Saturday, 21 May 2011

Clever clever clever Hydro-Bat Hump Mold

Whilst looking for information about making hump moulds, I found an amazing, time-saving invention. I then found out that these 'hydro-bats' have been around since 1999!

The video shows Ceramic Artist, Mark Lueders demonstrating how to make a bowl using his invention, the Hydro-Bat Hump Mold:

This is just so clever and so simple. Looks perfect for those of us who can't throw!!  (Like me!)

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Summer Art Tour 2011

Just a quick note to encourage any readers of my blog to get involved in this year's Network Artists' Summer Art Tour.  See: for more info.  As well as lots of open studios to visit, there are also a number of really great workshops to attend this year, and all very affordable - or even free in some cases.

I'll be supporting the Art Tour in more ways than one: I finally get the chance to show my work alongside Linda Scott-Robinson's beautiful paintings.   Hopefully the weather can't spoil it for us this time!!  There can't possibly be snow in June, can there?

There's definitely something fishy going on...

As the title to this post suggests, over the past couple of months something very fishy has been going on in my life.   It began when I was given a new assignment (AD205) with the following brief:

To fulfil the brief, I needed to find a location to make a ‘site-specific’ art work. 
I’ve always been utterly fascinated by aquariums.  Harv and I have spent many happy hours watching the fish and other marine life at The Deep ( and Blue Reef ( and often hunt out the local aquariums when we’re travelling abroad.  We visited this one on a visit to Lisbon: .  So it came to me in a sudden flash of inspiration, that my ‘site’ should be an aquarium of some sort!  The obvious choice was Blue Reef because it is relatively close to where I live. 

Blue Reef is located on the beautiful Northumberland coast at Tynemouth:

The aquarium’s close proximity to the sea means that it is easy to ensure a regular natural flow of seawater through the vast marine tanks that provide a home to the seals and other marine life and, as I learnt later, there are various pumps and pipework that take the water directly from the sea into the facility.
Once I’d made my decision about the ‘site’ I started doing some drawings. I have done many many sketches during this project… they are all over the house on scraps of paper - everywhere! These are my first ones though:

These pictures demonstrate a real problem that I have with my ceramics degree work.  I can’t draw!  When I do draw, I tend to end up with rather grotesque impressions of the refined and elegant ideas that are actually in my head.  I did discover that I had a friend in Microsoft Powerpoint though. Powerpoint in Office 2010 allows you to add ‘artistic effects’ to Powerpoint images, and I found that I could use these to make my drawings appear a little better.  For example, to give them the appearance of having been drawn with charcoal, which takes away some of the sharp pencil lines…

Armed with a handful of drawings and a lot of ideas, I headed off to Tyneside on Tuesday, 29th March to speak with the Zoological Manager at Blue Reef, Chris Horn.  Chris  had agreed to meet with me at 10 o’clock and, as I was a bit early, I strolled along the beach and promenade soaking up the atmosphere of the location.  It was a really beautiful day and I felt so grateful to be able to  be outside enjoying it rather than sitting behind a desk talking to my computer. 

Whilst waiting outside I got chatting to other folk who were waiting for Blue Reef to open, one of whom was a ‘bouncy castle repair man’ - of all things.  He was also meeting with Chris Horn at 10 o’clock and had come to safety-test the bouncy castle which was being erected outside the site for visitors during the school half-term holidays.  I mention this because it’s not something you really think of as being part of a zoological manager’s job – liaising with a bouncing castle repair man!  However, as I came to realise, Chris Horn is not your typical zoological manager: he really does seem to do a million things in his working day and appears to be one of the (if not the) lynch pins of the site.
As instructed by the Reception staff, I and ‘Mr Bouncy’ sat down in Blue Reef’s café to wait for Chris.  Chris arrived like a whirlwind with various people shouting his name from different corners, and he making hurried replies giving advice and instructions.  He quickly dispatched Mr Bouncy in the direction of his castle, and then sat down to chat to me.  I was really delighted with his enthusiasm for my project, and although he was clearly extremely busy, he gave me a considerable amount of his undivided attention, taking me on a tour of the whole facility and pointing out a stack of things I’d never noticed on numerous previous visits.  He liked my drawings, saying only that, whatever I made, he would prefer to have art works that fitted into the ‘natural environments' that Blue Reef strives so hard to maintain. 
Chris is very used to dealing with the folk from the education sector – it is part of the Blue Reef remit to form strong bonds with the community and part of this is in working with schools and higher education.  He was telling me, also,  that a large number of marine sciences graduates take their first jobs at Blue Reef.  What a great start for them!

Chris is extremely knowledgeable on all aspects of aquarium management – he really does have a hand in it all:  selection and care of the hundreds of species of fish and animals and other aquarium life forms, designing and building the environments, scientific analysis of environments and water quality, maintenance, repairs, staff management, engaging with the public (such as me!), events management, press releases…  it goes on.  He’s a Jack of all trades and Master of a good many of them to boot.  A man with a lot of energy!
Chris and friends in the Amazonian monkey enclosure
During the tour of Blue Reef, I was surprised to see that there are already many, many ‘art works’ in the tanks! It is very odd: I’ve visited Blue Reef lots of times but I’ve never noticed them before.  I suppose, like many visitors, I have concentrated exclusively on looking at the fish and corals and plants; and have taken the backgrounds and environments for granted.  Going around the site with Chris though, I realised that I’d missed a lot. The amazing thing about many of the environments at Blue Reef is that Chris and his staff have created them themselves - from scratch – using chicken-wire, wooden frames, plaster, etc!  None of these folk are officially ‘artists’ or ‘sculptors’ but they’ve cast endless - very realistic - reefs and rocks from plaster, and expertly painted on algae and  the signs of weathered ‘decay’. 

painted on green 'algae' around the seal tank

rocks made of plaster
Okay, they do get help from ‘real artists’ in painting the amazing background scenery, such as that found in the cold water tank room at the start of the tour, and in the new Amazon rain forest enclosures, but there is an awful lot of DIY going on at Blue Reef behind the scenes!

Chris eventually got called off to deal with another issue and left me to wander around the aquarium.  I took lots of photos of the different tanks and other environments. Before leaving I sat back down in the café and made some notes about my visit and drank one of the most luxurious hot chocolates in the world (if you visit, check out their café before you leave!).

I’ve kept saying that, for this college module, I’ve needed to ‘think like a fish’. To be honest, for me, that isn’t difficult :-) Seriously though, there are so many different types of fish, each with their own character, behaviour and environmental preferences and although I had already decided that I wanted to make objects that looked like ‘art’ I also wanted them to have some value to the tank occupants and to include some of the elements of the natural marine and river environments from which the fish came. For example, many fish like to hide in natural holes and crevices in rocks or camouflage themselves in the tangle of leaves from weeds and water plants; some fish like to rest on ledges or to simply lurk in rock tunnels all day.

A further consideration of course is the materials from which to make the art works.  These cannot have metallic glazes for example.  Chris said he would be able to carry out metallurgy testing on the work I make.  Metallurgy testing is done each week in any case as part of the ongoing analysis of the Blue Reef tank water quality.
Since my visit, I’ve made a number of clay maquettes from my various sketches but I think it's fair to say I've yet to make what could be called an 'art work'.  I’ve also, quite coincidentally, acquired a home fish tank – or two!  During a recent restructuring and subsequent office moves at my work place at Newcastle University, it was deemed that our new office was not large enough to accommodate the fish tank from our old office :-(.  The tank belonged to a colleague, James who is also a bit of an aquarium enthusiast.  He didn’t have room for it at his flat and asked if I wanted it. To say this has changed my life would be no understatement!  Harv and I have become somewhat obsessed with all things related to the home aquarium – hence the one tank becoming two... and now three!  (But perhaps more about that in another post, eh?)  What it does mean though is that I’ve been able to make some small sculptures for my own home tank and observe how our fish react to them, as a bit of tester for bigger things at Blue Reef. 
I started by making some 'caves':

And then got carried away with a few more forms...

I looked at lots of pictures of corals in various books and on the web.  There are some truly amazing ones, I can't possibly equal or better them in ceramic form. I did try to make something that looked like egg corals though (bottom left in image above).

Those caves fired to stoneware.

Rusty anchor?

Substrate or driftwood...

Wavy forms between which fish can swim and hide.

All in all, I've had lots of fun so far with these little models.  I have a lot more ideas still.  I'd like to try out some forms influenced by Henry Moore and Anish Kapoor. 
Henry Moore's 'Reclining Woman' at The Tate
 I could just see a shoal of bright coloured tetras swimming in and out of that.

Anish Kapoor's "Tall Tree and the Eye"

Not a million miles away from my 'caves' sculpture.

I'd like to make more and bigger 'caves' and tunnels.  My favourite 'art work' that was already in the Blue Reef and created by Chris Horn himself was this 'eel tunnel':

I don't think they really need my art work at Blue Reef because they already have plenty of their own! All the same, I'm very grateful to Chris for letting me explore my ideas and make some pieces for the site.  If all goes well, at some point soon, my art works should be arriving in the fish tanks there :-) 

As usual - watch this space!

Potty John

When looking for further information about brick arches for my college Powerpoint presentation about the Solway Salt Kiln, I came across this stunning design for a brick kiln.  It makes what we were doing look like child’s play!

Great site too:

Salt kiln resurrection - Chapter 2

Well.   I think I’m fairly hopeless at keeping this blog up to date!   I have plenty of distractions to keep me away from the computer.  Given that I work in IT for my ‘day job’ too,  I suppose I should forgive myself for not wanting to sit at a keyboard during the rest of the week. However I’ve been promising myself for weeks that I’d write the next chapter of the story of the resurrection of the Solway salt kiln so I think it's about time I did! 

See my previous blog ( to see where we began and where we left off…

On 16th April, our original gang, minus Andrew and Jess, returned to remove the covers and carry on with the work of rebuilding Ray's dilapidated salt kiln.  Ray had bought a job lot of arch bricks from Jim Robison (or was it Jim Malone? Ray?) and when we arrived, these were sorted in lines according to size on the ground in front of the kiln.  So we were sorted for bricks!

Following a good few weeks of dampish weather, and despite having been covered with a plastic sheet, the arch former had bent under the weight of the bricks.  This was because the former didn’t really have enough laths - also, perhaps, because it wasn't made with an even curve in the first place.  The bricks had rested unevenly causing the complete area of the arch to end up somewhat higgledy-piggledy.  We spent some time debating about what to do.  In the end, we all agreed that we should rebuild the wonky area of the former and start the arch again from that point.  This meant that -somehow - we needed to cut out a section of the former without disturbing the rest.  We also agreed that we needed more laths to provide a really good strong support for the bricks which would inevitably be resting on the former for some weeks (or even months) to come, until the chimney had been completed and the first firing took place.  (If any of us did this again, we’d ensure that the former was ultra-strong and completely even from the outset – we all learned the hard way, but most importantly:  we learned!)

On the positive side:  the site was a lot clearer than when we’d arrived the first time, and we knew the ‘drill’ and got right into the work in hand.  And Spring had arrived at Solway!  Flowers and blossom everywhere!

But wait...  before we could even contemplate rebuilding the archway, there were other jobs to be done. 

Ray set us all away with various tasks: Scotty and Sue were on arch brick cleaning duty, Steve was to build the foundations for the chimney, and John and I were given the job of removing the fire bricks from the kiln floor and double-lining it with ‘ton-weight’ insulation bricks and then putting the fire bricks back in…. No rest for the wicked, as they say!
Meanwhile, Jan and Ray set away the other salt kiln for a day and night of firing! 
There was something really encouraging about the lighting of the smaller salt kiln whilst we were building the bigger one.  It was the perfect background activity to our work: the flames licking the outside of the kiln and the smell of the wood burning…   I kept thinking about the first firing of the new kiln and wondering about how well it would go, and what I should make to go into it.  I think that I will make something that I can use every week to remind myself of the wonderful times we had whilst working together at Solway – a big cooking pot would be nice.

Finally, the floor was laid, the chimney foundations were in place and the salt kiln was well on its way to being worthy of its salt.  It was time to call it a day.

On a night like this...

We had a really great night relaxing by the kiln…. drinking a few glasses of wine… chatting....  being entertained by Steve’s moonwalk…  (you had to be there…)

The next day, the first job was to remove the bent hard-board from the arch former and replace it with new, and add more laths for support.  Before doing this we needed to remove the bricks that had already been laid half-way up the arch.  I knew from what little experience I’d gained so far that it would save time if we labelled the bricks so we could easily find ones of the same orientation when it came to reconstruction. My numbering scheme seemed to cause some amusement… can’t think why…

Steve carefully sawed away a section of the former, and he and John added more laths underneath.  After this, a new piece of former was nailed in place; this was  butted up to what remained of the original, and the arch shape was tested before we went on.
A slight diversion here…Barry arrived and got ‘anal’ as he put it (are we allowed to say that on the web?) and sorted out the kiln furniture… Here is a man in his element:

Actually I shouldn't really be too cheeky about this because I really would have liked that job myself!
Whilst the kiln building and furniture sorting went on, there were yet more amazing team efforts going on around the site in general.  Chaotic piles of bricks, wood, clay and 'rubbish' were, bit by bit, transformed into a number of neat stores:

And Scotty discovered ‘saw heaven’ apparently!
And all the while... the kiln building went on… 

....and eventually Steve and John got to the final stages where it’s time to knit the top of the back of the arch into the sides.  This was a fairly complicated process of which none of us had any experience.  Steve, by this time, however, is really into the mind-set of kiln building and seems to know what’s needed.  So with Steve taking the lead, (and me and Scotty just passing them whatever they ask for) him and John get all the final pieces into place…. and….  suddenly...

The arch is finally finished!! 

At the end of our final day, we were nine-tenths finished on the kiln - and the site. 

There’s still some sorting of bricks and other stuff to do.  The kiln needs a chimney erecting but as this will be about 26 feet high, Ray is going to get a professional bricky for that.  To everyone’s relief, it was finally agreed that the distorted angle-iron around the kiln had to go. Ray is going to weld it off and replace it with more and better iron supports.  (The iron helps to keep the kiln tightly together during the expansions of the firing). 
Part of the reason for my involvement with the salt kiln building was to fulfill some of the requirements of my 'work-based learning' module, during which I had to complete approximately 120 hours of 'real work experience' in the field of ceramics or pottery.  One of the best results of 'working' on the Solway Salt Kiln was that it reinforced something I’d learnt a long time ago about ‘work places’.  That is: it is not all about the work  you do;  it’s largely about the people you do it with. 

If you work as part of a willing and contented team, then even the most tedious of jobs can be made to be great fun.  If you have two or three (or four...) minds at work on a job, you can reach good solutions no matter how complex a task may appear to be at first.  At 47 years old, with a lot of real work experience behind me, there’s no ‘placement’ in the world that will convince me otherwise about any of that.  Everyone was so amicable and cheerful in their work at Solway – and as a result we achieved such a lot over the four days we were there  - because everyone was just so determined we would!  Some of the work was really back-breaking but everyone mucked in.  It was extremely satisfying.  And… most of us discovered talents we didn’t even know we had in the process and gained a lot of confidence and skill which we’ll undoubtedly used again in the future.  I’d certainly be keen to get involved with another project of this kind – any time! There’s nothing quite like learning practical skills from real hands-on experience. 
So where does that leave us with the salt kiln?  Looking forward to Chapter 3 definitely. 
And…   I guess one shouldn’t forget the real purpose behind all of this....
One very happy Mr Pearson with a beautiful salt-glazed pot in his sights.