Sunday, 30 October 2011

Bittersweet British Ceramics Biennial

The second British Ceramics Biennial (BCB) takes place this autumn in Stoke-on-Trent.  The organisers are hoping that the BCB will generate wealth and regeneration for Stoke and help to strengthen a new interest in ceramic wares. The 2009 BCB brought 35,000 visitors to the district, generating around £2 million for the local economy.  Held partly in the crumbling Spode Factory and partly at other sites in the town, including the truly marvellous Potteries Museum and Art Gallery at Hanley, the exhibition evokes bittersweet feelings. 

The Spode Factory is awash with signs and memories of a thriving and vibrant past, however, tragically, it's now a decaying, cold, damp and soul-less place.  As an exhibition venue - although a significant and historic presence in the town - it is perhaps a strange choice in its present state.

The BCB exhibitions are separated into a number of themed areas, including a large hall given over to artists from a Dutch collective known as sundaymorning@ekwc, an international workplace of artists, designers and architects who use ceramics. Many of their pieces are architectural in nature. There are further large areas dedicated to recent graduates in ceramic art from Colleges and Universities around the UK;  and to commercial and industrial ceramic manufacturers, such as hand-made brick makers and makers of ceramic water systems for use in drought-affected countries.  Added into this mix are various side rooms with all manner of ex-Spode paraphernalia of mixed historical interest left behind when the factory closed - and not forgetting ‘The Spode Room’, which is not so much a room as a temporary, cordoned off area, repeatedly cycling its flat-screen history of Spode's famous blue and white pottery, and displaying myriad examples of Spode patterns on isolated plates hung around its make-shift walls.

There is no question that much of the ceramic work at the Spode BCB site is interesting, innovative, exciting, stunning...  in some cases breathtaking… and there is work of an exceptionally high standard to suit all tastes, but there is something about the deterioration of the venue that seems to dampen the vibrancy of the displays.  Some of the exhibits overcome this, for example the bright and welcoming coiled pots of Thomas Weber that greet the visitor on entry to the exhibition, but many of the works struggle to compete with the atmosphere of the setting.

On a positive note, it is gratifying to see such a large number of examples of the excellent work of recent graduates.  Curated by BCB Directors and NACHE, the National Association of Ceramics in Higher Education, the Fresh for 2011 exhibition provides an important platform for showcasing work made in UK centres of ceramic art education and helps to promote the continued funding and support of such establishments for the future. 

In contrast to Spode, The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, housing the second part of the collection of BCB exhibits, Award, is a joy to visit and generates an over-riding feeling of hope:  a belief in the resurgence of Stoke’s ceramic prowess.  The museum is one of the finest examples in the country, notable for its dedicated conservation of world ceramic art throughout all ages.  The museum houses a mind-bogglingly vast collection of ceramic work that includes all of the most famous names, past and present, and is an absolute must for any visitor to the area.

The work on display in Award is mainly that of highly talented, established ceramic artists, such as Ken Eastman, Philip Eglin, Craig Mitchell (below) and Katherine Morling to name only a few, and is unquestionably awe-inspiring.

Compelling as it is though, it is unlikely that any visitor will not be distracted by displays in rooms adjacent to the Award exhibition.  This is entirely appropriate, for The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery holds many, many thousands of stunning ceramic works that should not be missed by any visitor. The real beauty of Award is that it provides a wonderful continuity to this superb collection and brings the observer seamlessly through to a present day display of delightful and accomplished ceramic works.

Visitors to Spode are advised to wrap up warm, visitors to Award are advised to set aside several days for the visit! Whatever you do, don't miss any of it!

The Second British Ceramics Biennial takes place in Stoke-on-Trent
 from 30th September to 11th December 2011
See website for more details: 

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Ray 'steels' the show at The Sage

I've been very disinclined to write my blog this month.  There are various reasons for this, but mainly it's just because I've been spending so much time on the computer for work-related tasks, and then just haven't been able to face sitting down again at the computer to write the blog.  I'm not going to write much now either, but here are a few images from the current NewcastleGateshead Art Fair(I hate that joining together of two distinctly different towns!) at The Sage.  I was lucky enough to get a ticket for the preview evening for this exhibition courtesy of my friend, Jan.  It was a beautiful, unseasonably warm night and particularly pleasant down on the Quayside.  The Art Fair exibition is made up mainly of paintings and there are some fabulous ones, including some work from one of my favourites, Kevin Day: . I was disappointed, though, that there weren't more sculptural and ceramic works, but I guess it isn't that kind of an exhibition. Anyway, that said, for me, it was worth a visit solely to see Ray Lonsdale's amazing steel figures.  These are just stunning - almost like android beings I thought, incredibly technical in their detail and, no doubt, in their making - beautifully constructed, each with its own story and secrets...  I was really impressed by them; a couple of them made me feel quite overcome with emotion (and I'm not meaning to be overly arty-farty here). 

This great big guy is situated outside of the exhibition just by the doorway into The Sage.  I wasn't the only girl to sit by his knee...

So what's going on in your head, young lady?
Not much, just wondering if I can have a drag on yer tab.

Amazing details

The Sage looking ship-shape...

Will come back with an update about other stuff once this busy spell at work eases off...  

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Super wavy


This weekend I started work on the full-size versions of the wave forms for Blue Reef;  they will be something like the models above. I've decided to make 3 large waves, all in rough crank clay and have them stand close by each other, thus creating passages for fish to swim in, as in the picture on the left.

As I've said in previous posts, making items out of large sheets of clay is a difficult process: handling and moulding the form is hard because clay stretches all too easily under its own weight.  It's essential to support all surfaces of the clay during any movement of the entire piece.  I've been using old pillows and tablecloths to rest the work on whilst manipulating it into shape.  Pillows are great for this particular work as they're soft enough to allow me to add the wavy shape into the pieces and supportive enough so as to keep the clay in position whilst it dries out.

Preparing and rolling out large clay sheets in the first place can also be quite a pain.  I've learned from experience that the easiest way for me to do this (lacking a slab roller at home) is to work the clay on two separate cloths, flipping between one cloth and the other between each roll of the clay.  Clay can be stretched that little bit further, by rolling, each time it is flipped, so it's more or less unavoidable that the clay will need to be flipped a good few times for large surface areas. The cloths mean that the clay can be turned and moved whilst supporting its entire surface area, thus meaning an even thickness throughout as the clay is rolled.  Lifting the clay without the cloth underneath it causes stretching and some areas inevitably become thinner than others - or worse still the clay might rip in half as it's lifted up.

Getting a large quantity of clay prepared for rolling takes a bit of muscle power. I have resorted to all kinds of methods of beating big lumps of clay into submission. If the lump gets the better of me, or my arms get tired from wedging, I often just load it all back into its orginal bag and then walk all over it until it's flat, and then take it out, cut and reshape it as necessary, then back into the bag and walk on it again!  I'd say the best method of wedging clay that I've found so far though is to persuade a willing man to do it for me :-)

Lying down, this one reminds me of a ray.
So... I embark on another period of anxious waiting now to see how well these great slabs of clay dry out and fire, and whether they'll stand upright on their own without need for further support....

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Update on Blue Reef Aquarium Sculptures

First of all: cave news.  Here they are!  As seen yesterday sitting in the electric kiln following their first (biscuit) firing.  All appears to have gone well with only a few minor flaws at places where I joined the individual caves together. I think these flaws will be eradicated during the reduction firing.  All in all, I'm really pleased with the results and looking forward to seeing the fully fired piece next week.  Phew!

So, on to the next piece... 

The 'anchor chain' is now finished and ready for firing also.  As it's unglazed earthenware, it'll only need one firing and so should also be complete next week. I did make a slideshow of how it was made, step-by-step, but then I realised that Blogger will only allow graphic file formats so I can't add it in here except by referencing it from elsewhere on the Net.  I'll do that when I get time, but not tonight!  In the meantime, here's an idea of the beginning...

loadsa clay rings

starting pieces and model in background for scale

.... and the completed work

This was immensely good fun to make!  I have really enjoyed all the work I've done for Blue Reef so far. I think, as I've said before, that part of it is that I'm imagining fish swimming around in my work whilst I'm making it! 

A few notes about the work, whilst they're fresh in my mind:  small scale models are not necessarily a good indictator of how a finished piece will look nor are they always helpful in determining how to approach construction.  I am beginning to realise that there is a lot to be gained from constructing sections of a work in full size in addition to making entire models.  In particular, with this work (and the caves), the weight of each component was far greater than in the equivalent model piece and this meant that downward force had a much more significant effect on the piece as a whole.  This required a change in overall design.

Fortunately, I remembered to build this piece directly on a kiln shelf this time, so I'm expecting it will be a breeze getting this piece into the kiln.  Shouldn't say that, should I? ;-)

I have a million other items I need to upload on to my blog.  It's been a real Summer of Art.  I wish there were more hours in the day.... 

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Post Potfest Disorder...

I am suffering from a bad case of PPD.  Post Potfest Disorder is a syndrome with both psychological and physical symptoms. I've just returned from 3 days at one of Europe's most outstanding ceramic art events: Potfest in the Pens, having been lucky enough to be an exhibitor myself this year rather than just a punter.

To explain the physical disorder: it's taken me 48 hours to sort out the chaos of boxes, tools, camping gear, display materials, etc that travelled to Potfest and back with me, and were then spread around my house from Sunday evening, when I arrived home too shattered to properly unpack them. 

Over the past couple of years, I've really come to appreciate that Potfest is a truly incredible event. Apart from the overwhelming diversity of art works on show (all made from the same basic material: i.e. mud!) the logistical and organisational processes behind the event are, in themselves, quite stunning.

The general public who come to enjoy Potfest don't know the half of what goes on behind the scenes before and after the events. There is such a lot of hard work involved with getting the pens set up.... and then with taking it all down again. Not to mention the matter of engaging with the public for 3 very 'full-on' days when most potters are used to working in solitary confinement in a quiet studio...

Packing at the end of another very successful event

Fetching, carrying, packing, dismantling, tidying...

My involvement with the event this year came about when Steve Nicholson, my good pal from Newcastle College, in his final college year, was given a free 'pen' for himself and fellow students in return for running 'some kind' of ceramics workshops for Potfest visitors.  Geoff and Christine Cox, who are the organisers of Potfest make great efforts to help student potters make it commercially.  Steve's work went down a storm!  He was inundated with customers and nearly ran out of work to sell on the last day.

The sign I made to go with Steve's work.
I have to admit to having enjoyed running the workshops more than trying to sell my work, even though it was very tiring.  I talked to so many lovely people and met so many enthusiastic youngsters who were just desperate to get their hands on a lump of clay and start making! As we didn't have the facilities to fire the work made in our workshops I promised all the young budding artists that I'd showcase their work here on my blog, so here goes...

Hannah Furnival - first to try my workshop and definitely a potter in the making!

Hannah's lovely printed tile

The above are only some of the lovely things there were made.  Many folk took their work away with them before I got chance to photograph it. 

So Potfest is packed away for another year....

....and I am feeling a little lost without the vibrant, cheery company of 150 other potters. I don't know quite what to do with myself...   I suppose the best way to cure my PPD is to just start getting ready for the next one... :-) 

Friday, 29 July 2011

Good luck to G and Sa for their Big Ride

G suits white in 2011!
Geraint and Sara Thomas are riding 160 miles to raise money for the Stroke Association tomorrow. Given that it's a year since Harv had his stroke, and it is very much worth celebrating that he came out of it all with a barely a scratch, and since we're big fans of cycling and have been avidly watching Geraint fly through the Tour de France this past few weeks, we (and various friends and family) have been very happy to donate to G and Sa's fund. If you haven't already given your support, and can spare a couple of quid to add to the pot, their JustGiving page is here: 

Best of luck G and Sa. Hoping the sun shines and you have a memorable and fun day!

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Anchors away Colocini and Twitter!

At last the caves are finished - front, back and sides!  I just need some kind of a miracle now to get them off of the board they're on and on to a kiln shelf!  (Anyone got any suggestions....!?)

Honestly... I do have some ideas for transferring them to the kiln  no worries about that at the moment.  (Like an ostrich sticking its head in the sand.... I will move on...)

I have now begun work on the next of my Blue Reef pieces, the full size version of the 'anchor'...

Model of anchor
The clay sections are all prepared for joining together. Early days though.
Great to be getting going on the next piece.  I'm thoroughly enjoying myself.  Shame I have to go back to my day job tomorrow!

So what else has been happening lately?

Against all odds and my better judgement, I decided to join Twitter. I am @ambientceramics if anyone cares to follow me! (To put into perspective how momentous this was: my colleagues in the IT dept at Newcastle Uni commented that Hell must have frozen over...)  I did this partly just to check out what it was all about and partly because I thought that if I was going to criticise something so vehemently, I'd better be damn sure I knew what I was talking about.  Now I hate to admit that I find I'm eating most of my words and tweeting the rest! I actually really like Twitter.  'Like', in the old-fashioned and new sense.  I have found out about so many great events from Twitter, and discovered stacks of new artists and new work that I'm sure I'd never have bothered to look at by simply 'browsing' the web. So it's not just a load of pointless and inane 'witterings-on' as I'd thought it was.  It's not all good though!  Tour de France + Twitter results in a potent mix that is far more addictive than EPO....

Who'd have thought it, eh?  Finally sucked in by the social network!  Resistance is futile and all that.  Still... I'm in good company it seems.

And at least 70% of my day was spent making stuff out of clay so that's alright.

In other news... I didn't mention this at the time it was announced and I should have.  I am so pleased to hear that Colocini has been given the Newcastle United captaincy:  Not just because he is a truly wonderful defender and a great team player (and has the best curly hair in the world - obviously), but because we really couldn't bear another team to be singing the best football song ever!

I Googled for his song and found various YouTubes but as most of them are of such poor quality as to be almost unbearable to listen to, I decided that this had to be the one:

Best of luck for the coming season Colo!

Saturday, 9 July 2011

In praise of Tableau

In my day job in IT at Newcastle Uni, I've been looking at some software called Tableau that provides an easy way to create 'visualisations' of data in databases, spreadsheets and even text files.  I don't say this very often about software but I've been incredibly impressed with Tableau - it is a real delight to work with. Anyone who has done it will know that extracting data into nice graphs and reports in a meaningful and accurate way is something of a black art a lot of the time.  With Tableau it suddenly becomes easy!

Having explored the product website a bit more this morning, I've spotted that they provide a free Public version of Tableau that looks as if it could be extremely useful for bloggers and website managers.  Have a look at this video which gives a clever example of how to use it:

There is a 50MB limit on the data size for this free version of Tableau which doesn't sound like much, however you can get an awful lot of text into 50MB.  (Images do take up a lot of space of course, but you can just provide web links to those rather than including the actual images in your data.)

I can't help thinking that Tableau is the killer app for data management that we've all been waiting for.  Undoubtedly I'll be waxing more about this product in posts to come!

Thursday, 7 July 2011

The sum of its parts...

Just a quick post - no time to write much today, but here's a picture of progress so far with the 'caves' (with the original model lurking in the background).  The sculpture is stable but the whole thing has a slight backward lean, so to be on the safe side I'm making some additional supporting caves for the rear.  I have to keep the sculpture completely wrapped in plastic for now so that it doesn't get too dry before I add the caves to the back.  Drying of a large, multi-component work like this is quite a difficult and slow process - it can't be rushed as each part must dry evenly and equally, so as not to shrink faster than its neighbouring parts and thus cause the kind of stresses that might result in cracks.

I reckon I'm looking at around 2 weeks drying time for this piece - at least.  Ho hum.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Aquarium caves begin to take shape...

I have at last reached the stage where I can begin to put the hoards (is that the correct collective noun?!) of ceramic caves together into a single form.  I have procrastinated quite a bit over this today!  I spent such a long time in making the caves that I was terrified it would all go horribly wrong when I came to join them together. It was a bit of a faff! As my friend, Rebecca suggested I could really have done with some help from the Blue Reef octopus tonight;  I just didn't have enough hands! I also needed to switch off gravity for a bit... (that's the force I'm talking about, nothing to do with my general outlook.)

Thankfully, things seem to have gone okay... so far...  At least they did once I got myself properly sorted with everything I needed in order to do the job.  I never seem to be properly prepared when I begin this kind of task - you'd think I'd learn (maybe I'm taking this 'thinking like a fish' business too far)! For example I hadn't really thought about how I was going to move the finished - delicate and heavy - piece from my work bench to the back of my car for transporting to the kiln.  Fortunately, I did manage to get a wooden board underneath it on completion of the first layer of caves.

The balloons idea actually turned out to be a good one.  The balloons gently support the lower caves without putting any pressure on the clay and I've blown them up so as to only just touch the inside of the ball thus allowing the clay some room for shrinkage during the building process. 

If necessary I'll let a bit more air out of the balloons as the clay shrinks although balloons always seem to shrink over time as well.  I reckon this work is going to take a lot of monitoring as it dries.  There are good few stress points to keep an eye on.

I managed to get up to the third level of large caves tonight and then I'd had enough!  Each of these caves has a passage way to the one at the side or above/below it, thus fish can swim between them.  I've varied the hole sizes between the caves so that some of the bigger fish will be limited to certain routes through, and the smaller fish will then get chance to zip through the entire sculpture and hide if they need to.

As I said in an earlier post, this particular work is really great fun to make.  There's something very appealing about making something I know will be used by an animal or two!  I hope to have the piece finished by the end of tomorrow.  Will report back on further progress later...

Friday, 1 July 2011

Cave woman thinks like a fish

An apt title in more ways than one!  I've spent just about all of today in my garage studio making one of the final pieces for the Blue Reef project. I haven't decided what to call this piece yet; it is simply a pile of 'caves' designed to be used for hiding or spawning.

The work is being made from a clay which is becoming a real favourite of mine: Earthstone's ES60 Smooth Textured Crank.  This is crank clay but with much finer grog particles than would be found in a normal crank.  It's a real pleasure to work with  as it is not so rough on the hands as a normal crank and yet it is just as structurally strong. It gives a lovely toasty oatmeal finish when reduction fired.  I love it.

I get my clay supplies from Bill Todd at Sedgefield Pottery:  It was Bill who originally recommended the smooth crank to me - he knows his stuff does Bill;  being an ex-potter himself certainly helps!
I am making the caves by hollowing out hemispheres of clay and then joining them to make full spheres and then cutting out an entrance to each one.  Eventually, they will all be joined into a single structure and I will cut more holes so that fish can pass from one cave to another using a more-or-less continuous pathway through the whole piece.

original small-scale model amidst larger components of final pieces
This piece is going to take quite a while to complete but it has been - so far - extremely satisfying to make. My fear now, though, is that the downward effect of the weight of the caves at the top of the pile is going to cause the caves at the base to slump more than I want them to.  This wasn't a problem with the original model because the overall weight at the top was much smaller.  I may have to provide some supports in the lower caves to prevent excessive slumping.  I have various ideas for this including packing the lower caves with screwed up newspaper balls, inflating balloons inside of the lower caves (that is probably a slightly mad idea but could be fun to try!), creating temporary clay pillars to support the upper roof of the lower caves... etc. I'll have to construct another slightly larger model before putting the final piece together in order to determine what works and what doesn't.  I'm learning that this is a common requirement with larger works in clay: because the tensions and stresses on the material increase exponentially as the piece grows in size, the only way to really find out what will happen for sure is to make life-size models.  It all adds to the time taken to make the work but ultimately it saves you from the disappointment of having your work fail in firing after spending many days or weeks in making it.

Further progress reports will follow!