Tim's Ceramics Blog

Musings on what I'm making, seeing and thinking

Cultural Appropriation in Ceramics

Back in September, the author Lionel Shriver gave a talk at the Brisbane Writers Festival, addressing the issues around identity politics and cultural appropriation. In summary, this says that people should only live within their own culture - no writing about other peoples, no buying foreign clothes on holiday, no copying designs from another culture. As Shriver says, taken to its logical conclusion an author can only write their own autobiography, and how much poorer that would make our culture. Yet Guardian journalist Yassmin Abdel-Magied took such exception to the talk that she stomped out before the end, and published her opinions in this piece.

Yet, as Kwame Anthony Appiah shows in this year's Reith Lectures, concepts such as country, culture and colour are complex, fluid, and dependent upon the person's point of view. Try to define any culture or identity in isolation and you are doomed to failure, much to the disappointment of those in UKIP or the Tory right wing. So we cannot grasp any identity that can be "misappropriated". 

Also, at the beginning of the year I did the FutureLearn MOOC "What is a Mind", looking at neuroscience and psychoanalysis. Amongst other things, this discussed work by neuroscientists such as Jaak Panksepp, looking at instincts present in all mammals (including humans) (read more about Jaak's work here). This shows that seeking out things new is a fundamental instinct, whether it is a dog sniffing round to explore new territory, a scientist seeking out new knowledge, or an artist developing new ways of expression. Where there is communications, this seeking will often be built upon what others have already discovered.

Looking at how this applies to ceramics, it's whole history is one of copying and appropriation. The Chinese were heavily influenced by the Koreans; the Japanese copied the Chinese, and started a war with Korea to capture its potters. Delftware, Majolica and Wedgwood's Creamware were attempts to imitate Chinese porcelain. Bernard Leach imposed a strong Japanese aesthetic in his creation of the studio potter movement in the UK. And in China, after the near collapse of ceramics in Jingdezhen, East Germany (re-)exported porcelain expertise to the town as part of the Soviet bloc's support for China, though this part of Jingdezhen's story is seldom told as it claims ascendancy in Chinese porcelain. Without cultural appropriation, British ceramics would still be earthenware, with an occasional lead glaze.

So let's forget the excesses of criticising cultural appropriation, and accept that we all build upon what we have seen and what others have achieved before us, regardless of where that inspiration may come from.

Pots in Milan and Delft

My newsletter of 14 September 2016

Over the last couple of weeks, the day job took me first to Delft, and then to Milan, and on both occasions I had time to find some pots.

First I looked at some of the traditional Delftware, both in the antique shops and a couple of the small studios in this small, picturesque Dutch town. The original technique of covering the grey clay with a white tin glaze to paint on, and then covering with a clear glaze, is no longer practiced, instead they paint ot use transfers onto a bisque fired white clay, before applying the clear glaze. The white on the old tiles is more of a very pale blue-grey, quite warm and smoothing, whereas the newer pieces are a cold, harsh refrigerator white, and quite stark by comparison. Then on to things new, calling in at Terra Keramiek , an excellent gallery for modern ceramics. Of the potters not often seen in the UK, I like the paper thin porcelain of Guy van Leemput, the strong sculptural pieces by Martin McWilliam, and the plainer works by Daphné Corrigan.

In Milan I'd hoped to visit the Museo delle Arti Decorative to look at their ceramics, and in particular their Majolica, but it is closed for refurbishment until at least the new year. The curator suggested the Poldi Pezzoli museum, which just had some early European porcelain and an excess of Italian religious paintings and portraits, but its unexpected treasure was a collection of portable sundials and early watches, all masters of engineering and craftsmanship. The museum itself was built up by Pezzoli in his house, and left to the city on his death. There are 3 other similar "house museums" in Milan, and as the Museo Boschi de Stefano was round the corner from where I was staying, I called in there to find a large apartment full of Italian paintings and some 3D work from the 1920s to the 1950s. Interesting to see a wide range of work not often seen in the UK, especially Lucio Fontana's sculptural ceramics  as I had previously only known him for his slashed canvasses.

This Saturday I'm exhibiting and demonstrating hand building at the Test Valley Arts Showcase, from 10 to 3 at Broughton Village Hall. Then the next weekend my work's at the Wallop Artists annual exhibition  - I'll be there at Friday's preview and Saturday morning.

Back to making now, with a last batch of earthenware pieces being finished off this weekend, and then switching over to stoneware to do some functional pieces and also to further develop the oil spot glazes, both technically and in producing attractive pieces with their strong black colouring. In particular, I want to recreate the Chines Partridge Feather glaze, where large brown spots form from adding a surface glaze high in phosphorous, and also to tweak the base glaze to get a hare's fur effect. I was also going to make some for inclusion in the Oxford Anagama's kiln firing this autumn, but that has now been postponed to next spring, so I can bring forward my tests with Uranium glazes - the cliff hanger for the next edition! 

Material Language: New Work in Clay

This is my newsletter emailed out on 27th July 2016.

Last weekend we had a friend down from York, and decided to make the most of the sunshine by going to the New Art Centre just down the road from us. If you haven't been before, it is well worth a visit, with sculptures by major artists set out in the lovely gardens, and two interior gallery areas for smaller or non-weatherproof works. We just caught the exhibition Material Language: New Work in Clay, showing works by nine contemporary ceramicists (I daren't use the word potter in this bastion of fine art).

Three of these caught my eye. First off, Phoebe Cummings, with beautiful delicate, small scale fired sculptures in the Artist's Gallery, and a much larger floral bouquet of unfired clay in an open fronted stone pavilion outside (see below). This piece I found fascinating: the colours of the foliage reduced to the featureless pale grey of clay, so you engage with the form of the piece and its components much more; and also the temporary nature of unfired clay in an outdoors environment, moving slightly in the breeze, whereas normally you associate clay with something rigid, and so durable that it forms the bedrock of archaeology.

Phoebe Cummins - unfired clay

The other two artists are Annie Turner and Neil Brownsword - quite different styles of work but each in their way challenging the division between art and craft, particularly in the light of discussions with one of the staff at the exhibition. Annie's works are wall mounted or free standing forms of ceramic mesh, finished with textured slips ranging from white to rust brown. These are evocative of her childhood on the River Deben in Suffolk, with its fishing nets and derelict jetties. They are both beautiful to look at, and technically challenging in the making. In contrast, Neil Brownsword's interest is in the decline of the commercial ceramics industry in Britain, and he had three works on display. Two were collections of small components for larger porcelain pieces, in various stages of production, and including failures, wired to display boards in an organised manner, resembling bleached bones in some Victorian naturalist's collection. The other showed a number of pieces that the studio or commercial potter would have deemed failures, and thrown out: pieces that had over heated and slumped in the kiln; glazes that had run; wares welded themselves to kiln shelves.

Annie's work was described to me as just craft, and so relatively inexpensive - yet many (other than the cognoscenti of fine art) would choose her work in preference to Neil's, and it is definitely well beyond the work of many studio potters that is either functional or at least work whose forms are rooted in functionality. Neil's work can be seen as referencing the failure of the manual mass-production methods developed by the likes of Wedgwood that have largely been replaced by much more automated processes and cheaper production in countries such as China and Indonesia. This shows how art can recycle, and add significant commercial value, to items discarded by both craft and industrial production. Or does it? What if Neil's work was made by him specifically for these works? And if so, does it matter?

On to my work. I have a busy time coming up with 3 exhibitions almost back to back. First there is Southern Ceramic Group's annual exhibition in the grounds of Chichester Cathedral, beginning this Saturday for 2 weeks - I'll be there on Saturday 13th. Then comes Hampshire Open Studios (20 - 29th August) where I'm exhibiting with Tom and Anne Paine of Cotton and Clay, who produce functional ceramics and fabric items, along with my partner Monica Wilson's silver jewellery (I'll be there at the weekends and Bank Holiday Monday, except the 28th). Finally there is the Wallop Artists exhibition on 23 - 25 September, mostly paintings but with some 3-d works. Whilst all this is going on, I've been lucky enough to get onto a masterclass with Akiko Hirai in a couple of weeks' time. For those familiar with her work, you'll see the appeal to me of her loose, organic forms and glazes.

New site, new blog

A new web site as I get more serious about ceramics, and a new blog. What sort of things will I be writing about?

I'll be talking about what I'm making, and the thinking behind it - whether the technicalities of a glaze or firing, or what has been my inspiration, or the historic background of a shape or a glaze. Other ceramics I've seen, whether at an exhibition of new work or in a museum showing historical items. Things I've read about, in print or online, whether on ceramic objects or makers or other aspects.  

Viewpoints will be diverse - the technicalities of making; thoughts on the boundaries (or barriers) between arts and crafts, and their different perceptions; what makes a successful design, and how people perceive different works; and background historical, psychological and other aspects.

Follow my posts for a while, and see if you find them interesting.