Jacob Bodilly gets to grips with the idea that capturing the spirit and standards of historical ceramic making can lead to the production of finer contemporary work.
Nothing is more exposing than clay. It reveals the truth of the people who work with it.
(Bodilly, J. 2015)
Such an honest statement and one I am becoming increasingly pressed upon to agree with. The more I delve into the habits and culture of making the more I am (almost accidentally) discovering the importance of truth being revealed in work.
Can a plaster formed, slip cast tea bowl embody the qualities of unpretentious beauty, purity and dignity? Do these qualities depend on an explicit handmade interaction?
(Sales, S. 2015)
This quote from a earlier post on this blog sums up the self initiated challenge. Work began on producing a tea bowl using a slip cast method.
Bowl from ‘Sticks and Broth’, Bristol
Tea bowls are commonly small enough objects to be held in the hands, usually accompanied by a foot/base which can be either small and unnoticeable (pictured above from the restaurant Sticks and Broth, Bristol) or very prominent in its design.
First a dovetailed plaster foot had to be made in order to attach more plaster, which could then be turned on the lathe. Fortunately I was able to observe a skilled technician demonstrate this techniques before tackling the task myself. Observation and instruction here was crucial in understanding the necessary steps in this, the first of many stages in the production of a slip cast tea bowl.
Once the dovetailing was successful a further block of plaster could then be cast onto the preexisting plaster foot. From this cylinder of plaster the block can be turned on the late to produce the desired shape. Working on a rotational device such as the lathe, meant that the tea bowl would be perfectly cylindrical and even. This step of the process was where the designing and method of making had permanent lasting effects on the final outcome. Whatever happened during the turning process would be present in the mold.
Plaster block before turning
Plaster block before turning
This is the stage where the craft comes into the making process. Each chisel action, measurement and sanding incident will impact the final outcome of the bowl. From here the bowl can be cast permitting clay slip to take on the form of the plaster model.
I visited the British Ceramics Biennial (BCB) in Stoke on Trent a couple of weeks back. It has taken me a while to digest the experience and I’m hoping that this post will help confirm and define my impressions of it as an exhibition and ceramic showcase as well as any pieces that were of interest.
Situated in the recently vacated (2008) Spode factory, the exhibition sprawled across the factory floor; small works grouped on tables, large works free standing and interactive.
BCB at Spode
(Sales, S. 2015)
Usual names in the ceramic field were present; Paul Scott and Charlotte Hodes exhibiting familiar pieces. Though its size and prominence was initially wowing, Pauls Scott’s free standing work (shown above) had been poorly displayed. The shoddy tile arranging did little to enhance the pedestrian work of this much favoured artist.
The newly parred back, undulating roof was captivating and I am sad to admit that I spent far longer enraptured by this than many of the ceramic works on display. Artistic Director for the BCB, Barney Hare Duke confirmed that this year BCB had stripped back the Spode building, removing elements from the building’s ceramic manufacturing history. Cold and dusty, the building felt very unsuited to a Biennial of this stature and if the links to this buildings heritage are being parred back then the question must be asked, why have the BCB at Spode at all?
Hyu Jin Jo
Hyu Jin Jo
(Sales, S. 2015)
The breadth and variety of the work exhibited was vast however, and the skill of some artist makers was exceptional. In line with my own research into ceramic making methods I was intrigued by the work of Hyu Jin Jo and James Duck and in particular Hannah Tounsend; all of which were exhibited under the Fresh programme of the festival, recent graduates within the ceramic field. There was a vitality in the work and a freshness missing in the long standing, established artists.
(Sales, S. 2015)
Hannah Tounsend went on to win Fresh at BCB and receive a residency at Guldagergaard in Denmark. I was particularly captivated by her vessel pieces [that] are formed using a hybrid making technique of slip-casting and throwing (Tounsend, H. 2015). She builds up layers of slip in a plaster mould before throwing the top section. The result; an object in obvious, captivating conflict. This making method is fascinating and a clear example of how opposing methods of ceramic construction can be brought together harmoniously and potentially for the better.
Like Tounsend and Mclean many of the works questioned the material, perceptions and the developing technologies of ceramics making. There was a resonating chime regarding process and the potential or liitations of ceramics as a material. Sadly here in lies my problem. Only one artist appeared to make his work about issues outside of the ceramic field. Vilas Silverton’s Zen Rogue Sculptures were oddly comical, concerning yet calming. Silverton produces idols ‘on an inner journey that will end in perfection’ (Silverton, V. 2015), each one flawed but about to reach enlightenment.
This was a Biennale about British ceramics; a wonderful, versatile medium and how the British use it in their practice. But if this was a painting Biennial, a whole host of worldly issues would have been explored. Why does ceramics need to look inwardly on itself to produce work of importance? Surely ceramics can be more than its medium. Despite the wide range of work exhibited and how I was marvelled and intrigued by the making methods, I will stand by the idea that ceramics does not and should not be confined by its medium. Good ceramic work should look outside of its discourse and explore more than its developing technologies. By this result, the BCB fell short. I hope that my contemporaries will do more to represent ceramics than being simply the sum of its parts.
Japanese and Chinese tea bowls have been an alluring object for ceramicists/potters world wide.
The Japanese tea ceremony epitomizes a quiet aesthetic sensibility called wabi sabi 侘 寂
(Touching Stone, 2015)
I too am captivated by this simple form, which has transcended from existing purely as a functional device to a prized cultural chalice; embodying ‘unpretentious beauty, purity, dignity, and humility’. (ibid)
As part of my studio based enquiry I initially set about to produce a range of functional ceramics. However, in light of discovering the love for these little objects, I have decided to focus my enquiry specifically on the making method of tea bowls.
As demonstrated below tea bowls exist in a variety of forms. In fact any small vessel (usually mounted on a small foot ring) can be given the classification of tea bowl.
Mostly wheel thrown or handbuilt, tea bowls exist upon the human hand. Can a plaster formed, slip cast tea bowl embody the aforementioned qualities of unpretentious beauty, purity and dignity? Do these qualities depend on an explicit handmade interaction?
Middleport Pottery, Stoke-on-Trent, is currently the home to the BBC’s Pottery Throw Down. Incidentally it is still a functioning ceramic factory producing slipware pieces for Poole Pottery and Denby.
The history of the building is fascinating and the methods and processes have changed little from the establishment of the factory in the Victorian era.
We have been a nation of slipware users for centuries. The products of slipware manufacture are commonplace on our dinner tables, bathrooms and mantelpieces. The saturation of slipware products in the market have significantly reduced its value in our ideology. Identical plates, toilets and ornaments are produced in their hundreds; the individuality and craftsmanship of this process appears nonexistent when compared pots, plates and vases handmade by the craftsman/artist.
But the reality could not be more different. The factory tour takes you on the journey of the object; from the making of the slip and plaster molds to packaging and shipping. Each piece is handled up to twenty-five times throughout its creation with employees specialising in different stages of its manufacture; as this video demonstrates.
What became more apparent as the journey continued was how skilled and masterful each person was at performing their role. A lady who was fettling twenty-four raw bottles told me she mostly works on that particular bottle; thus demonstrating the skill level required for each handling of the piece. And this continued throughout the factory, skilled craftspeople becoming masters in their own area.