On Making Pots
Finding a way to work or rather a way to play is a difficult thing. I have always made things- at first out of Lego and wood and for a long time now, using clay. Working out how to approach making, so that I can go to work every day and explore shape and colour and move forwards, is always hard. The breadth of ceramic possibilities means that to make any progress it is necessary to build up some strict limitations. And then there are ideas- many ideas, of which I have learnt to be wary, having been led astray by them many times in the past. A good idea can be a temptation, but it seldom leads me towards interesting objects. So I don’t design anything and I try not to plan anything except roughly how to proceed within the imposed limitations. A body of new work is what’s left behind after a period of time spent in the studio.
For a long time now I have realised that my overriding interest is making new coloured clay forms. This seems for me to be the essence of pottery- to make shapes which occupy and contain space and to decorate those shapes. By decorate, I mean to glaze, to paint, to draw, to make image or line across the skin of the clay. The pots here have no subject, they are not about anything in particular and they have no practical function; - they are made purely for looking at- for joy. Sometimes they suggest or evoke other things, but then most things do, so that doesn’t really help. At times I know my work appears very spare and at other times it seems quite animated. It has always been this way.
I first began to build some of these dissonant, almost collapsing pots a few years ago and at that time found it necessary to paint the various conflicting elements almost monochromatically. I think I was painting the form in order to clarify it- to enable me to see it and for it to be seen. More recently though, I am finding it possible to paint across shape, to blur boundaries and run colour over joins. I want the fields of cobalt blue or red iron oxide to travel across and around the shape, but more than that, to move through and across the vessel space, so colour ‘becomes a fundamental content of the work rather than a superficial aspect of it.’
When I started to work out these new pieces, I started by playing around with stones and sheets of lead and bits of leather, painting them with acrylics. I had been looking at drapery in medieval wooden sculpture and also the stunning early paintings (of Murnau) in the Kandinsky exhibition at the Tate. I had also been to Cairo and seen the sprawling organic way much of the housing grows- rooms built upon rooms, not designed, but rather action and reaction- making do. It reminded me of composer Kevin Volans’ observations on African music –it is not deliberately asymmetrical, it has no precise proportions: patterns are created by addition, not subdivision, and the music can end as abruptly as it begins, like birdsong. I wanted to get a kind of rambling, patched together difficulty into the work- as if no one would ever intend something to be that way, but when you saw it, it was somehow right. The painted colours pull together a vessel that is in danger of losing itself. There is a pot here called ‘Dance’ which shows this. In a way it’s quite a lumbering ungainly thing, and the painting is quite playful and light hearted, as a foil to the awkwardness of the form.
Slabs of stoneware clay are rolled out by hand with a wooden rolling pin. Actually most of the rolling is bashing the clay flat and the rolling smoothes the material towards the end of the process. Clay doesn’t really suggest much- it’s cold and mute, so decisions continually have to be made. Not what the piece will look like, which will in time become clear, but the details- how wide, how long, how thin or thick the slab- choices which determine shape. The objects here are quite sharply defined, they have clear drawn ground plans, smooth walls and clear edges, but this resolution emerges slowly. There are certain curves and undulations which a thin slab can manage better than a thicker one, but sometimes it’s the soft fatness of a rim or the weight of a piece which is more important. And scale is strange- it’s possible to make two pieces the same size, but one seems larger than the other, by just a small change in the thickness of the material or the tone of painted green. Recently I have tended to build with the clay when it is fairly wet and floppy- at the edge of my control, at the point of collapse, where the clay is twisting and falling into shapes I could not imagine- a dangerous world. Initially it is quite an intuitive and chaotic process, but little by little the objects emerge. The clay dries, it’s fired and everything changes. It becomes cold and hard- more of a rock than a rag and a different life has to be looked for through the painting.
The bone china pieces here have been made with the assistance of Royal Crown Derby using their own bone china, their pattern transfers and fired in their kilns at the Osmaston Road Factory in Derby. The 29 pattern books in the factory archive record the introduction of designs from the early days through to the 1930s. They show an extraordinary wealth of experimentation and courageous inventiveness. Many of the Imari patterns are completely wild- they make me think of how Roger Hilton reached a place in his painting, where abstraction and figuration could happily coexist in the same picture. Floral painting dances around a strange cobalt blue cloud, interwoven with delicate pattern-making in red and gold. There are resemblances and associations in some of my new painting, to shapes and forms in nature and at the moment there seems little difference for me, between painting a blue disc and a blue flower.