Winter rotation: Featured makers

Continuing our series looking at the routes artists took as they first began working with clay. Over the last few years many ceramics courses have closed or face closure across the U.K. With this in mind we have asked each maker to tell us about what first inspired them.

Each of the artists has taken a different route -  and whether through formal education, mid-career change in direction or by starting at a young age, these are interesting stories.  Stories that will hopefully inspire others.

Here we ask the makers in our Winter Rotation to share their experiences of education and routes into making ceramics. Their work is being featured for the next few months in the gallery, below they share their inspirations, thought processes and making practices.



SARAH JENKINS

Sarah Jenkins is based in Essex, she cites this landscape as a key influence on her work, here she writes of her ceramics education and the path she has taken to making.

Moving back to my roots, I have for the last few years been a dedicated artist, producing a variety of ceramics, exhibiting in galleries in Norfolk, London, Cambridge and Oxfordshire. My work is a distillation of my responses to the natural world, the turn of the year, the changing light and weather. Key to this is the landscape where I live and work, surrounded by the woods and fields of north Essex.

Looking back, I realise I was fortunate to have had my art education in the period when our society seemed to still value education for its own sake, to broaden the mind. It was a very different time, when grant funding was available. It must be daunting these days to embark on further education of any kind unless you have access to financial resources. It is very sad to see that so many ceramics courses and other arts courses, with all the facilities and expertise attached, have been eroded. Much harder to reinstate these than other courses.


Wide field bottle
All through childhood, painting, drawing and making was an important part of my life. It has always been the way I can fully engage. I would make things with whatever was to hand. By Secondary school, my drawing skills were well-developed, and the Art Department was a second home to me. A two-year foundation course followed school. I found it all-consuming. It was as if it had been designed for me. I enjoyed exploring the various disciplines. Eventually I specialised in Fine Art, as I felt it offered me the open agenda I needed.
During the Foundation, working alongside other students was an important part of my learning. As well as students on the Fine Art course, I spent time with mature students who were studying on a dedicated ceramics course. I absorbed a lot of information about ceramics at this time. Talk of a wood-fired kiln that was being built, discussion of clay bodies, temperatures and different ceramic techniques.

On my Fine Art Degree course I was always attracted to the physical quality of my materials. I used clay, collage, paper, string, mainly working in 3D. I have always been intuitive in my approach, always wanting the finished piece of work to speak for itself, not only to others, but also to me. I find too much analysis can be stunting, it gets in the way. I always strive for a dialogue with the materials, a place where I try to meet the material half-way, allowing it some freedom.

With huge regret, I left my Fine Art degree course unfinished. I was very young and life problems intervened. I always hoped to return to Fine Art somehow. Some time later, I was part of a building collective and learnt the skills of plastering and decorating.

A few years on, by the time that I was ready to return to education, I had a couple of friends that were studying ceramics at Central School of Art, and I was making pots at adult education classes. I knew that I wanted to focus on working with clay.
Sarah unpacking the kiln

I embarked on a Diploma by Independent Study (a course no longer available). This involved designing my own course of study including specifying how I would be assessed. I found it great for self-knowledge, time management and self-discipline. I built a small studio and experimented with lots of techniques, and made a raku kiln. As part of the Independent study course, I attended adult-education classes at Morley College, where I was lucky enough to have Jill Crawley as a tutor. She was a brilliant teacher, encouraging invention and experimentation.


Small landscape pots

After the Diploma, unable to see a way forward with ceramics, I earned a living in the building trade, where I became an accomplished plasterer.

During these years I only managed to work with clay sporadically. A key part of my informal education in ceramics was to spend some months in Cape Town, South Africa, with a long time potter friend. I made press moulds and built vessels with lots of texture, and selected three of the numerous glazes from tests, glazes I still use today. The result was a small but successful body of work. I sold some of these and brought a few pieces back with me. I remember friends asking where I had been and what I had seen, but with the exception of a few days travel up-country, I was glued to the studio, totally focused on the work.

More time elapsed, and it was not until I had my son, relatively late in life, and we moved back to near my home town, that I was able to commit to ceramics full-time. Being here amongst the fields where I feel I belong, having my son and the support of my partner, helped to galvanise my resolve to follow my dream of working in ceramics. It has been a long road, but I feel as if I am finally making what I need to make. I sometimes regret that I did not have the confidence to arrive at this point earlier, but of course all my life experiences have helped to lead me here. I have found my own language and confidence within ceramics and the responses to what I am making very encouraging.

Midnight bottle
My ceramics are always hand-built. My core reference is landscape. I love handling the clay through the gradual drying process, I like to intervene at different times throughout the drying time, with mark making. I am always newly thrilled by firing work – a process of consolidation.
Midnight landscape
When working in the building trade I loved the earthy materials. Working with these building materials has permeated my approach to my ceramic work. There is a great similarity between mortars and plasters and ceramics, the fundamental earthy nature, combining dry materials with water, the drying process. Even some terms like green-ware - render (sand, cement and lime) is called green before it dries and is fully set. These materials are like clay - versatile and plastic, retaining the history of the making process.

Hopefully creativity will out, and anyone needing to make ceramics will find a way.

DELFINA EMMANUEL

Delfina Emmanuel studied Classics in Italy then later a City and Guilds course and a BA in Ceramics at the University of Westminster. Since graduating she has taken part in many shows and exhibitions in the UK, in the process showcasing her work to as wide an audience as possible.


Coral Teapot
Delfina's highly detailed, intricate work is influenced by her native island of Sardinia and its rich marine life, she says;
“The ceramic forms I make have been influenced by the delicate and fragile nature of living organisms found in the sea, I like their gentle flowing, how they take shapes and the pattern of their surfaces.
Coral Dish

My pieces are mostly about surface decoration, my aim is to make them to go beyond use and the forms to be the canvas in which to set up the ideas. 

The egg shapes have a deep symbolic meaning. For example in the teapot, used for centuries as a utilitarian item, I recognize the strong association with domesticity, in its rounded shape the basis of the human form, hollow, containing and comforting: suggesting a new and precious life.”

Anemone twist Vessel


CLAIRE IRELAND



Claire drawing in the studio
Claire Ireland graduated from Camberwell College of Art with a BA in Ceramics and has since taught ceramics courses from beginner up to degree level at schools and colleges. Claire continues to teach alongside making work, includes educational projects and pieces for commission. Claire says keeping a sketchbook of ideas and drawing are crucial to her creative process;

“My studio is at the London Museum of Water and Steam. I use the creative atmosphere, facilities and special location to inspire my work.

I have started to explore alternative hand building techniques; sculptural forms have emerged during my research. The smoky and painterly surfaces I achieve envelop my ceramic forms and are integral to the whole.
Saggar beasts
I find great enjoyment and creative impulse through making collections and arranging man made and natural forms. The discipline of drawing and my continuous sketchbook studies are of prime importance to me.
I have recently completed commissioned work for specific locations in private gardens and I have completed an Artist in Residence at Pimlico Academy, a newly built secondary school in central London. “
Dapple horses


MARCIO MATTOS

Marcio Mattos in his studio, image copyright the artist

Marcio trained at Goldsmiths College in the early 80’s, post-graduate course in Ceramics, Diploma in Art and Design.

“I have always been fascinated by fire and its effect on things, the burning of wood in a fireplace, the red charcoal in a barbecue burner…the lone flame of a candle. Being interested from my teen years in things Japanese, I borrowed a book on Raku from the local library and thought it would be great fun, albeit a challenge, to make and fire some pots.
Standing form
Getting together with some friends who lived is a squat in Brixton, we bought some rough clay and knocked together a rudimentary brick kiln. Making some simple teacups, we stuck them in the kiln and proceeded to fire them with what firewood we had available. It wasn’t enough. The kiln temperature was rising very slowly so we had to sacrifice the few bits of old furniture that was left in the squat to finish the firing.
Needless to say the result was not too exciting, but we were hooked!

Rocking form

From there a decision was made to learn to do it properly by going to evening classes at the Richmond Institute (it had a huge gas kiln) and, after a few years, on to Goldsmith College for a serious commitment to clay. Unfortunately the ceramics department, run by Ken Bright, was closed down shortly after I graduated. A great loss.”

Rocking form

Marcio’s work is all hand-built one-off pieces in paperclay stoneware or porcelain. Decorated with brushed and sprayed dry glazes. Surface texture and spontaneity of marks are important to his work.


LEA PHILLIPS

Lea Phillips followed a foundation course in Art and Design with study on the Harrow Studio Pottery course. Work as a pottery assistant and time as both a self-employed potter and a pottery teacher came next before the desire to go back to education led her to becoming an apprentice potter at Dartington Pottery. Lea credits this experience; learning a host of new processes and at the same time becoming a production thrower, with helping her realise the direction she wanted to follow in her work as a self-employed potter, she explains below;

“My route to a ceramics career was fairly traditional, looking back from today’s perspective I was lucky, being one of the last generations to benefit from a full
grant to attend college.
Lea in the studio                                   Copyright Lea Phillips

I was always arts orientated and as a child I loved playing with mud. One of my earliest memories is of mixing mud and water in a ditch at the side of the Bungalow I grew up in. As a teenager I did not have a clear idea what I wanted to do, I heard about Art Foundation course so I enrolled with some vague idea of going into graphic design. One of the modules was pottery, which took place in a gloomy basement in Bournemouth, we were introduced to the basics of hand building and appreciating form, I remember being particularly fascinated by South American and pre-historic European pots. Also the rows of geared Leach kick-wheels where more senior students worked, there was something about combining the artistic with practical skill that felt right. After Foundation I enrolled in a full time course at Bournemouth, I felt lucky to be accepted but was slightly underwhelmed to find myself one of only two students in that year’s intake, and discovered in year one that in fact the course was closing down. It turned out to be a lucky break as I ended up being accepted onto the Harrow Studio pottery course. This proved a life-changing experience, I got to leave home and become part of a vibrant international group of students.


Lea's vibrant designs

This was in 1980 to 1981, a good time to be on the Harrow course, the 2 year HND was set up to provide a practical pottery education and emphasised the skills needed for self-employment, with less theoretical content than the degree courses.
All the regular tutors were full time potters, employed by the college for no more than a day a week, so we had real contact with the world of the working potter. At the same time, ceramics was diversifying away from a narrow obsession with brown functional stoneware so we were exposed to a slightly wider range of influences and techniques, though there was still a strong emphasis on throwing and domestic ware. We learnt the rudiments of glaze theory but I did not know enough then to realise colourful stoneware was possible. Colour and pattern have always been strong interests so I was drawn to slipware as stoneware was still rather rustic and brown.

Large jug
After Harrow I worked for the slipware potter Mary Wondrausch at her workshop in Surrey. Here I improved my throwing somewhat but remained basically penniless so it was hard to see a way into self-employment. It took a long time to figure this out; I spent over a decade doing other jobs until I was in a position to work as a part-time computer programmer and part-time potter. Eventually this led to full-time self-employment making slipware in the garage, supplemented by teaching in adult education. I resolved to teach only as much as I needed to as I saw only too easily the temptation of the more lucrative teaching route as opposed to the meagre and unpredictable rewards of self-employment. I had some success working away in the garage making slipware, but there were many challenges with using a process that needed a controlled environment in an environment that was basically uncontrollable. The garage was cold and damp in the winter, too hot in the summer, slip either too dry or too wet for the next process. At some point I wondered why I was putting white slip on red clay when I could be using white earthenware from the start. There followed a period of making pots with a white body and painting with under glazes. This was a great vehicle for colour and surface design but slow and labour intensive. Unbelievably I was still throwing on a kick wheel too, what was I thinking of? 

At Harrow I had been the youngest student on the course, I see now how much better equipped were the ‘mature’ students of my year’s intake for self-employment. Years later I had the same experience in reverse when I became an apprentice at Dartington pottery at the age of 38, I was the oldest apprentice and I think there was a great advantage in that. I now knew how much I did not know, something the young and most beginners everywhere are often innocent of, and how hard I would need to work to really become a potter of professional standard.
Tall jugs
The Dartington apprenticeship was something of a cross between working in a large workshop and being a student. My motivation was to learn more about reduction stoneware as it now seemed possible to combine colour with high temperature firing. I was also keen to be exposed to making processes other than throwing; use of moulds, slip casting and using a jigger and jolly machine, all sufficiently low-tech to be accessible to the individual potter. I loved all this but also came to see that throwing, when done properly, was a perfectly sensible direct way of making pots. I considered myself a pretty good thrower but the standard for production throwing expected at Dartington was way beyond my ability at first. So it was at Dartington, at the age of 38 that I finally learned to throw, in fact one never really stops learning.
I loved the experience so much that I stayed on after the apprenticeship, which also gave me reason to move to Totnes full-time where I am still based today. Eventually though I began to miss doing my own designs and became self-employed again. The first workshop I had in Devon was unsuitable for a gas kiln so I started to experiment with oxidised stoneware. This in fact proved the perfect medium for the type of ceramics I wanted to make. By the time a gas kiln was possible I no longer felt I needed one. I had discovered that an electric kiln does not have to be a limiting factor in the development of interesting glazes. In fact my main problem is limiting the profusion of design variations to something that can be sensibly managed by one person working in a smallish workshop.

Small mug

I started the workshop at Coombe Park near Totnes in 2001 and moved to the bigger brighter unit on the same site in 2014. The new unit was larger than we needed so we now share it with some other artists and have a well lit display area for pots, sculptures, paintings and prints. At the moment I am continuing to explore my interest in pattern and colour through the medium of print making and collage as well as ceramics. My long term ambition is to exhibit the ceramics and prints together and to explore painting with glazes as a way of combining the two themes.”


All images copyright Lea Phillips













ANDY PRIESTMAN


Andy Priestman at his studio 2015
Andy Priestman has been working in his studio at Minniwick in Scotland for 40 years making pots to be used, an enthusiasm for the material and its’ properties infuses his work. A keen photographer and painter, Andy draws on his environment both for his inspiration and his materials. Andy utilizes the variety of different clays from the landscape where he lives, digging these himself, they are then employed to great effect in slips which interact with the glaze to produce a spontaneous variation in colour and mark.
Bowl     Image Shannon Tofts
A self-taught potter, Andy traces his relationship with clay back to his early childhood in London;

“Pale grey clay formed the banks of the stream behind the house where I grew up in south London and I spent much time playing with it, with my pal Digby; muddied to our knees, and with jam jars of sticklebacks to take home.
Later it was the ochre yellow very plastic clay of a Sussex stream that I remember, and later still the deep red clay from a tile works in Dorset that the art teacher had us kids cutting and beating into shape and finally firing in an ancient wood fired kiln to stoneware temperature. It fired to a dark grey in reduction and had huge holes and blemishes where the lumps of iron minerals fused and melted out. 

 The studio at Minniwick
 
When I first started making pots at Minniwick in south west Scotland we used a dark grey fireclay that came from a firebrick factory in Ayrshire, in the stoneware body we mixed by hand. It was very plastic and fired to a warm orange yellow with large specks of iron breaking through on the re-oxidised surface and a deep grey within, in reduction.  
Now years later the whole firebrick industry has gone and I have to crush bricks from that factory and add the grog produced to get a similar colour in my clay. 

Beakers and lidded jar     Image Shannon Tofts

Blue grey clay
I am always looking out for clay in the landscape. Most of the clays to be found in streams and old mines in Galloway will melt to brown lava at 1300.C but used as slips beneath pale celadon glazes they all have subtle colours and effects on the glaze layer. A favourite comes from the stream that flows into Luce Bay, and was probably the very same clay used by the first established settlements of people over 4000 years ago, albeit to make simple but elegant bonfire fired vessels to around 800.C. 

Another comes from a disused limestone mine near Thornhill with a blue grey being the colour, and the traces of limestone additionally fluxing the glaze to form bubbles beneath the surface and a rare opalescense.  

Lidded jar   Image Shannon Tofts
Reduction firing
The only clay I have found in Scotland so far that doesn't have to be mined, and that can be fired to stoneware temperature is from Rouken Glen, a park on the south side of Glasgow. On a visit to Korea and Japan nearly every clay I found near the surface proved, on my return with my overweight luggage, to be very refractory and ideal for high temperature ceramics.  It is easy to see how the stoneware and porcelain productions grew in such a landscape.” Andy Priestman 2015



JANE WHEELER

Jane Wheeler studied ceramics at Bath Academy of Art in the early 1970's, before moving away from ceramics and forging a successful career as a knitwear designer, she returned to ceramics in 2003 after a move back to her native Norfolk. Jane has found that her experiences of travel and design as part of the fashion and textiles industry now feed into her ceramic practice, and indeed her first career now informs her second as she explains;


Jane in her workshop

"At my school there was no 3D art, so the first time I touched clay was at Great Yarmouth art college on their foundation course, with Barbara Balls. Having left school wanting to write and illustrate historical novels I made a complete about-turn and spent the next three years studying ceramics at Bath Academy of Art, or Corsham, as it was mostly known then.


'Spring rain holme oak' bottle form

Clay touched off some deeper practical need, that of making things in a medium which is so receptive and versatile, it can use all of the skills you might have learnt in other media or disciplines – drawing, sculpture, design, printmaking, painting, chemistry, engineering, geology – and combine them, using your intuition, into your own burgeoning ceramic practice. And it is a medium which keeps you humble, there are always new and old things to learn, mistakes to make, fruitful and not so much!

Although, with huge regret, I was not able to continue with ceramics as a career, what I had learnt allowed me to make a living designing knitwear for forty odd years, and doing this also meant that I could pursue other interests and threads, (such as painting), but in my fifties I came back to ceramics, largely through my friendship with Stephen Parry whom I met when I returned to Norfolk in 2000.



Chun bottle form
Doing a raku workshop with Stephen opened my eyes to the possibility of building a gas kiln and having a workshop in the ramshackle old pig sheds in my garden, and with his help I built a small gas kiln which I still use. He continues to be a generous help and I find potters in general open and unstinting in their advice and willingness to share. It is a wonderful world to be part of.

Returning to pottery I had very little idea of what had been going on in the world of ceramics since I was at college, but I had the resources of a life spent working in the field of textiles, and fine art, and the experience of selling my work abroad, travelling to fashion fairs, meeting designers from all over the world, and this has stood me in good stead, both in terms of influences and concepts and being able to expose my pots to different markets.
Slab building in progress
However making pots again has enabled me to find my deepest roots here in Norfolk, in terms of the living landscape and its archaeology. This has become very important to all the things I do, including photography and writing. 

I would say that working with clay again has changed my life and my art/design practice radically, from the bottom up; it has not been a superficial application of design to another medium. The nitty gritty of attempting to find my own way of making, shaping, my own shapes, surfaces, combinations of clays, glaze and decoration, obstinately outside the dictates of functional ware and throwing, though influenced by and referring to these forms, informs what I do and make."

'Spring rain oak leaf' bottle form

 Jane Wheeler's vessels are reduction fired to 1260 degrees centigrade in a gas kiln. The rich textural surfaces are created by the addition of coarse grog and sand to the stoneware clay body, while the layering of a crackle slip, oxides and a chun glaze interact with impurities in the clay to bring out irregular spots and marks.



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