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!

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