If you are in Melbourne any time between now and Nov 10, and you like things made of clay, then it is almost obligatory that you visit Heidi to see Stephen Benwell's Beauty, Anarchy, Desire - A Retrospective. Even on the slim chance this work is not your cup of tea there is no denying it is substantial and worthy of experiencing.
I have talked about Stephen Benwell's work before, on this blog. I am a fan. So seeing his work in this context and on this scale was special.
Owl Form, lidded container, 1982, stoneware
Representing a career in ceramics that spans over forty years and presenting his works in a chronological manner, you can't help but notice the changes in ceramic materials with the passage of time - from the earthy tones of 70's stonewares and stains, through the more vibrant earthernware years to Benwell's current use of porcelain and high fired colourants. His ideas and self expression have develop alongside and with developments in ceramic materials.
Bowl, 1987, stoneware
There is a beautiful publication to accompany the exhibition and comprehensive text displayed on the gallery walls so I wont go into the hows and wherefores of Stephen's work. But I enjoyed my time in the space so much that I wanted to visually share a few moments and reflect on the subtle, nuanced way Stephen manipulates clay and also paints.
Stephen uses ceramic underglazes like a water-colourist but... well better.. because he marries his imagery to his three dimensional canvas. They are mutually dependent - the pot is so much better with the images, the images so much better on the pot. Even on his flatware there is compulsive finger impressions.
In Arcadia, 2005, eartenware
His work seems so personal, there is no sense of sermonising, more didacticism in its truest form and an individual narrative formed from quiet observation. There are beautiful, humourous moments and on the odd occasion it looks a little like he is taking the piss. But more than anything on display there is an understated intelligence and poignancy that speaks louder to me than any words ever could.
And I stand by my observations of three years ago... Benwell's faces are amazing.
This is an inspiring retrospective of a well deserving artist.
In a very short space of time I have created a long, and rapidly expanding, image scroll of ceramics I like. The stark difference in aesthetic between these images and my own work has me decidedly intrigued and I have allowed my interest to develop to nigh on obsessional proportions. The more I do the more questions arise about my own practise and what I see and sense when I look at pots.
I approached it all with an air of suspicion. I am well aware a piece can look better in an image than in real life and not handling the object means only getting half the story. Deciding to overlook these limitations I have been frantically clicking away, scratching the surface of a world of ceramics beyond my immediate reach.
There is an undeniable promotional advantage to the site in the best possible sense. When an artist's name appears a few times in my pins I look them up to find out more about their work, background and practise and I have also created a pin board for my own work because you never know what might happen if you put it out there. But the main reason I have been using Pinterest is to look at pretty pictures and to keep a record of them for future inspiration. I used to cut and paste, now I pin.
I have stuck to some simple rules - I won't pin if the image is too small or out of focus - but have broken others - namely not pinning if the artist isn't credited. Some pieces I like too much to exclude on this basis.
It's all very immediate and I have to admit to enjoying the snap judgement. It feels sub conscious, a gut reaction. But every now and then I look back at my image collection and am surprised by the clearly defined aesthetic of my choices. I thought I was more ceramic-ly broad minded! And how odd that when I look at the board of my own work it appears so very different.
What do I look for in a pot? I like pieces that appear assured and effortless. While admiring technically difficult or conceptually challenging pieces, they are not the ones I chose to pin in my Ceramic Vesselsboard. I might pop them in my Inspiring Artworks category but my ceramic vessel board is reserved for pieces with which I would feel at home. Comfortable pieces with proportions that look right, forms resolved.
They are also pieces that encapsulate the making process. There is no denying they are clay, the malleability of the medium is evident, as is the maker's hand. I am drawn to the organic but not at the exclusion of refinement. And while not afraid of colour, the palette I like is gentle, enhancing rather than detracting or interfering with the beauty of the form.
There is a definite sense of nature in the works I have pinned. Clay is intrinsically of the earth and I like vessels that reflects this, not in an overt, replicating way but in subtle tones, marks and movements that add to the essence of the piece.
Other trends have appeared in my predilections - thick, buttery and textured glazes; rugged, raw clay bodies; soft, painterly slips. The core material often appears present in the finish, be it an exposed foot, a finger mark that has repelled the glaze or a dark clay body escaping the cover of glaze on rims and rises.
And apparently I am quite fond of faceting and fluting. Who knew?!
There are of course things that I did know that have simply been confirmed in all of this- my love of Lucie Rie's ceramics and Japanese minimalism. My appreciation of timeless, simple, organic shapes and natural colours. And my enjoyment of ceramic sculpture with a sense of humour and whimsy.
The images in this post are just a few examples of what I have stumbled across in my ad hock journey through Pinterest realms, credited to the best of my abilities.
I don't know how long I will continue to pin or where it will take me. I'm not even sure that it's healthy for my creativity but it really is a whole lot of fun. And in my usual style I have turned it from a spontaneous, impulsive sense of play into an exercise for consideration. That can't be a bad thing... can it?
I have an idea for new work that requires joining two types of clay but because shrinkage rates differ, joining two clay bodies can lead to cracking, so much testing is required (again). I have been a "porcelain princess" for quite a while now so unwrapping a bag of Feeneys Buff Raku Trachyte (BRT) in my studio had me slightly aghast and I thought to myself - hmm, best get familiar with this clay body before leaping into anything.
Enter the making experiment....
I decided to make a quick tableware collection that was simply intuitive. Not planned, sketched, measured, considered and dissected but drawing on an inherent knowledge of sizes and forms with the understanding that the end results did not matter. Not since my early days as a potter have I given myself such freedom. I threw quickly and loosely, turned ruggedly, glazed haphazardly and fired, well I fired like I always do, you can't mess with everything.
Apart from exfoliating fingerprints away it's a whole lot of fun to work with BRT. It's gritty, open texture means forms take shape rapidly and the turning leads to quite remarkable surface finishes. I used a cream coloured, satin glaze that was lying around, rather than start experimenting again, and fired the whole lot, small and big bowls, beakers and mugs, cups, saucers and plates, in one kiln load... without testing!
The results are rustic to say the least and the naivety of the pieces remind me of work I made while studying. And my goodness, are they spotty! I took some home to see how they looked away from the studio and they seem to be slowly creeping into daily family usage. The rims are chunky, the bases had to be ground with a Dremel but I have to say... I quite like them.
I have changed my name, renewed my website, revamped this blog and just generally given things an almighty shake recently. I'm feeling like the fundamentals are in place and it's well and truly time for content. For those that have patiently followed this blog over the last few years I thank you. My facebook page is great for short and sweet clay bites and my new Pinterest obsession a treat for instant ceramic gratification but it is here that I think.
Back shortly with more substantial content but for now an appropriate musical interelude..
I am deep in testing mode. Throwing hundreds of test bowls,
weighing stains in 2 gram increments, mixing, sieving, pouring, firing,
assessing, re-assessing... How are the percentages? Is the glaze too thick?
Should I readjust the firing schedule. I need more test bowls, more weighing...
This is a time perhaps only craftspeople can really understand.
(And maybe their partners!) The time that if you were honest about when working
out your hourly rate of pay would really put you closer to.. um.. $3 an hour? The
time that to truly answered the question "How is your work going?" would
make people back away from you slowly at parties. And the time that requires a
great deal of faith.
I have several goals in mind. I am continuing to explore colours
for my stained porcelain works, attempting to develop a colour palette of
translucent, high gloss glazes for a new collection of porcelain tableware and believe
it or not I am still searching for my ideal, clear stoneware glaze.
While I have a vague vision of things in my mind I am always
open to being led by unexpected results. I think you need to have an open mind
at this stage otherwise you can end up feeling like you are banging your head
against a brick wall.
The testing process is a little like reading a book. You are
excited to begin and as things slowly progress, and if the book is good you
become immersed. But sometimes you don't like where it has taken you and occasionally
you are better off just putting the damn thing down and starting another before
you waste any more hours, days... weeks.
A potter must test. These are the good, hard yards. It is how we get to know our materials, develop
ideas, discover new things and expand our language. And every now and then the
results are magic.
It was ridiculously hot the night of Shane Kent's exhibition opening at Australian Galleries. I stupidly cycled there and felt pale and clammy amongst the beautiful people, as they nibbled on their wagyu beef hors d'oeuvres and completely bewildered by the fact that I couldn't see any 'pots'. Plates, yes, on the walls, but not a plinth with a vessel to be seen.
Shane's previous exhibitions have included flat based, high sided forms, cups with fluid handles and curvaceous, bath-like shapes, all covered in his trademark, landscape-inspired markings and a spectacular, almost golden, high gloss, clear glaze. This show was different and opening night had me befuddled. I made the decision to scarper and come back another day and when I did I was fortunate enough to catch Shane and ask him a question or twenty, which he patiently answered.
Shane is interested in observation, the recording of observations and viewer recognition of what is recorded. Last Winter features a series of large scale, wall mounted compositions that record his observations of a bare Hawthorn tree in winter, over long periods of time. Rather than 'draw' the tree, he records precise imitations of what he witnesses by scratching on unfired porcelain plates.
The marks on the white surface are only revealed when black clay is washed over them and scraped back. The resulting 'drawings', while being intimate observations of the emerging shapes and spatial relationships of a single tree, come to resemble abstract, landscape pictures of fields of wheat , barbed wire fences or aerial views of pastoral land.
The glaze and colours of his previous work has been replaced by the matt black and white of vitrified porcelain and terra sigillata, so as not to distract the viewer from recognising the intimacy of the artist's observations. The compositions balance light and dark, fine and bold to become strikingly beautiful displays of chiaroscuro.
There are many other elements at play in this exhibition. Taught in Japan to create the surrounding space when making a pot, rather than the pot itself, Shane is interested in the environmental effect of objects. In mounting the plates on the wall he attempts to manipulate the atmosphere of the gallery space. These are not canvases and are not flat. The sculptural curve of each form, with it's raised central point, cushions the surrounding space, softening the square room and creating a flow of energy that would otherwise be still.
Wall mounting these mark-laden plates also conjures cave drawings. Early inspiration for this body of work came from journeys in outback Australia and Shane pointed out that, unlike painting on a canvas, his drawings are created from above, as the plate lies flat, akin to the process used in aboriginal dot painting. To this purpose four plates were set on a bench, lying flat as they were when they were created. For me this acted as a nod to the initial function of the plate form and the roots of Shane's practise and provided a required counterpoint to the wall mounted installations.
Last Winter marks the beginning of exploration into large scale, architectural ceramics. Shane cites the drawings of Richard Serra as a strong influence and an admiration for the ceramic murals of Miro. Some of the works in this show utilise physical impressions for marks, rather than scratches and painted lines, giving flashes of the sculptural scope of the medium and perhaps a sign of things to come.
I asked Shane if his purpose was to explore the multitude of ideas represented in this work for personal fulfilment or with a desire to communicate a message. He responded that his aim was to create work that could be recognised for what it is. Good answer. I look forward to seeing where it takes him next.
"In the higher stages of skill, there is a constant
interplay between tacit knowledge and self conscious awareness, the tacit
knowledge serving as an anchor, the explicit awareness serving as critique and
corrective." The Craftsman by Richard Sennett(p.50)
I am reading The Craftsman at the
moment and loving every minute of it. Sennett often discusses the tacit
knowledge of a craftsperson and the inherent difficulty in accessing this
knowledge. It is hard to put into words the thoughts, both conscious and sub
conscious, that run through my mind during the process of making and I agree wholeheartedly
that knowledge and ability is best acquired through the act of doing and
As a teacher, however, I think it is important to impart all
that I know to the best of my ability. Within the course structure I have
developed for a (very) short course in ceramics, I find passing on information
can be fairly ad hoc, or on a 'need to know' basis, as different students have
different rates of learning and comprehension. Detailed conversations about
specifics arise, and are most effective, only when students are attempting the
task themselves or are naturally inquisitive about a certain problem.
I have been ruminating on my own tacit knowledge and the
other day decided to jot down some of my mental meanderings as I threw some
bowls. I was surprised by all that transpired despite realising I was only scratching
the surface. To illustrate Sennet's point I thought I'd share my notes here, on my
much neglected blog...
When I begin a new form I play around with different amounts
of clay. I weigh a few balls and take notes. As I have made many a bowl before I
have a vague idea of the size of bowl I will gain from a certain amount of
clay. This all depends on the type of clay being used - there is shrinkage to
consider (10-15% after drying and firing) and the desired thickness of the
walls. If the bowl is to have a foot it will need more clay in the base.
As I sit down to throw I think about the height and width
ratio and the line of the curve. The point at which the wall comes to rest, the
rim, is like a full stop at the end of a sentence, I don't want it to finish
before my thought is complete but I don't want to warble on either. It has to
be just right. Again I measure and take notes.
My work is quite minimal in form so I aim for a consistent
curved line with no hiccoughs, interruptions or unnecessary changes of
direction. I want a smooth surface that is comfortable to run a spoon over.
I am also conscious of the requirements of future stages. There
needs to be enough clay at the base of the wall to support the form as I take
it off the wheel and a slight taper up to the rim to give it structural soundness.
I know the walls may lift slightly in the drying process so I make the width slightly
greater than what I want the final result to be and I like to round and soften
the rim so that it takes glaze well and doesn't become a rough edge. Turning the
foot will alter the outside shape and in certain areas the form can't be too thin
or it will collapse in the glaze firing.
Sub consciously, as I throw, I ponder the function of the
piece. How it will be held and used directs my choices of size, balance, weight
and feel. The "vibe of the thing." I also consider how it will be finished. Will I make marks on it that will affect the appearance of the form?
How will I glaze it? Does the form listen to the glazes requirements - it's
pooling potential or density?
I repeat and repeat and repeat. I might make ten or so and
take them through to completion - turned, dried, decorated, fired, glazed and
fired again. I assess the results, consult my notes and try again. Each series
will resolve issues and the bowl will evolve, becoming something other than
what I had initially imagined in response to the materials needs and because I
have learnt more along the way. The piece becomes 'informed'... as I do.
Reading back I realise how obsessive this must seem, but when
Richard Sennett writes lines such as...
" the craftsman
represents the special human condition of being engaged" (p.20)
"people can feel fully and think deeply what they are
doing once they do it well" (p.20)
then I start to feel a whole lot better about what it is I do.
Nose to the grindstone is a fairly apt idiom for those that work on the potters wheel. I have nearly grazed mine on numerous occasions of late as I frantically make like a mad woman for the Christmas period. Loving every minute of it of course.
I had an idea to invest is some newfangled technology to speed up the clay colouring process so picked up this little beauty at the Daylesford trash and treasure...
No more holding the blender to mix stains in slip, I cunningly thought. I can get all sorts of things done as the machine works its magic. Alas this was not to be. While the beaters work a treat and the variable speed is a marvel, the bowl of this 1950's model Sunbeam does not rotate of it's own accord. I have to stand there slowly turning it, rather defeating the purpose. That and... well the walls of my studio were covered in splatters in an alarmingly quick manner.
Not a huge success. But on the plus side I did have a lovely moment of being back at my mother's side, waiting patiently to lick the beaters as she whipped up her classic one-bowl-mix chocolate cake, .
So it's back to the trusty Kambrook for the time being...
Perhaps I'll try and modernise, maybe hunt down a 1960's model...
I dropped by the Modern Times Pop Up shop yesterday and took a few happy snaps. More 'stay up' than 'pop up' it would seem as their lease has been extended to the end of the year. Fine by me! I enjoy the local artist works / retro Danish furniture combination.
There are many opportunities to see hand crafted wares in a market environment these days but good retail opportunities appear fewer on the ground or short-lived. I applaud, respect and appreciate the buying public's resurgence of interest in 'handmade' and the ingenuity of makers in finding ways and means of promoting and selling their work. But I do grieve for the decline of the retail outlet.
I mentioned the importance of context in my post on Cone 11's recent exhibit. The way objects inhabit space is essential to their narrative. The creativity and ingenuity of some stall holders is spectacular but work crowded on a small table, put together in the space of an hour, is never going to have the same impact it could have in a well considered shop display.
I don't like being an impulse buyer. I prefer to put thought into the objects I chose to bring into my life and assess them in an unhurried, quiet environment. Old fashioned I guess, but I like to pick things up, put them down, walk away and look at them from a distance. And I like to be able to go home and think about it and come back another day.
Markets have been a saving grace to makers in an economic climate that makes it difficult to earn a living from labour intensive, traditional crafts. I do a few myself and am grateful for their popularity. Although the rapidly rising cost of hiring a stall does seem to suggest this bubble may soon burst - but that's another story!
I think there is room for a variety of selling formats for the handmade - markets, stores, online - and it is important to find what works best for you but also supports the industry and doesn't undermine the value of the work. I haven't found that perfect situation yet and I am aware that constant re-figuring is required to respond to the ever-changing market.
But for now, I just want to express my gratitude to the retailers of handmade wares (particularly those that buy the work outright!) and encourage people to support the local store who supports their local artists.
Since the Subversive Clay conference all I have wanted to do is devour any kind of craft writing I can lay my hands on. I guess it got me thinking. I have ordered many of the books mentioned by presenters and am eagerly checking the post box each day to see if any have arrived.
In the meantime I have once again picked up Lucie Rie: Modernist Potter by Emmanuel Cooper. Readers of this blog will know I had rather a shock when I received this book a while back so I tucked it away for a few months to compose myself. I am now thoroughly enjoying reading it. Nearly every chapter reveals similarities in our work approach and thinking. I must admit I nearly cried when reading the first sentence of chapter one... "Lucie Rie Gomperz was born on 16 March"... my birth date also... freaky. However there is something validating in the similarities and Cooper has an eloquent way of expressing many thoughts that muddle about in the recesses of my mind.
Lucie Rie in 1988
Photograph: Tony Evans/Timelapse Library Ltd/Getty Images
I feel I may be recording a number of quotations in the months to come. So to begin, a note to self...
"Throughout her working life, Lucie never sought to make things as cheaply as possible or to reach a mass market, knowing that there was a limit to the quantities she could produce. The pots she made were labour intensive, carefully thrown with precisely turned bases and meticulously applied glazes They were sophisticated in both concept and making, aimed at an educated, appreciative market that was specialist rather than popular, and their relatively high prices, as far as Lucie was concerned, was a fair reflection of their value."
Lucie Rie: Modernist Potter by Emmanuel Cooper p.72
Getting back on top of things now, a few orders complete, studio clean and starting to think about next weekends trip to Adelaide for Subversive Clay. Woohoo.
I have even had the inclination to raise my head from the wheel and see what's happening out and about as the winter hibernation comes to an end. Ahhhh spring.
Last weekend I rode to Abbotsford Convent to see what Colin and Ilona have been up to in their studio at Cone 11. They had mentioned an event called Spin Off, an installation of their ceramic works for sale, and it had me intrigued. It was not in their studio, as I had thought, but thankfully as I wandered vaguely through the farmers market (eating the best ever spanakopita) I bumped into Ilona, who pointed me in the right direction.
In a beautifully lit, high ceilinged room within a convent building, the pair had set up a space that felt like a minimalist, Eames-era entrance hall and lounge room, providing a natural and calm setting to display their recent explorations in clay. It is wonderful when artworks are given room to breathe and are allowed to inhabit a space. This environment was like the half way point between gallery and home and provided a lovely way to view and appreciate the works. They do context well.
So well in fact that while I was there two ladies downed bags and jackets and sat amongst the exhibit with coffees for a chat. Ilona appeared beautifully unperturbed.
Colin has been spending some time with Phil Elson and the influence is evident in his large bowl forms. I was very taken with these beautiful porcelain light shades (below).
Ilona has been exploring new satin glazes that compliment the raw clay body in functional pots, vases...
incense holders, bowls, cups and...
lots and lots of jugs!
I had to pick up one of the larger jugs because I was enjoying the aesthetic of the handle to body relationship but was not convinced of it's practicality. Convinced I was however as soon as I lifted the vessel and it gently swung to a beautiful pouring angle.
Exciting developing work to see in a really beautiful context.
Spin Off - A Cone 11 Ceramics + Design Studio Initiative