Artistic licence?

I’m making some steady progress with my Islay glaze materials – after a couple of months of frustrating results. The balance of materials is crucial; limestone, limonite / bog iron, quartzite, ash, but at last I’m getting a lovely clear – green glaze, which is streaky when thin, but deep and glossy when applied thickly. I have tried a copper splash to add a break to the background glaze, copper having been mined on Islay in the middle-ages / early modern period. I’m delighted with the results, but I want to expand the colour palette a little.

I am drawn to a splash of blue, to conjure up the sky and sea – such a hugely important set of factors when experiencing the island. There’s also that occasional fragment of blue sea-glass washed up on the shore. I think that next steps may well include a blue splash or two on the tumblers. The cobalt necessary for this, however would most definitely be from far flung quarries, half a world away. but it is possible that artistic license may just have to give me the permission here.

Islay clay

There’s a bit of received wisdom that was shared with me amongst the ceramic community – there’s no clay on the Scottish inner or outer isles. I have followed other ceramicists working in Scotland, mostly experimenting with hand collected glaze ingredients added to stoneware and porcelain clay bodies, but then something prompted me to push a line of investigation further…..

A conversation with my father-in-law in Clydebank (who used to work at the Chivas Regal bonding warehouse in Dalmuir, Clydebank) and then later, with some friends of my son drifted to my project with pints and my local pub, and then onto other possibilities and the subject of whisky. I went on-line to investigate, and searched using Islay – the source of some of my favourite whiskeys and ‘clay’….. and hey presto, a site focusing on Scottish Back and Tile works over the centuries (¬†https://www.scottishbrickhistory.co.uk/foreland-brick-and-tile-works-isle-of-islay/ ) brought up a link to a site that produced bricks and tiles, mostly for agricultural drainage, in the 1840s. I was hooked.

I arranged to visit the site in April of this year, helped with advice from various phone calls and email exchanges – particularly from the Islay Natural Heritage Trust. I found the site using the grid references given on the site mentioned above, and the clay pits highlighted on the 1840s edition of the OS map. I took a few small bags as samples, and later that week came back to the workshop to experiment.

The clay is sandy, and silty. It’s like throwing mud. But taking it through a 30, 60 or 100 sieve makes in workable – just, and adding 20% of my hand dug Clee Hill clay helps. The real advantage is that it fires to stoneware temperatures – hence the glaze tests – which is very exciting.

Landscapes

Landscapes fascinate me. It’s not just the big sweeping forms, although they are at the centre of the aesthetic that I often connect with most easily, but the almost imperceptible details; the trace of a path, the vegetation, the soil profiles, the archaeology and geology beneath….and the social dimensions that may be almost invisible. I love the way that it is possible, by training your eye to either start to locate clues visually, to work in sharp focus, or to squint and blur the view, so that you only see the big shapes.

Sometimes, as on a visit to my beloved Donegal, you need to blur things, where the scatter of modern houses, left as if by a giant with a saltshaker, can be almost such a distraction as to prompt a disconnect. Other times, whilst walking in those same hills, which on a bleak, grey, wet day can leave the senses potentially numb, just focussing on the flowers in amongst the heather; tormentil, lady’s bedstraw, heath bedstraw, thyme, harebell, asphodel, lungwort, milkwort, you can be drawn into the web of connections that is at the heart of any place, whether they be natural…., social or economic.

The main feature of many of these photographs is the path. I spend a lot of my time walking, at least an hour a day, but more when I get the chance. Walking opens up so many connections and stories, whether through what we see, what we find, or through the people we meet.

These photographs are a start at capturing my obsession with layers in the landscape.

Finally, I include a photograph here of the late, great Mick Wilkinson, taken on an Autumn morning in 2015, where I stumbled across him, emptying out-of-date cherries from small tubs into a bucket for his cows. Mick worked with the legendary country potter Isaac Button in his youth, and was a veritable mine of information. He could tell a story and give you a depth of understanding that is so often missing in the books and web-pages, better than pretty much anyone I have ever met. The gate was his clue for me to find clay that he was happy for me to dig. I will never forget his kindness and enthusiasm.

Breakfast bowls…. new commission:

I recently received a new challenge; a commission to make two friends a pair of breakfast bowls using my Clee Hill clay that would fit with their beautiful kitchen in their home in West Yorkshire. I was delighted to be able to respond as they had been particularly supportive during my MA work.

Here are the two versions I made for them to choose between. They both use Clee Hill hand-dug clay, with my Clee Hill glaze (a mix of dhustone rock dust from the hill-top quarry, wood ash, local clay and a small quantity of quartz) inside and out – the rims being wiped clean and then dipped in two different blue / grey glazes, giving very different effects. These blue glazes both had a tendency to run on this clay body (pretty disastrously), and I found that by using the Clee Hill glaze below, I could achieve a successful transition and colour banding, rather than dribbles or rolling folds of blue glaze.

The third picture shows two of the bowls with some of the test pieces in the background. This small test bowls are vital in ensuring that I get the right glaze effects – even beyond using test tiles, as the glaze behaves differently on different curved surfaces of a bowl.

 

Looking forward to new glaze tests for the last few bags of Clee Hill clay…..

I’m down to the last few bags of my hand-dug Clee Hill clay…. although I’m still hoping I’ll find someone else in the village who’ll let me did some more, or perhaps someone will decide to dig a new set foundations for an extension, or a septic tank and I’ll be able to get a small lorry load….. fingers crossed.

In 2016 I carried out glaze experiments with the dhustone rock dust from the quarry on the hill, wood ash and the clay, working through a very simplified triaxial approach to glaze testing – with some beautiful results. I also have a few bags of samples taken from the soil heaps from the coal workings and some lime rich deposits from the limestone outcropping further down the hill, and so I want to push the experiments a little further over the next few weeks.

Here is a small test bowl with a 75% / 25% mix of wood ash and clay, and the picture I now use as my logo, which has the full set of test bowls and a pancheon with the rare blue chun glaze outcome that I achieved for a few firings…… I find it almost impossible to recreate that effect (the more recent chunning has been more grey than blue). I’m guessing it must have been something to do with the type of timber that I burned in my stove – because nothing else changed? Or did it?

More posts will follow.