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Throughout my adult life I have found that being adaptable has been a vital necessity; I have had to move house with unbearable frequency and I seemed constantly to be searching for a new teaching post. In 20 years I taught in twelve different settings and turned my hand to teaching all sorts of different types of learner. The greatest gratification came from working with the students who, for one reason or another, were having difficulty accessing education. My most memorable post was as head of science at a specialist school for children with specific learning difficulties. I really engaged with these children and, not being the greatest scientist ever, I found that I was able to pitch my lessons at a level from which they could benefit. I also spent many weekends taking them camping and walking on Dartmoor and got to know their frustrations and problems with education well.
All this time my role as ‘Wife Of’ an Army officer had been emotionally exhausting; I had been deeply involved with cases of child abuse, family conflict and post-traumatic stress. I saw at first hand the damage that people can do to each other in times of stress and the impact this can have on entire layers of family life. It was not a role I relished; I resented the idea that I was considered to be the appropriate person for it simply because of my husband’s position but the effect of this was that I put immense demands on myself to get it right whilst myself dealing with long periods of separation, some of which were very stressful. Eventually the combined pressures of these two aspects of my life led to emotional exhaustion. When an opportunity arose for me to take time off to study for a degree in Applied Art at Weston College, Somerset I leaped at it. Suddenly many feelings which I had suppressed for years came pouring out.
I began creating work which seemed more like therapy; working within a range of automatic drawing techniques led to results which surprised me and were not easy for me to interpret. I began to believe that art was ‘the answer’ and, given that it was an applied degree, I use the work experience aspect of it to explore this idea further by working at a therapeutic community as an assistant art therapist.
At the same time my final degree project was coming together. I have never been the kind of person that takes the easy route and so, hearing at the end of my first year that the ceramics department was being closed as a cost cutting measure, I kicked up such a stink that they were embarrassed into retaining a section of the workshop and not decommissioning the kilns. This backed me into my own corner because I then felt morally obliged to concentrate on ceramics! If it hadn’t happened I might have become a maker of art films. The tutors had all been reassigned so I taught myself and begged for tutorial support from during lunchtimes!
My theme was an art trail located along the Truro River in Cornwall, publicised on line and which only existed if there was proof that people had visited it. I was inviting the observer to connect with and be excited by their environment. But in fact, looking back, I realise that it was as much to do with trying to ground myself. Years of moving had taken their toll and I was hankering for the only place that I really felt of as home; the Roseland Peninsular, Cornwall.
During the research stage of this project I was moved by a visit to an exhibition of Richard Long’s work, Heaven and Earth, at the Tate. His art is a dialogue with the landscape. He makes art by walking; ‘If you don’t walk my art does not exist,’ Long in Wallis (2009), and came to prominence in the 1960s as one of a group of artists involved in extending thoughts about sculpture beyond the traditional ideas of materials and techniques to encompass other dimensions and concepts, such as time.
‘Through the act of walking connections are established to rivers, mountains, deserts, clouds and other natural or cosmic phenomena, as well as to locations and countries around the world. It is an inclusive art, encompassing sculpture, large scale mud wall works, photographic and text works and printed matter.’ Deuchar, in Wallis (2009).
Long’s work becomes a trace within the landscape. Through the act of walking connections are established. Walking as art provides a means for exploring relationships between time, distance, geography and measurement.
Long’s passion for nature and for taking solitary walks was a significant inspiration for my project which sprang from a strong desire to draw people’s attention to, and locate myself within, the environment – to belong. Whereas for Long it is through the act of walking that the connections are established and a trace is left, the purpose of my work was to try to build reconnections between other people and their environment; ‘If you don’t walk my art does not exist.’ Using fragile porcelain pieces I repaired walls, built reed beds and planted trees within protective shields along a trail which I thought I was designing in order to connect people with the land but was, on reflection, much more about ‘fixing’ myself in Cornwall.
At the end of my degree, believing that I wanted to explore further into the restorative powers of art and still having a strong desire to help the disconnected, confused and troubled, I embarked on an MA in Art Psychotherapy. Here I was introduced to Carl G Jung’s metaphor of alchemy, with its connections to fierce heat contained within a vessel, for the therapeutic process. The alchemist projects the contents of his unconscious into the substance in the alchemical vessel. Just as substances are altered in a chemical reaction, in the film, A Dangerous Method, Jung’s idea that both analyst and client are transformed by analysis is explored. I think that a part of my fascination with clay stems from the way in which it also can be changed by heat and the metaphors this suggests. Certainly the idea of making vessels which were altered during firing to become something more lasting and with a relationship to their contents resonated strongly with me. I can cite more than one of the students on my MA course who was clearly hoping that they would be transformed as much as the clients that they worked with by the therapeutic process.
At Truro Museum is a collection of assaying crucibles: The Calenick Crucibles. In the 18th century it was common practice to assay tin ore before it was smelted. A weighed quantity of ore was mixed into some anthracite dust in a crucible and heated to 1400 degrees centigrade. All crucibles had to be imported; there was nothing available locally which could withstand the heat. Eventually a reward was offered for the production of crucibles of a suitable quality using British materials, this led to the creation of ‘china stone’, a rough form of china clay.
This image shows a collection of crucibles that has been found at Calenick. Those at each end of the top row are the approximate colour of the originals. Others are heavily stained, having been in the river for over a hundred years. I think the simple, functional quality of these pieces, their importance in an industry which was responsible for moulding the Cornish landscape to such an extent and the knowledge that they were created from Cornish clay has had a profound influence on me. In this I can relate to a second theory put forward by Jung who saw a drive in all of us to become the person we are born to be, to achieve Individuation. In my constantly shifting lifestyle I have felt quite a loss of identity and an obsession with the material world. These crucibles represent something profoundly Cornish to me.
Whilst studying for this MA I also came across the work of psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion whose theory of Projective Identification describes containment as an active engagement: a complicated, dynamic, mutually influencing relationship between partners; the container and the contained. The main idea being one of ‘Balance of Mind’: In different relationship the dynamics vary; In one in which the container is too rigid, refusing to respond to what it has in it, the contained loses both form and meaning; In a more flexible relationship the contained enters the container and impacts with it, modifying its shape and function whilst also being altered, each mutually influencing the other; A third type of relationship is where the contained is so powerful that the container is overwhelmed, losing both form and function.
During this time I had an enduring need to continue playing with clay and attended several courses at City Lit. I began to explore Jung’s and Bion’s theories in my own work; making vessels which contained others; looking for relationships between them.
I wanted to emphasise a sense of worth through my choice of materials:
there has never been a time when someone somewhere has not been shaping a piece of wet clay. ‘Of all the materials that have been in continuous use by humans, only ceramic survives from all time periods.’ Fisher in Reijnders (2005). Clay has characteristics of fragility and softness yet its permanence means that it is used to date historical periods. It seemed to me that there could be no more appropriate material from which to create a work which invites people to consider the importance belonging.
At the end of the first year I withdrew from the MA having decided that I was never going to make a very good therapist, and chose to focus instead on working through some of the ideas which had been suggested by it in my own way.
The Diploma has encouraged me to explore my thoughts about landscape and containment further, whilst also permitting me to be as experimental as possible, trying to make work which stood out as different and which only just fitted within the remit of the project boundaries. It appears that the requirements to be conventional and obey a rigid set of rules and acceptable behaviours has finally got to me and I don’t want to stick to the orthodox any longer!
I embarked on a range of experimental projects: painting unusual chemicals on my work before smoke firing them; beach firings where I wrapped work in strands of seaweed so that the chemicals within would stain the work; taking apparently un-usable glazes and exploring them until I had found exciting and workable options; building with sprigs rather than simply applying sprigs to a piece for decoration; using more paper than clay in an attempt to make thinner, more fragile work. All the time I was trying to harness my fascination with the different. I was drawn to a book called Dear Mr Leach in which Sebastian Blackie contemplates modern trends in ceramics and wonders what Bernard Leach, ‘the grand old man of studio pottery,’ Blackie (2004) might make of them. The book describes how to make kilns out of paper and glazes out of toothpaste. It was exactly the kind of rebellion I was looking for. The first time that I exploited its ideas was to make a wall assemblage which I called Don’t Put Me in a Box. This was a consideration of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator whose purpose is to provide a ‘personality inventory’ which enables people to make use of the theory of psychological types described by C. G. Jung. In essence the theory claims that much apparently random disparity in people’s behaviour is actually quite orderly and consistent, being due to differences in the ways individuals prefer to use their perception and judgment.
‘Perception involves all the ways of becoming aware of things, people, happenings, or ideas. Judgment involves all the ways of coming to conclusions about what has been perceived. If people differ systematically in what they perceive and in how they reach conclusions, then it is only reasonable for them to differ correspondingly in their interests, reactions, values, motivations, and skills.’ http://www.myersbriggs.org
The aim of the Meyers-Briggs Indicator is to make the understandings of Type Theory accessible and to identify the 16 distinctive personality types that result from the interactions between people’s predilections during the testing process.
Such an idea infuriates me. I do not believe that it is possible for me to be categorised as having one type of personality. Whether I am feeling introvert or extrovert, whether I chose to seek meaning and connection in ideas, or feel idealistic and loyal to my values and to the people who are important to me depends very much on my mood. I refuse to be classified. I will break out of any box that you care to put me into. For this project I needed to find a material which was unconventional and fragile: Which I could break back into so as to reveal the layers underneath. From Blackie’s book I took the idea of paper saggars and turned them into pieces in their own right. The result was a set of fragile boxes within boxes. It bordered on not being a wall assemblage at all. It challenged the concepts of ceramic, being more paper than clay and it satisfied my desire to consider containment from all angles.
The land is embedded in the national psyche of the British. It is key to understanding our identity; it links our past, present and future. ‘Man’, as Jacob Bronowski argued ‘is a singular creature. He has a set of gifts which make him unique; he is not a figure in the landscape but a shaper of it.’ Bronowski in Kastner and Wallis (2010). For as long as man has existed he has left his mark on the land, in the way that he has worked and manipulated it, in the monuments with which he has honoured it and the mark making that he has used to record events and features of it. It is the space that we occupy, the lens through which we view ourselves.
For me the story remains one of fragile landscape at risk from man’s exploitation, violence and disinterest and of people the world over who are out of touch with who they are for one reason or another.
The journey project at the beginning of the second year represented an opportunity to unite many of these ideas in one set of work. I walked the entire length of the River Thames drawing, recording and photographing my journey. The river became a metaphor for me; reflecting the passage of time, the memories and injuries which we pick up on our personal journeys; the burdens which we carry with us; the vulnerabilities within us and within the landscape for which we are responsible. The work which I made in response to this journey changed radically as the project progressed.
To begin with I was making work in which the winding river was clearly expressed and in which there was considerable control over the outcome of making and firing.
The discovery of some interesting clays and a number of other finds made me thing that my pieces were too contrived and so I began to add found materials to the vessels.
While researching the project I started to look more closely at the work of Adam Buick who makes moon jars using locally dug clay and finds which conveying a sense of place. He draws paths as a motif on his pots which he uses to represent his actual and metaphoric journeys through a place. The unpredictable nature of each of Buick’s jars comes from the inclusions and their metamorphosis during firing. For Buick also, this individuality and tension between materials speaks of the human condition and also of how the landscape shapes us as individuals.
“Adam Buick has imposed on himself the strict discipline of the simplest and purest of geometric forms. Don’t expect his spheres of fired clay to be standoffish or predictable though. Yes Adam makes white porcelain moon jars as chaste in their beauty as the old Korean dal-hang-a-ri vessels that first inspired him. But within the confines of his spherical ‘canvas’ he also conjures up worlds of spontaneous drama, pots so diverse in their scale and texture, so exquisite in their making, so alive with the Pembrokeshire landscape which they literally embody, that his passionate connection to his environment becomes unmistakable.”
Andrew Renton, Head of Applied Arts, National Museum, Cardiff.
I heard Adam Buick speak at Ceramic Art London two years ago and found his film Earth to Earth inspirational. It records a large, unfired moonjar which he placed on the Welsh cliff, Carn Treliwyd, that had inspired it using time-lapse photography to film its disintegration: Clay, made from the weathering of igneous rocks, is returned to the earth by the impact of the wind and rain. He incorporates stone and locally dug clay into his work to create a narrative which carries a sense of place. The unpredictable nature of each jar comes from the inclusions and their metamorphosis during firing. For Buick this individuality and tension between materials speaks of the human condition and how the landscape shapes us as individuals. It is very much in tune with my own thinking.
Just as I felt the need to place my degree work within the landscape to give it reference and encourage people to look about them, Buick considers that a landscape has to be felt. By placing a jar within a particular location his intention is that it will make us look beyond the object to its surroundings.
Buick also uses paths as a motif which represent actual and metaphoric journeys through a place. He considers that understanding of a landscape arises from moving through it, to give it context with paths, like common routes of experience, guiding us through it. They are connections through time, to others and to the land.
Gradually, as this project progressed I began to work in a very different way. I looked again at the fragility of the container and thought more carefully about how I was representing the ideas of containment, alchemy and memory.
I created a set of vessels which were overwhelmed by the material contained within; river clay which had boiled and bloated; finds from the river which had been distorted during firing. I positioned them on a plinth of river clay, raising the status of the clay to new heights.
Blackie, Sebastian, 2004. Dear Mr Leach, Some thoughts on Ceramics. London: A & C Black.
Kastner, Jeffrey and Wallis, Brian, 2010. Land and Environmental Art. 1st ed. Phaidon.
Reijnders, Anton, 2005. The Ceramic Process. 2nd ed. London: A & C Black.
Wallis, Carrie, 2009. Richard Long: Heaven and Earth, London, Tate Publishing.
Cronenburg, David, 2011. From the script by Christopher Hampton. A Dangerous Method.