Written by Amy McCarthy
Are you considering taking up a new craft? Unsure of what’s involved or where to go to learn? In the first of this new fortnightly series AmyOrangeJuice taps into the wealth of knowledge available from talented Folksy sellers. Here you will get a taste of particular crafts skills and what inspires our Folksy sellers to create; which in turn, will hopefully inspire you to have a go yourself!
My list of crafts to explore is very long, but we have to start somewhere, so we are starting with pottery. Exactly how do you go from a lump of clay to a beautiful object? Lets find out………..
Lets start at the beginning, what do you need to make a pottery item and how do you do it?
Victoria, from Little Wren Pottery explained, “If you’re looking to get started in pottery you’ll need glazes, pottery tools, clay, decorative slips and oxides; then the actual equipment – pottery wheel, and kiln”. Much of the equipment can be bought second hand, which helps reduce costs.
Right, so you have the equipment, how do you create the alchemy from clay to pot?
Dottery Pottery explained how to go about making slab (or hand built) pots, “…working from a sketch or template, roll the clay onto a piece of canvas between two flat pieces of wood to ensure even thickness. Now decorate each element; by rollering a stamped design or making marks with a variety of different tools on the clay surface. The design is then hand cut using a scalpel knife for a nice clean edge and left to go ‘leather hard’ before sticking the pieces together to create the 3d shape with sludgy clay called slip. Once completely dry (takes up to a week) they are biscuit fired. Once this is complete paint with the desired glaze and fire again. Then you have the finished piece!”Something that all the potters pointed out, that I had not considered, is that to be cost effective you need to fill the kiln with items to fire and it can take a month of work to get a kiln full of pots to fire, which highlights the time and patience needed to become a ceramicist. It is not a craft for those in need of immediate gratification!
Throwing pots on a potters wheel is the classic pottery image; the clay is placed in the centre of the wheel and using hands as a tool, combined with the force created by the turning potters wheel a pot shape is manipulated from the clay into a recognisable shape and is a notoriously difficult skill to master; but this is only the start, Penny Spooner explains what happens next, ” Once I have thrown a pot I leave it to dry until it is leather hard (green ware) and turn off any excess clay, make adaptations and scratch designs into the clay. It is then left to dry completely and bisque fired. Bisque ware is then lightly sanded, glazed and fired again”.
The ceramicists on Folksy use a wide range of techniques including potters wheel, traditional hand building technique, slip casting, mould slumping and coiling. Added to this they use a lot of surface pattern designs and techniques, marking the surface of the clay with anything from pen lids, to children’s toys, to leaves and flowers, pressed into the clay, which burn off in the kiln. Lots of them mix their own special slip and glaze mixes to create their own colour ranges and use various clays including stoneware, earthenware and porcelain; when you add all these techniques and materials together the creative possibilities are endless!
So where do our potters get their inspiration from?
Nature seems to be a big inspiration to all of the ceramicists and Charlotte Hupfield explained her creative process to me. “My inspiration comes from the natural world. I tend to admire the smallest details in nature that other people might not even notice. I love natural textures and surfaces. If I’m out on a walk or visiting places I always make sure I have my camera with me. I like to photograph objects and surfaces that inspire me, and then I’ll use them to develop mixed-media drawings and prints, which then inform the surface of my ceramics”.
An admiration of ancient pottery and the way it was decorated with characters or myths has been passed down to our modern ceramicists.Several of them spoke of how stories and antique pottery inspired them. But family and personal history are important too, as Penny Spooner explained, “My key inspiration came from my Grandmother who always served up a traditional English tea from a small trolley laden with cake stand, china cups and saucers, beautiful spoons and tea plates… I love to make things that can go on the table at a meal time and just make a meal that little bit more special”.
Marmaladenina sites the artist Julie Arkel as a great inspiration to her clay sculptures and explained to me how her work is evolving into more mixed media work and art doll creations, pushing the traditional boundaries of the craft. Other inspirational ceramicists and potters looked to for inspiration included: Sue Binn, Kate Malone (Balls Pond Studio, London), Cecil Collins and the artist Mark Chagall.
Clearly there is a lot of passion and creativity caught up in this profession, so what are the challenges and rewards of working in clay?
Caroline Green said, “‘I work in a translucent porcelain clay for throwing. Can be a nightmare but I love the results. Takes a bit of practice so I started throwing in stoneware clay and worked my way up to porcelain. I love throwing, so mesmerising, apparently I nod my head in rhythm with the wheel. Porcelain clay is very soft and collapses easily if over worked so you have to throw a bowl with as little handling as possible. The tricky bit is to then let the porcelain dry very slowly in a humid atmosphere, otherwise it cracks and is useless. So frustrating to throw 10 large platters that look perfect only to look at them the next day to see a tiny hairline crack appear. No matter what you do it will always come back, if not in the drying or bisque firing you can bet your life it will appear in the final glaze firing”
LittleWrenPottery added, ” Throwing becomes harder when you can’t actually get your hand round a piece of clay because its so large. I find I have to center and throw it in a variety of stages to compensate for my little hands! Once I have thrown it though I get an immense feeling of satisfaction and if it doesn’t work out I start over again. I love seeing my work go from unshaped lumps of clay to finished pots”.
Dottery Pottery’s description of opening the kiln is so evocative, ” The most rewarding aspect of my craft is when I open the kiln after a glaze firing and seeing all the beautiful finished pieces. Quite often I will get an unexpected finish in a particular glaze or the colour hasn’t gone quite how it should but that just adds to the excitement!” Any craftsperson would identify with the rewards Charlotte Hupfield describes, “The most rewarding aspect of what I do would definitely be selling my work direct to customers at craft fairs. It’s such a great feeling hearing all of the nice comments and feedback, especially knowing that people like what I make enough to buy it”.
So where and how can you learn?
Several of the potters I asked had studied ceramics to degree level and Little Wren Pottery was lucky enough to have a ceramicist father; but she still headed to the local college. In fact all the potters I asked recommended local colleges whole heartedly and Marmaladenina’s experience is inspirational, “‘I learnt my craft firstly in a council funded project in Leicester called FOSSE ARTS, a pottery workshop and studio that runs 3 or 4 days a week daytimes and evenings. It includes a teacher that is on hand to everyone that needs support and guidance in all areas of pottery. Materials are provided and all for a couple of pounds! I started with my young son in 2004. Then I pursued this craft and studied ceramics on a two year A level course at Leicester College which was amazing. I am currently studying 3D design crafts at De Montfort University Leicester fulltime. If it it had not been my attending the community workshop in the first place this journey may never have happened..”
Little Wren Pottery noted that there were few potters as young as her (a mere 24) and is concerned her craft may be in decline, certainly the squeeze on education in the current financial climate wont help adult education. But there are plenty of potters out there happy to share the secrets and magic of their trade, so look up your local college evening classes or find a local studio with ‘have a go’ days, to quote Dottery Pottery, “…there’s nothing more therapeutic than a bit of mud bashing!”
Thank you so much to the potters who contributed to this post, please go and have a browse in their shops and maybe get yourself some beautiful handcrafted pottery to make your dinner table or home that bit more unique!
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