27.10.17

What a difference a year makes! It has probably been about a year since I last wrote a blog post and much has changed. When I began my pottery odyssey six years ago, I had no template into which to fit my learning arc. Before the moment I chose to become a potter (and it was a moment, a split-second decision, while walking across a park), it had never entered my head that this was a route I might take. I had never touched clay, I didn’t know any potters, I didn’t know what it meant to be a potter. My only reference point was the manufactured ceramics that I used at home as a child growing up. Looking back now, it seems a strange decision that I took! I was going to say that it came out of nowhere but no idea or decision really comes out of nowhere, even if it appears that way.

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I wanted to work on a wheel because I wanted to make multiples of things but that was pretty much all I knew at the beginning. The first thing I did was to sign up to an adult education 10 weeks’ pottery course at my local community arts centre, Hive, here in Bradford. I made some slab built bowls and realised immediately that I wanted to be on the wheel. Along with that pottery course, the other thing that I did was start this blog, which has charted my progress and failures, thoughts and inspirations over the years. It meant that I started to photograph my early pots for the blog. Six months later, I was happily surfing the internet looking for pottery-related activities and came across the site of the British Craft Trade Fair (BCTF). I had a look around and signed up for the newsletter. Two hours later, I received a phone call from Margeret Bunn, who runs BCTF, offering me a stand at the next fair. I had two questions: how much was it going to cost and when was it? £500 and in six weeks were her answers. Well, what was I going to do now that I had been offered this opportunity? My logic at the time was, if I wanted to make a go of it, I needed to throw myself in at the deep end. So, I did. My range included five pieces, the largest of which was a cereal bowl.

This chance encounter with the BCTF was the bow that fired my pottery trajectory. As I said before, I had no template from which to construct a business model, I didn’t know what the options were. So, I fell into trade. Also, I felt strongly that I was making tableware and, therefore, it needed to be used and to be affordable. There is a video of me somewhere online espousing the need for every day, affordable ware. In a previous blog post, I wrote about how Bernard Leach is partly to blame for this erroneous assumption that handmade pottery should be cheap. That is what he promoted and a lot of people fell in behind him. The fact that it took his workshop in excess of 20 years to turn a profit, and, even then, that was down to his son, David, didn’t stop people from questioning his business nous.

Pricing is such a difficult question. Trade means that, say, for a £24 mug (retail) I would get £10 wholesale. So, for every mug sold at a public fair, I would need to sell, pretty much, 2 and a half mugs trade for the same price. Take a plate as another example. Plates are notoriously hard to make. Many potters don’t make plates, others that do make them with flat bottoms. This means that when making their plates they will push the clay out on the wheel to make their flat plate and then they will leave the bottom of the plate as it is straight off the wheel head, untouched, or they will tidy up the edges of the bottom underneath with a small amount of turning. My plates, on the other hand, are fully turned underneath, giving them a beautiful, sculptured finish, with a lovely, clean white circle traversing the underneath. It, also, takes weight out of the plate. But this adds time to the making process – time in the turning itself but, in addition, hidden time in the looking after the clay during the drying process to make sure that it is in the optimum condition for turning. I have learnt, usually the hard way, that the condition of the clay at each moment in the making process is vital when it comes to how receptive it is to being worked. But that is only the half of it. When it come to glazing, the turned foot needs to be precisely waxed to keep away the glaze, then, once dipped in the glaze bucket, neatly wiped to preserve the clarity of the sweep of the line. I have been selling my plates for £34 to the public, when I sell them to trade I get £14. That is a lot of time, effort and skill going into a plate for £14. Many times, I was told that my prices were too cheap but when you are starting out all you see are your making flaws and failures. I didn’t have the bravado to say that I should charge what I think people will pay. What happens, then, is that to make up the income you take on more and more trade orders. For three years, the workshop schedule was booked up 14 months in advance. That is a very hard thing to manage as there is no leeway whatsoever, every day is scheduled and if you miss a day or a week, or more, then that creates chaos in the diary. It also means that you can’t factor in anything spontaneous or unscheduled. It is total rigidity. I found it extremely stressful and the working hours increased exponentially. The more work that I took on, though, I just about started to make the beginnings of a basic income. 

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I am now six years on and I can see the strides that I have made in terms of my ability as a potter, the quality of the pots that I am making improving. The improvements are in all the details: the way the foot is turned, the weight and balance of the pot, the waxing of the foot and galleries to leave a clean finish after the glaze firing, the quality of the turning – the handles, the rims… The looking after the clay, so that as it dries it is in the optimum condition, glaze consistency to create the required surface finish. I feel so much more confident in the finished pot and the processes that have gone in to make that pot. I now know what my pots are, what makes a Dove Street Pottery pot. I, also, know and appreciate what is involved in the process of making each pot from the initial lump of raw clay to the finished glazed piece. Each piece is lovingly and laboriously cared for. And I hope this shows itself in each pot.

I thought that the answer to growing a pottery business was to make more and more pots that were on the cheaper side. Now I am not so sure. On my own, and with rather limited time this year in the workshop due to family circumstance, I cannot make the quantities that I was making. But I don’t want to either. As a single potter working alone, the number of pots that I can make is limited, resulting in each pot being lavished with attention. This, coupled with the opening of my eyes to the value of what I am making, has meant that I have increased the price of my pots. The price increase is a leap from where it was before but I feel that this is a true reflection of the cost and value of the pottery.  I feel the cost of the pottery should reflect the skill and labour that has gone into each piece created by hand, and the aesthetic quality, too. Each pot is created as an object of sculptural beauty absent from tableware that you can buy on the high street. That aesthetic beauty, that functional beauty, that pleasure located in touch through finger and lip is what I strive for every day.

08.11.16

I received a metaphorical slap-in-the-face, punch-in-the-stomach, recently; and it hurt quite a lot. In fact, it has given me much to think about. It tapped into a wider conversation I was having with myself. This slap came straight out of an essay by Garth Clark, titled ‘Homer, Ceramics, and Market Anxieties’ in the excellent ‘Ceramics Millennium’, which he edited. Clark’s essay, evidentially, is looking at the anxieties surrounding the terribly thorny issue of selling pottery. It starts with the eighteenth century and the industrial potters, then the Arts and Crafts movement, the studio potter, the fifties and on to the end of the century. I recoiled half way through the essay with Clark’s coruscating remarks on Bernard Leach. Try these:

                ‘Leach, arguably the most influential single figure in twentieth century ceramics, took the insistent position on pricing by contending that pots should be affordable. There was no economic reasoning behind this position; rather, it was a moralistic stance with a dubious and decidedly political motive.’

                ‘But his ideas about the ethics of pricing took hold. Why anyone would take business advice from Leach is beyond understanding.’

                ‘It took Leach from 1921 to 1950 to get his pottery to run profitably…not his own doing but the result of careful restructuring…by his son, David.’

He compares Leach (craft: repetitive wares, affordable, functional, accessible) with William Staite Murray (art: expensive, unique, beyond function). Leach promoted his ‘ideals of a humble craft’ against Murray’s ‘elitism’; Leach’s ‘ersatz humility’ challenging Murray’s prices. ‘Leach’s impact on ceramic pricing was both unfortunate and dishonest.’ He sold his best pots in Japan for high prices while keeping them low in Britain.

                ‘Yet by 1950, his views had spread through the commonwealth and to the United States, and expectation of cheap pots became, whole-cloth, a requisite of the potter’s identity and caused further damage, as low prices were instilled as a birth-right of every collector…a pot should be necessarily cheap.’

There is a video of me, filmed five years ago, with Leach’s hook securely embedded in my cheek. You can even see a drop of blood where it punctured the skin.

Clark says, ‘Why should pots be cheap, particularly when industry was providing every man and every woman with excellently made and affordably designed tableware and decorative wares?’ Indeed. This is the functional potter’s age-old dilemma, isn’t it? Why make tableware in a time of mass-produced tableware? Why compete?

A more pertinent question to ‘why compete?’ might be ‘what makes it different?’. This question ‘what makes it different?’ has been gnawing away in the back of my mind for some time.

This is why reading is so important. So, feeding directly into the above thought process is the essay I’ve just read by Alison Britton on Takeshi Yasuda in her collection of writings, called ‘Seeing Things: Collected Writing on Art, Craft and Design’. I love what she says about Yasuda’s ceramics:

                ‘More recently, he has made…tall elongated vases that are thrown upwards to the point of collapse because the clay is so far stretched, and then hung upside down to dry, to revive them, let them fall back into a viable container shape through gravity.’

                ‘The new forms seem to express both fall and flow, with lapping skirts...’

                ‘Clay has been pushed around…’

‘Fingerprints and spikes on edges reveal the slippery motions of joining, and rapidly leaving, parts of the very plastic form.’

                ‘A sense of touch is present in the form of every piece…the dimples and distortions that exemplify the grace and speed of the potter’s hand.’

Takeshi Yasuda

Takeshi Yasuda

 

I love this: the revelling in the lusciousness of the material. I have always loved that, the plasticity of the clay, the fact that it can be moved around and that movement, that intimacy, caught and treasured. It has always been the potters that make work like this, so far removed from mine, that draw me in: Jean-Nicolas Gérard, Dylan Bowen and now Takeshi Yasuda. The process is gloriously on show. It's not Yasuda's pots, necessarily, that I'm interested in but the process he undertakes. I wonder, though, whether I have been scared of it, too. I have made objects that just happen to be made out of clay. I make bowls, plates, jugs … How important is it that they are made of clay, as opposed to wood, silver, glass? Currently, I am not sure. What makes them stand out as being made of clay?

Dylan Bowen plate

Dylan Bowen plate

This moving around, attaching, scoring, pulling reminds me of the sculptor Richard Serra’s ‘Verb List’ (1967-1968). The first ten (of 84) verbs being: ‘to roll, to crease, to fold, to store, to bend, to shorten, to twist, to dapple, to crumple, to shave…’ According to the Museum of Modern Art, ‘Serra described the list as a series of “actions to relate to oneself, material, place, and process,” and employed it as a kind of guide for his subsequent practice in multiple mediums.’

I have never, really, considered clayness. I have done very little experimenting. Right from the off, I thought only of the business of being a potter: to make bowls and cups that made me a living. The clayness almost got in the way – having to learn the skill of throwing, and turning, and pulling handles… It is so difficult! I tried to make everything as thin and as light as I could, negating the clay, until it virtually wasn’t there anymore. Well, now I am wondering about that clay. I am thinking about verbs: cut, roughen, burnish, distort, attach, impress, stretch.

This direction is flirting with fine art ceramics, something I vowed I would never go near. But how else do you deal with clay’s materiality? The thingness of it. So, I keep asking myself: why am I making functional ware when industry does a pretty fair job? What am I doing that makes it different?

21.05.16

Many moons ago, I asked my good friend Mike Lewis to design a webpage for me. He is an excellent graphic designer and created a beautiful page. It was a simple static page with links to the various aspects of Dove Street Pottery, such as the blog and shop. It was always supposed to be a temporary measure, and, for a long time, I understood that what I really needed was more of a one-stop site where interested parties could get an overview of what I was doing.

So, one of the first jobs that I gave to Joseph, after he had settled in a bit, was to work on putting together a new website. My partner, Claire Wellesley-Smith, uses squarespace.com for her site and said good things about it, so we didn't look any further. Joseph has done a fantastic job. There are bits and pieces that need tweaking but we felt that it was better to get something up and added to it later. Having everything in one place and easy to access is the key, especially clear images of all the pots that we make. Allowing people to see the range of our pots, I am hoping, is going to make a big difference.

We had one quite difficult decision to take, though - what to do with the blog, The Hopeful Potter. Did we leave it where it was and start afresh? Did we just end the blog? Did we keep the name? It was quite tricky. I am posting less often than I used to do but I really enjoy writing the blog and it has charted my every pottery thought for the last 5 years. It appears that I was clear and decisive from the very first post regarding the trajectory that I wanted to take. I wanted to throw and I wanted to make functional ware - nothing has changed since then. But lots has changed otherwise. Some statements of the obvious - I feel like I am in a very different place now, my skill level is considerably higher, my experience immeasurably deeper. It may seem a strange thing to say but I am only just beginning to 'enjoy', 'get satisfaction out of' making pots. I feel that while one is learning it is extremely hard to 'enjoy' making pottery. I have felt a deep drive to do so but the satisfaction in it has been hard won. I always fell short of that pot that I wanted to make, that ideal version in my mind's eye. I always failed. By the very nature of learning to do something difficult this always had to be the case, it always had (has) to be this way. It is extremely hard to come back to the wheel week after week, you have to have so much faith that it will eventually come good, that your fingertips will learn. This is the essence of 'the hopeful potter'; it is an ever-present and ever-lasting state. Every day I say to myself, 'If I can make these pots today, what will the pots that I make in a year be like?'. I am beginning to see that something might be possible.

I have never wanted to make OK pots - the striving has always been to make the best pot that I possibly can. Two things relating to this. Fleur Grenier said something interesting in this month's Craft & Design magazine. She said 'I think it can be very easy to be safe and comfortable with your work. This can become very boring not only for yourself but for customers who regularly see your work at shows or in galleries'. Challenge yourself constantly. The second is David Pye's well-known writing on the theory of workmanship in The Nature and Art of Workmanship. He writes about machine-made objects being made by the workmanship of certainty, where you are guaranteed a result every time. Hand-made objects, he says, on the other hand, are made by the workmanship of risk - they are taken to the edge of failure every time. They have to teeter precariously on the edge but this is the only place of life and vitality. It is a dangerous place to live, yet, ultimately, a deeply rewarding one.

I am going to post this post on The Hopeful Potter site as well as this one. It will be a concluding post on that site and then all subsequent posts will continue here (on dovestpottery.co.uk). Be hopeful, be ever hopeful.

06.03.16

March 7, 2016 § 2 Comments

Last summer, Joseph Fuller came to work in the workshop. He has been an invaluable asset. In many ways, two are better than one. He comes from a Fine Art background, like I do, and has an astute and well-trained eye. He is also curious and conscientious, two important traits for any aspiring potter. We talk constantly about the development of DSP – how to refine it, define it and evolve it. Having Joseph in the workshop has allowed the space for this to happen. Before he came, I was throwing, glazing, wrapping, emailing, marketing, just about hanging in there – the normal state of affairs for a potter. This is fine but allows little time or space for the developmental aspect of the business, so fundamental to the vibrancy of a healthy pottery. I could concentrate on the standard pieces but little else.

I was aware that this was the case but found I was unable to do much about it, an exceedingly frustrating experience. Now, Joseph takes care of the glazing (including glaze experiments) and packing, some admin, and much else. I can focus predominately on throwing, which, given the increased time, is, I hope, improving. Having two heads in the workshop all the time means that we talk regularly about how to take the business forward and we are in a much better position, now that he is here, to be able to make that happen.

Two conversations I have had with other people have also been profound and affecting. One took place at a show last year and the other just last weekend. The show, for me, had been a curiously flat affair. We took reasonable sales, really fairly good sales, in fact, but during the show and after I felt oddly dissatisfied, yet was unable to pinpoint exactly why. Asked by one particular maker how it had gone, I replied that I thought that something had been missing. We discussed it further and then he said to me “Are you sure it was the show? Could it be something that you are doing?”. Something I am doing?! The cheek, I thought!

The second conversation was with a fashion designer, who I enjoy talking to about his work. I asked him how things were going and he told me about how he had been designing products which would help him market his next collection. He spoke about needing special pieces, ‘key’ pieces, that call attention to the brand. When actually placing orders, shops usually take the basic range, plus a few extras, but you need the calling card pieces to give the brand personality and life. As I was listening to him, I was thinking about how this would translate to DSP.

I think the comparison with a fashion brand is an apt and appropriate one – that model is a good one. We, too, have ‘basics’, these are the plates, bowls, mugs, beakers etc. – but, I feel, what has been missing from DSP are the ‘key’ pieces that bring the brand alive. The maker from the show had been absolutely right – there had been nothing wrong with the fair; quite the opposite, it was dynamic and vibrant. DSP has done the ‘basics’ reasonably well but, on reflection, that was really all there was, which after a while is only remotely interesting. That was the reason that the show felt flat. Putting these two conversations together has been totally enlightening and invigorating. A pottery needs ‘key’ pieces; it needs pots that grab people’s attention. But, like in the fashion industry, that attention needs to be regularly tweaked; maybe not seasonally, but it definitely needs tweaking and tweaking hard.

So, Joseph and I have a resolution for this coming year: to add ambition and daring to the collection.