Book launch and porcelain show opens

Last night we had the book launch and the opening of my new show at Watters Gallery in Sydney It was well attended, a few red spots appeared and we sold about 20 of the limited first edition print run of 50 copies. A good start.

Grace Cochrane gave a beautiful introduction to the show and the book describing their inter-connectedness. The show looks very well spread out on all the plinths that the gallery could muster. There are 81 works in the show, occupying all the ground floor space in the main gallery.

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It’s a very good feeling to see it all come together at last, and I am very grateful to all the people in half a dozen countries who contributed to the research and through them to a successful conclusion to this creative endeavour.

Between a Rock and a Hard Paste

We have been sweltering here in 40 oC heat for a couple of weeks now. We were very fortunate to be blessed with 3 days of rain in the middle. It saved a lot of our plants from just shrivelling up. Fortunately, we don’t have any bush fires near here this time. However, I did start up the fire fighting water pump and sprayed water through the sprinkler system that I have installed on all the building here, in this case, on the pottery tin roof. I used it on the worst couple of days, to cool it down a little. It is good to run the pump every now and again to keep it in good working condition and cycle the fuel through the carburettor to make sure that it doesn’t ‘gum’ up.

I’ve been making use of the hot weather to crush and grind my collected porcelain stones. They have to be put through the big jaw crusher first, then the small crusher, then sieved to remove any over sized pieces and these are put back through the crusher again. Once it’s all of a suitable size, it goes into the ball mill to be ground down to a very fine paste.

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Once it’s out of the mill. I let it settle and flocculate for a few days and then remove any excess water from the top and it goes into a plaster basin to dry out until it is firm – sort of plastic. Except that it never really gets to be fully plastic. This is because it is just ground up rock dust and not clay. It does have a very small percentage of clay in the stone due to weathering of the minerals, but it is not a lot. It really takes years for this stuff to become workable in any normal sense of the word as potters might understand it.

If I were making bulk clay for stock, I’d be using the big ball mill and pour out the slip onto the drying bed on filter cloth. Once firm, I’d lay it down for several years in a cool dark place, but I don’t have that luxury on this occasion. I have posted these stones back from overseas on my recent trip. there are only just a few kilos of each sample, so the batches are quite small. Just enough to make a few pots out of each. I’d like to have more mineral to work with, but it costs about $100 to post a few kilos of stones back from places like Cornwall, Korea, China and Japan. So I have to work within my budget, as many countries have abandoned sea mail postage and the only option is now air mail. On one occasion, I was offered a cheaper option of ‘slow’ air mail. It made me wonder how the plane stayed up in the air if it was flying slowly?

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As these bodies are not aged, they respond to being worked something like ‘halva’! it just snaps if you bend it. It has to be coaxed along very slowly and gently, sort of seduced into changing shape.  I can’t even cut it in any normal way with a wire, it just tears! I can’t throw anything large out of this stuff, but I don’t need to. I only need a few excellent fired examples of the stuff to include in my exhibition at Watters Gallery in August, called ‘5 Stones’. This will be an exhibition of single-porcelain from all around the world, from the five places where single-stone porcelain was independently discovered and developed.

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When it comes time to trim the shapes into some sort of elegant form. The paste just tears and chips, instead of turning off in fine strips. The pot has to be very firm and almost bone dry to turn to a fine finish. However, I do need to remove some of the bulk of the weight from the base to get it to dry without cracking, so some leather hard trimming is necessary, and what a mess it looks to begin with! But it does clean up OK when it is dryer. I do struggle with some of these rock-paste porcelain bodies. I’d be a much better potter if I could spend all my time working with this stuff, but I have to do other things, like building kilns, to make a living. No complaints! I have a wonderfully creative, independent life. I’m very lucky. But I do suffer from the feeling that I could always do better. Nothing is ever finished, nothing is perfect and nothing lasts! This is reality.
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These dry rock dust bodies are so aggressive and abrasive, they make normal turning tools go blunt after just one pots is turned. I have to use tungsten carbide tipped tools to withstand the grinding effect on the cutting edge. The ‘clay’ is really just rock dust paste, so it is very abrasive to my fingers too! I have had to start wearing rubber finger stalls to protect my finger tips. Otherwise the ‘clay’ grinds off the skin from my fingers and they wear through and start to bleed.
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I’ve spent the past 15 years researching these places and going there, making contact with individuals and working in-situ, where that is still possible and also posting home the raw stones to be processed here in my workshop then fired in my kiln. This will produce a very different look and feel from the work made on-site.
I have written a book about my travels and porcelain experiences during this research. I have 90,000 words written, with just two more chapters left to write. It will be around 150/160 pages, in full colour, soft cover. I hope to have it for sale for under $50
It will be launched at the opening of my show at Watters Gallery in August.

The Art of Embracing Damage

We live in an age of instant access to information and news, except that it’s all mostly bad. I’ve stopped watching the news. It’s all too depressing. I don’t want to be ‘connected’ to this. I want my interactions to be quiet, peaceful and positive. I want to choose a constructive, creative, engagement with my environment and the people around me.

I have spent my life developing a philosophy of minimal consumption and self-reliance. I believe in not buying anything that I don’t need and not throwing anything away that isn’t fully worn out. This has been part of an exploration of how it might be possible to live frugally and gently in a faster, noisier and bigger world of seemingly senseless and excessive consumerism.

My Partner Janine King and I work in isolation, making only what pleases us. This is not good business practice, but we don’t think of ourselves as being in business. We are trying to live an independent creative life, that is sensitive to our surroundings, gentle on the earth, low-carbon and low-impact on others around us. We are attempting to live this life of small monetary rewards, but high satisfaction and so far it seems to be working out OK for us.

I work with the raw materials that I can find around me in my immediate locality and then research and test them, to attempt to discover what interesting qualities they exhibit and then try to make original ‘location-specific’ works from them. I find this approach most fascinating and very rewarding. I have discovered a single-stone native porcelain, and developed a body from it that is very beautiful, especially when wood fired. I have also found and developed a single-stone, washed basalt gravel, blackware body that is gorgeous. These two special materials are the result of a lifetimes research. Not much to show for a life, but I continue to create these Senseless Acts of Beauty, because it pleases me. I am under no illusions. I know that I could not have lived this quality of life without Janine as my partner to help me achieve it, but most importantly, we have been very lucky to have lived this simple, artistic life in Australia, where there has been no civil unrest.

It has been my intension during my career to make simple, elegant, and hopefully beautiful bowls. These bowls have been significantly influenced by Japanese and Chinese aesthetics as well as the  Japanese culture of tea and Zen Buddhism  I’m not a Buddhist. But some of the thinking around Zen practice has influenced my quest to live a simple, non-consumerist, low-carbon life. When I was studying the origins of single-stone porcelain in Japan recently. I did a course in Kintsugi. The Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer and pure gold. I have started to repair some of my more interesting failures using this technique.

Kintsugi embodies three Buddhist concepts and makes them tangible. The first is ‘wabi-sabi’. Realising that something that is flawed and imperfect can still be extraordinarily beautiful  The second is ‘mushin’, the concept of non-attachment and acceptance of change. Nothing is perfect, nothing lasts and nothing is ever finished. The last is ‘mono no aware’, a certain wistfulness at the impermanence of things. We are only here for such a short time together. Our transience is a reality of our life. Embrace the moment as it is.

I feel that when I repair a beautiful pot that is broken, damaged or otherwise ‘non-perfect’ in a Western, conservative sense, I make it all the more beautiful. Spending time recovering and enhancing something that is otherwise lost, is a sign of great respect for that object. It fits well with my philosophy of minimal-consumption, self-reliance and making things last as long as possible.

Because kintsugi has been called the art of embracing damage, it occurred to me that these, recovered bowls might be a suitable and beautiful metaphor for recovery from conflict. Hence my offering them for inclusion in this up-coming end-of-year show at Watters Gallery called ‘war’.

I have very few ambitions in life. When I was young I decided that I would live in the country and to grow my own food, to make a creative life of some sort, build my own house, and live a self-reliant life. I have more-or-less fulfilled all of these modest ambitions.  My lasting ambition is to make things that are meaningful, simple and modest. I go about this work of creating random acts of beauty without any regard to the effect that it may have on others. I am selfish, but not thoughtless.

Our indigenous peoples have a long tradition of respectful collecting, gathering and hunting. I feel that my small experiments interacting with the natural world, collecting stones to grind up to make my pots are compatible as a contemporary continuation/interpretation of this ancient practice. It respects place and biota. It’s 40 years since I moved to this small Village in the Southern Highlands south of Sydney. I’m pretty self-contained here. I don’t want for a lot, so I have everything that I need and I am grateful for that.

My bowls are small, simple gestures. They appear to be empty, but are in fact full of good wishes and calm, thoughtful intent.

The exhibition ‘War’ at Watters Gallery opens on Wednesday 23rd of November.

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Open Studio Sale

I’m up at the crack of dawn. I told myself to wake up at the first sign of light at the window last night . I realise that I’m awake and look to the window and there is the light starting to show through the edges of the curtain. I’m up and showered, dressed and out in the car just on 6 am. I want  to get all the pottery open-day signs up at the village and along the road. I start on the main road, just opposite the level crossing into the village. I’m not attempting to snag any unsuspecting passing weekend travellers out here in the middle of no-where. People who are on a mission to somewhere else. No! That takes more signs than this and more warning time. If I were aiming to get the attention of random passing weekender traffic, I’d start the signs way back at the previous village, kilometres back, and put up several signs all along the way. Warning that there are only 5kms to go to the pottery, then 3 and 2 and 1. Then Finally, turn here for pottery at the crossing. But not today.
We are open as part of the Southern Highlands Arts Festival, Open Studios, Arts Trail. There has been plenty of advertising in all the usual forms. So today I am only aiming to direct the people who are looking for us using the excellent fold out map that has been widely distributed  both in hard copy and electronically. This is a case of courtesy directions. I still have a lot to do today. We are never really completely ready for these things. There is always so much to do, we could easily go on for weeks cleaning up. We live in a kind of organised chaos, where we plan lots of things and make lists. We even make lists of the lists. But then something happens and we have to change plans to fix the problem. Everything else slips off the list until this urgent thing, whatever it is, gets done. We kind of lurch from crisis to crisis in a semi-ordered fashion.
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We are still sorting the last few boxes of pots and final pricing when the first of the early visitors arrive. I still have a few pots that need to have their bases ground, a few more things to sort out. I flip a piece of filter cloth over the pile of boxes and welcome our guests. The weekend has started. We are busy all day with only a couple of short breaks when there is no one in the pottery. A time to try and snatch some lunch, but then another car arrives. We manage to get to eat our lunch in stages, taking turns. It’s pretty constantly busy. Last year was our best year ever on the Arts Trail. It was the tenth year. This 11th year is shaping up pretty well so far. I notice that the ‘kintsugi’ pots repaired with gold are pretty popular. Possibly because they are the same price and all the others, even though they sport a bit of bling. They are repaired ‘2nds’ after-all, Pots that have been repaired and upgraded or enhanced back to a 1st grade status through a lot of time, effort and skill. Plus the addition of real 24 carat gold! So it’s hard to charge more for them, even though they represent a lot of extra work.
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I’ve noticed over the years that my better pieces, which tend to be more expensive, don’t sell very well from here at the studio. This is how galleries earn their living. It’s their job to know people with fine taste and specific knowledge about certain works. Some of these aesthetes are also well healed, so can afford to have developed fine taste. Others go without food to pay for their art ‘habit’. It takes all kinds. So this pottery open studio sale is just that. A chance to get to look inside a working potters studio and see what we make and how we do it. I spend a bit of time throughout the day showing visitors around the workshop and kiln shed. Explaining the processes that we use and how it differs from the norm. I have a serried rank of rock crushers and grinders, culminating in a large ball mill and drying bed area. This is necessary, because all my exhibition work is made, not from clay, like all other potters, but from ground up stones, gravels and ashes that I collect locally and process on site here. Added to this that all our work is wood fired. It gives the work a particular look and feel.
What we make isn’t unique, but it does have a particular character.
After all, they are just bowls, cups and plates!

6 New Bowls

The Xmas show at Watters Gallery opens on Wednesday night at 6 pm.

I have 3 of these new bowls in their end of Year show. I have been developing the Balmoral Blackware body that I make by washing rotten basaltic gravel in water then throwing away the gravel to obtain the micron thin film of hydrated ceramic dust off the surface of the rotten stone fragments.

It takes a long time to prepare, as it takes quite a while to get enough sediment to settle out, so that I can stiffen it up into a plastic state and pretend to throw in on the potters wheel. I throw on an old fashioned, handmade wooden ‘Leach’ style kick wheel.

I ‘throw’ the inside of the form and the rim, leaving the outside and the lower form quite thick, so that it supports the fragile, non-plastic material.

After the forms have stiffened over night, I ‘turn’ away all of the excess material that was necessary to support the form from underneath, then shape the foot ring. Turning away all the excess clay and revealing the form, the way that I had conceived it.

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I fire these forms at the front of the 2nd tier of kiln setting. If they are fired too close to the front, they melt. Quite literally, the extra heat is enough to make them turn to liquid sludge. i quite like it when they are just caught at their liquid limit, when they are just starting to melt. I particularly like the pots that are very slightly warped in the firing. Their endurance in the contest of the fire sometime brings about a lovely quiet, natural distortion in the precision of my original form that is very appealing. This piece below, has developed a gorgeous satiny surface of deposited natural ash glaze during the firing. The ash has soaked into the body and started to run down into a rivulet near the foot. It is almost invisible to see, but lovely to feel. The ash has also turned the mat black clay surface to ripe plum reddish brown.

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In developing the blackware forms, I have managed to achieve a couple of exquisite  pieces that really exemplify the potential of this material. I have also been spending a lot of time in working on my native bai tunze stone materials. I spent time both in China and Japan this year trying to extend my understanding of single stone porcelain. These initial results are very encouraging , and I feel that this work is starting to pay off.

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This form above shows a build up of natural  ash glaze deposit that was built up during the firing. It is slightly greenish in colour where it is thicker and there is a very delicate grey/black carbon inclusion trapped around top of the rim. It defines the rim and completes the form.

I have two pieces of single stone white, unglazed porcelain in this show, they are quite subtle and delicate. I have explored both high footed forms as well as seemingly footless forms like the traditional ‘tenmoku’ forms. I was lucky enough to spend time in China earlier this year, studying both single stone porcelain as well as a trip up-river, in China to study the ancient ‘tenmoku’ ware sites.

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These pieces are are both translucent and made from 97% ground native porcelain stone pastes. The remainder being 3% sticky bentonite clay. This helps ‘glue’ all the stone fragments together so that they can be ‘thrown’ on the wheel. What I do isn’t really ‘throwing’ as most potters know it, but rather a soft, gentle, patient, kind of coaxing the ceramic paste into the  bowl form.

I also brought out some ‘archival’ batches of iron stained porcelain stone body. This time I have used a batch of body that is made from all the iron stained fragments of bai tunze that I hand sorted from the larger batches and threw aside. After a while I realised that I had separated enough yellowish, iron stained material to make a 5 kg batch of irony body. This clay is still translucent, but only just so. It has a lovely warm, mellow reddish/brown blush to it that is so warm and inviting.

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I have made some experiments this year with adding some salt to my feldspathic glazes. Instead of turning out the usual, yellow, orange, pink, brown colours, these recent firings have resulted in a few pieces that are defined by their total carbon sequestration, turning the glaze almost totally black. Except for a small area of grey/white down low near the exposed clay foot. This carbon glazed tenmoku form has turned out better than I could have imagined.

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Back to the Wheel

My hand is sufficiently healed now for me to return to throwing on the potters wheel. My finger is still numb at the end, but otherwise I’m all OK and I feel that I can throw again OK. That’s my opinion, others watching me might differ. I’ve never been a ‘power thrower’ or aspired to be a virtuoso on the wheel. I am sufficiently capable and skilled to be able to make the ideas that are in my head come to life. I’ve done my several thousands of hours of practise over the past 48 years, so I’m OK with what I attempt to do.

It’s a funny feeling, starting wedging again after a month off. It’s like a ‘getting to know you’ all over again, kind of feeling.

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I can’t wait to get back into it now that we have done our last wood firing weekend workshop. We can have our kiln back now and start to plan for our own firings. Wedging up the clay and making these first pots is the start. I used to think that I could do both. Run these workshops and make a few pots as well. Last year we managed to sneak a firing of our own in, in-between the set firings with the workshop groups. However, it seems to take all our energy to just clean and maintain the kiln as well as cut, split and stack all the wood required for the firings, plus keeping part of the pottery set up as a kitchen. There isn’t any time left to be able to pack, fire and unpack the kiln with our own work in the 5 days in-between each of the other firings, as well as cutting and splitting our own wood for our firing as well. It all proved too much work for me and I just couldn’t manage to do it all. We have done 11 weekends in 13 weeks. I’m glad that we can have some space to make and fire our own work now.

On a brighter note there was an exhibition review of the ‘Turn, turn, turn’ exhibition at the NAS Gallery in Sydney. One of the six shows that I have work in currently. It is amazing that an exhibition of ceramics has been given any space at all in a major Sydney newspaper. It is even more amazing that the reviewer, Christopher Allen was given almost two pages to do the job. I can’t remember a ceramics show getting any oxygen at all in a major newspaper in Sydney for the past twenty years, so I was particularly thrilled to find that my own work got two paragraphs at the end of the review. I don’t know how this has all come about, but I appreciate it enormously, as it will most likely be the only time in my life that this will happen, as ceramics isn’t highly valued in critical circles in Australia.
It’s amazing to me that when it happened, I was part of it.
I am grateful!
Christopher Allen wrote;
“…Steve Harrison represents the culmination of the art of the potter in the East Asian traditions. His deceptively simple and yet refined and serene vessels are the product of the humble, meditative practice of the potters art and reflect, indeed his own choice of a life in harmony with his aesthetic ideals. 
These are works that ostensibly seek only to serve the craft and subsume them selves to its formal demands, which make no attempt to claim our attention with brash or sensational effects, and yet which silently draw us to them by the force and conviction of their integrity.”
Christopher Allen, ‘Wheels of Creation’, Weekend Australian, Review, Visual Arts, P10/11. July 11/12 2015.
Best wishes
Steve

Six Shows in Six Weeks

This is going to be a busy week. None of that lazing around that we promise ourselves that we’ll get around to doing one day. I have pots in six different exhibitions this month. One opened two weeks ago, a couple have just opened, two are about to open and there will be one more in the coming weeks.

I was lucky to be included in the National Arts School, 60th anniversary show in Darlinghurst, but blown away to find that I was to be one of the chosen few to be featured and to give an artists talk. I don’t know how this happened, but I have had a very strong association with the place. Going to Art School was great. I went to The East Sydney Tech, Art School in 1971/72. Like so many bright-eyed and bushy-tailed innocents of the sixties and seventies. I went there as a child and left an adult. Painful, challenging, extending, stimulating exciting, but mostly a lot of fun, with so much to learn and so little time – even the ceramics classes were good! 🙂
I was particularly thrilled to find that Patsy Healy also had work in this show and had made two small porcelain installations that referenced her time at East Sydney Tech. One featured all her tutors and the other one is a 3D construction representation of my blog site, composed of 2D images taken from the blog and painted on intersecting porcelain tiles. What an amazing idea!
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I showed 10 pieces at NAS. A range of my locally prospected, ground rock clay bodies and glazes, plus a couple of unglazed pots.
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This is a rough unglazed stoneware bowl, that has picked up a lot of wood ash from the fire. it was packed towards the front of the kiln and the ash deposit has melted and run to form a pool of ash glaze just off centre of the bowl, because I packed it up on wads with a slight lean to encourage this off-centredness.
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This is a guan glaze made from my local native porcelain stone. The bowl is made from a body that I make by washing basaltic gravel in water, and then throwing away the gravel and keeping the dirty water. If I repeat this exercise many, many, times, I eventually get enough thickened slip in the bottom of the barrel to stiffen up to make an intensely black rock dust/clay body. The intensity of the iron in the body breaks through on the rim.
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This is the porcelain guan glaze mixed with wood ash and cow bone ash. The addition of the ashes starts to react in such a way that the glaze starts to become slightly opalescent.
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This is an unglazed porcelain bowl, composed almost entirely of ground local native porcelain stone 97%. The stone powder is bound together with just 3% of bentonite. The surface of the stone body is flashed to a golden lustre with some flame bleaching on the fire front. It has picked up a small amount of carbon inclusion that defines and accentuates the rim.
All my pots are quite small and delicate. Partly that is my aesthetic choice, but mostly it is because of the nature of my home-made, locally prospected, ground stone bodies that lack any real plasticity. So that making large-scale works on the potters wheel is virtually impossible with this floppy paste. I have taken these limitations and challenges and worked with them, such that these pots respond well to the flame in the wood fired kiln to produce little, engaging, tactile, gorgeous gems.
The other shows that I currently have work in are;
Woodfire 2015, Kerrie Lowe Gallery in Newtown, Sydney. NSW. Janine also has work in this show.
Chance and Intelligence: the Captivating Art of Glazed Wood Fired Ceramics, Skepsi at Malvern Artists’ Society Gallery. Malvern, VIC
BeLonging: Embodied Commentaries Inspired by Place, at ANU Foyer Gallery, Canberra. ACT.
Australian Woodfire, Curators Choice. Strathnairn Gallery, Holt, ACT.
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Two views of “A Pot and a Bit” in ‘Chance and Intelligence’, Skepsi at Malvern Artists’ Gallery
Five pieces from ‘Curators Choice’ at Strathnairn.
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Best wishes
Steve