Posts Tagged ‘contemporary ceramics’

To the sea

June 1, 2011

With June, true summer begins. John Clare’s lines from A Shepherds Calendar (June poem) capture for me not only the sights and sounds, but the feeling of the month.

We are enjoying being back in the studio after our maytime excursion to the Ice House in Holland Park, where my Watermark exhibition was the first show of the summer season. This month, I’d like to give you a tour of the exhibition, to show how it worked in that beautiful space.

This image of one of my driftwood sculptures was on posters throughout the park, leading to the Ice House.

The entrance to the Ice House.

The exhibition had 60 works in clay, handmade paper and driftwood, in two rooms, a square entrance hall and a round inner room like the inside of a great pot:

All of the work was connected by the theme of water, in the poems, in the materials, in our bodies, and running through our lives, from source to sea.

Source was the first work in the exhibition: made from Thames driftwood, with the lettering of the text carved and incised with the woodgrain:

Implicit in each beginning is its end.

(Kathleen Raine)

A dish made from a slab of clay, with the perhaps unwise inscription:

I am the poem of earth said the voice of the rain

(Walt Whitman)

Living water, a waterfall in clay with a vivid text by Vita Sackville-West flowing down like leaves down a stream.

Into the inner room, and in the middle, a Persian garden with goldfish and a large pool bowl, The voice of the river, with a beautiful text by Frances Bingham:

I am the voice of the river singing in your dreams

A lullaby of waters, a litany of streams

The first group of works around the circular space had several artist’s books made from a single sheet of handmade paper torn and folded into a continuous sequence of pages. The idea is that the image works both as a whole, and page by page in the book:

This form of book, where the text moves round in a continuous circling flow, and the paper, though shaped by hand, retains its wholeness, has for me some structural relation to the pots thrown on the wheel, and the spiralling setting of their text. I enjoyed showing visitors the way that the book opens page by page, and then reforms into a whole image.

The next group of works included some more of these artist’s books, including one called Inland, with a beautiful text by Wordsworth:

and a tall jar and paperwork, with texts by TS Eliot and Virginia Woolf:

On to the middle group:

where the central work is Tree-river-river-tree:

Here the image in four parts develops with the text, in a four-way reflection.

My own image reflected in the glass of the frame, as I photograph a paperwork with one of my favourite texts:

I am the daughter of earth and water


The next group in the inner room centres on another artist’s book and a group of Water vessels:

Because I love, there is a river flowing all night long

(Kathleen Raine)

And the last group round the circle included two driftwood sculptures:

All things, with a text by Vita Sackville-West:

and Stream wash away, with a text by Kathleen Raine:

and Love flows, a tall bowl with a beautiful text by Frances Bingham:

In the middle of this circular inner room was a long cabinet containing concertina artist’s books, opened out to their full extent:

with Kingfisher, a brilliant text by Richard Price, in the end frame.

We return to the outer room for the last groups in the exhibition:

These pots and paperworks were shown on the brick chimney-piece of the Ice House, and included a group of Three phosphorescence pots with white-gold lustre:

three bowls with Valentine Ackland’s poem Idyll, written in Spain during the Civil War:

and six spheres with 9ct gold lustre:

And then the final group of works, or coda:

An artist’s book Coda, with text by Matthew Arnold

Another waterfall in clay, with text this time by Valentine Ackland

A pair of artist’s books, with beautiful texts by Frances Bingham:

And, finally, on the open door, the last work in the exhibition:

A little further

we will see the sea

breaking into waves

(George Seferis, translated by Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard)

Containers of something else

September 14, 2010

One of the pleasures of throwing pots on the wheel is to develop shapes that challenge one’s technique, while still keeping a beautiful line and sound balance in the form. Size is good – I certainly like throwing big things, but there are other challenges. One shape in my throwing repertoire I’ve developed most successfully I call a crater dish.

Here, a wide shallow bowl is cantilevered out from a central deep well, the outer line following the inner form with an even thickness of wall.

This shape is quite difficult to throw, as there are certain points where the wet clay would prefer to collapse. The trick is in the soundness of the lower supporting well and the tension of the rim. This is a good shape to decorate, a form that can express thought. The text around the outside of the lower well or crater gives the visual impression of an architectural support, a series of arches like a loggia holding up the wide bowl. This well is full of intense colour within, opening up to an enlargement of the text mapping the width and open spread of the upper bowl.

Crater dishes (and crater discs, flatter versions, with a shallower central pool) are not usually functional in the domestic sense – they have a slightly more abstract quality – more contemplative containers of something else – a colour, an idea, space – so they’re good for commemorative commissions, which often celebrate love (civil partnerships, weddings) or time (birthdays, anniversaries) or other abstract ideas that are a fundamental part of our lives. 

People sometimes ask me ‘what they’re for’ – and though I try not to prescribe too much the uses to which my pots might be put, I have described these pots as ‘like a painting that you can put on the table and turn in your hands to enjoy physically, as well as through sight’. 

The text is lettered freehand with a brush onto the raw dried clay, inside first, to express visually the form and line of the pot, as well as its purpose and significance – in fact to identify the form with the meaning. For me, the combination of the physical balance of the form with the setting of the text, as well as the relation between the inner and outer surfaces, and the play of light within the text and within the glaze, makes the crater dish an enjoyably expressive integrated whole – a real thing.

If you’d like to know more about crater dishes or any other work, please leave me a note in the comments box below, or click on contact details for other ways to get in touch.

A Midsummer Cushion

July 8, 2010

July is the month of John Clare; one of our customs at Potters’ Yard is to celebrate his birthday (as we do Shakespeare’s) and we always have a picnic from this great plate that I made for his bicentenary in 1993.

It is a very old custom among villagers in summer time to stick a piece of greensward full of field flowers & place it in their cottages which ornaments are called Midsummer Cushions

Plates thrown on the wheel have a special kind of strength – the opening up of the wedge of clay on the turning wheel forms a structural spiral, setting all the clay’s molecules in a spiralling alignment that allows for quite large plates and flat dishes to be made without cracking, as long as the drying is carefully controlled. I don’t usually make them this big though (42cm across); my most regularly commissioned sizes are

10″ (26cm – good dinner plate or cheeseplate – from £90) and

12″ (30cm – good for serving dish – from £120)

– or the smaller 8″ (20cm – from £70) for sideplates or baby plates, commissioned for births, christenings and namedays.

Another intrinsic strength is in the high firing temperature of the stoneware clay I use; the clay vitrifies in the firing – becomes stone-like in its physical construction, the gaps between the molecules close up, so that the fired clay is no longer porous and absorbent, but hard and compressed. This of course adds to its durability and strength, especially when combined with a hard covering glaze. The only enemy then is a tiled floor and a dog to trip over.

Long ago I made a nameplate for a friend’s restaurant, which he fixed proudly to the wall. After a few years it fell down, hitting a table on the way down to the carpeted floor – it was completely undamaged, but it made a good dent in the table top. It’s now on a shelf on a platestand. We still use some of the first plates I made (in ?1989) everyday; the John Clare dinner service I made in 1993, with a plate or bowl for each month, we keep for special occasions – and we use the Midsummer Cushion plate only once a year on 13th July.

I sometimes make plates not on the wheel, with a slab of clay hand-rolled (with a rolling pin) and formed, dried and fired on a support made from the same clay, which is removed after firing, leaving the plate’s wavey rim self-supporting. These rather sculptural objects each have their own special shape, retaining the ‘selvedge’ made by the rolling process, and the irregular line – but they’re quite strong enough for use (though I wouldn’t put them in a washing-up machine) and they look very groovy on the table. I particularly like the clear strong colours for serving food, and the unusual, irregular shape showing the plate’s origin in the soft, malleable clay and the process that formed it.

There are more examples of different plates on the inner space and Meadow pages (see links above left).  If you’d like to know more, please leave me a comment below, or click on contact details.

Clay pages and balancing gravity

May 7, 2010

One of the things I return to again and again in my work is a process of connecting small individual elements into a larger entity, the separate parts woven together and unified by the flow of words in the text, like the pages of a book.

In the Southbank Centre’s Poetry Library I was given an exciting opportunity to work with the space itself, and to articulate a response to the architectural and conceptual nature of the space. I wanted my work to penetrate the library, not just to hang about in the exhibition area. One of the ways I approached this was to treat certain parts of the space like a big pot, the pillars for example, or the glass lift, or one of the aisles between the bookstacks, and examine how I would respond to that shape and the space contained in a pot I was making.

Here, of course enters the problem of scale. Working in clay obviously imposes some limitations of size – my kiln’s capacity is about 7 cubic feet, which seems to take up quite a lot of room in my London studio, but isn’t huge for a kiln. The shelves are about 19″ square, so the largest individual things I can make are either panels that will fit on one shelf, or pots that fit into the vessel of the kiln space without shelves. These objects are large, but won’t cover a wall. One solution to the size limitation is the ancient art of tiling or mosaic or brickwork – making a large thing from small elements which can interlock or overlap or connect in layers. And the best way I’ve found to make this connection, to interlock the elements, is to allow a text to flow across the sections, to make each tile a word, so that the work is ‘read’ as a whole individual object, just as the brick wall becomes something more than the sum of its parts, or the book unites its pages to an entity.

Several of the works in my Poetry Library exhibition were made like this, using the architecture to determine the form of the work, and setting the text in response to it. Waterfall took its overall form from the shape and proportion of the partition wall, with its sloping top and rather fluid sense of separating space from space:

The text is from Valentine Ackland’s poem By Grace of Water. Here it’s important that the wetness of the raw clay should be present in the fired work, and I’ve aimed for this with the folding of the clay and the physical placing of the letters, setting them like leaves floating and spinning downstream, linking the panels into a whole with the flow of words. The letters were set first with pencil on the dried but still raw clay, then the oxide was painted on with a brush (some areas in the hollows being quite difficult to reach) and then the panels were fired on sand quite slowly to allow for movement and shrinkage in the clay. Then I glazed them, to add to the watery effect, and this needed to be carefully controlled at top temperature to prevent the colour bleeding into the molten glaze. The panels are hung from copper pipes and cuphooks.

Another stimulating problem was the two great pillars bang in the middle of the exhibition space in the Poetry Library. Hard to ignore, these huge pillars run right through the building, down to the earth below, rooting and supporting the whole edifice. I wanted to reflect this sense of solidity, and the cathedral-like effect, with a text that would clothe the pillar like vestments, wrap it in prayer flags, but I also wanted something that would convey a sense of spiritual lightness to balance the gravity.

The poem begins with a rising wind, and I used thin paperclay flags to wrap the pillar in a banner that waves and flaps and streams in that wind. The physical lightness of the paperclay flags allows them to be hung with embroidery silks tied round the pillar, using the same colours as the lettering, and referencing both the domestic and the sacramental. With this banner, the installation was part of the making process; I don’t have room in my studio even to lay out a work as large as this to see if it will fit, so I installed with my fingers crossed. Luckily the form is very flexible, so I was able to adjust it to fit the pillar’s requirements, and in the process I realised that it would work just as well on a flat or curved wall as on the pillar.


And love wells within me and spills over the world

Because of the unknown dark and the great banners unfurled

Out there beyond me, that beyond which folds

About us, warm as life, and is our life, and holds

Our days and deaths and births within its sheltering folds.

(Every Autumn a wind like this wind blows by Valentine Ackland)

Signed one-off, measurements variable but about 1m wide and 2m high, for sale £960

(Most of this text is taken from Working with words, a series of gallery talks given in the Southbank Centre in 2008. The full text can be read in my artist’s book, Journey from Winter, in the Poetry Library’s rare book collection.) For some more banners, please have a look at the Banners page.

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

Hope of Poetry

March 8, 2010

A space made with words

The lettering on this tall bowl is set so that it maps the physical contours of the bowl for the eye to understand, with colours that reflect what’s happening in the text, and with the lettering responding to the curve of the vessel and the physical implications of the text.  The lettering is applied with a brush, and then fired into the body of the clay, in this case without a covering clear glaze, to allow the earthy texture of the unglazed clay to surface.

This articulation of form allows a tactile apprehension of the pot’s dimensions, its enclosing of space, expressing the individuality of each vessel I throw on the wheel. The sense of a space made with words is then extended by the setting of the words to reveal their meaning.

Here the text is from a poem by Valentine Ackland called Hope of Poetry, where she presents her belief in the future and her faith in poetry as a physical thing, vulnerable like a tender little green plant, but strong and unquenchable like a flame. I’ve set the text around the earthspace of the clay vessel, mapping the contour with concentric rings of colour that reflect the text, and using these bands of coloured text to make the bowl appear almost see-through, to draw the eye inward.  And I’ve used the parallels and tensions in the text to mirror the outer and inner surfaces of the vessel, to allow the viewer to apprehend the relationship between without and within, and between text and form, and to see through to the core of bright fire at the heart of both.

(This text is taken from a gallery talk given on 19th May 2008 at the Southbank Centre.)

Signed one-off. 19cm high x 19cm at rim.

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

All photos copyright Liz Mathews.

Permission is needed for any use of these images.


March 2, 2010

A tall jar, thrown in white stoneware, a very deep blue within and unglazed on the outside except for a tall narrow ‘window’ of the same deep blue.  The texture of the unglazed surface contrasts pleasingly with the shining but dark glazed inside – the jar seems filled with dark blue.

The simple clean form of the jar, rising from the base to a broad rounded shoulder, refers to Bernard Leach’s idea of the ‘hidden sphere’ in every pot.

The text refers to the process, the cosmic magical transformation of the clay in the fire, and by extension to our own mysterious cosmic life processes.

Signed one-off; 23cm high and 17cm diameter (max)

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