The Language of Clay
Each artist approaches the medium with varying perspectives, experiences and skills. Ceramic practice is wonderfully boundless in its creative possibilities. As an organic material, clay responds so dynamically to different approaches and treatments. It is this quality that makes it both beguiling and challenging to work with. Within a field that is wonderfully rich in Wales, the artists featured bring singular expertise.
The Language of Clay is organised by Mission Gallery in Swansea and is delivered in partnership with Ruthin Craft Centre, Llantarnam Grange Arts Centre and Aberystwyth Ceramic Gallery. Curated by Ceri Jones. The initiative is funded by the Arts Council of Wales.
The project comprises touring solo exhibitions. These are accompanied by interpretation material, publications, a handling collection and participatory programmes. Through project activity, we hope to reveal the delights of clay and the enormous significance of ceramics in our lives.
The title of this exhibition series ‘the language of clay’ is especially apt for the work of Justine Allison who constructs pots by hand in porcelain. Working with sheets of clay to make a pot is seemingly straightforward, a long established process called slab building. Very simple techniques usually prove to be anything but simple to the inexperienced. In Justine’s hands soft slithers of clay are manipulated with a dexterity that belies the difficulty of the process. Justine chooses to work with porcelain, the clay known to some as ‘white gold ‘and to others as the devils invention. Porcelain is unquestionably the most difficult of clays to work with and to choose to hand build with it in thin sheets is the greatest challenge. So it begs the question why does she do this? The answer lies in the sublime work that emerges from her endeavours. The pots have an ethereal quality, so light and delicate when picked up and yet their form is strongly stated. Translucency is an integral part of their design not just a convenient by product of the process. She understands the language of this porcelain clay intimately and works with its properties to coax out the best of its attributes.
Her works often begin with creating three dimensional forms with paper and scissors, manipulating and modifying until she has the essence of an idea formed. From there the work must take place in clay using the thinnest of sheets and manipulating quickly before it dries too much to bend. There is a tension at this stage when working porcelain; one moment it is so soft and floppy that control seems impossible, then suddenly it’s losing moisture rapidly so cracking results if you try to bend or join it. A seemingly impossible task to control such a wayward material into a delicate precise form. Once the form is made it must be nurtured through the drying process and eventually given over to the heat of the kiln when it will take on a life of its own once more, twisting and moving as it becomes almost molten – the key to its ultimate translucency.
Justine composes not just with shape but with surface, frequently applying linear marks that cause visual interference in the way we perceive a form. In some cases the application of precise vertical lines onto a fairly regular shape is changed through the course of the firing as the porcelain bends and twists with the heat. It is precisely this working with the potential of the material that gives her work its unique creative quality and sets her apart from others who are simply technically adept.
Her repertoire includes cups and jugs; items intended for use; which come alive when filled with drink inviting tactile as well as visual exploration. Sgraffito lines drawn through a dark underglaze stain are deliberately imprecise, animating the surface and encouraging enjoyable scrutiny. Her square formed bottles often have lines created with masking tape, painstakingly applied by hand. She likes the fact that the tape is not always regular and of course the firing distortions only serve to emphasise this interplay of precision and irregularity.
I asked her about historical pottery that she admires and she instantly responded ‘slipware’; pots made with brown clay in a vigorous improvisational manner and I saw the connection, the need for familiarity with the potential of a material and an openness to working with, rather than dominating, material traits. She also cited factory visits to Stoke on Trent and seeing serried ranks of pots creating interest through their stacked arrangement. She likes to set her own work out in groups, it brings out the individuality of each object, raises awareness of human intervention as opposed to mechanical repetition and suits her way of making pots in series. To make a group of similar forms is a common potter’s trait, partially chosen for efficiency of production but more importantly for creating individuality through change in emphasis. Her workbench is opposite a window where the varying light at different moments in the day show the ways translucency can effect and enhance a form. Her studio has a satisfying messiness which contrasts beautifully with the immaculate porcelain forms arranged in groups at differing stages of production.
Justine has been developing her ideas since the millennium. She was one of the last group of students to benefit from a rich and diverse ceramic education which has now almost disappeared. Her work shows the passion of a potter restlessly driven to push herself and her ideas. This exhibition; her first solo show; captures her at a moment when she is fully in tune with her current materials and process; enjoying the collaboration with the clay and the kiln, testing herself and her ideas and recognising the unexpected beauty that can come from the interplay of artist, idea and process.
For The Language of Clay ii Shifting Lines