Last night I pulled a handful of the burnished terracotta apples and pears I’ve being making out of the smouldering ashes of my sawdust firing. They were black and shiny, and I was pleased as Punch.
One or two friends asked me how it’s done, so, at the risk of teaching an awful lot of grandmothers to suck an awful lot of eggs, below is what happened.
Materials (E= Essential, O= Optional)
- 7 apples and pears made of red earthenware clay (E)
- 48 House bricks (E)
- 1 Roll Aluminium Foil (O)
- 1 Big Bag of Sawdust. (E)
- 1 Paving Stone (E)
- Charcoal Briquettes (O)
- Fire lighting kit (E)
- On a flat surface in the garden I built a square brick chamber – 2 bricks on each side and 6 bricks high. (No mortar or binding materials – just piled bricks)
- Then lined the inside with ordinary aluminium foil from the kitchen. (My thinking was that it would stop the sawdust from being contaminated by damp from the bricks which had come from the walls of our compost heap. Also, I thought it would stop the sawdust burning too quickly by blocking the drafts blowing through the cracks between the bricks.)
- A few charcoal briquettes at the bottom then a layer of sawdust into which I embedded by objects. Then I filled the chamber with sawdust to within a brick of the top.
- Then I lit it and covered it with my paving slab.
- In theory, at this point I would have walked away and left it to burn nicely. In fact, I discovered I needed to punch a few hols in my aluminium sheets to help the burn.
- After 5 or 6 hours of smouldering I was able to pull my objects out of the still hot ashes. They were a nice shiny black colour and fired to a hardish biscuit. I wiped them with a piece of kitchen towel dipped in cooking oil and I reckon they should be good for the next six thousand years.
I was pleased. But then why not? The alternative is having everything blow to smithereens because the fire has got too hot too quickly. I think the aluminium was a good idea, but the holes punched in it were essential in order to allow the sawdust to burn properly. Maybe it wouldn’t be necessary next time as the bricks will be dry. Nonetheless, it will stay there. As for the briquettes at the bottom, which I thought would hold extra heat – I’m not sure they made a difference. As a way of helping to get things started when lighting the top, they worked well.
I’ve a few more objects to fire, so I’ll be more confident about getting the results I want. I might also be a little less gutless and put in more than one layer. My thinking was that the further the objects were from the heat as the chamber heated up the less likely they would be to blow up – still be good thinking, probably. Time will tell. As for developing other colours, using oxides or low temperature engobes and all that malarkey: right now, I’m minded to keep it simple and carry on – until I run out of sawdust, that is.
Finally, I was also lucky in that I had all the materials at my disposal. I doubt whether I’ll be able to get any more sawdust when it runs out in this time of lockdown. So, I guess I just look forward to better times.
These are sad days. The C-Word has struck. I’m back home thumb twiddling rather than throwing so I’ve been looking at old work and realising why I’ve never kept a diary. It’s because sooner or later the person you are now must confront the person you were then. It’s not a comfortable experience.
That said, I reckon there have been a few OK pots along the way. There were some nicely made flared bowls. (sooner or later we all make them, even if the great goddess Luci Rie always did it better.) There was one in stoneware, decorated with those slipped bull’s eyes that look a bit like the eye of a peacock feather, painted in copper carbonate.
Then, in the September of 1973 there was a series of little porcelain bowls with a yellow ash glaze and iron oxide bandings. Then time passes, beat, beat, and rant, rant, and a realisation that most of the burnt brown pottery around (i.e. the tradition I’d been trained in) was about feeding, middle class fantasies of honest peasant living when in reality peasants lived like peasants because they didn’t have central heating and decent pensions funds to fall back on.
And, God bless historical inevitability, along came punk. And with equal inevitability along came my white earthenware punk pots with zips and bondage straps painted in black acrylic and pink safety pins pushed through them. But, where could they go? Whatever I might say about the old craft pottery I do like the idea that it’s made to be used. And they weren’t. No way.
Come to that, the wall panels I based on pieces of dug up road I saw melting over the curbs as I walked to my studio at 90 Lots Road (it’s now the jazz-club 606.) weren’t exactly utilitarian. And given the state of the galleries at the time such objects were falling through the gaps between art and craft. That was the early 1980s, when I was also making slabbed draw-string purses as well as oxidised, stoneware jugs, mugs and bowls and that was about it, until July of last year.
As I said, it’s been like reading diaries. Diaries written between leaving school aged 17 and heading in a different direction aged 30. Thirty plus years on I see some skill, and a lot of flailing around. I think, or like to think, I see a desire to make things that respond to my situation but without any clear certainty about how to do it. I realise that I always liked joining things – spouts, nobs – but was always less keen on decorating. Then while making some pinched apples and pears the other day it occurred to me that although most of my pottery has involved wheels in my heart I’ve always thought of myself as a hand- builder. Does that make sense?
The best bit of all this is that I realise that I’m now more focused than I have ever been and that if I were to meet the person I was 40 plus years ago I’d tell him `It’s alright, one day you’ll make a good pot.’ And, you know what? I think I might be getting close to achieving that.
A few years ago I wrote the story below. Since then I’ve started making pots again but apart from that I think it still works. I hope you like it.
It’s close to 50 years since I decided I wanted to make pots for a living and 30 since my CV was muddled by references to teaching and writing or working the wood yards and building sites but that first ambition never quite died. I still walk the ceramics galleries of museums, wondering about the balance of a jug or the traces left by the hands of a maker.
Ten thousand years dead or just starting out, it’s an ancient craft knowledge that links potters across time and continents. Making pots will change you. Not in any hippy, mystical sense, either. Wedging clay for years on end will make your bones denser. Dig up the skeleton of someone who has spent a lifetime working a kick wheel and there will be wear on one knee. Repeated actions with your hands will change them as surely as violinists’ are changed by what they do with theirs, day after day. It’s how you learn a craft. Doing something again and again until the actions are embedded in your muscle memory and with that comes other knowledge, in this case the ability to read a pot, to understand what it’s telling you about how it was made and used, even if later generations turned it into an ornament or a garden urn.
Deprived of their original function and purpose it’s hard not to think that those museum pots are not even pots any longer, just objects to be studied or admired for the delight and delectation of the kinds of people who get some kind of scopophilic pleasure from such things. Nonetheless, those pots still have stories to tell and they’re easy to find, if you only look.
Anyway, a few years ago, my job meant that my colleagues and I took a group of people to a handling session at the British Museum. Come lunch, when we had held, examined and discussed a variety of the museum’s less valuable objects, little bands of us went off to look at different galleries. One elderly Greek woman wanted to look at pots from her homeland, so I was delegated to go with her. By chance or design, I can’t remember which, we bypassed the black wares and headed for the first period terracottas. Well over 3000 year old and frequently half as tall as me, all were seriously beautiful and decorated with the simplest of geometric patterns. For my money, they’re amongst the best things ever made in the history of this or any other universe.
Now, for me there is something awkward about looking at pots with people who aren’t either potters or good friends. I’m never quite sure what to say. How much will my enthusiasms or responses be boring or embarrassing to my companion? Not knowing what’s appropriate I try to say as little as possible. So, on this occasion, we did our rounds of the exhibits, occasionally making polite comments to each other until in one case I saw a small, undecorated, cone shaped, pot. Its height was roughly the distance from the tip of my index finger to my knuckle and the distance across the base was a little less. It was thick at the bottom and thin at the top and it’s best claim to being `pot’ was that it was fired clay with a hole in it which meant it could hold water.
I recognised it. That was my first pot. Not exactly that one. I’m no reincarnation of a long dead Greek potter. Although, if you ask, I’d rather that than some of the other alternatives on offer. It’s simply that it was the spit of my first pot. It was a child’s pot. It’s what you do when, eight or even younger, you’re confronted by a lump of spinning, wet, clay for the first time. If you’re lucky – and that child was one of the lucky ones, as was I – the nice potter will show you how to centre, how to sponge the water out of the cavity, how to trim and cut the pot away from the wheel head, lift it off and place it on a board to dry so that it can be fired with the rest of the production. Sometime later that pot would have been handed back to the child, fired and finished. Something to be kept and treasured as the first step on the way to mastery of a new and valuable skill.
I have friends and teachers who have their work in museums but no one I ever met expected that the first time they touched clay it would finish up in one of the world’s great cultural institutions 3000 years down the line. But that’s not the point. What I really liked about that pot was that it didn’t take huge flights of fancy to know that it told the story of a happy child, a kind person (unkind people do not waste clay or time with children or unnecessarily use up space in their kiln) and an ordinary human experience. I have used kick wheels, as did the makers of the amphoras that mostly filled the rest of that gallery’s space and I’m still an effective production thrower. My body carries the same muscle memories as did the men and women who made those objects. I think about that in the long nights when I can’t sleep. Then I remember that their world and their market and their lives were unimaginably different to mine. Not so that little pot’s child maker. Happy children have always been the same and 3000 years apart I guarantee he or she and I, we knew the same happiness and at the risk of going all hippy on you, if that’s not mystical I don’t know what is. As for the woman I was with, I tried to tell her some of this stuff, but I think she thought I was odd and asked if we could go back for part 2 of the handling session. Which we did and I made another mental note not to talk about pots to strangers.