Like flowers in the sky

April 12, 2010

I went from the house at midnight, and stepped out of light

Into the shallow cavern of night and a cloudy moonlight.

The last fallen leaves of the poplar lay on the grass like flowers,

And like flowers in the sky shone the gentle Pleiades.

Valentine Ackland’s poem All Souls’ Night was the inspiration for this large open bowl.  The text is lettered by hand with a brush directly onto the raw clay when the bowl was dried but not yet fired.  This technique allows the marks that I make, the ‘decoration’, to sink into the absorbent body of the clay, rather than remaining on the surface.

I always use a brush, and I set the text first in pencil, which doesn’t scratch the surface and burns out in the firing. The brushwork is done free-hand on the raw clay, and I use underglaze metal oxides in a water-based medium, which the fire transforms from raw colours like an ashy pale mauve (cobalt and manganese oxide) to the deep dark blue of the glazed and fired bowl. Painting onto the raw dried form is very enjoyable – not unlike a handmade paper, the surface is quite porous but fairly smooth, with a nice grip to the brush and absorption of the colour. The oxide sinks into the surface without spreading, though it’s quite easily smudged and once on, requires very careful handling when lifting the work into the kiln.

The decorated pot is then fired to 1000 degrees over about 10 hours (I fire with green electricity), and then after a day’s cooling, I dip the pot in the milky raw glaze, clean the foot and any drips or overlaps, and then fire again, this time to about 1250 degrees – or white-hot. This takes about 12 hours, and then a couple of days to cool. The huge energy of the firing is still deeply exciting to me after all these years, and even though I use an electric kiln – often thought of as perhaps an unexciting, controllable way to fire, unlike stoking a small building with wood for a couple of days or heaving salt in – it is certainly an exciting harnessing of cosmic forces, not without its own unpredictability – and unpacking the kiln always makes the heart beat faster.

On the Pleiades bowl, the text is set round the outer surface, to contain and reflect the vessel’s inner space, a bowl of sky. The long line of small letters at the rim defines the physical placing of the poem and the physical dimension of the bowl, mapping their connection. The letters of the leaves like flowers are scattered on the open field of the clear area below, mirroring the stars scattered across the dark blue space within.

The stars are made by applying liquid wax resist carefully to map the position of the stars at midnight at the end of November – All Souls’ Night. When the wax is dry, the dark blue underglaze oxide is brushed over it, the wax resists it, and when the waxy dots melt and burn out in the great heat of the firing, the stars are left, shining in the light creamy body colour of the clay, against the dark blue brushwork of the sky field. I enjoy the true cosmic association of the stars being made from the ground beneath our feet, the clay of the earth.

And now in welcome the sky

Lights star after star on high

Whether the lost thing found by Valentine Ackland provides the text for this constellation bowl, again lettered round the outside and within, full of a dark blue starry sky. Some more constellation bowls can be seen on the Water Vessels page.

Pleiades bowl: signed one-off, 33cm x 11cm high, sold.

Welcome bowl: signed one-off, 27cm x 9cm high, for sale

To buy or enquire about any work, please leave me a note in the comments box below, or click on contact details.

Most of this text is from Working with Words, a series of gallery talks given in the Southbank Centre’s Poetry Library in 2008. These talks can be read in full in my artist’s book about the exhibition (Journey from Winter by Liz Mathews) now in the Poetry Library’s permanent collection.

All photos copyright Liz Mathews, and should not be used without permission.

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