A Head Turning Figurine

I was recently asked to choose an object from the extensive V&A ceramics collection to be displayed in a cabinet alongside the choices of my comrades and studio mates at Studio Manifold. It was to be a piece that I found inspiring or intriguing, an object that in some way represented ideas or thoughts behind my own work. When searching through the vast array of wonderful pieces I came across a Staffordshire figuring Uncle Tom and Eva.

Upon first glance this piece stopped me in my tracks and instinctively provoked an uncomfortable reaction, an automatic shudder. It is impossible to ignore the fact that the man in the piece is minstrel-esque. The blacker than black skin against his exaggerated red lips provide an instinctive unease. The fact that there is a young white girl stood on the man’s lap confuses, this clearly isn’t the man’s own daughter, unless he is a white man in make up. This situation clearly requires further investigation.

I am ashamed to say that until I saw this object I had no knowledge of the book to which it relates – Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life among the Lowly by Harriet Beecher Stowe . For those of you as ignorant as I when it comes to extremely important American history, this book was seen as a catalyst in the start of the American civil war. When Stowe met Abraham Lincoln, he reportedly said, “So this is the little lady who made this big war.”At the time that it was published as a novel (it had already been previously published as a series in an anti-slavery Newspaper The National Era) the book sold a record 10,000 copies in it’s first week of print in the U.S and went to sell 3 million copies in the first year and in the U.K it sold 1.5 million copies in one year. The book was translated into 60 different languages and was popular across the globe. For the mid 19th century, this was no mean feat.

In the plot, the main character of the story Uncle Tom is sold to Mr Haley, a less empathetic slave trader than his original master. During Tom’s transportation on a boat to his new owner he meets a young girl Eva. They become close friends. Tom saves Eva when she falls into the river and Eva’s father, indebted to Tom buys him and so he is taken to live with this family where he becomes even closer friends with Eva and they together both develop devout Christianity. Eva becomes very ill and eventually dies. Eva’s death has a massive effect on many of the characters including her father who decides that he wants to free Tom but before doing so gets stabbed and killed in a brawl.

Tom ends up being sold to another plantation where the owner is cruel and has a sex slave whom Tom helps to free. Tom is increasingly disliked by his owner. As a consequence of refusing to whip one of his fellow slaves Tom is beaten. As a result Tom dies a martyr and as he is dying forgives the violent master and the overseers.

Throughout the book there are a variety of different characters with a broad range of opinions about slavery and black people. The character Ophelia opposes slavery but is still deeply racist, then there are characters who sympathise with the slaves but feel they have no power to change things and therefore accept it. There is an uncomfortable thread that runs through the novel, which I fear was a reflection of many attitudes at the time and that is that slavery is wrong but there is still a huge distance and difference between white and black people. It is written in sympathy and not in empathy with a notion that black people should not fight back, they should forgive then in heaven they will be given eternal happiness.

Lloyd Garrison, a famous abolitionist, shortly after it’s release published a scathing review of Stowe’s novel, he said that Stowe had double standards and that she had a romanticised view of black people. In the novel itself Stowe wrote “the negro, it must be remembered, is an exotic of the most gorgeous and superb countries of the world, and he has, deep in heart a passion for all that is splendid, rich and fanciful.” This idea of difference, this exotic, romantic, ‘sit back and take it’ characteristic was something that Garrison strongly opposed. Perhaps the reason for this was Stowe’s lack of first hand experience of black people. Garrison was offended by the idea of non-resistance as a way of responding to the dreadful treatment of slaves.

There is no doubt that now we can read the book and see the awful racial stereotypes that were shamefully repeated time and time again. But it can’t be ignored that it played a huge part in the abolition of slavery. Through this sentimental vision of the kindly harmless Christian gent, this gentle hero who was willing to die before fighting Stowe played on the emotions of the romantic dewy-eyed Victorian reader. Seeing a poor victim who dies a Christian martyr perhaps helped move the audience more than if it was a battle of strengths, the shame of the under dog dying by our own hands is a difficult pill to swallow.

This Staffordshire figurine, this souvenir of popular culture in the V&A that inspired my original line of enquiry and journey of mixed attitudes and emotions is undoubtedly offensive. The way it is painted is probably a result of attitudes and thinking at the time. I can’t imagine that many of the people designing and painting the enamels in the Staffordshire Potteries had too often come across a black person, their references would have mainly been from literature and entertainment.

The piece has a resemblance to an earlier Staffordshire figurine of Jim Crow which can also be found in the V&A. Inspired by a man who apparently based his act on a black man who was a crippled street entertainer. Jim Crow was a character brought to life by Thomas D Rice, a white man who would blacken his face with a burnt cork and entertain the masses singing comedic songs reflective of current affairs and in between dancing in a twisted way replicating that of the arthritic man who originally inspired the act. So this figurine, which ironically is initially slightly less visually obscene to a contemporary viewer, is in fact a symbol of racism at it’s extreme. Whereas although Uncle Tom and Eva induces an impulsive reaction of unease, in fact upon closer inspection the story behind the piece can be said to have played a part in changing American life as we know it. At the time of the figure’s production it may have been no different to having a film poster of 12 Years a Slave on your wall (which admittedly would be a questionable choice of interior decoration). But the importance of it’s background is more relevant than one would ever had expected.

This idea of an object inducing certain emotions and these emotions being changed as we look closer is something that has always been of underlying importance in my own work. Something that may initially make you feel unnerved or moved in one way or another perhaps needs closer analysis. Always asking why has to lead to more interesting and intriguing things.

Uncle Tom and Eva can be seen in our cabinet ‘Shelfie‘ in the Ceramics department until tomorrow, but is also a part of the permanent V&A collection.

Plastic people

I have been documenting the factory where I currently make, fix, alter and finish display mannequins. The place is a huge old factory building that has seen better days. It is though a constant feast for the eyes. The factory is soon to be knocked down. It would be an opportunity missed not to have recorded some of the visual delights that are on display that daily go unnoticed.

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Material Association Gets Me Down (sometimes)

I have a problem with my chosen material. It’s a conundrum that many people who choose to make art objects out of clay are constantly trying to resolve. When I first started my love affair with ceramics someone asked me ‘how the pottery classes were going.’ Little did I know, at the time, that this question would be something that would the brunt of my frustration for so long.

The reason I use clay is, (well, other than accidentally falling upon it when I was looking for a creative outlet) clay can replicate just about anything. It’s versatility is endless. The ways in which it can be pushed, shoved, poured, moulded, coiled, thrown, slabbed, sculpted, pressed into, drawn into, polished, painted, ground, glazed, printed onto, coloured, cast, constantly amaze and inspire me. The list of processes just goes on and on. There isn’t anyone who knows everything about clay. Every person who uses it, does so in a different way and becomes an expert in their own field. Ceramists share knowledge about these perfected fields and people take on and develop this learnt knowledge in their own way. It’s a joyous ever changing artistic medium of which I will never tire.

It isn’t anyone’s fault that most people associate ceramics with pots. After all we have a physical encounter with a cup or a plate or a bowl multiple times each day. I have even attempted to make work that references function. But it’s not that often that we get up close to a piece of ceramic art, more’s the pity.

Souvenir Blackpool Mug with Surprise Finger
Souvenir Blackpool Mug with Surprise Finger
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There is a constant dialogue within the ceramic world, so much so that it’s almost tiresome, and anyone who is associated in any way with craft will have at least once had the functional/non-functional debate. The umbrella term ‘applied arts’ which on Wikipedia are described as “the application of design and decoration to everyday objects to make them aesthetically pleasing.[1] The term is applied in distinction to thefine arts which aims to produce objects which are beautiful and/or provide intellectual stimulation. In practice, the two often overlap”. Is where ceramics as a creative material has been pigeon holed, due to it’s utilitarian history. Therefore it will never escape this association with functionality.

I am interested in peoples perceptions of clay as a sculptural material. Whether if they saw a beautifully hand crafted sculpture made from fired clay, they would view it differently to the same sculpture in, say marble. Would the associations with functionality, clay figurines and ornaments, and thus by default mass production give the viewer a cheapened view of the piece?

I think scale may effect the viewer’s perception. Perhaps if a clay sculpture of a figure for example was life size it would be taken more seriously as a work of art rather than if it was the size of something that could fit on your mantlepiece. Rachel Kneebone’s huge piece 399 Days that was shown in the White Cube recently certainly made an impact and was able to dominate an entire room and somewhat take the breath away.

In America, I felt there was less of a concern with this fine art versus fine art debate. Perhaps because when I was there I was purely concerned with the figure in clay. But as it is, there seemed to be no problem or second thought about putting clay sculpture next to photography or a painting in a gallery.

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Lisa Clague’s Piece in the Blue Spiral Gallery, Asheville, USA

Perceptions are changing in the UK. We have the likes of Grayson Perry, Edmund Du Waal, Steve Dixon, Phillip Eglin and Clare Twomey to name but a few to thank. But I wonder if I will ever completely get away from the word potter for as long as I continue my love of the material. As much as I love and respect the vessel, clay is and can be so much more.

Pet Portraiture – a Problem in the First World

The seeds of inspiration are still in the germination period. Everything takes so much longer when you’re not making your own work. The generation of ideas is a drawn out process. I talked in a previous blog about the open and closed mode. A notion that I learnt from a John Cleese lecture. Well opportunities to switch to my open/creative self have been slightly lacking, but there is a steady turn over of thoughts that stem from my lovely dog born and bred in North Carolina. When I was there I made a ceramic bust of a Boston terrier I called ‘General Chowder.’ If you follow me, you will already be aware of this cute yet stoic creation.

Hand-built earthenware, engobe, underglazes, matt and gloss transparent glaze
Hand-built earthenware, engobe, underglazes, matt and gloss transparent glaze

The General is sporting a rather uncomfortable looking ‘Releaf Neck Rest’ similar to the one I saw advertised in a copy of Sky Mall magazine on my internal flight to Asheville. I was amazed by this magazine. It was the first thing that made me laugh after around 24 hours of a very arduous journey. Other items in the supplement included a dog chaise long, a rather fetching dog rain coat and a variety of other absurd items that could only exist in the first world where people have nothing better to worry about than whether their toy breed chihuahua has got sore paws or is vitamin b12 deficient.

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Releaf Neck Rest from Sky Mall
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A Push Pushi Dog Raincoat in Sky Mall Magazine

I started to wonder about this whole pet pampering malarky. Everywhere I look these days there’s a stinkingly (literally) wealthy looking woman in obscenely tight trousers with an over manicured manicure and an inbred miniature dog with the authority complex of a prime bred Alsatian poking out of her Louis Vuitton handbag. It’s unnerving and bemusing. One of my room mates in America had two Pomeranians and confessed that she took one of them for walks in a stroller (a push chair) specifically made for dogs! I am actually depressed about this, the world has finally gone bloody mad. Don’t get me wrong, I’m the first to admit that I love dogs. I even love the notion of the humanised dog. But not in actual reality, I mean come on?

I have made a few clay dogs in my time. One of them being a mummified version of Sigmund Freud’s dog Lunn, who was created in order that he could be a companion to his master in the afterlife. I’ve made dogs with human heads, dogs with fingers for legs, dog’s wearing lipstick, the list goes on. But none of these seem even half as strange as some of the realities that I have discovered are happening in the real world.

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Finger Dog, resin, acrylic and bronze powder

Occasionally people (with all the best intensions) suggest that I should start doing pet portraiture. This, to me, would not be unlike when I graduated in Photography and ended up taking pictures of the un-glamorous general public after dressing them in feather bowers and trowelling three inches of thick make up their un-suspecting faces and subsequently photographing them through a wrinkle deleting soft focus lens to add a touch of luxury to their lives and charging them ridiculous amounts of money for a makeover company run by the devil herself. How could an artist prostitute themselves to such degrading levels? I couldn’t put myself through the demoralisation…again? Having said all that (and I am aware I just went a little off piste) I am intrigued by this grotesque obsession with the living bling that is the toy breed dog and so in a way I will inevitably be taking myself down the pet portraiture route, but, I hope for my own artistic and slightly voyeuristic reasons.

The inhumanity of inbreeding these tiny animals, these breathing, yapping, very real cuddly toys has struck a chord with me. In a developed world where people are still struggling to keep their bills paid and heads above the financial river of constant undercurrents, this distasteful frivolity astounds me. After some research it came to light that much of the blame can be put on (I’m not sure why I deserve to be quite as famous as I am, but I’m stinking rich so who cares) Paris Hilton with her clutch bag dwelling chihuahua ‘TInkerbell’ (it was hard to type that without doing a little bit of sick in my mouth). This year she also bought a Pomeranian that apparently can fit into a tea cup for $13,000, she calls this poor ball of inevitable health problems ‘Mr Amazing.’ Hilton’s influence on other celebrities and (want to look like but never will be) celebrities has fuelled a craze that is nothing short of unethical in my opinion and with that I conclude that the world has gone insane.

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Mr Amazing

In my studio, I have recently been making a princess for ‘The General,’ she’s a tiara and pearl necklace sporting chihuahua based on a photograph of a similarly dressed ‘woman’s best friend’ I found in the world of Google, one that was wearing a wedding dress and marrying a sausage dog in a top hat.

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‘The Princess’ in making. Unfired, grogged terracotta, engobe and slips.

It would be a rare occasion that you found a human being on this planet that wasn’t amused by a dog in human clothes. The humanisation of animals has been happening through depiction since Ancient Egypt, but is it just me that thinks that things may have gone a little too far? Dog breeders have started creating these miniature monsters in secret un-inspected locations. People are paying thousands of pounds for something that can be worn and cooed over like a furry child replacement. Reports of these crazily expensive living toys becoming life threateningly ill due to the conditions in which they were bred and many ending up in dog homes due to their unruly behaviour, like some ‘Brundle-fly’ experiment that’s gone horribly wrong, are coming in thick and fast. Dog charities are highlighting these disasters, yet we still can’t help but smile when we see a dog that is so small it looks like it’s just really far away (or at least it would through Father Dougal’s eyes).

Looking through the cracks in these spoilt brattish rich girls’ facades has ironically made me want to embrace pet portraiture, not to make money or to encourage these infantile idiots but to highlight these madnesses of the first world, in a Martha Todd manner. I’m not yet sure where this project is going to lead me but the sown seeds have hatched into fertilised shoots and I suspect I’ll be headed down a suitably dark and twisted path.

Art, lasagne and indecent exposure.

When I was 23 and fresh out of my first bout of University education, actually, when I say ‘fresh out’ it was more of a disgruntled slope out as I dragged my results along the chewing gum ridden pavements of Oxford Road in Manchester, but I digress, not long after the first of my three graduations I was invited to become an assistant manager of a pub in the Peak District where close friends would be my bosses and the view of Kinder Scout, a glorious mountain at the start of the Pennine Way would be what I would wake up to as I opened my curtains every morning. How could I refuse? I decided I was never going to be taken seriously as a photographer with those results and so with that in mind I threw away all my creative dreams and off my cat, Borg and I trundled for a life of fun, booze and damned hard work in the Derbyshire Peaks.

We lived in the Rambler Inn, Edale. There was also a live in chef (I say chef in the loosest sense of the word) amongst a couple of other interesting characters. Jeff the chef was possibly one of the most unhygienic looking cooks I have ever encountered. If he had one wooden leg, he would have been Derbyshire’s only living pirate and by all accounts he had many ‘piratey’ ways. I can only really remember what he looked like as some kind of cartoon caricature. Long chip-pan greased hair tied back in a chefs (or should I say pirates) bandana, a missing tooth, a gnarly smile, roll-up stained fingers and a permanent drip of sweat hanging off the tip of his nose. He was temperamental (as all kitchen workers are) but had a comedic side. His favourite trick was to stick an uncooked strand of spaghetti into the end of a raw pink sausage and hold it at his crotch, which to the untrained waitresses eye looks shockingly and uncannily like a pissing penis. I will take this image to the grave, along with his grimace and the sound of his rasping laugh as he enjoyed my reaction. Amongst other things Jeff once asked me if I fancied pretending that he had sexually harassed me in the work place, taking him to court and splitting any compensation money down the middle. A nice little earner which would only enhance his pirate reputation. I declined his kind offer, generous nonetheless.

The reason I am writing about this particular life adventure (and believe me there are many that I will no doubt get off my chest at some point) is that alongside it being one of the first points in my life where I strolled off the creative path, which when I think back is quite sad, but at the same time I wouldn’t be the person I am today without these notable experiences, upon reflection it was one of the many things that made me the artist I am or would at least like to be today. Life experience is the only way to really discover who you are.

Back to our Jeff. I have no idea of our comedy genius’s employment history, or how he came to be able to describe himself as a cook. Whether he just didn’t know or didn’t care about how to prepare a decent lasagne (my guess is the latter). But for some reason his technique was something along the lines of boil a huge pan of beef mince and onions, drain. Spoon into individual bowls, top with a sheet of lasagne and a good glug of pouring cream, and serve. Now I’m no food snob, but it can be said that I know (as most people in the modern age do) my way around a bolognese sauce, and this was not a case of there are more than one way to skin a cat. There were constant complaints obviously, but, let’s just say he wasn’t the kind of man to take cooking advice.

One morning there was an unusual amount of quiet in the kitchen, it soon became evident the Jeff had done a runner without even a wave of his special sausage. Off he had gone, I vaguely remember (again this have been embellished with memory and time) that he made away with some money. Although not being the sharpest chefs knife on the rack, it barely covered the holiday pay that he was due. Poor old Jeff.

On the positive side, this was my time to step in and to shine. I set off in the kitchen and started whipping up a true Martha style lasagne. That is a hearty English pub style lasagne served with chips of course, non of this fancy proper Italian stuff. As the tray of bubbling, browned cheese on top of that creamy béchamel sauce steamed and sighed with joy, I was filled with a new kind of satisfaction. The lasagne was ordered and eaten, empty bowls returned. The occasional compliment filling my ego with a real ‘sock it to ’em girl’ attitude, and so that basic part of human nature, the ‘look what I did’ show off part of me was awakened. In an obvious way this is exactly why I enjoy making art. It’s the craft of making something that will surprise, satisfy and tantalise the consumer, whether this be through a deliciously rich sausage casserole or by making a piece of art that makes the viewer react, it tickles the same senses and makes me feel alive.

That image of Jeff with his sausage and spaghetti, that (almost) indecent exposure, and the shocking reaction; that momentary state of panic, the ‘what the fuck’ instinct is something that undeniably livens the soul. Not unlike the reactions I admit to enjoying in art. It at least must hit the senses, whether that be through pleasure or repulsion, or both, a piece that shows the viewer that they are alive. Agreeably Jeff’s trick was base, the lowest humour, why complicate matters? It was edgy and dark and left a permanent trace in my mind. Had Jeff been able to make a great lasagne perhaps he would be my mentor to this day. Thank God for small mercies.

A turbulent landing.

It’s been just over three weeks since my return from the good old U.S of A. It was an arduous comedown, to say the least. Within the first week of being back in Blighty I had ordered £200 worth of clay materials, bought a bike, decided that I really needed to set up an art commune in North Carolina, cried a lot, and thought I was going through the early stages of dementia due to general fatigue which caused me some weird temporary memory loss, mainly for names, embarrassingly. I later came to realise that the latter two were down to jet lag and having to start work at 7am the day after I touched down. There’s nothing likely to make you question every part of your life more than having to sand fibre-glass in a dirty old factory in the city after spending three weeks in the Blue Ridge mountains making art. Everything was very wrong.

There hasn’t really been all that much time to ponder, at least in a positive sense. This is something that I find gets in the way of everything creative in my world. My day job entails problem solving and physically grafting, so there is little to no time to really contemplate. It’s something that I almost have to schedule in, which according to John Cleese is not a bad idea (that link is really worth a gander, if you need to kick yourself into creative shape). Without contemplation, there can be no creativity. I am sure many other artists who are having to work in order to pay their way in life have the same problem. Very few of us are lucky enough to make a living through art alone, yet non of us are able to let go of the need to make art and it is easy to get stuck in this loop of torment. I have a studio. Part of the reason I work so hard in my mannequin world is in order that I can afford to have a studio, but the irony is that I am not there enough and when I am there I am so rushed and flummoxed that it is impossible to know where to start. Penland gave me the breathing space, and the confidence in myself to realise that my creativity hadn’t been taken away, it was just lying dormant.


Today for the first time, as I was cycling to work at an ungodly hour, my brain seemed to click into gear (pardon the pun). Unannounced and without having to pre-plan or schedule thinking time in, I started to develop my ideas. I remembered that my most creatively inspired times in the past were when I had to drive or walk long distances, there would be a chain of thought that seemed to slot together, ending with that ‘eureka’ moment and an idea was born, in the form of a cock in a cup or a parachuting pigeon (what joy). During this transportation time there is no other distraction, no smartphone, no book, no other thing to distract me. My journey on the bike has now become second nature and once the actions of riding become automatic, in the same way that they do when driving a car, the brain has time to click into a thought development mode. And so twenty minutes later and as I arrived at my dusty destination, I had set myself a project, come up with ideas and had told myself that the first thing I should do when I get home is to write my blog.
Right now I’m not going to go into my ideas, believe me I will as soon as things get rolling. I just want you to know that there is creative life in the old dog yet, and as I was told by one of my American ‘buddies’ when I was over the pond, all Brits “like ol’ dogs.”

Empty nest syndrome and tent erection

I’m feeling a little deflated. This is hopefully a temporary matter. It’s that moment of transition after such an AWESOME (sorry) two weeks that will be hard to come down from.

On the first day of our class in lower clay here at Penland we noticed a swallow nest on the front porch. Neatly tucked inside it were three nervous looking freshly hatched chicks getting regular feeds from two very attentive parents. Many a time was spent ‘oohing and arghing’ as the chicks grew bigger and began to lose their fluff.

Once our pieces were glaze fired, Thaddeus showed us how to use encaustic wax to add an extra dimension to the surface of the work. We did our final touch ups and eventually were ready for ‘show and tell.’

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TJ burning encaustic wax

The night before was our celebration night and there was an auction to raise money for the ‘work/study’ students. Work/study is such a great idea. People who perhaps would not usually be able to study here are given the opportunity to work in order to pay for a majority of their tuition fees. The system seems to work incredibly well and I would highly recommend investigating this if you are interested.

Work donated by students and teachers was sold off at the auction and the party continued into the night in a more than cathartic manner.

The morning after was show and tell and we looked at some of the wonderful work that has been produced, and Thaddeus taunted me with something frightening known as a cronut (a cross between a croissant and a donut which was never going to agree with my hangover), bad man.

And so from here it was time for people to start leaving. As they gradually gathered their belongings and said their goodbyes, the now almost fully grown swallows tentatively flew from the nest (honestly) so now the nest is empty and most of my new found friends have gone, having learnt new things and shall fly away to their previous lives with fresh ideas and inspiration. My goodness, I’m entirely aware of how corny this is all sounding, and so I apologise. But the metaphor was too blatant not to mention.

I do want to thank everyone for making the session so wonderful and I really hope we will all meet again one day in the future. TJ is a great teacher and a super cool man (and Stephanie his wife is wonderful), Ben and Jeffrey (the Bert and Ernie of the ceramics world) made the session flow and amused and helped each of us and all the other students who made me feel at home and part of the family (yes, even you Daniel).
I’m not so good at goodbyes so have made myself scarce to avoid awkwardness. But farewell my chums. Be safe and happy and thanks again.

Right, that’s the sentimentality over with. Time to move on. For the next few days and my final days here at Penland I am a volunteer for the Annual Benefit Auction. A huge event, I believe. The place is already being transformed. A huge marquee is being erected as I type and it will be time for me to give a little bit of Martha love back. So I shall try not to dwell on what has come to an end (but will stay in my memories) and will see this as a new page in my adventure.
Let the grafting adventure commence.

Beyoncé brownies and dangling wieners.

Since I last wrote, we have been finishing and firing our pieces. Due to the nature of ceramics and things having to be in the kiln, we’ve had some time to do other exciting things. It is becoming apparent that as a class, we have got the perfect balance of people, we’ve become good friends and if I do say so myself, we are pretty much the coolest on campus (but definitely not a cult, governor).

I never really had a desire to come to America, (apart from perhaps New York). For some reason I thought it wouldn’t be exotic or different enough for me, I’ve always been attracted to the super foreign experience, India, North Africa, anything as far from my own culture as possible. My only real experience of Americans was the tourists that tend to look all befuddled as they get lost in London, with their sun visors and loud ‘ain’t these sidewalks quaint’ statements. So I honestly wasn’t prepared for the intelligent, hilarious, thoughtful, creative and motivated group of people with whom I have spent the last two weeks. I am already dreading the goodbyes.

Before I talk about our particularly special field trip yesterday, I wanted to mention our first two studio visits. The first being Christina Cordova. Christina lives just ten minutes walk from the school. She came here for a residency and then her and her glass blowing partner bought a property at the end of the road, where they have been for the last five years.

Christina is Puerto Rican, her work is rather beautiful large scale figurative ceramic pieces that often have Spanish titles referencing her feelings about the politics of her place of origin. she explained that when she exhibits in Puerto Rico, the work seems to be at home, more understood. She told us about the piece that was in the middle of her studio. It’s a larger than life size head and torso, with which she admitted to have had struggled.

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Christina and her work

She has been unwell over the past year and the piece was occasionally worked on with difficulty, it was fired and decorated many times and was left outside in a storm and then recovered and fired and I am presuming this process continued over several months. The work has such an air of melancholy, the dripping slips and glazes make it appear to sink. A feeling of the exhaustion caused by her state of health resonates in the piece. It is poetically beautiful. We later saw it in the centre of her section of a show at Blue Spiral Gallery in Asheville. I must also mention Christina’s dog Luna who regularly visits us in our studio of an evening, in search of crumbs and attention. Everyone seems to have a dog here!

On Friday, we visited Lisa Clague’s studio. A little further away but in a beautiful area with a small babbling stream and yet more dogs. Her studio was huge and bright and there was much of her work out for us to be awestruck by as well as three large scale pieces in progress. Lisa uses a variety of processes.

Her parents were both makers, one with clay, one with metal. And although she fought against using these materials through college (her background is illustration), she eventually turned to both ceramics and metal, she advised that you should always follow what your heart tells you, this is what brought her and her work to where she is today. Her illustrations inform her work and are wonderful in themselves and the detail is echoed on many of her pieces. But for me, the true joy is in her sculptures. She works on a variety of scales. She often dips figurines and stuffed toys in clay slip and fires them, she also hand builds on a large scale. Her work has a dream like (sometimes nightmarish) quality.

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Detail of the surface of a large scale sculpture by Lisa Clague

I am fascinated as to why there are so many people using clay in North Carolina. It appears to be the American Mecca for ceramics. It is easy to visit these places and envy the ceramist’s apparently perfect existence. Where one can just make and make and make and have dogs and space and beautiful landscapes. Clean air and none of the stresses and strains of the city. But I can’t help but think if this was me, an ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’ situation could very easily arise. That being said, there is still a little bit of me that pines for such a life (obviously not the axe wielding maniacal part).

In between these visits all of our pieces survived the bisque firing (fanfare please), much to the surprise of many doubters. We sanded the bisque pieces, worked on the eyes, put on glazes and then put them in a glaze firing. During the firing time yesterday, we trundled off on a field trip to Asheville’s art district, where the highlight for me was a chicken teriyaki quesadilla with a pot of particularly stinky kimchi (spicy fermented cabbage that should never be eaten or opened in an enclosed space, or vehicle, Vicky!) after this we went on to the Blue spiral gallery.

Asheville is, in comparison to Spruce Pine, a metropolis, but in comparison to say Manchester, is ironically, a cute town with ‘quaint sidewalks.’ There were congregating hippy types and lots of galleries and people drinking iced coffee (which is, I have noticed pretty much taken intravenously by most Americans. If only they would discover Yorkshire Tea). I bought one of said iced coffees, a four dollar salted caramel latte no less, from a London Bus come cafe and we left Asheville heavily cultured in a middle class hipster stylee.

We went on to visit the studio of Alex Matisse, a potter who is a direct relative of Henri Matisse and Marcel Duchamp (a true creative thoroughbred indeed). His studio and gigantic, walk in wood kiln were in the middle of a beautiful valley.

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I must admit, this was the most impressive setting and set up out of all three studios we have visited (sorry ladies). Here it’s a whole different ball game though. Alex and his comrade make pots, pots of all sizes, from huge huggable pots to tableware.

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So for me it was the set up rather than the work that took my breath away. The kiln is packed and fired around once every three months, it would be a real treat to see it in action, I’m sure. Oh and of all the dogs, Alex’s was by far my favourite, although she has no shame.

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Our plan after this was to head to a gallery opening, but time had flown and Jessie one of my fellow class mates and budding sculptors had invited us over to a house that her family have up in the mountains to eat brownies (as once cooked for Beyonce) and S’mores (toasted marshmallows sandwiched in between honey Graham biscuits and a slice of Hershey’s chocolate – oh yeah!). We wanted to be there before sunset and so we picked up food and booze provisions and trundled up ‘shake rattle and roll road’ to yet another idyllic spot just in time to enjoy the amazing view into the valley where two deer ran into the view to add to the already picture perfect scene. We cooked hotdogs over the fire and had a buffet as the sun set and the fire flies sparkled surreally in the field below, we drank beers and the night continued.

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It would take too long to talk about each individual in our class that has made this trip so much more than a just a ceramic course. For the first few days, as is often the way in these situations, the class was fairly quiet, as time went on people slowly came out of their shells and by the time we were having our exciting evening on the mountain everyone was in their prime. There is a couple here from Taiwan, Yu Tong and Show Chang. After Jessie had shown us her hidden talent of amazing piano playing and Julia her trained singing voice, Show Chang revealed that he was a classically trained singer and Yu Tong a dancer and they gave us a jaw dropping performance that moved me almost to tears (I’m getting softer as I get older). This spurred on an influx of hidden talent revelations, and I was beginning to think that Americans are actually like the kids from Fame, but thankfully (if only to make me feel better for not being a proficient kazoo player or break dancer) standards and quality of talents descended rapidly into beatbox attempts and life threatening headstands. It was such a lovely day and it really made me want to discover more about America.

Other things to note (that I have been informed) are that I say ‘quite’ quite a lot. I don’t pronounce my t’s when I say metal, a queue is a line, pants are not underpants and bender means an entirely different and far less derogatory term over here. Oh, and everything I say is dripping in sarcasm.

I’m going to check out as it has taken me all day to write this and upload photographs, the crafty wilderness is not for those who want to be in touch with the outside world. So fingers crossed this will upload. If not well, you’ll just have to use your imagination. Over and out.

To fire or not to fire, that is the question.

I wanted to post a few images of some of our classes amazing work before it goes into the bisque (first low) firing. After coil building the pieces, we put on a variety of slips, underglazes and washes. They have been drying in our fan room over night and are going in a very slow firing today. Fingers crossed they will come out in one piece on the other side.

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So now the moment of truth is approaching as the kiln doors are open and ready. Lets hope and pray for a non-explosive firing. See you on the other side boys (and girls and dogs)

Gin and Things

So now the first week at Penland has flown by faster than I would have liked, we are well into our making, and although everyone is spending so much time in the studio, it still feels like we have so much to do. The talent in our group is quite astonishing, considering we are all from such different backgrounds. We have decided that my Boston Terrier is a General, who was wounded on the battlefield, and as he is from Boston his name is Chowder, General Chowder.

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General Chowder before firing

Apparently chowder is something that is said in Boston (in a Boston accent of course), although I’m not overly sure if this is true. There is a massive element of leg pulling in the group, those pesky kids.

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Lower Ceramics, Gin Party

After a long hard week and a distinct lack of booze, we all decided to let our hair down on Saturday night. This consisted of a ‘gin party’ outside the studio, which was initially fairly civilized. There were cocktails and nibbles, then there was Jamesons and then there was dancing (in an eighties style, with glow sticks), then there was more gin, and eventually there was an injured ice gathering soldier (an almost dislocated knee sent one of our trusty bearded comrades to A&E). But he’s back in the studio and will live to see another day.

So as you can imagine Sunday was a little hazy, after such an action packed evening. But I did get to go to the laundromat, which was (and I don’t say this sarcastically at all) great. It was a little bit of real America, I got to see yellow school buses, motels and the local town Spruce Pine which was like an empty film set. The view from the mountains is amazing. This really is a beautiful part of the world.

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We had a talk last night from Garth Clarke. He talked about the use of ceramic as a fine art medium and how the value of ceramic art is changing. Which was a lecture almost designed for me. So that was a perfect way to end a great weekend.

This week, we are doing firings and so there will be rushes to get things ready for the kiln and then a bit of breathing space, at which point we shall be going on a field trip or two, which I am looking forward to. I believe we are going on a couple of studio visits. I am also going to try and get around some of the other studios to see what’s happening, I am amazed at some of the courses that are running, from shoe making to historical photographic techniques. And so I will keep you posted with these new things as they arise. For now, I am off to see what is on the menu this evening, so I’ll high five you for now and get out of here, yo!

A bit about the workshop

I am aware that I’ve written an awful lot about food, insects and my general well or none-well being in this new and exciting world of creativity, so I thought I’d devote a little time and effort to talking about my experiences so far in Penland’s lower clay department. As I’ve already mentioned the work ethic here is unreal. It is generally 9am until 11pm and later. But although we are creating ‘work,’ this is more of a luxury and a privilege, than considered actually working. I realise this sounds a little over the top and perhaps the American enthusiasm has rubbed off a little. But to have the opportunity to immerse yourself purely in a subject without the need to worry about any of life’s little stresses is extremely liberating.

Right that’s enough of the cheese and on with the work:
We are making busts. Large scale busts using the techniques that have been demonstrated by Thaddeus. This includes coil building with heavily grogged earthenware clay. For those who aren’t clay types, this means it’s a clay that has a gritty texture due to grains of fired clay that are within it. This gives the body strength and stability in order that you can build bigger pieces without them collapsing. These busts will be decorated with a variety of methods to create a desired effect depending on each of our ideas. Thaddeus’ work appears weathered, as if it has a history, like old wood or cracked and peeling paint.

So in the first five days of our two and a half weeks here we have made test tiles, applying newly learnt sculptural techniques and decorative techniques, put these in the kiln for the first firing, developed our ideas for our final piece and started to build these ideas using an armature that we built from a design that Thaddeus developed after researching Danish whaling boat figureheads.

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Thaddeus Erdahl demonstrating armatures

I’ve decided to be awkward, I’ve decided to make a dog when everyone else is making a human head. I have to make things for a reason and the reason is, as I’ve mentioned in one of my previous wafflings, during my trying journey here, on my flight from Newark to Asheville, I read a magazine that made me laugh (something I hadn’t done for at least 24hours, which if anyone knows me will realise this is very out of character).The image below will illustrate why.

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There were also a selection of comfort enhancing items for air travel, one of which was a neck support that looks not unlike a neck-brace, and with that my dog in a neck brace idea was born. And yet again I feel slightly uncomfortable, and bemused by my own idea. But it’s coming on and I’m enjoying the challenge, and it’s certainly a conversation piece if nothing else.

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The Proud Prince so far

These pieces needed to be completed decorated and ready for their first firing by next Tuesday, so it’s going to be a busy weekend. But in between the work, there will be fun. I have demanded booze (as Withnail would so Britishly say). So tomorrow night we are being fancy and having a gin party. Hoorah! In the meantime everyone has been practising their British accents (although I have yet to convince Daniel that we don’t all say ‘governor’). So there will be work, fun and frolics no doubt.

Giant Flies and Wall Paper Paste

I think I’ve started to get into a routine. This does involve getting up at 6.15am. Which is actually a lie in from my usual working week but nonetheless I feel like I’m betraying my former ‘love a lie in’ self.

The routine consists of shower, yoga, breakfast (today I had bacon, waffles and maple syrup, something I’ve always dreamed of, only unfortunately not in a Twin Peaks style diner). Oh, if you were waiting with baited breath, my British comrades, grits are some kind of an edible white glue (or polenta) that I now realise are supposed to have flavours added to, such as butter, honey, chilli sauce, shrimp, anything really that makes it taste a bit less like wall paper paste, I will try them enhanced in one of these ways before I completely dismiss them/it from my diet. Other than this food faux pas, and as I keep repeating, THE FOOD IS WONDERFUL, much of it is grown on campus and I don’t have to cook, so I’m in the lap of luxury.

Oh yes, back to the routine. After gorging on these delights, I go to my class…
We have done so much in three days. Thaddeus otherwise known as TJ’s work is, as I thought it would be, inspirational. I feel like all those dormant idea seeds that so easily disappear when you’re sucked into a world of everyday life are germinating. At the moment I’m thinking dog in a neck-brace, need I say more?
We made lots of test tiles from plaster press moulds, these are all faces and we have been adding features, eyes, hair and the likes. These will be worked on with a variety of taught techniques which we have had the pleasure of being demonstrated and shown end results on actual works. TJ’s work has substance, sculpture and surface. Each piece has depth of meaning and the notion of history, wear and imitation of materials gives the pieces a whole-ness that I truly admire.

I found the first couple of days in the studio something of a mental struggle. I’m very reflective and find it hard to lunge in at the deep end. But my confidence has grown as my jet lag has abated. So hopefully good things will start to grow from the seeds.

Today my rational fear is massive, strange and unusual insects. I saw a mud dauber apparently building a nest that looks exactly like a long (wall) poo. It picks up mud and builds this slow cocoon of doom, in which I have no doubt it secretes manky eggs from which something very bad will grow. The mud dauber looks like a remote control fly, like something from a terrifying sci-fi film, that carries around a lump of mud in a threatening manner from which it builds it’s turd nest. On the brighter side (no pun intended) I also saw fire flies last night, I thought I was losing my mind as these little darting sparks flew around the paths as I made my way back to the studio.
It’s now 22.33 I’ve just cracked open a bottle of Miller ‘High Life’ outside our still busy studio. It’s my only bottle and I am savouring every sip. People are being more than industrious late into the night, but it’s for the love of making and nothing more, which is joyous. So a shall finish my beer and head back in for some underglaze action before my routine starts all over again.

The start of awesome things to come

A little bit about Penland School of Craft.

I’m not going to delve too much into the history of Penland, (it is well worth investigating on their website) but, very briefly, it has been here since the early 1920s. Originally a weaving school and gradually growing to a wonderful place where most if not all craft is practiced, learnt and taught. It is high in the stunning Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina and I think we drove through at least one cloud to get here. People of all ages come from all over the US and abroad. People who are practitioners, amateurs, students and those who just want to try their hand at something new in what can be described as a maker’s paradise.

I am staying in a small dormitory of four beds in a cabin. My window looks directly into the woods. It’s not far from magical. Getting used to sharing a room (something I haven’t done since outward bound trips in high school) was easier than I thought, everyone is in the same boat and also very, very friendly.

Every time I sit down someone comes and talks to me, it is impossible to be lonely here. So far I’ve met a lady from Australia who makes paper out of pulped clothes who told me of her encounters with lethal snakes and koala bears, a chap from Massachusetts who lamp works and blows glass who tells me that Penland changed his life, he changed from an IT worker into a glass maker after a visit here and regularly returns for more inspiration, a young lady from Toronto who works in furniture and has come for a course on making in cork, and I’ve just met one of my room mates who was in the forces and learnt how to throw pots at Guantanamo Bay, I shit you not!

The first Sunday is a day of settling in and eating mainly it seems. There was a ‘light’ breakfast at 9am and brunch at 11am. I partook in both. The food is fresh and healthy and very tasty although I’m not overly sure about the soysage, a chirpy vegetarian play on words for a slice of non-sausage. But if I was veggie I would no doubt be very much in favour of said textured vegetable protein item. The vegetable gratin on the other was de-lish!

I have a new fear. This is a completely rational fear by all accounts. It is of poison ivy. Apparently it’s everywhere. So I mustn’t go into the woods. But I want to! Apparently there is an oil in poison ivy that once on your skin gets into your blood stream and can bring you out in weeping hives. And even if you stroke a dog that’s been near it you can get this evil substance on you. I just stroked a very cute corgi too (yes, such an animal does exist). So I am waiting for the inevitable. Fingers crossed I’ll live to see another hive free day.

Sunday evening we had our welcome to Penland talk. It was inspirational. The instructors were introduced with brief descriptions of their work and they will each be giving in depth presentations throughout our stay. We all left with a spring in our step and a feeling of how very lucky we are to be here, and then we ate some more!

After dinner we started our lessons. In my group there are 18 of us. All, as I say from different walks of life. Some with clay experience, some without. Thaddeus or TJ our instructor made us all feel at home and comfortable, and is much fun.
Monday we will start actually making and as from there I shall show you more of what we are doing in class and the progression of the work. As well as witter on about what I had for breakfast. Tomorrow, I will discover what ‘grits’ really are or is. It looks like gruel but I will keep that far in the back of my mind. For now, I must sleep. Everyone says awesome at least every fifteen minutes, and I am beginning to see why. Goodnight ya’ll and I’ll update again real soon.

The treacherous journey

It’s 6.37am. I’m sitting here being slightly irritated by an Elbow track playing on the tinny speakers in an overpriced high street bacon roll and brew provider in the departure lounge of Heathrow Terminal 2.

The mission started last night. My boyfriend come sherpa and I left home late enough to set my panic mode in motion after an impromptu visit from his recently heart broken nephew. My advise consisted of something along the lines of him getting some pies down him and everything will all appear much much brighter, although I think he was thinking more along the lines of jäger bombs and Stella chasers. After this brief interlude, off he went to set the world, or at least Camden to rights. And off we went, a little delayed in leaving on the hottest and sweatiest day of the year.

I had this vision. This ideal idea that me and my significant other would glide into our airport hotel to be greeted by helpful staff, to check in to our relaxing and comfortable room and perhaps to have a final romantic meal to say our farewells.
Not, I thought, much to ask. Blatantly, this was never going to happen. So after limping for two hours on a part suspended and occasionally what appeared to be lost Piccadilly line train journey in the sweltering heat, listening to an extremely posh girl tell her friends loudly and proudly that she can’t abide a disorganised kitchen and how she’d recently chipped one of her false nails, but the rest were exceptionally strong, it might be said (for want of a less crude phrase) both of our ever fraying nerves were somewhat ‘shot to shit.’

Two and a half hours later (at 10pm), we finally arrived at the Holiday Inn near Heathrow, tired, angry and famished, with all my expectations blown straight out of a delayed shuttle bus window, with the dreaded knowledge that I needed to check in for my flight at 5.40am.

Greeted by a confused reception desk trainee and a disgruntled manager, we were less than promptly informed that the computers were ‘down’ and nobody could check in as they had no record of names and empty rooms to which those names could be allocated. We swiftly adjourned in a ‘for fucks sake’ manner to the bar and ordered two chicken burgers with ‘skinny fries’ and two pints of cold booze. Instead of this we received two chicken breasts served with three lumps of corn on the cob and some smelly beans served on a volcanically hot piece of slate (what’s with that?) that couldn’t be touched for fear of permanent loss of finger prints and when approached by any form of cutlery induced the old ‘fingernails on a blackboard’ effect. Cider made things temporarily better.

After an hour and half of waiting, stewing and frowning occasionally in a queue under a dripping air conditioning unit with a group of equally frustrated (almost) customers we eventually developed a sort of blitz spirit. One woman was about to open a bottle of wine to share.

After some time we were shown to a room by a very apologetic young man (who had obviously pulled the short straw for his irksome duties), he knocked on a door and a sleepy man in a vest sent us back down to reception, quite evidently the systems were still ‘down’. Eventually at midnight we got into an empty room, had a little argument and fell asleep for a whole four hours, with a few panicky ‘have I set the alarm’ waking moments.
Now I’m here, I’ve done the whole security thing, which was considerably less stressful than I expected, not a questing finger in sight, thank The Lord.

The reality of spending three weeks with people I don’t yet know and without my partner in crime is a little daunting (I did have a little cry, mainly due to my current unstable state of fatigue). But, on the positive side, on which one always has to look (as D-ream will eternally persist in reminding us on bad local radio stations) things can only get better.

I’m now on my flight and just re-read a pre-course ‘Nature Nurture’ preparation email from my soon to be teacher at Penland, Thaddeus Erdahl, he wrote: “The premise of Nature Nurture is to dive a little deeper into that rabbit hole called your life, to explore your personal influences and to effectively utilize those life experiences to better inform your sculptures.” And with that quote and a slightly more relaxed demeanour after several snoozes, I realise that this really is going to be an adventure almost tailor made for me and that the trials of my pre-flight ordeal will make my trip ever the more special. (Fingers slightly crossed obviously).

After much stress, finger and face scanning and hand swabbing I caught my connection to Asheville by the skin of my teeth. A tiny plane with 70% silver tops, that is people over 75. But the inflight magazine advertised dog chaise longs so that kept me amused.

I was met at Penland by Harry the shuttle bus driver and I met some very nice Penland attendees (some students some teachers). I was a little phased and bemused by now, riding the wave of sleep deprivation insanity and so my acknowledgement of anything other than the need for food and sleep was lacking. But I’m here, it’s beautiful and all is new and strange. I will fathom this whole thing out and get (right) back to you.
Ps I think I must start talking a bit more slowly, although I don’t want people to think I’m deranged.

“After Glastonbury, no I mean Penland”

There’s a phrase that gets used in my family. When that time of year approaches, when all the stresses build up into one big awful ball and it’s time for a cathartic blow out. It is bandied around that Martha will do it “after Glastonbury.” Anyone that has been to Glastonbury Festival will understand exactly what this means. It is a time of celebration with thousands of like minded people. A time to forget the everyday trials of life and to let yourself go, it’s about one thing and one thing only and that is being happy. So once the summer solstice approaches there is only one thing that can be focused on and everything else can wait. It’s been a while since my last Glastonbury adventure, but that notion of a need to lose myself in the things I love still stays and so the phrase lives on.

In four days time I’m going to America. It has become this years Glastonbury. I am looking at it as a chance to reset (I actually stole that from a line in Coronation Street, sorry). I have been lucky enough to receive a fellowship that gives me the opportunity to immerse myself in a world of creative people who are passionate (as am I) about making. I am going to a place where ideas and inspiration are (hopefully) going to flow. Where I can forget about all that comes with living in the city and the day to day mundanities. I am going there to make and make friends, to make space in my mind and to make me remember how important my love of creating is.

I’m seeing this as a time to start afresh. I have this sparkly new website, I recently threw away all my old moulds and I’m packing my tools and heading over to Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina for three whole weeks. I’ll be taught by a very talented artist, Thaddeus Erdahl, a figurative ceramic artist whose work is imaginative, often a tad dark (just my cup of tea) his treatment of surface is very special and I am no doubt going to be in awe. I will also be spending my final days at Penland volunteering with around 200 others to help at their Annual Benefit Auction.

I’ll write a little about me:
I’m 39 (eternally from now on). I live in London. I graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2010 with an MA in ceramics and glass, another privilege I was offered and spent the whole two years wondering how I had been so lucky. I discovered my love for making quite late on, after a career that spanned from make over photographer, to publican to call centre worker. The RCA was boot camp for artists. They metaphorically ripped up everything you thought you were and made you rebuild yourself and your ideas from scratch. Arduous, tear-bringing but ultimately very rewarding.
I have since been juggling working to pay my rent (I make shop mannequins) and working to keep me sane in my studio which I share with a wonderful group of creative and motivated friends at Studio Manifold.
The balance isn’t quite right. I make mannequins more than I make my cathartic other, but that’s the nature of things and one struggles on.

This being the start of my diary entries, I plan to write of my journey to Penland and beyond. Writing is one thing that I don’t do enough of, so this is another thing that I will start as from now. I intend for this diary to be a personal encounter, not necessarily about art or the technicalities of making, although I’m sure these things will be touched upon on my way. This will be more about the whole experience of Penland and after, where ever life may or may not take me. Thanks for reading and may the journey commence.