A generation ago, the word “potter” had something of the pejorative about it – a person who churned out functional ware for the table and so forth. Times have changed as potters, or ceramicists if you prefer, are creating works that are as deserving of the label “art” as anything else in the contemporary field. Ask Grayson Perry who still calls himself a potter.
I’ve been talking to some prominent ceramicists exhibiting at the current London Ceramic Art (CAL) 2018 about their work and how art has influenced them. Roger Croll, for example, was originally a student of architecture in his native Spain but his real love was sculpture. So he jacked in his course and took up sculpture and ceramics instead. He started by making functional objects -bowls, plates and the like- before teaching himself plaster mould and slip casting techniques. He has been making sculptural pieces for 10 years. Architecture did leave him with one important legacy.
The inspiration for his extraordinary tubular works was visits to building sites where he became fascinated by the strange shapes of wire and construction implements. He has imitated them in his spectacular sculptures that are painstakingly constructed. “I’m obsessed with repetition”, he told me. “I repeat a shape again and again and again until I reach the final one. Then I cast using plaster moulds and slowly build it up when the clay is still wet”. After connecting the pieces together he adds a texture that, in the case above, gives the appearance of something so soft you want to squeeze it. Don’t try though.
James Oughtibridge makes large scale sculptures and has earned commissions from London’s Grosvenor Hotel and for the set of the latest Bond movie, Spectre. Like Roger Croll, his inspiration has come from industry, specifically by engineering structures and machinery. He was first struck by bits of steam trains and old abandoned relics he discovered at a railway museum in Loughborough where he studied for his degree before enrolling at the Royal Academy of Art.
He uses a combination of techniques to create shapes made up of several curved, press-moulded leather-hard slabs of clay with internal struts and supports. The surface texture, lines and mark making help create a sense of movement. Despite their size, they somehow give off a lightness.
Like Oughtibridge, Martin Pearce never made functional ware, finding three-dimensional sculptural pieces more exciting than using the wheel. However, in contrast, nature inspires his creative output. A tree stump, for example, with branches growing out of it in extraordinary ways is distilled into a manageable sculptural object. He lives on England’s south coast in Hastings which he sees as being a vital influence. “Living near the shore I see stone outcrops, flints and chalk and they’re all things I find I can translate into my work in some ways.” He is prone to using vitreous slips as his finish which he speckles on with a brush, sometimes “whacking it on in a Jackson Pollock kind of way”.
Matthew Chambers did not exhibit at CAL but his show Ensemble is currently to be seen at London’s Contemporary Ceramics Centre until 7 April. He left school at 16 with no qualifications and no seeming creative instincts. He landed a job with renowned ceramicist Philip Wood in Somerset who taught him the basics and helped him enrol at Bath School of Art to study ceramics.
It was a visit to Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture garden in St Ives while visiting his family that changed his life. “Suddenly, that was it. I now wanted to make sculpture and be an artist,” he told me. He earned a place at the Royal College of Art and his latest works are unmistakeably Hepworth-influenced with their repeated circles. “That love of repetition is ingrained in me. I’ve transferred that into form alone.”. He still uses the wheel and he adds grog molochite in the body to stop it shrinking too much in the firing, giving it those white specks. He mixes in the colour with black iron oxide on the outside.
Monika Debus also trained as a traditional potter in her native Germany She works mostly in stoneware clay painted with the slips and put into a salt firing at low temperature. She learnt to make functional ware but had already moved into sculptural work by the time of her degree show. “I’m not a tableware person”, she laughs. She likes to give her pieces different associations with which the viewers can “open their minds and use their imaginations”. The saltglaze finish she uses gives the surface of the works a subtle depth. The circles and lines she paints give texture and emphasis the form.
I’m not trying to suggest for a moment that some of those ceramicists who make functional work are lesser artists than those who don’t. The bone china and porcelain bowls and vases of Sasha Wardell, as just one example, I find strikingly beautiful. Yet it interests me that those graduating today are producing more and more diverse, abstract work and elevating their art in the process.
All images are courtesy of the artists.