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 Grayson 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

Friday, September 21, 2012

Nike Dragon Sauce

 Thanks to Kristina Gehrig- Material Designer - Footwear, and Brett Holts- Track and Field Product Line Manager- at Nike what was a slim chance became a reality within 2 days when I had the idea I would love to get my hands on some Olympic trainers to pursue a concept  about the methodology of designed pattern and relief on modern trainers and how that relates to preindustrial methods of pattern and design transferred between mediums. With the Olympics here in London it seemed like the perfect time to move the idea forward. I didn't have much luck finding anyone with contacts here in London so I asked my partners son's girlfriend who is a designer for Nike in Oregon if there was any chance of getting some olympic trainers. Well this girl moves fast and literally within 2 days Brett who was in London representing Nike 2012 Olympic Track and Field Innovation emailed me to set up a time to come to my studio at the V&A and bring me the goods. Needless to say I was jump up and down excited and blown away with the generosity of Nike and the exuberance these young talented designers had for what must have seemed like a pretty quirky request.

Despite the extraordinarily fast response by Nike my ideas had to simmer for a bit because of the immediate demands on my time in the studio for the video projects. But meanwhile there was an opportunity to get the ball rolling by relating the concept to a  young peoples workshop I had scheduled    on looking for dragons in the V&A's collection and coming back to the studio to create dragons in clay. As soon as I saw these amazing designs for the first time in person it became clear the elements would be perfect inspiration to create some super "Flyknit" dragon skin.

In order to recreate pieces of the patterns in the medium of clay I needed to take 'sprig moulds' directly off the shoes that the clay could then be pressed into. The issue then became how to keep the shoes in good condition while getting impressions of the incredible variety of relief on the soles and uppers -each having a distinctive character and methodology and most importantly story behind the design.
This required an upgrade of my silicon based molding putty to one that I was turned onto by a collaboration with V&A conservator Hanneke Rammaker who is part of an astounding conservation department here. I  tried a small sample she brought me and indeed it completely released from the fabric so I ordered my own- of course it had just sold out so it took about a week to get it in which was another crimp in my tight timeline here- it was well worth the wait. This flexible high tech putty added other layers of manipulation that could be used to transform the patterns into clay.

So the dragon workshop became the first manifestation of my trainer pattern pursuit and it would be 7-10 year olds pursuing it for the first time. I made a large pot inspired by the anthropomorphic form shared between two pieces from the V&A collection a 13th century London Jug (best pot ever made), and The Auspicious Cloud of the Oriental 2010 by Laurence Xu.
Left to right-Nike Flyknit Racer, Zoom Victory Elite, Zoom Superfly R4, Zoom Long Jump ( I also got a pair of Zoom Rotational but since the bottoms are completely smooth save the swoosh I didn't pull those out)
In the background are 2 amazing works from the V&a collections a 13th century London jug maker unknown and Laurence Xu's The Auspicious Cloud of the Oriental
A group of young people from Triangle Adventure Playground/Metropolitan Housing Association and the amazing dragons they created! 

some executive decisions needed to made and a few finishing touches, Reino Liefkes senior curator of ceramic and glass, Kate Quinlan curatorial intern and art student at the National College of Art and Design Dublin, and Tracy Friend also a maker and my wonderful assistant for the day. 

I have had some interest in the methodology used to create pattern and relief on English white salt glazed stoneware. I chose two great examples for my cases both are block moulds meaning the thickly cast or press molded positives that are made from the original moulds taken from the original model. One for a sauce boat and one a shell like teapot.  These blocks were fired high with very little salt as to keep the surface relief crisp for subsequent moulds to be taken as the old ones ware or perhaps these were used in the industry to sell to various potteries as ready to cast models for production moulds- any thoughts?

So what do Nike Olympic trainers and 18th century English white salt glaze sauceboats have in common? The connection I was seeing between these patterns and 21st century trainers is where it can get tricky and complicated but it is clear in this case a picture may be worth 1000 words.
Zoom Superfly, sauceboat block mould and my porcelain test sprigs off the trainer heel. 

Silicon rubber mould bisque porcelain impression bisque London clay impression.

Yes London clay so this story will continue in my next post so stay tuned

Friday, September 7, 2012


I have purposefully avoided any news at home on politics but had to hit the pause button to hear the President Barrack the House last night at the DNC!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Quiet On The Set

The first video shoot  revolved primarily around the making of a delft puzzle jug which I described preparations for in an earlier post. In addition we filmed the beginnings of making an 18th century agateware pectin shell teapot literally from start to finish. Those who are familiar with my 'experimental archeology' may know the article in Ceramics in America 2003 Rob Hunter and I coauthored that features my work on the rediscovery of this technique.  The example I chose from the V&A collection I exhibit alongside an 8th-century Chinese agate wine cup to illustrate's Rob's observations that the 18th-century Staffordshire technique was clearly derived from Chinese antiquity. Leave it to the V&A to have more than one example of each of these objects to make the point!

While on the subject of my cases I want to acknowledge the highly professional label installation that took place about a week after the installation of the objects. Clearly Phil Collett and Keith Hartnell take their jobs very seriously ( no really they do) and for me it really was kind of a big deal - well done!

The puzzle jug video went semi well -excellent actually- the videographer Jurriaan Booij has been amazing and I love when the caliber of work that has gone into the preparation and making is matched or exceeded with the artistry in filming and/or photography. I have had the pleasure of that experience many times doing photo shoots for CIA with Gavin Ashworth who also shoots my contemporary work.
We did have some drama when at a critical moment the pot fly's off the wheel, pretty funny but made the last bit a little tricky. The sacrificial puzzle jug can be seen on the table a 'bit' worse for wear.
Jurriaan Booij the videographer, the sacrificial puzzle jug is in the background
The first part of the agate video begins at the beginning so I found myself unexpectedly charged with needing to create original models for the teapot, spout, lid and finial to cary out a start to finish approach  . Meanwhile all the various metallic oxides, dry clay formulas (which are hard to come by) had to be found ordered and delivered and then made into the varied clays of iron, manganese, and cobalt then tested and reformulated and tested again fortunately I got it in 2 attempts. The blue ball clay available here made a nice addition and the red iron oxide seems much better that what I get in the US.
Of course a glaze formula had to be made- enter in the last 5 kg of gerstley borate in the country from Bath and I needed to replace a very stable but low temperature frit I use in the US that there is no direct equivalent for here. Challenges abound but again what I could do much more directly in the studio provided me with new insight into the ceramic materials industry here and how the vast historical footprint of potteries in Britain is clearly evidenced in the approach to manufacturing raw materials which always influences the approach to making.

This image is a hint into the eureka moment we had while filming which I will 'unpack' in an upcoming post.
The lovely agate teapot from the V&A's collection in my case.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Billingsgate or Bust

One thing I had my mind set on was going to Billingsgate Fish Market for inspiration and crustaceans. As part of my work in casting from life or natural objects. This techniques is incorporated in my junk teapot series. Dragon Junk at Yale University Gallery, Octopus Junk here at the V&A and Koi Junk at Seattle Art Museum all use elements cast from natural shells and sea life. Inspired by my long time interest in Bernard Palissy and by the work I have done on the 18th century American porcelain pickle stands produced in Philadelphia by Bonnin and Morris so called 'life casting' is an art that i feel has new relevance in the 21st century. I thought i could expand my repertoire  or at least get some shrimp for the barbie.
Only one problem Billingsgate opens about 4 am and closes around 8:30 and is not easy to get to-enter my trusty friend and fellow adventurer Rod Jellicoe who is ready for anything so game on.

So I gathered a few perishables and headed back to South Kensington Rod took the scenic route which was risky considering the cargo in the back of his Volvo!

Once we made our way back to the V&A time was of the essence to try to make some molds of baby octopi and a lobster claw that I basically picked up off the floor.

BBQ master Rod Jellicoe

Executive chef Gary Atkins looking pretty pleased with Rod's technique so far!
Sunday BBQ was a fantastic finish to our Billingsgate adventure