Saturday, March 8, 2014

Mover Shaker World Class Maker

The V&A categorized my artist in residence as "World Class Maker".
Titles can be a useful way to stake out territory especially since we can't go around pissing on everything we want to lay claim to.  At first it seemed a bit mocking but one day it struck me to take my props- embrace and even brandish the moniker. One- why not? B-  I realized it is a literal description of my specific approach as a clay artist, and a very a useful way to give people some idea what they may encounter - one whose work in clay includes a serious skill set. It definitely sets the tone- the only trouble is then you gotta come up with the goods!
 There is a strong compelling movement within contemporary ceramic art that is about NOT making things out of clay- but making things out of clay things that have already been made or using clay to define that which will never be made - the temporal shaping and arranging of clay material creating an impermanent vulnerable momentary tap into the ceramic cosmos - a kind of alter ego to the earthly manifestations that clay has been bound to for millennia. A valiant attempt at impeaching this imperishable artifact from our collective past-a past we can't run away from but one we can perhaps travel at light speed to escape at least for a moment. I like it! After all ceramics today is the material of space travel diabolical weaponry and the key to solar energy!? what? it is as much a material of the future as the past and one that allows our present predicament an escape to both- sometimes at once.

 London truly seems to be ground zero for some seriously righteous paradigm shifting mind altering endeavors in clay and a lot of other so called craft and design (ugh). I have like many become swept up in the dragnet of critical thinkers in the field ambitious to redefine what and who is art- artist-craft- craftsman design- designer, a back and forth momentum that has begun to exhaust itself (or at least me) while inching closer and closer to an anticlimactic balance point- like the mystic tale of the stag whose mad pursuit of a heavenly scent drives him off the edge of a cliff and contorted from the fall, his head encircled to his belly, he realizes the origin of the divine fragrance that compelled him to his death was in fact emanating from his own navel.

  So where better to explore all that we call ceramics than in the belly of the beast- swallowed whole the undeniable proof of our karmic china closet and at once the germ seed of provocateur- the enemy within, laying, navigating, wounding and wounded alike warriors on the conceptual minefield of art and clay.
 In light of this I had a 'senior makers' moment- the V&A organized a pow wow at the om point for a small diverse group- whose common ground is clay- to explore the meaning of ceramic art in the 21st century a high minded pursuit that quickly devolved into playing with Nike Olympic trainers, London clay and of course tea and cake- it was all very civilized.

 V&A Curators Reino Liefkes, Alun Graves, Catrin Jones, and intern Kate Quinlan, residency and 'long table' coordinator Ruth Lloyd, ceramic artist's Phoebe Cummings, Carol McNicholl, Clare Twomey Conor Wilson, Matthew Raw and Ceramics in America Editor Robert Hunter who took the usual high ground and all the great pictures.
 True a few heavy hitters were MIA but I tried to compensate by using a bigger hammer.
Nike once again was literally on the table I was continuing to explore the trainer patterns from the olympic trainers Brett Holts had brought me from the Nike 2012 Track and Field Innovation

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Making Movies


Bisque Fired Puzzle Jugs
Shane Porter and I in the studio
The London clay experiments had to play second fiddle to getting the video's completed. I had made several puzzle jugs which was necessary to film the throwing and construction process in one session. I then needed to bisque fire them in order to film the glazing and decorating phase during the next filming. Luckily my assistant Shane Porter an MFA student from The Royal College of Art  arrived just in time- his first task / opportunity- to sieve the delft glaze. I  had made a 'proper' batch which needed to be large enough, about 10 k, to film glazing- dipping and turning the puzzle jug. Shane was pretty surprised at how long it took to sieve but I was delighted to have the help since up to this point I was operating mostly solo and I was furiously trying to get the entire agate project from model and mold making for all the parts- to clay formulating and testing as well as delft and creamware glazes before making the larger batches. Shane is terrific and one of the amazing young artists coming out of the RCA ceramic and glass program.

Measuring the 18th Century Agate Teapot from the V&A
Still Juriaan Booij
I left off on the agate project where a collaborative effort resulted in a discovery while filming. Senior curator of ceramics and glass Reino Liefkes, associate curator Catrin Jones, their intern Kate Quinlan and Ruth Lloyd my residency coordinator were all engaged while I was trying to create the form for the pectin shell teapot model. I began by throwing a form based on measurements from the original and an image of the piece scaled up 10% larger than actual size to account for shrinkage.

Trying to determine the the underlying form in order to recreate it is harder than it may seem because the agate pattern obscures the shape of the piece to the eye. Using non invasive conservators putty we decided to take a small impression of the crown of the shell relief at the shoulder.  When I then pressed a piece of clay into the silicon putty impression taken off the period example the solid clay without the busy pattern clearly revealed the form.
Reino suggested it looked much like a shell impression I had made from a scallop shell mold I brought with me that I cast during the Bonnin and Morris project Making a Pickle Stand in Ceramics in America 2007.
Shell Mold from Bonnin and Morris Project
Still Juriaan Booij
I agreed it looked very similar and I decided to compare the size shape number of lobes etc to the shell mold and to our surprise it was damn close to the scaled up image of the original agate teapot. I decided to cut the thrown model I had started and press it into my shell mold to see how close it would come to approximating the original. So we then shifted to the premise that this teapot, unlike the salt glazed stoneware block mold, contemporary to it, of a 'shell like' form was in fact a literal natural shell form.

Cutting my thrown model in half  to press into the shell mold.
Film still  Juriaan Booij
Marking the 'growth rings with a compass.
Film Still Juriann Booij

Various experiments with when creating the original form.
The revelation that this particular teapot form was really meant to closely imitate a natural shell or was in fact taken directly from a natural shell is more than just a technology insight it cuts to the very core of the enigmatic nature of this genre of ceramics within the larger landscape of the global industrial powerhouse the Staffordshire potteries had become. The salt glaze teapot block mold I chose to put on display in my case has a form much more conducive to the function of a teapot. This block mold, used to produce molds for casting and press molding salt glaze examples , has a more baroque character where the design approach for the model is a stylized shell sculpted into a functional teapot shape incorperating a combination high relief from modeling and surface relief created by incising into the plaster cast of the model to further embellish the elaborate shell. 

The design of the agate teapot however relies on both  the complexity of the fabric which by nature of the technique is inherently individual to each piece, and couples that stone-like patterned clay (with origins Chinese antiquity) with the decidedly purist approach to the form of a natural scallop shell mirrored on both sides, a classical design and one where the art of the form supersedes it's adaptation to functionality. This becomes very evident when looking at the piece 'head on'. The unusual form of the agate pectin shell teapots I have reproduced in the past has always seemed puzzling but it was not until I had the chance to live with the original in my V&A studio case that it finally became clear that there is something unique and telling about the design and development of this elite ware.

Below are the salt glaze block mould and a teapot taken from similar mould both in the V&A collection

Shell dish form in the study cases Room 138 the V&A Ceramics Galleries

The Staffordshire salt-glazed pickle dish in the center has similar characteristics to the agate pectin shell teapot though simpler and smaller it's clear this dish has a related approach.

The press molded shell forms I made from my 'Bonnin and Morris' shell mold were very close but still needed a lot of manipulation to match the form of the teapot I was working from. All of the other elements had to be modeled and molded and the lid and finial required some carving into the molds once cast.

The models and molds I created to form all the parts of the agate teapot.

Incising into the teapot lid to create relief this is easily seen on the white salt examples above but again was almost undetectable as an element in the 18th century agate piece until close inspection.
Film still Juriaan Booij
I formulated the agate clays using all UK materials and managed to get some really nice cobalt manganese and iron clays with only a couple of test firings fortunately since that is all the time I had.

Manganese Iron and Cobalt earthenwares I formulated for agate.
Film still Juriaan Booij
Fired clay and glaze tests for the agate,  press molding of  'laid agate' is integral to the process so in order to get good tests of the clays the full agate technique has to be done and press molded to maintain the integrity of the pattern.  in this case into the shell mold and a skull mold. 
The film on this process will be available to see online on the V&A Channel and Artbabble soon so I won't elaborate on the steps in between but the resulting teapot in it's unfinished state is shown here to illustrate the almost precarious form that defines the character of this piece.
The leather hard agate teapot after construction showing the profile of the 'classical' form next to the fired clay and glaze test.

A hard days work! 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Mucking Out

Miners operating a Greathead Shield to 'muck out' London tunnels

I have a habit of keeping my eye out for construction sites as a source of indigenous clay. I had already found myself reaching into pits where waterlines were being repaired to grab precious handfuls of the dense muck London is built on- mostly disdained by Londoners as a total nuisance.
My partner Rob Hunter had taken a trip to Highate Cemetery to do photography and saw piles of solid clay that had been excavated during some street work nearby. Two days later we returned with bags to haul back as much as we could carry but the clay was gone- with the Olympics looming things were probably more expedient than usual and the only clay remaining was in the work pit. I took a chance and climbed inside the barriers just to grab what I could but I had to lay down on the concrete and hang in so I didn't dilly dally.
Line repair near Highgate Cemetary

When I came upon my second chance at a large construction site in east London I decided to carpe diem -
Meet Joe my knight in shining reflector tape in my quest for London clay! 

 When asked- Joe, who was more puzzled about how I knew his name than my strange interest in the clay, quickly responded by saying the clay in the pile was 'rubbish' and I would want the 'solid sticky stuff' and that there are a couple of different types. Needless to say Joe's working knowledge of clay was impressive, he offered to bag up some 'good clean stuff'  and I could come back for it later especially if I brought some 'hot girls' with me! I did attempt to honor his request but the man for the job was once again Rod 007 Jellicoe -Joe did bag up the clay as promised about 60 kilos- but when I asked around at the V&A if there was anyone with a vehicle to grab the precious cargo the response was 'we usually take the train or ride bikes' clearly that was not gonna happen. Rod to the rescue, he picked me up and when we arrived I could see the disappointment on Joe's face as I explained that Rod was the hottest girl I could find with a car…
Getting the clay into the museum is a story in itself, the security gate guards and all involved were amazingly responsive to the impromptu situation so Rod maneuvered his way into the V&A loading dock and delivered the payload once again!
The clay in bags in front of my V&A  studio in gallery 143

One type of clay from  east London which is black in it's raw form

The second type which has a marbled stratus and is almost oily feeling.
This excursion was in the midst of my preparation and filming of the delft puzzle jug and the agate teapot I describe in an earlier post. The clays were pretty moist the day I got them but I had to turn my attention  to the videos and by the time I could begin my experiments they had hardened- but not dried- the most difficult state for reconstituting. I also wanted to try to preserve the marbleization of the 2nd type which requires it being wet enough to use directly or thoroughly dry.
I  thought I might play with the idea of the natural agate in contrast with the extraordinarily contrived process of the Staffordshire type I was busy developing for the video and also wanted to continue my Nike 2012 Olympic trainer patterns with east London earth. But the most compelling thing about these clays is experiential not result oriented, literally using the ground I was occupying to explore their unique unknown properties-  unpredictable-volital- beautiful and not necessarily anything anyone in their right mind would want to mess with. Right up my ally!
The unfired black clay impressed with some of the Nike patterns to test. 
London clay is famous for the fossils it contains which dovetails with my interest in connecting fossil imagery with fossil fuel and the notion of a 'human fossil' exemplified by my work Fossil Teapot
Fossil Teapot Collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Art's, Richmond VA

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Victoria Miro and Joe

#Lamentation 2012 Greyson Perry

"The Dead Christ… "Andrea Della Robbia V&A

I had the opportunity to see Greyson Perry's take over of the British Museum during The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman in December where the tapestry and fabric works included seemed to be imbued with the palpable excitement of virgin territory (no pun intended), so I really wanted to get to Perry's exhibition of tapestries The Vanity of Small Differences at Victoria Miro Gallery  this summer.  Of course it came down to seeing it on the last day but my guru Rod Jellicoe had highly recommended I make the effort and I was glad I did. The venue allowed for the work to be seen both intimately and expansively in lot of natural light which is not what you typically encounter with fabric exhibitions so that in itself lent an irreverence to these charged works.

I feel a certain simpatico with how Perry translates the past into narratives of the modern human condition. Our works were both acquired in 2003 by the Contemporary Art Society of London for the Potteries Museum at Stoke on Trent when consulting curator Andrew Watts was building up the collection with contemporary clay artists that reference Staffordshire pottery traditions.  Perry's and my relationship to British ceramic history are very different but our conceptual paths do 'cross' now and then- though you'll rarely catch me in a dress!

The Lamentation is a subject well represented in the V&A collections in numerous mediums and periods. The piece above is a renaissance terracotta example I had the great honor of passing every morning on my way in and when leaving late at night. The museum was often most compelling when dark and empty, and though this work was not directly in my path it always managed to capture my attention for at least a moment sometimes longer. As an artist who has worked a lot with 18th-century material I'm aware of scenes from the life of Christ serving as compositional tinplates for satirists of the period, a nice double edge to Perry's sword- or knitting needle- as he weaves in William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress to set up the loaded circumstance of his 21st century commentaries.

Strangely prior to my coming to London I had been developing a political work referencing a pretty brutal satirical engraving by Paul Revere entitled The Able Doctor or America Drinking the Bitter Draught. When I first discovered this work something about the composition was familiar and I realized it was the Lamentation- in place of The Dead Christ is a 'Native America' being held down and orally sodomized with a teapot - a vessel that Rob Hunter brilliantly incorporates in his lecture on 18th-century rituals as being clearly symbolic of male sexual aggression. With the political climate here, the rise of the so called Tea Party and it's overt agenda on women's reproductive rights 'dominating' Republican policy and rhetoric, this image could not be more relevant to 21st-century American Politics. A disturbing revelation in itself - I'm definitely not done with this one yet.

 During the Bush administration I created 2 works protesting the Iraq war one in 2003 Liberty on Leave and one in 2008 Paradise Lost. Both pieces reference the allegorical depictions of Fecundity by Bernard Palissy.   I came to know these works through trying to recreate the subsequent versions produced in the 17th-century by London delft potteries. The imagery translated into clay by Palissy correlates strongly to this mid-16th-century painting  from Fontainebleau depicting the Birth of Cupid. This painting reflects  the flourishing paganism at Fontainebleau almost at odds with the religious symbolism that dominates renaissance art and turning the idea of the virgin mother on it's head.

The Birth of Cupid Master of Flora ( Italian, Fontainebleau 2nd half of the 16th century
Fecundity dish Bernard Palissy or Palissy School on view in the V&A ceramics galleries.

Paradise Lost 2008  currently in COVET Ferrin Gallery

Victoria Miro is a fantastic gallery with compelling exhibitions, dramatic spaces and a tranquil garden complete with cupcakes! But the excitement of that day was to continue when on the corner across from the Mcdonalds there was a big construction site and where there is a backhoe there is usually clay-

This is where I meet Joe...  To be Continued…

Monday, October 15, 2012


As you can see I am back in the colonies and some things never change! The weather in Virginia on  Oct 6 2012 was 85 F and sunny… oddly enough I will miss what Londoners refer to as summer.

It was hard for me to absorb in situ the breadth and depth of my residency at the V&A. It was such a short and intense time that my experience is just now beginning to sink in and unfold so I will continue to document my 'in country' experience with post residency 'posts' in order to reflect on and share the rich resource of material still to cover.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Though I have been called many things including 'post modern chameleon' by Garth Clark and  'magpie-like' by Glenn Adamson I would describe my experience in discovering ceramic history more akin to a mudlark. Unlike my extraordinary mentor and friend Ivor Noel Hume OBE who's beginnings on the banks of the Thames has given contemporary archaeology its most poignant and creative voice, I had only seen ceramics found in America.  And although these ceramics came from America's earliest and most significant Colonial American sites, I was not really informed as to their  historical context. So I came to know ceramic history in reverse: I learned about the circumstance of those artifacts through  my study of the ceramic arts. It was my complete lack of formal understanding of the broader study of colonial American archeology and anthropology and material culture that allowed for my idiot savant approach to this history through making. The single publication who's title alone captured my imagination for decades to come was Noel's book English Delftware from London and Virginia. This book was so influential that I dubbed my exodus to the V&A  "From Virginia to London" as a humble tribute to Noel Hume's genius and remarkable spirit which never ceases to amaze me.

I made it my mission to join the more dubious ranks of mudlarkers past and present while in London and get down on the shores of the Thames to see what I could find. My partner Rob Hunter the real archeologist had left for the states but sent me a link to the tides chart and encouraged me to venture down into the mirk and mire.  Although it wasn't listed as one of the "suggested" spots, I decided to check under Blackfriars Bridge on the south bank.  Here at low tide the beach is fairly wide and the view is pretty amazing, but what was surprising was the mass of centuries of rubble and fragments that make up the shoreline relatively washed clean for the picking.

The steps down were another matter.
 My first attempt was a lot more productive than I had anticipated and I realized I didn't have anything to put the loot in so ha had to use my lucky New Orleans Saints ball cap. WHO DAT!

I found everything from late 16th-century borderware to 19th=century willow pattern but the finds I kept were things that I recognized parallels to from American archeological contexts. A trip that coincided roughly with my Thames adventure was a visit to Blythe House where the store of the V&A is kept that is not on display and of particular interest was some archeological material though not contextual was certainly familiar.
Archeological English Delft at Blythe House V&A collections store

The archeological material at Jamestown Rediscovery is really worth looking at and they also have an incredible archeological database at St. Augustine both have early European tin glaze examples (above) and this type Midlands Purple butter pot (below) mirrors similar excavations at Jamestown and other early sites.

My second mudlarking adventure was when Rob returned and as we crossed the Millennium Bridge the heavens opened and the sun shown down on the Sherd like Oz so we had great expectations . This time Rob ventured down the steep steps first to document my descent or downfall!
Though we didn't find the Holy Grail we had a pretty good hall and a really useful tool in the studio