One of our oldest and most elemental materials, clay is part of our collective history. The act of transforming humble earth into a covetable or simply useful item requires time, patience and a bit of alchemy. So perhaps it comes as no surprise that against the touchscreen-dominated backdrop of our lives, clay emerges as a welcome antidote.
Tom Morris has paid attention. The writer observed ceramics passing through the potter’s shed to the architectural studio, artist gallery and back again in a love affair with an age-old material. Now he has turned that process into a book. New Wave Clay is a snapshot of 55 of the most exciting creatives using clay today. Within its pages the divisions of creative fields dissolve as makers look for new ways to create dialogue. We meet at Morris’ home in London’s Barbican estate: created as a utopia of community living, hope in architectural form. A fitting place to discuss a substance with the ability to contain and enhance the messiness of modern living.
Wilma: I love how you refer to the democratisation of clay. Can you elaborate on its appeal in connecting different creative disciplines?
Tom Morris: Ceramics has hovered between craft and art for the last 100 years or so, never quite sure of its place. People like Bernard Leach in the early 20th century were incredibly keen – some would say annoyingly worthy – on it being an activity undertaken by purist craftsmen in the countryside. Those who dug their own clay and wouldn’t deign to make things that could be seen as decorative. In the post-war period, fine artists started using clay as a means of creative expression, which helped the medium enter contemporary art galleries. In both cases, clay was quite ghettoised. Slowly, though, people have stopped caring for labels and that has been very liberating for ceramics.
As clay is such an accessible material, how did you go about judging what pieces made it into the book?
Unique works produced by hand was the general parameter. I steered away from functional pottery and industrially manufactured ceramics. Besides that, the title was very important to the selection. It’s by no means an encyclopaedic survey, but an impulsive snapshot of what’s happening now – truly, a new wave. Not that that necessarily means young – I was looking for a certain attitude and not an age range.
Did that attitude also inform the way you structured the book?
Yes, exactly. I’ve arranged the book according to the feelings elicited by looking at the work – joy, simplicity, a sense of structure, a feeling of nostalgia – instead of the typology of work or how they are made. I wanted to avoid having a ceramic furniture chapter or a chapter on porcelain. The book is about capturing the current mood at a really exciting time for ceramics, and attempts to puzzle out the ‘four seasons’ of style that is prevalent today.
Did your research in writing New Wave Clay throw up any surprises for you?
I went into this sure I would make a nice craftsy book on folky, wonky pots. That is – or was – what I personally enjoy. However, it ended up being far more vibrant and avant-garde than I thought it would be. The ‘style’ of craft has massively progressed and evolved in the last couple of years. It has totally redefined itself, which I found to be an exciting surprise. As soon as I hit upon the title a month or two into research, it all made sense.
Imperfections were once the hallmark of the handmade, but now brands are getting in on the action and producing that wonky aesthetic at scale. How do you think this affects the craft?
You can walk into most homeware shops on the high street today and buy a set of rustic, speckled plates that look like they’ve been made by your grandma in her garden shed. Craft has been highly commodotised off the back of this recent revival of handmade things. After decades of perfect, identikit dinner services, consumers are today far more interested in things that feel more ‘authentic’ – even if they’re produced en masse. I just hope people can tell the difference.
The line ceramics is a gambler’s art by artist Adam Silverman hits on an interesting theme in the book. Do you think clay offers a sense of chance not found in other art forms?
Absolutely. However good you are, and however many hours you’ve spent at the wheel, ceramics can still smack you in the face when you least expect it. We live in an age when almost everything can be planned, organised or predicted – usually at the swipe of a finger. We’ve lost that thrill of chance, which can bring both total joy and also utter disappointment. Making ceramics offers both in spades.
From a quick look round your flat, you have quite a collection. Is there a piece you’re especially tied to?
I have so many that I’m now operating a one-in, one-out policy, so it’s difficult to decide. Not only do I make a point of buying local pottery whenever I go away, but I also make ceramics myself. I’m rather attached to a vase I made during the beginners course I did about three years ago. It’s an example of when you don’t really know what you’re doing so you just play around and miraculously it turned out quite well. It’s a tall, slightly flared hand built vessel glazed in a very soft Danish blue and buttery cream. I also have a small antique turquoise jug from Turkey I inherited from my father which means a lot to me. All the ceramics I own mean something to me in one way or another. I usually suggest buying what you like and what you want to live with – that, to me, is the whole point of ceramics.
I loved learning the political inspiration behind Katie Stout’s Girls series. Do you think political messages are effective when played out in clay?
I like how Katie’s Girls works are superficially quite silly and almost childlike, and are yet statements on how society infantilises women by calling them ‘girls’. It’s a smart, straightforward statement, which is what works best in ceramics. I also admire the unfired clay sculptures that artist Rebecca Warren made early on in her career, which were very powerful commentaries on sex and gender. There’s also Grayson Perry of course, who has brilliantly shown how something as simple as a vase is the perfect place to make direct statements on things like class and religion.
We’ve lost that thrill of chance, which can bring both total joy and also utter disappointment
Olivier van Herpt’s insight: to me, ceramics is a handshake with history in the Simplicity section, is such a lovely summation of disparate makers nodding to their own traditions, and creating something new for history to uncover.
The first ceramics were made 25,000 years ago. Almost every nation has its own localised tradition of pottery (and there are a couple of interesting exceptions). People love engaging with all this history I think – whether by learning very traditional skills and techniques or simply by nodding towards history on an aesthetic level. Pottery also ostensibly lasts forever, so everything that these guys are making is adding to the historical canon too.
Reiko Kaneko relocating to Stoke-on-Trent in part to revive the local industry through craft feels like another nod to that tradition.
Absolutely. There are many cities all around the world just like Stoke-on-Trent that were founded on the pottery industry centuries ago. Sadly many of them have gone the same way as Stoke, with potteries now boarded up, chimneys smokeless, and all these amazing skills sitting there wasted. People like Reiko and Emma Bridgwater and 1882 Ltd really are invested in doing what they can to support the community but, without the support of the big manufacturers who moved production to Asia coming back, I don’t think Stoke will ever be what it was.
On the bright side, open studios like The Kiln Rooms in Peckham or Turning Earth in east London (basically member’s clubs for potters) are really helping forge new communities for contemporary ceramicists, which is exciting to see.
Ceramics’ shapes, unpredictability and influences make them inherently personal things. Do you think it’s important for ceramics to make us feel something?
Turning this cruddy, worthless material found in the ground into something of value that you can drink from or place on your mantelpiece takes a lot of time, concentration and physical exertion. On the whole, ceramic objects are labours of love and that’s so apparent when you pick up a handmade pot or vessel.
Some of my favourite pieces in the book are those where clay is used large-scale: to produce arm chairs, tables or murals. Ceramic has a depth, tactility and weight about it that no other material does, and that really resonates in the shiny, touch screen world we live in.
New Wave Clay is published by Frame.
Author imagery credit: Eden Keane