Thursday, 24 February 2011

Red Dust

Part of the remit of my ceramics degree is to gain some real-life experience of working in the ceramics industry. A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be able to spend a morning with award-winning ceramic artist, Dennis Kilgallon at his Red Dust studio, based in a picturesque eighteenth century farm courtyard at Kirkharle.  Dennis was kind enough to give me a tour of his studio and spend a few hours talking about his life and work in ceramics.  It was a thoroughly enjoyable morning for me, I got a true flavour of what life as a working potter is really like.

Dennis specialises in large outdoor sculptures - with designs influenced by the ancient mythologies and artefacts of Greece and Cyprus; he's been resident at Kirkharle for ten years now and his studio is crammed with all manner of equipment associated with the making of large-scale ceramic works, including a vast and pretty sophisticated trolley kiln.  He creates press-moulded pieces, using plaster moulds initially to get the basic outline for the piece, and then painstakingly hand-finishes and glazes each object to create a unique sculpture. 

Dennis seems to work on a large scale in every sense! His making process goes through a number of steps, starting with the creation of a mould 'template' sculpted from a styrofoam block which is, in turn, pressed into a clay block which is then used to make the plaster mould into which the final clay sculpture is press-moulded. 

Given that the sculptural pieces are so big, it is important to have a kiln that it large enough to take a number of objects in a single firing and thus (amongst other reasons) keep ever-rising energy costs down. The trolley kiln is a wonderful piece of engineering and technology with an internal firing area of 64 cubic metres.  Firings can take up to 4 days to complete and, although the process could be fully automated using digital monitoring equipment, Dennis really enjoys being on the premises during firings, keeping a 'hands-on' overnight vigil. He keeps meticulous records of all his firings and has kiln ledgers going back over the full decade at Kirkharle, using his own coded system for recording the outcomes of firings - successes and failures (and yes, even after 10 years he still does have the occasional firing disaster!). 

I was astonished to learn that some of the larger sculptures can take up to 12 weeks drying time before firing!  There is a dehumidifying area at Red Dust for the purpose of ensuring a steady and even drying process - critical for large clay pieces where all the usual stresses and strains of drying clay are multiplied.  Dennis was telling me that the recent freezing winter weather has been great for getting work dry as the atmosphere in the studio has been nowhere near as moist as in a typical damp Northumberland winter.

From speaking with various potters, Dennis included, I'm beginning to appreciate that one of the most difficult aspects of being a working potter is the amount of time that one needs to spend in promoting and selling work.  This is obviously essential in order to make a living - but it does take you away from the real enjoyment of working in clay.  Each year Dennis takes part in a number of UK and international contemporary ceramics and crafts events in order to get his work seen - and hopefully generate some sales as a result.  These events involve a great deal of preparation and logistical planning in order to safely transport large-scale ceramic objects to various venues around the UK and elsewhere.

It was great to visit Red Dust and chat with Dennis, who was so generous with information about his current work and stories about his career in the ceramics industry. I learned such a lot in a single morning and am really looking forward to going back and seeing him at work making some of his lovely sculptures.

A bit more about Kirkharle...

Birth place of the famous landscape designer, Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, Kirkharle is home to a variety of artists and craftsmen who make and sell hand-crafted wares of all kinds on the premises:  It is a very beautiful and idyllic setting for a studio, and a fascinating place to visit, not only because of the variety of crafts and artwork, but also because the place itself has such an interesting history and the buildings are so charming and full of character.  There is also a superb cafe and various shops selling local food produce so, if nothing else, it makes a lovely stop off for a cake and cuppa. Oh and there's a plant nursery too!

Monday, 7 February 2011

Flops, props and bricks

Right, time to get back on topic!

I've spent an interesting day in the ceramics studio at College.  I arrived early, keen to see what had become of my low-fired glaze tests for the piece of work with clay circles (see:  Glazing for me has always been a bit of a black art;  I've never really got to grips with it, and so I'm always prepared for the worst!  I wasn't disappointed :-)  I've found, over the past couple of years, that it's always best to laugh when glaze tests go wrong rather that get depressed about it.  Why?  Well, it's not as if you can do anything about it once things go wrong, other than learn from the errors and get cracked on and do some more testing - and hope it works out better next time. This is done so much more easily in a cheerful mood than a black one!

I have to admit that I laughed out loud when I saw this:-

Oh dear!  Those rings were stood upright when it went into the kiln. Bit of a technical challenge ahead, I fear. 

The glazes were actually okay (ish), but obviously the slumping and warping of the circular sections was not really the effect I'd hope for!  As Andrew (our 'Master-Technician-and-all-round-Star-of-the-ceramics-studio' (more about him later!)) said, "that was a very useful test" :-)  So, how can I learn from what happened and resolve the issues for my final piece?  I received a lot of good suggestions from my tutor Jess, and from Andrew:
  • Lower firing to 1100°C or less.
  • Make the circular sections separately so that they can be fired flat or supported and then be fixed to a base after firing.
  • Fire upside down, with the base suspended and let gravity do its work on the suspended rings.
  • Leave at bisc firing and don't fire further.... 
I've decided to try firing to a lower temperature first of all, simply to find out what will happen, and to see how far we can push the limitations of the clay body.  If that works out okay, then great;  if not, my next test will be to try firing the piece upside down. In case neither of these work, I've also made a pile of clay rings in stoneware buff, porcelain and red earthernware clays to try out different ways of firing, mounting and glazing the rings.

This is (what will be) my final piece, currently sitting in Andrew's cupboard
patiently awaiting further glaze and firing  test results.

Front view.

Looking into the vortex...

(I took all of these pictures in the Ceramics Studio photography area.
This has appropriate lighting and backdrops, etc.  Quite a nice little resource)

A smaller test piece.

The above pictured test piece now in the spray booth, having been sprayed with black iron oxide mixed with water.  This should give the unglazed clay a little 'warmth' and a more toasty, finished colour.

I was really pleased with the way the oxide landed on the piece in bands of different thicknesses.

Somehow this distribution of the oxide spray emphasises the shadowy nature of the piece.

Close up of oxide-sprayed work.

The test piece is now in the kiln beginning its firing to 1100°C, propped against all manner of kiln furniture in an attempt to prevent slumping...  So it's a case of wait and see what happens now. 

Jess seems quite keen on my idea to make this work on a bigger scale and we were discussing how this might be done.  Bricks were mentioned - and to be honest I've always had a bit of a fascination with bricks so my ears pricked up at the idea. Don't ask me why I'm fascinated by bricks;  I guess they're just, literally, basic building blocks and as such are quite appealing.  I've never really considered making my own before though!  So far, I haven't been able to find any circular brick sculptures (I wonder why!) - this is the nearest I can find:  Anyway, I feel that the germ of an idea has now been planted....

Hope to return with more firing test results later in the week...

Sunday, 6 February 2011


Well I can't really let this day go by without mentioning the match, can I?  WHAT a game!  If anyone is ever looking for a definition for the phrase, "football is a game of two halves", then they need look no further than the Newcastle-Arsenal game today.  4-0 to Arsenal by half-time, and Newcastle looking completely destroyed in one of the worst first half efforts I've ever seen at SJP, and then....  (dunno what Pardew said during the half-time team talk, but he needs to keep saying it!) almost victorious at 4-4, in a fast and furious second half where Newcastle were just ON FIRE!

Brilliant brilliant game.  Lindsay summed it up after the 4th Newcastle goal went in, "I've got goosebumps from top to toe, I feel like I've been drinking champagne!". 

The crowd noise was just amazing.  Imagine if we'd got that 5th goal!  I reckon they'd have heard us in Sunderland. Oh... the trials and tribulations of supporting Newcastle Utd.

And as for Handy Andy Carroll?  Was he a victim or a victor of his own success?  Will we ever know?

It's really sad that he's gone, he was so exciting to watch and worked so hard for the team. And he got us plenty of goals which was the main thing!!  He was also one of our (few!) hopes for the future.  I don't blame him for going - it's (probably) a good career move and it'll likely set him up for life financially (well it ought to!!) and broaden his horizons... maybe. It's just a shame that things always seem to boil down to money.  It's depressing that we wont get to see him play again at SJP in black and white, and it's going to be interesting to see the crowd reaction when he returns home with Liverpool....

Ceramics news to follow....