It’s been a while since we last posted anything on the blog, but a lot has happened in the months since our last missive. The most important change of course, is the fact that we have moved the studio across Buxton to our new home at The Green Man Gallery, a former hotel in the town. It was something of a gargantuan task – a lot of heavy equipment to be moved, not to mention dozens of boxes of ceramic ware, both our own and that of our students. This wouldn’t have been so bad if we were moving to a ground floor studio. Hell, no! Our new venue is on the first floor… and there’s no lift! Everything had to be lugged up several flights of stairs – the wheels and equipment, workbenches, storage shelves and the rest. But we now have a great place in which to work, full of light and space.
Overall, the new venue is great. The Green Man Gallery is a not-for-profit art hub run by its twelve member artists, of which Amanda and I are two. The main ground floor exhibition gallery contains work by the members as well as hosting frequent guest exhibitions by other artists from the area. There’s also a shop which sells smaller items by the members, cards and smaller pieces of ceramic ware. Guest designer/makers display their work there too. The resident artists each share a studio on the first floor which means extra hanging space, as well the chance to see and chat to the artists while they’re working.
Many of the resident artists run workshops and classes in different kinds of art disciplines; a new influx of members in the last year has meant a whole new exciting schedule of courses were due to begin in the first few months of 2020. Our own programme of events began in mid-March with the first meeting of the Buxton Sketching Group. This was really well attended with over thirty people meeting up at the gallery before venturing out to the area around Buxton baths to sketch for a couple of hours. What was most encouraging was the number of beginners wanting to learn to draw. In fact, there were so many requests I had to plan a tutorial workshop on urban sketching before the second meeting. Unfortunately, the coronavirus lockdown was enforced before we could do this and we were forced to postpone. Also postponed were two mixed media painting workshops I was planning to run, and an expressive drawing workshop. Be assured these will run once the Green Man Gallery reopens. Workshops by the other member artists have also been affected. My colleague Jenny Mackenzie was planning to run several watercolour workshops which, sadly, had to be postponed. The Green Man’s annual Spring Gathering was cancelled and our pottery classes were affected too. Our students are now forced to wait until the end of the lockdown to complete their sessions.
All in all the gallery has suffered from the unfortunate consequences of the lockdown, but the miracle of cyberspace has saved it from being a complete washout. The Spring Gathering was shown online and there are several creative tasks which have recently been launched which visitors are welcome to participate in. Check out the Green Man Gallery website and Facebook page for details (www.thegreenmangallery.com). At least the lockdown has given all the artists a chance to produce some new things. I’ve been working on some mixed media paintings and have a series of instructional videos in the pipeline. My work is exhibited and for sale online at The Green Man Gallery and here on our own website. Take a look and see what you think.
Apparently one of the reasons for the upsurge in popularity of pottery-making was the recent TV series The Great Pottery Throw Down. I never watched the series at the time and have only recently caught episodes of it on You Tube. Of course, I appreciate that these kinds of programmes are made to entertain the watching public, but some of the tasks the contestants were made to perform were pretty ridiculous.
One episode saw the participants having to make as many egg cups as possible in a certain length of time, five minutes I think. The results were, quite frankly, pretty poor, but that was purely because of the time constraints. I am sometimes pressed for time in the studio and need to repeat throw a number of vessels, mugs or bowls perhaps, but I’ve never been so pushed that I’d accept anything that comes off the wheel no matter how bad. Nor have I ever thrown anything blindfold, not even as a bit of a wheeze, (another exercise contestants were made to do). I accept that these tasks are pure entertainment and meant as a fun diversion to the main assignment, but I wonder whether they are giving a fallacious and unnecessary impression of difficulty to the whole process of making pottery.
I also wondered about the production company’s choice of contestant. The first series featured ‘twelve of the country’s best amateur potters’. Were they the best amateurs in the county to start with, or just twelve of the ones willing to go on TV and be criticised in public? There must be dozens of potters the UK who are better than those contestants. And by saying that I am in no way denigrating those individuals who did appear on the programme. I certainly couldn’t and wouldn’t do it. In fact I hold my hands up and admit that I am weaker in some of the areas of pottery making that were featured in the series, coil-building for example. Perhaps a Great Pottery Throw Down series with twelve accomplished and experienced potters who make fewer mistakes and are masterly at every facet of ceramic production would make pretty boring TV. Having said that, even the most skilled potters make mistakes. (For evidence of my own incompetence check out the previous blog post of December 17th).
The day has finally arrived! The gallery is about to open, although at the moment there’s hardly anything in there! This coming week will see the place transformed from an empty space into a working gallery and pottery. Everything is ordered and there’ll be a constant stream of delivery vans dropping off equipment and supplies, at least that’s the theory!
Apart from frenzied work on the computer I’ve been trying to get paintings and drawings ready for hanging in the gallery; the photos above show a couple of paintings recently framed and ready to go. It’s all been hard work but very exciting. Amanda and I can’t wait to get it all up and running.
A cup of tea isn’t a simple matter, at least not to serious tea drinkers! Tea is as rich and intricate a subject as wine is for those who choose to investigate it and delve a little deeper below the surface. Drinking tea is inextricably linked with the whole eastern culture – mixture of the two principles of wabi and sabi. ‘Wabi’ is a word which denotes the spiritual aspect of life, characterised by simplicity, restraint and unadorned beauty. ‘Sabi’ represents the imperfections of life and the natural way of things in the outside world. For me, the tea bowl plays an important part in the appreciation of tea, a way of engaging with the cultural activity of the tea ceremony. By drinking from a tea bowl, or chawan, I feel spiritually connected, more relaxed and in-tune with myself.
In fact, to be precise, chawan is the name given to tea bowls used in formal tea ceremonies; for everyday drinking the Japanese use yunomi. But whatever they’re called there is something inherently satisfying about using them. I’m not suggesting that everyone have a tea ceremony each time they have a cuppa, but by taking time out to relax, prepare the tea carefully and drink out of something beautiful they are participating in something transcendent and numinous.
Of course, I don’t use a tea bowl every time I have a cup of tea, but there is something infinitely pleasurable about drinking from an attractive well-made vessel. I do try to have a relaxing cup of tea at least once a day; using my favourite oolong tea, preparing it carefully using a tea pot, infusing it for the correct length of time and finally drinking from a tea bowl.
In the studio tea bowls figure quite highly on my list of vessels to make, although most customers still prefer mugs with handles to drink from. Personally, I think the fact that there isn’t a handle on a tea bowl seems to give the act of drinking from it a more sacred quality; it’s easier to cup the hands around it in an almost supplicatory way. The heat of the tea is easier to feel, and one is aware of a ‘closeness’ to the flavour and aroma of the liquid. In making tea bowls I rarely use a gauge (though I do weigh out the lumps of clay) and, keeping the wheelhead turning a little slower than usual I allow each bowl to take its own form. In that way I feel I am putting something of myself in the vessel – it becomes more of an individual item. I’m not bothered about making it ‘perfect’. I’m happy with whatever comes off the wheel, as long as it has character and feeling. A few uneven blemishes I can live with.
I urge all tea drinkers to try having their own personal ‘tea ceremony’ once a day, drinking their favourite tea from a chawan or yunomi, taking time to relax and chill out for at least a few minutes. Try it for a week at see what happens!
It’s not everyday you buy a new kiln. Most of the time we make do with whatever is at the school, college or studio we’re used to working in, or we’re limited to a hobby kiln or one that we can operate on a small scale. So I’ve been thinking hard about what I want for the Earth Pig studio: what I want the kiln to do and how much ware I intend to make. Of course, I want the thing to fire my pots, but what kind of clay will I be using and what kind of glazes? I’ve spent quite a while trawling through manufacturer’s websites trying to find the right one.
I’ll be using both earthenware and stoneware clays, and some of the glazes I use will need to be fired right the way up to cone 10. I don’t want to be packing the thing every day so something big enough to do a bisque firing and a glaze firing once, maybe twice a week, will be necessary. A kiln with a chamber of at least 90 litres is probably about right; enough to cater for the firing needs of the gallery, but with enough room to fire the work of students’ attending classes. In the end I’ve settled for a model from Cromartie of Stoke-on-Trent, made under license by Skutt in the USA, with a firing capacity of 160 litres. I’m limited to an electric kiln because of where the studio is situated, there’s no gas supply there so, sadly, reduction firing is an impossibility. Yes, I could have a gas kiln fuelled by bottled gas but the nature of the premises, not to mention insurance restrictions, preclude that. On the other hand, a kiln powered by electricity means I can opt for a controller which, among other things, has a feature that calculates the cost of firing.
It’s been an exciting process researching the kiln and other equipment I’ll need for the studio and, for once, not have to worry (at least, not too much!) about the cost.