Clay? Chatting With Ceramicists

Human beings have been working with clay for thousands of years; shaping it into figures and using it to make bowls and cups. After attending Potfest ceramic festival at Scone Palace a few months ago, I’ve been increasingly interested in the medium and decided to reach out to some of the vendors whose work I particularly liked. I wanted to ask them how they got started, what they love (and hate) about ceramics, and whether they’ve managed to make a sustainable living through working with clay.

“Clay has a mind of its own which must be respected yet fought against, it must be allowed to be as it wants to be,” says Shirley Sheppard, an artist based in Scarborough, North Yorkshire. “It is, for me, a constant struggle, both mentally and physically, to achieve the end product,” she says. “After viewing the finished fired piece there is always an obvious point that I should have spent more time on…. Always.”

Sheppard has been working in ceramics for twenty-five years and specialises in ceramic sculptures of humanoid figures with elongated bodies and disproportionate features. Her affinity for the medium began while she was a student at art college. Even though she was technically studying painting and sculpture, the sculpture classes were within the ceramics department and she found herself drawn to clay. “I have often been asked why I do not cast in bronze,” she says. “Clay and especially wood firing gives me the feel I want, what is me. The earthiness the roughness of layers, additive and subtractive, the feel of different clays beneath and in my hands cannot be replaced. When a piece shatters I mend it; clay like people is fragile and to mend it is to love it.”

Lisa Ellul, of Ellul Ceramics, had a similar experience while studying for a degree in three-dimensional design – where she worked with wood, metal, ceramics and glass. She says, “The first day of the ceramics block I fell in love with clay. I love the versatility of clay but get frustrated when it doesn’t always behave itself during the firing process!” Ellul’s centrepiece bowls take inspiration from naturally occurring tubular and conical shapes and are often illustrated with leaves. In terms of inspiration, she cites Vanessa Hogge and her “passion for everything botanical”.

As an artistic medium, clay is notoriously unforgiving to work with, mainly due to the tendency for pieces to crack (or occasionally explode) when they are being hardened in a high-temperature oven or kiln. Despite this, ceramicists and those who work with clay are often enthusiastic about the material.

Roos Eisma of Roos Eisma Ceramics, who is based in my hometown of Dundee, makes elegant “sculptural vessels” with bulbous bodies and delicate openings. She says, “I love how shapes start out as rough drafts and then become more defined in ways I didn’t always plan. The making process changes while the clay changes properties: it starts out as engineering, constructing from slabs, then there is shaping and modelling, ending with carving and shaving and refining edges until it all falls into place. There is this point where the piece tells me what it wants to be which I love.”

“What frustrates me is the never-ending quest for a flawless pot. In every step technical flaws can creep in. If I manage to avoid all of them then too often I knock off a pointy bit when the clay is drying, or during transport. I have a room full of seconds and repaired work!”

A “second” is a piece of work that a sculptor has decided, for whatever reason, isn’t sellable at the rate they normally price their work. The term comes from the phenomenon of “factory seconds”, products that have failed to meet quality standards – usually due to minor cosmetic faults – and are therefore sold at a heavy discount. At pottery fairs like Potfest many of the ceramicists have a basket or box of seconds and they’re a good introduction to a person’s work for those who are not used to buying original or limited-edition artisan products.

For Eisma her interest in ceramics began five years ago when she asked her friend Cathrine Holtet for pottery lessons. This led to her becoming Holtet’s “studio fairy”, helping out with the day-to-day business, and eventually to the pair sharing a studio. She explained how being a professional ceramicist is not just about technical and artistic skills, but also being able to photograph your work, applying for opportunities (and knowing what opportunities to apply to), social media, and networking.

“It takes time to develop ideas and settle into your own style,” she says, “On a practical level: my first breakthrough was the first summer after classes when I took clay home. I learned how different clay behaves at different stages of softness. And I learned that there are no rules: you start out learning all those techniques (coiling, slab building, throwing) but you don’t have to stick to one technique for an item. You can just put the clay together any way you want, do anything to get the shape you’re after – just stick things together.”
This approach is echoed by Sheppard, who admits to knowing “nothing” about the medium when she first started working with clay. She says, “The ceramics department was very small, six students with few facilities and one excellent staff member who unfortunately had little experience with larger pieces. BUT this forced me to just get on with it, do it and find a way, no matter how strange it seemed.”

“I remember fondly when making a 2.6m large sculpture my lecturer asking me if I was going to make an armature. I replied, ‘what is an armature?’. After she explained I said ‘no’, so eight-foot BIG Liz was made on the principle of a giant coiled pot. This ‘Find A Way’ approach has been the basis of my method of sculpting with clay for the last twenty years. For each problem there is a solution in the piles of cardboard, paper, wood, odds and sods lying around.”

For the un-initiated, an armature is an internal structure used by sculptors to provide support and stability. They can be made of wood, paper, wire, or metal. Many of my own FIMO figures have an armature of aluminium foil to save on material costs, though there’s a trade off in terms of stability due to the low density of aluminium – by which I mean they have a tendency to fall over. 

Since talking to Sheppard, Ellul, and Eisma I’ve ordered a Clay Kit from Dundee Ceramics Workshop. The kits contain 1kg of clay, wooden modelling tools, brushes, underglazes and a bit of information on firing and basic clay techniques. The idea is that I’ll bring my finished creation back to the DCW to be glazed and fired. Kits are available for between £15-£25 at I hope I love working with clay as much as these ceramicists.

As Sheppard says, “Many of my friends are very skilled potters with knowledge that I never learned. So as I meet more and more ceramicists with learned skills I soak in all their valuable information, watching, asking and learning from them. People working in clay are always generous and warm hearted. There are always ways to go on. For a good domestic potter, knowledge of sustainability probably comes earlier as fifty people buying one mug is easier to sell than to get one person to buy one sculpture.”

I wonder how good I’ll be at sculpture after I make fifty mugs?

Words and image: Ana Hine

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