As part of the Making Histories project I was invited to take part in through Leamington Spa Art Gallery and Museum, I was asked to see if I could approach one of the local schools – with the particular challenge being to investigate the potential of local materials for making ceramics. Following the key idea behind the project, I hunted through the museum store, looking for something that might be a starting point for a project with the local children, something that would have a purpose and be simple / logistically practicable to make with whole classes of children across a year group. I quickly encountered a Roman lamp, made in Egypt in the first century AD which took me back to one of my favourite ever moments during my years in archaeology, where stumbling about on a Sicilian mountain top, the site of a ruined Greek city, I found a tiny oil lamp (see below) – that has stayed with our family ever since…..
Clay was dug, working with the Year 5s from a Leamington Spa primary school, that lay only a few hundred metres from the likely site of one of the many clay pits that radiated from the nineteenth century Leamington and Lillington Brick Works in the town. The clay pit lies on the edge of Newbold Comyn, a beautiful stretch of public park extending to rolling hills and woodland, with old kiln sites and other historic monuments within its bounds. Digging was carried out with permission from the local council – who were incredibly supportive and helpful.
The children not only helped dig the clay, they helped hand process it, hammering the dried clay to granules, slaking, blunging and sieving it, drying it on plaster slabs. They then experimented with making thumb pots and finally in making small palm held oil lamps – similar to the Sicilian lamp I referred to above. The lamps were fired in a sawdust / dustbin kiln during arts week, and were lit as part of a small celebration of light at an open evening for parents at the end of the weeks activities.
Year 5 children preparing clay they dug the previous week
Year 5 project – making oil lamps with local clay
Digging clay with local children – Newbold Comyn, Leamington Spa
Celebrating light with our oil lamps
Loading the sawdust kiln
Preparation for the sawdust firing
The dustbin kiln firing slowly on a clear Autumn day
So much of my work is currently focused on a geological and geographical exploration of place, hunting for possible clay sources or the materials I could use in glazing, and the subsequent testing of all of these materials that seems to go on for ever (indeed – it may well go on indefinitely – as each batch of gathered natural or wild clay or rock dust will vary)….. But alongside this aspect of my work, and the photographic recording of the places I visit, that I see as vital, there is the absolute necessity to concentrate on my practice as a ceramicist, and particularly the throwing that is so central in the creation of functional work that I prioritise….
In order to keep improving both what I produce, but also the narrative behind this, I need to keep practicing with form and technique. Over this past year and over the past weeks in lockdown, I have spent some time experimenting with throwing various key shapes and forms, and throwing off the hump as well as directly onto the wheel or onto a batt. Tea bowls, breakfast bowls, mortaria, pancheons, whisky tumblers, beer beakers – have tended to receive most attention…..
Aubergine glaze with Octomore Farm clay cuach – this glaze uses a metamorphic sandstone rock dust from Granny’s Rock, near Machir Bay, taken from dust excavated by rabbits at the bottom of the cliff face. Courtesy of Kate Hannett
Well of the True Water clay cuach, with home made earthenware glaze
Test tumbler, 100% Islay clay with Clee Hill glaze and copper splash on rim
Test tumbler with glaze test using limonite and mudstone
Clee Hill clay and glaze small batch of pint beakers
Ockeridge clay small batch of x6 pint beakers
Baking set; baking crock, pancheon and bowl for setting leaven
Throwing a bowl off the “hump”….