Archive for May, 2014


Friday, May 30th, 2014

pinched / modelled (handle)

Pinched from one lump of clay. One coil added to foot. No tools used at all, apart from a banding wheel and a paper coffee cup – so I could work on it upside down. I desperately wanted to use tools at many different stages, but held out. Only fingers were used. Some interesting things came out of that restriction. I’d certainly never thought of using my thumbnail as a scraper before. Porcelain isn’t the easiest material to pinch – it always felt on the edge of collapsing into a wobbly slab. The Spode cup is one of the most elegant of my V&A selection, and one of my favourites. It is a little perverse to make it this way, I know.

Made between 18.00 and 22.00 (18.00 – 18.45) then two sessions of about half an hour each. During the first session it felt amateur and ugly. Then I decided that it would be for Sally O’Reilly – the making pressure fell away and it became fun again. Until I rescued it and it felt like I had something to lose.

No seconds, as I said before – everything made will be shown; and no testing. Nothing has been worked out before. It means more risk and more fun. I am not trying to repeat something already worked out. This, for me, is another common trap. You get very proficient with a technique. You get your glaze or whatever working just right. Then you are condemned to achieve the same result over and over again.

Each cup, whether ugly or beautiful, well made or badly made, stands as a record of the work done – the interaction between clay and body – at a particular time.

For Sally O’Reilly


Friday, May 30th, 2014


Thursday, May 29th, 2014

slabbed / sledged / modelled

Getting the handle wrong on the Keith Murray copy opened up my thinking about the cups as a body of work. The original cup was most likely slpcast from a mould taken from a plaster model. So the handle would have been carefully carved in nice, hard, constant plaster. A tricky job, to be sure, but very ‘safe’ as a process. My cup body was slabbed. I did the banding (reeding, again?) with a profile made from a credit card. The handle started as a coil, which was then shaped and carved. I didn’t want to offer it up to the cup too much, for fear of weakening the clay at the bends. This is one of the issues with porcelain – it stays wet and floppy for quite a while, but once it strats to dry, it’s off like a rocket. So, with the body getting to the critical point, the handle still slightly too wet and the other body starting to signal the need for rest, I went with the spirit of the work – accuracy without rigour (or fussing) – and stuck the handle on. Immediately it looked very wrong – too big, too chunky. Not elegant. I was tempted to take it straight off again, which would have meant making another one. So I’m torn between redoing work done, which I hate, or having people think that I’m not a good maker – the craftsman’s horror.

Disregarding the redoing issue for now, this horror seems to be a critical pivot in craft production – between fear of making badly and keeping some life in the work. How to approach the latter is not a straightforward problem. Although I have a tendency towards precision, I have always been able to make quickly and loosely (not everyone can). But my goal is not to make loose, ‘beautiful’ things. A lot of people – makers and appreciators alike – look for this in ceramics. Things that look untouched, ‘fresh’ and artless. It usually indicates an iceberg of craft skill underneath the individual object.

The original appears to be a straight cylinder, but if you look closely, it tapers in, very slightly, towards the base. I cut the ends of my slab on an angle, to give me a little more length on the top circumference than the bottom, but when I put it together, the cup tapered in towards the top. The resistance of materials – seemingly simple things are not simple at all. Anyway, a potter would normally just make another one, and another if necessary, until they got it right. I suppressed my training and bashed the bottom (carefully) with a bit of wood, so the cup has its own peculiar shape, with a bit of a bulge in the middle.

For John Thackara.

Two talks in 2011 had, in combination, a major impact on the direction of my project:

A virtuoso performance, in June, by Tim Morton (to about fifteen people) in the research seminar room of the Stevens Building.

A Sustain talk in December, which included John Thackara. He talked about the folly of following old models within an unsustainable socio-economic system, based on inequality and finite resources, and how close we might be to the edge of ‘Seneca’s Cliff’.

At the end, I asked him if he thought that we (sculptors, painters, potters) should stop producing objects. He answered that it might be more useful to think in terms of a gift economy. I had read The Gift by Lewis Hyde a few years before and been excited by the possibility of changing my relationship to the system. Not straightforward, of course – most makers aren’t in a position to be able to give away what they make and (despite my former criticism of ‘commercial’ work) hand-making and selling your own work must surely be part of the solution rather than the problem. Perhaps the first concern for every individual who recognises the pressing need for change should be that they don’t work for exploitative corporations. I’m not in the position to give away everything I make either, but I am prepared to live lightly and generate income to support the making from other sources. Clearly, there are no easy solutions. I’m thinking of the gifting of these cups as an experiment and don’t expect short-term returns, but hope that it might extend the conversation about making beyond the usual boundaries.


Thursday, May 29th, 2014

Leach_copy (green)

Wednesday, May 28th, 2014

slabbed / sledged / carved / modeled / pulled (handle)

Chatting to Charlotte while making. She is not a ceramicist, but is keenly perceptive in most areas. I had cut out five slabs – triangles, but with a flat, cut-off end – and was starting to stick them together. She asked why I was doing it this way – wasn’t it a mad way to make a cup? I said that doing it ‘wrong’ was the point.

Making a decision, semi-arbitrarily, to do it one way and then following through to the best of my ability. I remember seeing Bruce Nauman’s Setting a Good Corner years ago. What I always remember is the idea of planning the job, deciding what to do and then going at it, with full commitment, until it is finished.

I’m always trying to find a good balance between craft and bricolage, so I haven’t been planning my jobs very well. More just starting and seeing what happens. And using whatever tools come to hand, or other things that can be adapted to tool-use. Laziness might also have a part to play. But once the thing gets going, I am, Nauman-like, totally committed,

Charlotte has been working at home so hasn’t been around much. I’ve colonised her space, which is next door to mine. She came in yesterday on her way to the Essay conference – the Leach copy was sitting drying on her desk shelf and she asked if that was the one that I had been making the other day. I said it was and asked if she liked it. She made one of those non-commital noises which mean ‘not really’.

And there is the rub. I found myself immediately defending it / myself. Pointing out that it was in the least flattering state – fully dry, before firing. The tenacity of the not-being-considered-a-brilliant- maker anxiety. I sometimes wonder if a significant feature of craft making is the need of the maker to please.

For Ali Smith or Rosemarie Trockel.


Wednesday, May 28th, 2014

Gass on the word

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

Freud asked the question some time back, and since then we’ve had answers aplenty, so we are supposed to know by now what women want, but what does the word — even the word ‘woman’ — want? “In the flesh it is eternal…” …to be material, it turns out; to be noisy, singular, well-connected, splendidly performed, quirkily personal. Words want what they are not. Not an unusual desire. The child is eager to become a grown-up, the adult pines for former times and an innocence regained. That is most dear that can’t be had: to make music when you haven’t any instrument and don’t know how to play; to color the eye, outline objects, create sea, mountains, meadows with a swish of ink, to watercolour sky; it wants to be the periwinkle or the pink that has no need to speak, to rest in the world like a dog before the fire, to sit on a sofa and sink on its cushions, occupy a seat, fill a box, cover a wall, dance the tango, copulate in the foam, beat as strongly as a healthy heart. The word, like so many of its referents, wants to be a thing one day… then an object in action like a thrown stone… on still another it wants to be a song.

The practitioner of any art soon grows familiar with the limitations inherent in the medium: in painting it begins with the tyranny of the rectangle, the relative absense of time, movement, thought in the materials of composition, the fundamental flatness of stretched canvas or appointed wall, consequently the work’s precarious, adjectival attachment to solids, its fragile nature and dependency on site, yet its insistent particularity wherever it’s placed. So we should not be surprised at the appearance of impasto, the presence of wax melted into slow flows, collage, bullet holes and slashes, to witness the image break out of its frame and grow into an environment, nor should it shock us to see the the icon of today become the word itself, like the word ‘mustache’ spelled across the Mona Lisa’s upper lip.

William H. Gass

La maison d’en face or That Other Art

in Jane E. Neidhardt & Lorin Cuoco (eds.) 1997 The Dual Muse: The Writer As Artist, The Artist As Writer, St. Louis: Washington University Gallery of Art, P 71


Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

Socrates, Chuang Tzu, animism and writing

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

Whether or not Chuang Tzu, or Master Chuang, was a singular, historical figure, possibly named Chou, it seems to be accepted  that ‘he’ lived in the 4th Century BCE and was therefore, more or less, a contemporary of Socrates. It seems remarkable that two men from such different cultures, different places, would overlap so powerfully in their thinking and at the same time.

Both were deeply skeptical of power and conventional definitions of knowledge. Both saw craft (art, techné, making) as a real and ‘proper’ way of interacting with the world. As previous posts show, Chuang Tzu sees skilled activity as a route to instinctive, spontaneous action, that is in tune with nature, or the Way. Socrates, himself coming from the class of ‘hand-artists’, sees the (lowly) artisans as the only people who have real knowledge of what they are doing.

Socrates does, however, explicitly set Philosophy (the love of wisdom that comes with an acceptance of the infinite, ungraspable nature of knowledge) above other areas of practice. Chuang Tzu, on the other hand, is much more suspicious of ‘wisdom’ and the ability of words to pin it down. As previously quoted, he presents wisdom and fame as, “evil weapons – not the sort of thing to bring you success.”

In a brilliant chapter in The Spell of the Sensuous, titled ‘Animism and the Alphabet’, David Abram writes about the development of a new technology – the phonetic alphabet of the Ancient Greeks, derived from the aleph-beth of the Semitic peoples of the Middle East. This allowed words to separate from the things that they named and for knowledge itself, released from the restrictions of memory, to become abstract – idealised and cut off from the ‘more-than-human world’:

When the Homeric epics were recorded in writing, then the art of the rhapsodes began to lose its preservative and instructive function. The knowledge embedded in the epic stories and myths was now captured for the first time in a visible and fixed form, which could be returned to, examined, and even questioned. Indeed, it was only then, under the slowly spreading influence of alphabetic technology, that “language” was beginning to separate itself from the animate flux of the world, and so becoming a ponderable presence in its own right.

“It is only as language is written down that it becomes possible to think about it. The acoustic medium, being incapable of visualisation, did not achieve recognition as a phenomenon wholly seperable from the person who used it. But in the alphabetized document the medium became objectified…”

(Eric Havelock, The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Present, 1986)

The scribe, or author, could now begin to dialogue with his own visible inscriptions, viewing and responding to his own words even as he wrote them down. A new power of reflexivity was thus coming into existence, borne by the relation between the scribe and his scripted text.

P 107

A little further on, and starting with another quotation, Abram writes:

“Plato, in the early fourth century B.C., stands on the threshold between the oral and written cultures of Greece. The earliest epigraphic and iconographic indications of young boys being taught to write date from Plato’s childhood. In his day, people had already been reciting Homer from the text for centuries. But the art of writing was still primarily a handicraft…”

(Ivan Illich and Barry Sanders, The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind, 1988)

Plato was teaching, then, precisely at the moment hen the new technology of reading and writing was shedding its specialized “craft” status and finally spreading, by means of the Greek curriculum, into the culture at large. The significance of this conjunction has not been well recognized by Western philosophers, all of whom stand — to a greater or lesser extent — within Plato’s lineage. Plato, or rather the association between the literate Plato and his mostly non-literate teacher Socrates (469?-399 B.C.E.), may be recognized as the hinge on which the sensuous, mimetic, profoundly embodied style of consciousness proper to orality gave way to the more detached, abstract mode of thinking engendered by alphabetic literacy…

Pp 108-109

I told a friend – Paul Sandammeer – that I wanted to be a writer. He said that I was too good a maker to be a writer. Make of that what you will.

Cup rules / limits

Monday, May 26th, 2014

1. Each cup starts as a copy of one of my selections fromm the V&A collection.

2. All cups are made from one bag of porcelain (Valentine’s Special Porcelain – the body stocked by the department).

3. Only ‘structural’, or carved decoration, following the originals. Nothing applied and no colour. All cups will be glazed with a transparent glaze, made from standard materials stocked by the department.

4. All cups must be functional.

5. No ‘dry runs’  or testing – of making techniques or glazing.

6. All cups will be gifted to specified individuals. Which cup for which recipient will be decided during the making process.