Clay as a metaphor for exploring permanence?

As I am working towards my Research Methodologies essay I have been talking to my wife, who recently completed an Artists Teachers Scheme Year in Birmingham. She had come across Clayground Collective and subsequent discussions and then recent visits to their web-site have really interested and inspired me. There are connections with the way that our Learning for Sustainability team worked over the years at Worcestershire County Council, linking sustainability themes such as biodiversity with the arts (see: Worcestershire Parish Mapping Project).

I am becoming fascinated by the idea of using clay as a metaphor to explore sustainability stories or visions. Unfired it is impermanent, which means you can make things that are transitory, changeable, or easy to demolish or that can be left to erode (e.g. when left in the elements – see Adam Buick’s Earth to Earth piece). However, if you want to explore something you wish to see as permanent – that will last thousand years, then you could represent this by firing it, making it ceramic…..

I want to explore this idea with children and young people…. What things do we see around us – that we want to change…. Let’s build those things. Which need to be permanent and which need to be able to metamorphose…? Maybe they all do? And then in the natural world around us… which things do we want to see as permanent – or can we see as permanent? Is anything permanent? Are there creatures or habitats, lifeforms…. that we could make in clay – or maybe fire into some kind of future that we can pass on?

Single Firing….?

I’m currently reading Fran Tristram’s excellent Single Firing: the pros and cons (1996) as an introduction to an approach that would surely cut down on the energy demand from potters by combining the bisc / bisque and glaze firings as one single firing. Along with Fred Olsen’s The Kiln Book (2011) – it makes for essential reading for anyone considering sustainability and ceramics. It’s a very thorough examination of the advantages and disadvantages (weighted in favour of the advantages), with extremely helpful and detailed advice on processes and materials. She gives some interesting figures that compare the firing times for single firings and double firings, which concurred with my recent discussions with Douglas Phillips whose single firings last around 8 hours (firing to cone 9), starting in the morning after an overnight small fire has dried out the kiln by way of preparation (he lights one chamber of his Fred Olsen kiln at 6pm reaching c. 90 degrees C before sealing up the kiln for the night). He sources his timber from a local fencing company (who also supplies John Leech at Muchelney).

Firing is only one aspect of the sustainability debate concerning ceramics, along with sourcing materials and approaches to general practice, distribution etc. and I want to get my hands on Sustainable Ceramics (by Robert Harrison), Pioneer Pottery (by Michael Cardew) and Ceramic Arts and Design for a Sustainable Society (ICS 2011),


Tristram, F. (1996) Single Firing: the pros and cons. Ceramic Handbooks

Olsen, F. (2011) The Kiln Book (Fourth Edition). A&C Black

Harrison, R. (2013) Sustainable Ceramics: A practical guide. A&C Black

Cardew, M. (2002) Pioneer Pottery. A&C Black

Jeoung-Ah Kim: edited by, (2011). Ceramic Arts and Design for a Sustainable Society. ICS

“Utility with emptiness”

In researching and preparing for my MA Research Methodologies essay / presentation, I came across a presentation by a former MA (Fine Art) student at Bath Spa University called Hyo Sook Lee and a slide referring to “LaoTzui”, linking to the phrase “utility with emptiness” with a picture of a tea bowl. After some research, I tracked down this quote from Laozi a 6th century Chinese philosopher and author of the Tao Te Ching (often simply referred to as the Laozi:

Thirty spokes converge on a hub, but it’s the emptiness that makes a wheel work, pots are fashioned from clay, but it’s the hollow that make a pot work, windows and doors are carved for a house, but it’s the spaces that make a house work, existence makes something useful, but nonexistence makes it work (from: )

I found this phrase profoundly thought provoking and useful. It also connected to some thinking and discussion I am having with a fellow MA (Fine Art) student at Bath Spa, Michie Lyne around the connection between water and clay and utility. The idea that clay only arrives at a plastic, malleable state, when holding a specific quantity of water (i.e. the water is held within), is the first vital stage for a potter and yet it is only when that water is driven off by heat and fired, that the new ceramic, will then hold water externally (i.e. held without…..) linking to the idea of utility with emptiness…..

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Workshop ready and running…. at last….

At last, after three / four months of trying to balance:

  • my freelance work as a freelance environmental educator – working with local authorities and schools (trading as Far-Side:learning – no web-address yet)
  • starting the Masters at Bath Spa
  • building new sheds and renovating / redecorating / kitting-out the workshop….

…..this space is ready and running. Kitted out with a powerful but quiet Shimpo wheel, Rhode electric kiln (one of their energy efficient Eco-top kilns) – both sourced through the incredibly helpful and enthusiastic Bath Potters Supplies and with some re-used / recycled shelving (from the local Worcester Resource Exchange) and work surfaces from reclaimed bits of plywood, it’s beginning to work well. However, the big challenge still exists around my commitment to explore wood-firing and there are conversations to be had with some local workshop / unit / landowners operating outside the smoke free limits of Worcester city. My only defence in using an electric kiln, beyond the efficiency of Rhode kilns is that we source a lll of our gas and electricity through Good Energy, which means that the energy I am using can be linked to renewable, rather than fossil fuel generated electricity.

There’s no running water – buckets sufficing and encouraging very careful use of this resource.

Happy New Year bonfire firing….

Saw in the New Year last night with a bonfire and firing a few small pots made by us all… We have a fair bit of lavender in the garden and we store some of it to burn on New Year’s Eve. The seeds and stalks give off a beautiful, powerful smell and the resins burn with a blue / orange flame, the stems twisting and glowing briefly before turning to ash… The pots made were an experiment, I haven’t bonfire fired for twenty years. We used craft crank, which although very resistant to thermal shock, meaning our pots all survived the firing, hasn’t given the best visual results. The clay doesn’t burnish well and the colour of the fired clay is buff / black, rather than the orange / black you can get with terracotta or the clays I used to use from Devil’s Water in Northumberland or other river clays.