of printmaking. Although I didn’t combine the two at the time, I now use various print processes in my work. I still hand built non-functional pots, and there’s a bit of a thread running through from my very early college pieces.

Fiona Thompson | A Souvenier From Europe | Image Alistair Clark
In a way, there have been a couple of different stages to me ‘getting started’ as an artist. I’ve always made ceramics wherever I’ve ended up, finding studio space in all sorts of locations. I stayed in Edinburgh for a few years after graduating. With an elderly manually fired kiln, a couple of tables and my first studio I was good to go; continuing to make coil built pots, alongside part-time jobs. I really appreciate the central heating in my studio now... A few moves around the country later and I’d spent a year in Birmingham as a community arts worker, taught adult education classes in Cumbria and had a studio in rural Dumfriesshire. My first residency was in 1998 in Pittsburgh; a challenging but life-changing experience. This is when my pieces really started to be inspired by travel.

Fiona Thompson | A Souvenier From Europe | Image Alistair Clark
By 2005 I was exhibiting widely and had some temporary teaching work at the University of Sunderland. I was still living in Dumfries at the time, but commuting each week. I decided my career at this stage needed a big shake up and change of direction. And so it was time to become a student again; I started an M.Phil at Sunderland in 2006. This was a part-time practice-based research degree and combined writing a thesis and making artwork. Bearing in mind I’d not been particularly academic during my first degree (i.e. failed a couple of essays), this was a big learning curve and financially rather challenging. But once I’d successfully completed in 2010, I’d learned a vast amount and had a completely new approach to developing my ideas. My focus was on tourism, souvenirs, and photography; commemoration of place and experience through ceramic vessels. I’ve had writing published since, in an academic tourism book and in tourism and ceramic journals. It’s a huge achievement for me and not something I could have ever predicted doing.

Fiona Thompson | A Souvenier From Europe | Image Alistair Clark
Based back in Edinburgh since 2007, I run Cyan Clayworks with partner Chris Donnelly. It’s a social enterprise we set up in 2012, where we make ceramics, run courses, and provide artist/student project support. When I’m not being a cleaner, administrator, tutor and technician (official title- ‘director’), I get to indulge in my own work, which is still what drives me.



Jo Davies

"Put away the phone, the laptop or any other distraction and spend time with the task you want to achieve,"

Jo Davies | Choker Vase
Contemporary Ceramics Centre : How were your first drawn to working with clay and were there inspirational people or events during this time or any challenges or obstacles? 

Jo Davies : I first started working with clay as a teenager. I was lucky enough to have a ceramic specialist teacher in the Art department and, with a lot of encouragement from her, I took to working with it. Weirdly enough it was an art exam that really crystallized my fascination with clay! I didn't really see it as an exam, more an opportunity to spend an amazing 5 hours concentrating on something that I enjoyed - such a great thing when I was used to having my days carved up into 1 hour increments.

Jo Davies | Gilded Speak Vase

Contemporary Ceramics Centre : What route did you take; did it include formal education or an informal route?

Jo Davies : Because of the education I had my route was only ever going to be formal. I went to a progressive girls' school that encouraged us to dream about our careers. I did my Art Foundation in Cardiff and then went to Bath School of Art and Design for my Ceramics degree. Once this was finished, I did about two years of balancing a part time studio with part time work and felt that I was only getting so far. I wanted an excuse to move to London and so I applied for the Royal College of Art and got in. A very intense two years followed but the experience was worth it.

Contemporary Ceramics Centre : What would you have done differently, if anything?

Jo Davies : Been a bit more open-minded and listened to my tutors more than I did!

Jo Davies | Gilded Speak Vase
 Contemporary Ceramics Centre : How does working with clay influence your life beyond the workshop?

Jo Davies : Apart from dictating my schedule, it has gradually made me more patient over the years. It has helped me understand that persistence and sticking with something despite the failures makes the successes better in the end. I think I was brought up with a "you've got talent or you don't" attitude, which is actually completely untrue so I spent a lot of my early career feeling like a bit of a failure because I wasn't achieving what were realistically unattainable goals for somebody but clay takes time to become good at - I still have so much to learn but now I'm enjoying that learning.
Jo Davies | Gilded Flare Vase
 Contemporary Ceramics Centre : What advice would you give to others starting with clay.

Jo Davies : Spend plenty of time getting your hands dirty, be concentrated about it as well. Put away the phone, the laptop or any other distraction and spend time with the task you want to achieve, those distractions will teach you nothing compared to allowing your brain and body to build muscle memory and knowledge through simple activity. If you are distracted then it interrupts that learning and your education will be slower. Of course tech has its place but just put it away for the time you're working with clay.


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