What was it that prevented you working any more in Ceramics ?
My life`s dream , my quest came to an end quite suddenly and without warning one Monday in June 1993 at the age of 42. I had arranged to go into the local Hospital to have a small operation on my back . I was encouraged to believe that it could be sorted out quite satisfactorily and I could expect to return safely to full work after a short period.
The reality was something quite different, the details are complex and long winded, and of no real benefit to draw upon in this story. Suffice to say that due to a unfortunate case of medical negligence, the nerves in my arms were damaged to such a degree that I was unable to return to my studio and work with clay ever again. Ironically my back soon recovered.
On the day before this operation I had unpacked a successful glaze firing that had filled me with enthusiasm and confidence. In every respect my work was progressing in a manner that spoke well for the future. But It was more than three years before I entered the studio again, only to see a dusty museum where time had stood still. Everything was just how I had left it, with work in various stages of development. It is now seven years on and my case is proven, but my arm injuries are such that any form of hard physical work is effectively out of the question.
We know now why you suddenly disappeared from the scene, but how did it all start for you ?
I am not sure at first, as a child, that I knew what I was doing, for who really does when so young. Intuition was the key word, something that comes from deep down fundamental to my self and well being.
Now over forty years later I can see how the seeds of enthusiasm and inspiration were nurtured and developed. My love of landscape came from my earliest years, having always been encompassed by it. My childhood fluctuated between Wiltshire and Cornwall. Looking back on, encouraged by my parents, both locations had a profound effect on my being.
My earliest memories were of tactile adventures, surrounded by a multitude of things to explore for hours on end. Curiosity abounded not in any mannered way but because it was there, full of natures wonders. I stress this because it is so easy as one grows up to forget and perhaps ignore those essential first time, first hand childhood experiences. And it is this child like vital sense of wonderment and discovery, that I have tried to hold together as the central core of enthusiasm, for my creative work over the years.
Why did you choose to work in Ceramics?
There was never just one thing that drew me towards working in Ceramics. Looking back my interest came from a number of avenues that somehow pointed me in that direction. Not all of it was in any way reasoned through it just felt the right thing to do. But first of all, like all aspiring artist craftsmen, it was necessary to complete a four year art school training. This gave me a real chance of self discovery. For at Loughborough a world of opportunity was opened up rich in varied media. The time was spent observing and making, listening, thinking and talking all about art. It was also on this course where I met and married Elizabeth. We had much in common and in many ways since she has influenced, encouraged and supported me over the years.
My childhood had surrounded me in a safe world full of familiarity and fondness. Unconsciously it was all being absorbed. The unique quality of Cornwall filled my imagination.The word 'landscape' encompasses a 'whole' meaning that is so deeply ingrained in all my thoughts. It's infinite variability, dramatic changes in light, weather and tide.This whole encompassed much more, for as a child I played with the land and on growing up the interest stayed with me. But to a purpose, that of questioning towards an understanding and then an appreciation of my immediate environment. I collected stones, flotsam and jetsam, in fact, like a magpie anything that caught my eye. Not for any special reason except to touch, feel and sometimes smell, all very evocative. This created a 'sense of a place' and helped to capture a 'moment in time' that would later become a foundation stone in my approach to being creative.
Learning opened my eyes to reason, consider and make some sense of the world.There was something collective in most of the subjects of value when years later it was tied around my focal point - Ceramics. Geography was enjoyable because it instilled a life long interest in the way our planet functions. Even the Sciences later came into play when a positive purpose was identified. Not only to aid ones general appreciation of Earths GAIA, but also for example, later on in the analysis of creating my own unique ceramic glaze colours.
Those early days of collecting stones led to a real interest in geology and fossil collecting. As the years went on this proved fundamental to my exploration of colour in ceramics, often to be seen in Museum showcases, subtle but rich full bodied colours, fused by the powers of nature. These were my sources of inspiration.
What is it about 'Reduced Stoneware' in particular that so attracted you?
That point of interest later led me to one conclusion, that the only ceramic medium for me, would have to be 'High Fired Stoneware' and most important, that which was fired in a 'reduced atmosphere'. That alone would be the closest way I could emulate those natural formations, and by so doing, somehow fuse my experiences all in one process.
Earths clay and minerals, passing through ones hands, through controlled fire and then frozen in time. In that respect there is an element of fossilization in some of my work, in the indentations, inlaid in layers and merged with coloured glazes. The particular characteristics of gas fired stoneware reduction allow one to play with this element of fusing together all aspects of the form, making them whole as one form unified forever. Like that favoured fragment of stone, at these high temperatures of around 1300 degrees centigrade, the surface melts encapsulating all within with varying degrees of translucency.
One important aspect of this is to do with the sense of touch and feeling, not only with that of weight and balance. The surface texture had to be inviting like that pebble on the beach. So colour and touch had to work together. My early years at Loughborough and alongside lecturing after, were spent at home endlessly experimenting with colour, with the alchemy of these minerals mined out of the ground. It never stopped, in fact one of the greatest joys of opening up the kiln was first looking at those little experiments. These samples were never failures as such because one soon realized that each held some secret, some snippet of information. They could be very valuable in aiding the overall understanding of how things work. So then a negative result was as important as a positive. It was just a matter of time to find out the ways and means of producing consistently the right approach to express my vision.
As one grows up we all seem to go through various stages of selection, our likes and dislikes, and so it was with me. Looking back now it was clear very early on the type of things that I did not want to make. In fact on many an occasion whilst happily wandering around museums, my conscious thoughts would play games of like and dislike. Often this would go a stage further, being surrounded by thousands of years of experience positively shouting at me. We all know pottery must be one of the oldest finds in any civilization. I believe that a crafts person today on viewing and handling such a piece will intuitively know and feel almost exactly the same experience as that of it's original maker. Processes really have not changed that much and I relish in those historic links, right down to that pressed fingermark in the wet clay.
The one thing that sticks in my mind about growing up in Cornwall, where Artist Craftsmen abounded, was the value and appreciation given to those things handmade. Of course there were varying degrees of quality and perception. For me it was the hands on experience that was the most attractive, from initially watching others fashion their wares to later experiencing the joy of producing something entirely myself. That in time became almost an obsession. To be in control, to realize the results of my thoughts and then perhaps have somebody relate to it, and maybe buy it is ultimately rewarding. The real profit was in the experience of discovery, improvement and understanding of who I am, what I am, and where it will all lead.
Of course there are ways in ceramics to reproduce designs in vast quantities, with all our kitchen ware for example. Somehow for me this was never an attractive solution. Mass market products are dealt with in an entirely different way with other priorities and demands that did not seem to fit in my world. For me, the joy has been that each piece should be considered as a one off, even though in reality it has been a stage in a progression, encompassing an idea and function, and controlled by a theme. Most of my work respects the need for function in the ceramic medium. In fact the challenge of marrying the ideas of form, function and creative design together, is one that has been enjoyable to do. Even more so seeing them being used as intended. This need to decorate vessels of whatever description goes back to the earliest of times. For me though it was approached from the opposite end, where function was important but not vital.
It has been rightly said that my consideration for form is not pre-eminent. I would choose different parameters deliberately, often deciding where the creative work needed form to convey and express the idea in the most appropriate way. In that sense the form could play a less dominating role. Yet I felt the subtlety of each shape, whether it be a bowl, box or vase, provided endless possibilities, and I hope for that it will not be overlooked. I appreciate that the balance of form and decoration is a perpetual challenge for any artist crafts person. But these natural glaze colours and decoration, together with the different clay mixes required special consideration, for my aim was always to seek out a timeless quality.
The challenges are many fold and one can fall at each hurdle. This is why one soon realized that to attain any real understanding it had to become a lifetimes commitment. For in ceramics there are many processes and ways of working that have to be understood and to some degree mastered before anything worthwhile can begin. The essential craft skills only come with experience and that takes time, and so in a way that is a good thing. It can allow for a better understanding of what one is doing. A whole collective takes place, a merging of the idea with the mechanics and when that gels it is very satisfying. This I feel all fits in with the process of growing up, and maybe just maybe that is how things ought to be.
You have talked about Landscape as being the main source of inspiration, but how do you arrive at your ideas?
I have always enjoyed travel and exploring the countryside. One of my interests is walking and especially with a dog or two. Wherever we go it is always with a sense of adventure. In all weathers and through the seasons and in that respect I empathize with the great British tradition of Landscape artists. Even with my paintings and drawings I have rarely found it possible to present an impression of a place, by for example creating one scene, without feeling conditioned within the parameters of the established photographic representation. My mind seems to want to work in a more collective manner. There are many influences which quite naturally have inspired this way of thinking, especially that derived from early 20th century Art Movements. Ways of thinking that broke away from a classical approach to observation have always appealed to me, allied together with what can only be described as my natural 'left handed' intuitive thought processes. For what are thoughts and memories but a collection of fragmented occurrences picked up by our senses. It is a matter of seeking out and tuning in to 'a sense of place', and absorbing it's atmosphere.
The fragmented part one sees in abstract terms, where a matter of selection occurs, identifying characteristics.This can be from any source but not in any defined order that of - light, pattern, shapes, texture, colours, sounds, surface conditions, and movement. Anything to do with the weathering and ageing process of a particular place or area. It does not always have to be acutely studied, but it does have to be keenly observed, sufficient to remain in the memory and draw upon at some future time. There are also fragmented views that catch the eye where apparent chaos in nature can challenge our structured minds.
Another element comes into play which is fun to do and stems from my earliest childhood experiences of collecting found things. Later on in years it began to take on a more profound meaning, where something particular to me, be it natural or man-made which had definition, was collected from a location that could be used in a creative way at the time of constructing the next piece of work. Sometimes an historical element too was considered, which could present itself as linking times past with my present, for example, a traditional pattern element or technique would be deliberately introduced into the work because I appreciated it's historical significance.
There is something about being in tune with our surroundings, alluding to an unconscious empathy of thought, consideration and wonder. A feeling I am sure all gardeners understand. Through keen observation our normal condition is raised to a more heightened awareness, and that in turn allows for mercurial interplay, between myself and the place. On the walks one has to be alone to focus in with those thoughts and feelings. But curiously enough the company of dogs almost stimulates this action. I am sure somebody will have a rational explanation as to what is occurring, some primeval intuition at the back of the brain, who knows. The important thing is to be aware, respect and appreciate.
There is another side too to being a potter, which is closely connected to the core of enthusiasm, the hopeful persistent energy that drives us on. It is like a roller coaster having a rhythm to keep going, it can open doors that were never apparent before, doors of opportunity. Creative choices are made quickly as to which way to turn next. That is exciting, it feeds enthusiasm. For in ceramics probably unlike any other medium, a major aspect feeds this roller coaster process, that of the demands of the material itself.
Clay cannot be left, it requires attention throughout all the stages. Not only in the making but in the storage and recycling of the materials. In many ways it is seasonal too. Potters will tell of the need to work with the weather, don't fight it. That is to say use the dry/wet weather conditions to advantage. The best will have a system set up where all the processes are working together on a continuous belt. It keeps the rhythm and flow and allows for a more confident and relaxed atmosphere to work in. This flow also stimulates the creative processes.
It is clear that your childhood experiences have had a great influence on you, but what is the significance of your last collection of unfinished work ?
In the hot summer of 1990 I fulfilled a long awaited ambition to walk the whole of the Cornish coastal footpath. With my dog Sam for company and a tent we explored for twenty days both coastlines from end to end. As a youngster on walking the Cliff paths around Polperro, it was always a question of when to turn back in time for tea. Those tantalizing views around the next bend, a new bay to explore. Of course we had many trips out by car to selected beaches on both coasts. But in my mind things were always disjointed for I had to explore the whole, visit every beach and climb every hill. It was a marvellous experience to be thoroughly recommended.The excitement of the journey itself was enough excuse for going, Sam lapped it up. But of course there was another reason too, which had more to do with ongoing themes that featured in my work and which needed more stimulation and thought. These themes fell into several different categories but also linked nicely together. They were later titled 'Renaissance & Pathway' series.
The Renaissance theme was using the word literally, a rebirth of ideas from a collective source that of Cornwall itself, in particular its ancient monuments and my relationship to that period, being a 20th century man. So this was a kind of time travel in mind as well as action. It linked in well with another theme, that of the interplay between Man and Nature. This was not necessarily of epic proportions but more to do with everyday almost insignificant effects. The patterns and textures from overlaid impressions in soft earth, of shoes, a temporary mark witnessed and captured in time almost like a fossil print. The inspiration from which could then be fused into clay combined with observations and memories of the place, its colours, textures and light.
How do you come to terms with the fact that your work is left unfinished both creatively and in the practical sense?
Looking back seven years now, naturally there is great sadness that I was not able to realize fully that which might have been. Much has been left undone. What can one say except to be grateful for having had the opportunity and experience in the first place. Everything has to end sometime, but this was not my time. Being only 42 one would naturally feel that there was plenty more to offer. Unfortunately my ideas and particular way of working could not be given to somebody else to carry out. There is even now a collection of pieces stored away that are both finished and some that remain unglazed.
My individual technique of glaze application required an intuitive painters approach. That is to say a range of mixed glazes were applied in a variety of ways laid beside and on top of each other, in a similar way to oil painting. The method was direct and spontaneous, often working from memory, studies, previous works, and notes. As each artists approach is naturally different, one could not pass the work on for another to do. However in the 'technical information' site there should be sufficient information for some future artist/craftsman to maybe make use of.
As regards my creative desires, there was a period of several years where to survive mentally everything had to shut down. As has been said before there was no way that I could look or think about ceramics in any form. In fact art in general was anathema. I strenuously avoided those things that were most dear to me. It took a while to come to terms with my loss. This is very difficult to describe in words. Some have called situations like this 'going through a bereavement period' and there is a lot of truth in that. Anybody who focuses themselves on one thing in life, a passion to express yourself artistically, becomes more than a job, it is a way of life itself. An approach to life which encompasses everything one does, all by hand. If for some reason you are physically unable to express yourself then it is bound to affect the mind for a while.
Can you try to explain what you mean by seeking a 'timeless quality' in ceramics?
Speaking generally many factors come into play, for there is no one clear answer, more like a gut feeling when you observe other work from any period in time. Sometimes it is easier to say what it is not. Traditional values play their part, that is, one must hold respect for the quality, beliefs and standards of those that have gone before. So it is the Eastern philosophies that attract my attention the most.They seem to relate closest to this idea of encapsulating the 'Whole'. By that I mean from the original idea, ones motivation and approach, inspiration, interlocked with the carefully chosen process ; all this personifies and encompass your values and responses to being alive now. This personal statement for me is crucial, at the core of my very existence, perhaps even more so in a society now which embraces mass production to such a degree, and where perhaps the essential expression of each individual can often be drowned by the turmoil of progress.
We all need time to contemplate on our way through life. The eastern attitude of quiet reflection through a direct relationship with a place or object, whether man-made or natural must be something to value. Something to counterbalance this throw away society attitude that springs from our modern culture. Please don't misunderstand me, for this way of life brings with it an essential convenience, and who could say that we can now live without all its advantages. But I feel there has to be a balance. What this 'Timeless Quality' means for me is a recognition and appreciation of the best of that which has gone before represented through Artifacts. Hopefully they then provide a stabilizing factor in a fast moving society of changing values. In this respect the world of Art and Craft can and should play an important part as the heart of our culture, by acting for its 'Whole' good.
Speaking as one individual who can, it is therefore valuable to be as it were, on the fringes of society outside looking in. Also perhaps of greater importance to me, this allows an opportunity to focus on what might appear to be trivial almost insignificant matter, to a degree where it is invested with special consideration and meaning. The ultimate aim is to strive for a 'timeless quality' through a mixture of my art and craftsmanship.
The really interesting thing about living in this period of time, is our access to knowledge and understanding of the way our planet functions. In incredible detail from the Micro down to the Macro world. So any person looking at our landscape is seeing infinitely more than that which appears on the surface. With looking comes a kind of understanding and respect. It is as if you are taking all you see apart and then reassembling it again. This is a complex world of layers, best not to be absorbed all at once, but needs to be explored in small pockets. In my own work it is as if each piece is really only part of that greater experience. This is the basis of the 'Pathway theme'.
This idea of working in layers is well suited in ceramics, for the very nature of the materials, the clay and glass like glazes built up one on top of the other. Like the geology of time each piece is a frozen moment in time, a compact expression. The significance of the cut out, impressed, embossed and scratched designs allied with a multi layered selection of coloured glazes reacting together is paramount to my work. Not only for visual but also for tactile sensations where balance and feel was an important consideration. As in nature the values of contrasts all played their part. Here again the Eastern philosophies are evident. The enjoyment of what some might call 'imperfections' is not to be confused with sloppy workmanship, but more to do with a celebration of individual marks which best demonstrate handmade characteristics.
There is something too in the Eastern leaning towards the asymmetrical that I find very appealing, maybe it has more to do with the reality of nature itself, even perhaps connected to our 'Chaos Theory' understanding. These so called imperfections allow a sense of humility which I also find appealing, and that Is maybe why regular repeating pattern designs do not feature much in my thoughts, unless they then can be transformed and broken down in some way so as to allow other elements to intrude.
In this respect pattern can be fascinating because it can be used as a metaphor for life. Take for example the word 'Decay' . But do not automatically think of sadness perhaps one should consider it in a form to respect and rejoice. Look at for one example, ruined monuments that have in part reverted back to nature, where they have ceased in functional terms, but can take on a worldly charm and so seem to enter a new dimension.
These aspects of weathering and in a sense ageing feature in my work, all connected to our transient existence. Here fragmented imagery also plays a part. It has more to do with the suggestion of an idea, perhaps to allow the viewer to interrelate experiences in some way. Something in say regular pattern that is not possible to do. Maybe this is why in museums I am often drawn to those fragmented artifacts first, for this allows my imagination to explore that which is suggested but not defined. In that sense this feeling for a 'timeless quality' has also something to do with being open ended, ongoing, left to imagination. If my work has managed to be a catalyst for any of those memories or feelings then it has been worthwhile.
Finally you did find a way to move on creatively. Would you like to briefly explain how that came about ?
Back in 1994 I soon realized that painting and drawing too was becoming increasingly difficult to handle, and presumed it was only a question of time when I thought all creative work by hand must stop.
Thankfully a completely new method of working appeared on the horizon, which at first seemed anathema to me, that of working with computers. But once seeing their potential and my really having no alternative, I found that it was possible to import my own previous fine art drawings and pictures, together with some of my own later quick sketches, into the computer art programmes.
I still retained the ability to draw and work on just a 'postage size' part of an image, which by saving as I went, could be tackled a bit at a time. Perfect for my type of injuries that did not allow for continuous hand use in any degree. I am now involved in creating a collection of images in which each end product could effectively be a long lasting pigmented print, but the method of approach to working is very close to traditional art techniques in every respect, and is entirely still of my own creation. But most importantly it allows me to continue with familiar themes, and sometimes even my colours and patterns have been transposed into this new medium. And for that I am very grateful.
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