“Letting IKEA make our cups is a waste of human spirit” - Guest blog from Mirka Golden Hann
During the weekend of 30th June - 2nd July I was very fortunate to be sent by the Arts Centre to attend the legendary Aberystwyth Ceramics Festival. Never having had the chance to attend, either as a student or during my 18 years as a practicing ceramicist, I was very excited finally to be able to go and am now buzzing with a positive charge which I am eager to share.
The ICF was founded in 1987 as a pottery camp and was the first festival to invite international artists. Since then the festival, which runs biennially, has grown in its ambition as well as audience numbers.
The programme is spread out over the site of the Aberystwyth Arts Centre. Throughout the event kilns are built and fired outside the building. On Saturday and Sunday demonstrations by two artists side by side are happening in the Great Hall. At the same time two lectures are on the go in the theatre and the cinema.
Here is an account of all the events I witnessed.
Talk by Taille Maughan the founder of ‘Turning Earth’ in London was the first event I attended. Turning Earth is a very successful venture operating two large open access ceramic studios. They offer not only regular classes but also a gym-like untutored membership scheme for their more experienced regular members. It was encouraging to see all the facts and figures as well as the importance of social media in starting up. The underlying tone of this talk was the emphasis on the inner wellness of an individual engaged in creative endeavour. “Letting IKEA make our cups is a waste of human spirit”, said Taille. As an artist and a pottery teacher with years of experience I am fully in one with this.
Practical demos by Ostinelli &Priest sculpted a bull using an interesting armature made of hardboard, thin sticks and bubble wrap which was left within the sculpture to be burned out later in the firing. This is an interesting technique which would have to be practiced in a very well ventilated studio.
Zahed Taj Eddin (Syria) who recently completed a Phd focusing on research into Egyptian Faience at Harrow (University of Westminster) presented the preparation of Egyptian Faience and a technique using a terracotta mould in order to work with this quite wilful material, neither clay nor glass, upon which the glaze surface is produced process called efflorescence. Many years ago I ran an Egyptian Faience workshop at the Arts Centre. I feel that the time has come to repeat this.
Lecture by the father of modern kiln building Fred Olsen (USA) was one the highlights of the weekend. Fred Olsen who studied in Japan in the 60s from the national treasure pottery masters and in 1973 wrote the famous ‘Kiln Book’, a bible for all potters who ever built their own kiln, was giving an account of his working life. This was a fascinating talk of adventure, experience and innovation. It was also breathtaking to see a large on-site built kiln which was constructed by Olsen to fire Alexandra Engelfriet’s clay form.
Talk by English slipware potter Paul Young revealed motives, many secrets and serious struggles of a today’s potter’s life.
It was a gentle talk before attending the PhD seminar presentation and discussion led by Dr. Jo Dahn discussing current variables within ceramics PhD research paths. The speakers included Jill Echlin currently studying recent Iranian ceramics. Dr. Leah Mc Laughlin in conversation about her study and the way of applying the research skill set in different areas of working life with Professor Jeff Jones who was her PhD supervisor. Syrian artist and researcher Zahed Taj Eddin talked about his technical research and subsequently the creative application of that research.Pippa Galpin whose PhD was solely directed by her practice and the study of the haptic experience, highlighted the limitations of written and spoken language used in describing sensual experiences.
My head was full of this inspiring seminar as I attended a spine shivering talk by Dutch artist Alexandra Engelfriet describing her relationship with her work and with clay as a tacit knowledge acquired through engagement with the material. She began to use clay in order to fulfil her interest in manipulating spaces. She talked about the states of mind she entered as she creates her large installations with tens of tons go clay. Sometimes using naturally occurring clay such as her work in the mud plains of Holland. Sometimes she works within a room or a landscape with the material brought in. The uncompromising physicality of her work is both uncomfortable and awe inspiring. She describes her state of mind being that of a trance and the making of her work resonates at once the act of birthing and the act of perishing.
Alexandra created a piece in Aberystwyth during the days leading up to the beginning of the festival and during the festival a kiln was constructed by Fred Olsen to fire the piece.This was one of several kilns fired during the weekend. In the night there were three very different kilns glowing in the dark. The second kiln also constructed by Fred Olsen was firing Sabine Classes sculpture and the third kiln was an ingenious and hugely entertaining newspaper kiln burning charcoal and coal, fired with the assistance of 16 hairdryers constructed by Chisato Kuroki.
I started my Sunday with professor Simon Olding’s lecture ‘The Leach Pottery - The Discourse of Pots in Place’.
This was a beautifully presented talk about the beginnings, the motivations, inspirations and obstacles of one of Britain’s most prominent founders of studio pottery. Bernard Leach is often presented with the status of an icon. As a consequence to myself a maker who has always struggled with authority of any kind as well as trying to subvert and embrace historical context of ceramic practice simultaneously, the figure of Bernard Leach has always presented a challenge. Simon Olding”s talk unveiled the humanity of the St.Ives venture and managed to erode much of my recalcitrance.
Practical demonstrations by David Frith and Harm van der Zeeuw (Netherlands) was my next event. It was interesting to witness David Frith working on large scale pots and to see his section joining technique which is different to mine. Harm van der Zeeuw was creating his collage-like vessels using different types of clays.
The importance of an empty space was discussed as well as preformed by the whole audience joining in a lemniscatory dance routine during the talk by German sculptor Sabine Classen. Her large scale sculpture fired during the festival was later unpacked from the kiln or rather the kiln was unfolded to reveal the sculpture within.
Huang Fei (China) and Antonella Cimatti (Italy) were demonstrating their skills in the great hall. I was mostly curious to see Huang Fei’s modern slant on the traditional blue on porcelain Chinese painting technique. It was very interesting to see Huang Fei covering a large slab of clay with water and then leaving blotches of cobalt to disperse into it thus creating the background for a lotus flower. Much to my surprise I have however found myself covering a whole page of notes about Cimatti’s paper clay pipetting techniques and slip casting which was breathtaking to witness.
The talk by Chisato Kuroki was yet another gem of an experience. The Japanese artist who is based in Spain is someone who brings elements of performance and audience participation to experimental kiln construction. Her projects include the coiling of a tea house for up to six people and then firing it in a straw bale kiln over three days, as well as building a high temperature newspaper kiln which was created and fired on site. I have an ambition now to try something similar in Salisbury.
The last demo of the weekend was a pair of clay sculptresses Anabeli Diaz (Mexico/Sweden) and Gerit Grimm (Germany/USA). They demonstrated two very different clay sculpting methods, both of which are traditionally associated with the forming of vessels. Anabeli coils large scale sculptures of figures and heads, drawing her inspiration from the myths and legends she grew up with. She uses very coarse clay and very simple tools such as the middle section of a corn (soon to be introduced into the pottery) which she masterfully applied as a rolling pin and a smoothing tool at the same time. Merit Grimm on the other hand sculpts figures from wheel thrown compartments which are then assembled with added hand-built elements. Her work is very much informed by the work of the late Hungarian artist Margit Kovacs.
Needless to say, the weekend was a concentrated learning experience amidst the meeting of kindred spirits. As a ceramics teacher I will be referencing the knowledge I have gained during the few days for years to come as a maker I am inspired by the first hand encounter with the breadth of the current ceramic practice.
If you are curious to see what is happening in the Arts Centre’s pottery studio please join me on Instagram @salisburyartspottery.
You can see and buy my work at the Salisbury Cathedral Contemporary Crafts event 8th 9th September held in the cloisters.