I have a new show of my work coming up at Watters Gallery next week, so I thought that I’d preview it with some text and images.
As you will already know, if you have been reading these pages, I have always been interested in living gently. All my ceramic work incorporates this philosophy, this respect for the environment. My lifestyle choices include growing my own food, generating my own solar power, collecting my own drinking water, building my own hand-made house from local materials, and growing my own fuel for my kiln. So when it comes to making my work. I choose to make it from locally available materials that I can find around me, in my immediate locality. This grounds me in my environment. It also severely limits what I can make, however, this is not a problem, it is an intriguing challenge that engages me on many levels physically, mentally and spiritually.
I dig all my native ceramic materials locally, within a 50 km radius of where I live. This has enabled me to develop my own unique quality of wood fired porcelain, proto-porcelains and blackware made from these special native stones. The Essential nature of this enterprise is about a respectful interaction with my environment, in this locality.
When I was young I wanted to believe that there were some absolutes in life. I wanted to believe that there could be a definition of such concepts as truth and beauty. I’ve come to realise that there will not be any absolutes in my life other than old age, incontinence and death, possibly taxes. I have had to come to terms with the fact that good and evil, truth and lies, beauty and ugliness are all relative and coexist in each of us, all of the time. I accept this duality and embrace the angst that comes with the rejection of false certainties.
We have lost our bush land, we are loosing our native animals. The corner shop has gone. We are forced to drive in a car to a distant, edge of town, shopping mall to get to a bank and supermarket. Our neighbours houses have locked gates and shuttered windows. In short we are loosing our society. Everything has changed in my lifetime, and I don’t see it as better. I go to great lengths to avoid supporting the shopping mall. I search out the remaining family owned small businesses, the butcher, baker, fish monger and the greengrocer, to do my trade We have worked to become largely self-reliant in most of our food from our garden and orchards, but we still need to buy some protein.
We are no longer a nation of makers, we are all being corralled into becoming a nation of consumers. I reject this coercion. I will not buy vinyl coated chip-board and plastic, throw-away rubbish from Ikea or the hyper-mall. This apparent convenience is ruining the world. I want real things in my life, things that are beautiful as well as useful and that will last a lifetime if needed. I enjoy engaging with the patina of age and the mundane chips and tears of a life well lived on objects that I have come to love and respect.
Being brought up in a loosely Buddhist/Quaker household, I was probably the only 7 year old in my primary school who knew the whereabouts of the Dalai Lama, not that I thought that this was in any way important at the time, but looking back now it seems a bit weird? Given this starting point, it should be no surprise that my first pot in 1959 was an interpretation of a Tibetan butter lamp. It’s amazing what kids pick up from parents conversations. Not that I knew much about Tibetan butter lamps, but it is quite interesting to me on reflection, that this is what I chose to make, sitting in the gutter of the dirt road in front of where we lived and picking out fresh wet clay from the gutter after a rain storm. I suppose that it supports Loloya’s assertion that the man is made in the child before his seventh year.
My mother kept that pot all her life and after her death, I discovered it amongst her personal treasures, tucked safely away and so it came back to me and I still have it. At that time, in this family setting, it was not the pot that was important, but the activity of its making and the effect that the pot and its creation would have on the maker and the people who used it, which was up for discussion and appreciation. Around this time it became clear to me that the best things in life were not things at all.
Rachel Carson was a hot topic in 1962. I was 10 and old enough to be expected to help shovel manure into the ‘turned’ compost heap for the large extended-family vegetable plot that fed us all. In 1972 I had decided that I wanted to be a professional potter and was at Art School, starting to wonder where I would be living and how I could achieve a passive, independent existence as an artist. The Vietnam War was in full swing. I registered as a Conscientious Objector and the ‘The Club Of Rome’ released ‘Limits to Growth’.
I decided that I could only hope to achieve financial, artistic and food security if I chose to live out in the country where land was cheaper and the air and water cleaner. These events and others like them ground my cultural lens and set its focal length. So now when I think about firing my kiln, I first think how important it is to fire as cleanly as possible, as I would be the first one to be concerned, if my neighbour were to create a lot of unnecessary smoke and pollution in his day to day life. I don’t see that being involved in a creative activity gives us some sort of carte blanche or ‘get out of jail free card’ to pollute.
I also think about how I can use as little wood as possible while still being able to see that my pot is obviously wood fired. I don’t buy my wood from a merchant. I grow it, cut it and split it myself. I have a finite amount of energy, everything that happens here is facilitated by human effort. However, I do use a few machines these days to help me do the heavy work as I get older. I have replaced my original old cross-cut saw with a chain saw. The block buster with a hydraulic splitter. I am not a luddite, but I am aware that everything has an environmental cost. However, as I age I need to reduce the physical strain on my body if I’m to continue to keep working and creating beautiful objects into the future.
I have an image of what I want to create. I chase it. It is beautiful, but elusive. I can never achieve what is in my minds eye, but I keep prosecuting the illusion that it is possible. I like the intimacy of the bowl form. It is small, round and engaging when cupped in the hands. I love them as objects, the symbolism of sharing, the embedded meaning of the food container, nourishment and sustenance. I love the rich history of the peasant rice bowl and the Japanese tea bowl. They are omnipresent at every level of my life. I eat and drink from my bowls every day
This image that I have of a beautiful bowl worthy of contemplation has a gentle wood fired and flashed surface. A surface that I have worked at developing over the past forty five years of my creative practice, where my selected local timbers, when burnt in my hand made kiln, leave their delicate ash patterns on the surface of my locally sourced, water-ground native porcelain stone clay bodies. This subtle wood fired ash glazing of the ceramic surfaces at high temperatures develops a wide range of colours, textures and patinas that are not usually seen on porcelain.
I think a lot about my firing process and the best way to get the soft, delicate and engaging surfaces that are tactile and suited to being hand held and smoothly functional as well as endeavoring to exploit Asian aesthetic concepts of irregularity. This porcelain is not from the molds of Sèvres or Meissen. This work has a proud Southern Hemisphere heritage.
I also think about the effect that my firing will have on others, my neighbours and finally myself and my family. Will these small bowls that I am making have any genuine useful place in society? Will the viewer appreciate the philosophical meaning embedded in their making? I certainly hope so, but nothing is certain.
It has been said that the most rare and expensive commodity today is time. My methods are fully hands-on, antiquated, quaint and oh, so very slow, so my output is quite small. These objects are time solidified and made manifest. Beautiful, unique things like these take time to be brought to life, and more time to be given a useful life in daily use, so that they develop their mundane scars and patina of use. They grow and develop with time, just as they require time to be fully appreciated by use and enquiry.
The unexamined bowl, is a bowl not worth living with.
You can buy those bowls at Ikea.