I have always been interested in the history of ceramics – why and how ‘things’ are made of clay. This interest was extended after I spent several years travelling through Africa working with various tribes and village potters and being intrigued how, with limited technology and basic tools, they were able to get such exquisite, beautiful surfaces. I found the same inherent skills in India, Nepal Japan and New Mexico. I tried to adopt the ideas picked up from my travels in my own work. By building up layers of textured clay combined with burnishing and polishing of surfaces, I try to achieve opposites of rough and smooth.
I have been working on large scale ceramic forms which I have placed in the landscape. My main aim is that the work should not compete with the landscape, but evolve within the environment. With this in mind I have introduced other minerals into the Raku ceramic surface such as iron and copper. With the elements of time and erosion, the individual piece takes on its own developing surface.
Recently, one of these large commissions has taken me again to India. Ananya Singhal suggested I make it on site. Now I have discovered Udaipur in Rajasthan where I come for inspiration, when my studio in Bath in England gets cold in the winter months. This has introduced me to other artists and craftsmen enabling me to work with a range of different materials, such as glass, marble, stone and Damascus steel.
In practice I go by the set of my pants. I have always worked this way, not going by any particular rules or methods.
I find it joyful to work with many different materials. Each has its own character, its own limits, its own tolerance – some materials fight back, some play the game.
Finally I think it’s the material that is in charge and it will only let you make what it wants. It is my job to push it to its limits and somehow an equilibrium is made between maker and material.
In 1972 I went to study ceramics in Lesotho, where I was privileged to work with the Basotho. They have a unique way of making burnished pots. Unlike the Zulu’s black burnished work, the Basotho pots are bright red; sometimes orange.Though the method and tools are very basic, the finished surfaces are wonderfully smooth to the touch. By using a polished pebble, usually gathered from the riverbank, the leather hard surface is rubbed and polished to compress the clay. By adding red slip to the surface, which has been very finely ground, a highly polished burnished surface is created.
The Basotho use dry cow dung for firing the pots. The pots are usually placed upside down to create a pyramid shape. The dry cow dung is then packed all around and covered with various bits of corrugated iron and flattened out metal oil drums and then set alight.
The whole firing process only takes three or four hours and temperatures of 600 degrees can be achieved. The finished pieces are very pleasing to the eye, with high red burnished surfaces and black carbon markings where the fuel was not entirely burnt away.
I have developed this technique with only slight modifications as I burnish over textured surfaces and raise the temperature to approximately 1060 degrees. I have adapted a gas fired kiln where each piece of work is placed very close together, without touching, and a long slow flame is allowed to lick around the piece to give a very dark, red burnished appearance.
I played about with Raku when I was a student and got quickly bored with its limitations. Once you had achieved a crackle glaze and the iridescent copper colours, I did not think I could take it any further.However, Japan and Korea gave me another insight into raku, enabling me to develop my own techniques. I have always been interested with the actual clay surfaces, rather than adding things on to the surface, such as glaze. It is the same feeling that you get with wood which has such a beautiful surface that it seems a shame to paint over it with a gloss paint.
The most exciting thing about raku is that you are able to play with fire and water. These two opposites give a whole new dimension when working with clay. The very fact of pulling a piece out of the kiln and plunging it straight into water; or wrapping the clay in straw to create colour and texture; or repairing cracks with gold or copper, then grinding and polishing surfaces. There are so many variants that it is impossible to tire of it.
I have always been interested in surfaces of old ivory, polished bone, tusks and washed up whales vertebrae, etc. With this in mind and using porcelain and bone china clays, I make my forms. I biscuit fire them and find a place either to bury them or sink them in the river Avon outside my studio.I also take trips down to Cornwall and persuade the Oyster Fisherman to put them among the oysters in the holding pens. Or find a ‘safe’ hiding place below low tide level, to be aged, until my next visit when they can be ‘found’ ( sometimes not). I take them back to the studio where I then hone and polish the surfaces.
My black surfaces are achieved fairly simply. I take the pieces red hot from the kiln and bury them in dry sawdust leaving them to cool. The white clay draws in the burnt carbon sawdust, to give a jet black finish.Alternatively, I sagger fire. This method is fairly simple. After the initial biscuit firing, the piece is placed in a clay sagger which is packed with sawdust and placed in the kiln, until the sawdust begins to smoke (just before the sawdust ignites). The pieces are then allowed to cool down.
In 1999 I started a series of Bronzes which I cast in Berkley in California with view at showing them at the New York and Chicago Art Fairs. Because of the popularity I decided to start showing them in various venues in the UK. We are now up to the fourteenth model of which each edition is a series of seven with two artist proofs. With the great success I now work with a foundry in Jaipur, India and my son Justin has taken a great interest in the Bronze and now undertakes the finishing and patina on each piece.
Rajasthan has an abundance of marble of all colour and textures one can imagine. Whist I have been there I have started to work with local craftsmen who have shown me the basic techniques in working with this material. I have a yearning to treat this material very simply and use the transparency of marble to produce simple forms.