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Piece By Roger Cockram
Image Source: Art In Clay

As a lover of all forms of artistry it’s always a delight to stumble across a particular piece that gets the connoisseurs debating and even more of a delight when through exaggerated intellectual conversations, usually over uncountable amounts of wine and Foie Gras canapés, there’s a moment where something is mentioned that hits a nerve and from that point on sticks in the mind throughout the duration of the exhibition. In this particular case it was during an intimate Potters exhibition – among some of the British & Japanese studio pottery on show were older works associated with the Leach Pottery, including items by Bernard Leach, other members of the Leach family and pottery foreman, Bill Marshall were showcased. Of the more contemporary work on display works by John Maltby, Robin Welch and Jane Cairns were the most distinctive – where the question “is pottery from a commercial perspective a declining art form?” was asked. To which the answer was “Yes”. And when the follow up question “why?” arose, of which there was every answer but a direct one, this immediately begun to play at my curiosity; has pottery as an art form died? Can pottery even be considered appealing or sexy in the mainstream for generation Z? And in being candid, should anyone care about clay pottery?

Considering that the world of clay is so far embedded into everything we do, from the coffee mug at our desks that we religiously live by, to that remarkable 18th century clay statute in the directors office, to every claimed breakfast bowl in your cupboards, to even that garden ornament that makes you the envy of all garden parties. It is any wonder why it seems to be merely pushed into the world of necessities and slowly being removed from the world of contemporary fine art. Even on an impromptu survey randomly asking commuters ‘what they thought of when they think of pottery?’ almost all referred to mugs with only two noting anything in relation to art, ceramics or fine art. And from this brief discovery coupled with a culmination of thoughts to give anyone a seizure, the exploration of finding an answer to my ultimate question being, is clay pottery a forgotten art form or just overlooked?

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Piece By John Maltby

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Piece By Robin Welch

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Piece By Jane Cairns

Pottery In History

Historically pottery is one of the oldest forms of craft, it can be argued that it is the oldest form of handicraft, as recordings of pottery date back as far as 3,000 BC. There seems to be two schools of thought with regards to when pottery was invented. The first argues that pottery was invented in the Paleolithic age, the second argues that it was invented in the Neolithic age; some scholars arguing that it was first discovered in ancient China, and other scholars argue that there are more findings of the first forms of pottery in Africa and thus scientifically pin pointing its origins can differ depending on which school of thought you fall into, albeit the introduction of porcelain ceramics to the Europeans was by Marco Polo in 1295, when he brought back to Italy the first example of porcelain (Antiques Ceramics).

A Potters Life

Many potters now it would seem make their livings through functional work and less art based products, when briefly speaking with Ranti Bamgbala‏ (ceramicist) she described personal experiences through working as a professional ceramicist “I am more comfortable with introducing myself as a ceramicist. To me it is a way of defining myself that still has a lot of ‘space’ around it. Whereas potter and artists come with a lot of presuppositions as to what you do and what you should be doing.” After working in a prestigious museum Bamgbala went on to express that “Most potters I know personally either make a living selling functional work, which they do in a full time capacity. Or, in addition to making more sculptural pieces, teach. You work to support your craft. Then because you are working longer hours in order to pay for the studio, materials and your life in general, something has to give. In many cases, unless a successful momentum has been generated off the back of the study, it’s the ceramics that gives. Edward De Waal has done a lot to elevate ceramics in the eyes of the masses as result of the way in which he communicates the crafts. I think there is a push-pull towards ceramics as fine arts, largely because for every talk Edmund De Waal gives, there are hundreds of Ceramics-only fairs that I believe re-marginalise ceramics” Bamgbala’s‏ belief being that progressively through works and talks such as De Wall’s the next generation may more readily adopt to the ceramic art world.” (For more information on works by Ranti Bamgbala click here). On speaking to Pat Southwood (professional ceramicist who trained in Japan) she noted that the contemporary ceramicists who she believes is paving the way for today’s aspiring ceramicists is Grayson Perry, though felt that she would have liked to have been able to have mentioned more than one “It has always been difficult for ceramists. In many ways it is easier now than it has been for a couple of decades. I no longer have to have professional slides taken, nor employ the services of a graphic designer to do my website or publicity material.” Southwood did agree that the way ceramicists are being viewed is changing, mostly due to social media, but the changes being somewhat gradual.

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Piece By David Leach

Ceramic Pottery In Art: Forgotten Or Just Overlooked?

To finalize ceramic pottery as an art form as forgotten may be too much of a contentious statement. Though it is safe to say that as an art form ceramic pottery has fallen more into a very small niche and like any niche it separates itself from the mainstream markets. This does not necessarily mean that a niche is not accessible to the mainstream audiences, however there are indications that pottery is declining as it falls into being seen more as an old mans sport which to some extent can be a deterrent when attempting to target a younger audience in order to keep this form of art existing.

Pottery And Generation Z

There have been some difficulties translating the art of ceramic pottery to the ‘Z’ generation and to blame the Internet for every decline may prove to be an inaccurate basis for any argument. Though the Internet has had a direct effect on many industries and all forms of visual art, including the way we absorb information today, it still has however additionally proved time and time again, its benefits in all areas of our daily lives. The same can be said of the benefits it can have on the world of Pottery. Due to pottery being a craft that tends to draw more connotations of ‘the antique’ in a generation that is heavily focused on the ‘new’ the main draw back is to convince a generation such as this to find value in this form of art. A graduate from Edinburgh College Of Art Lydia Mckinley featured in Ceramic Review wrote “I feel that it (referring to pottery and ceramic courses) has been ‘shunned’ despite the fact that people want to do it. As craft and ceramic courses shut down there is an upsurge of interests as I found through running lessons”. Highlighting that there is a gap in this market for this generation that can be filled if interests grow in the education sector. Ya Media have also decided to premiere a film that shows rare archived images videos and interviews based around the work of Robert J. Washington at the Royal College of Art in November (For More information click here). Fundamentally where film is concerned, for film related events utilizing offline and online marketing strategies, maximizing on online and social media efforts, play a huge role on the awareness of a film production. In the case of this production an element of dark social may, in terms of budget, play more of a role through the educational chain of RCA, filtering through to lectures, students, support staff and so on as the event date draws nearer, to generate awareness due to the scale of this production.

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Piece By Hannah McAndrew

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Piece By Hannah McAndrew

Moving Forward

Upon speaking with Felicity Aylieff (Acting Head of Ceramics & Glass at the Royal College Of Arts) she expressed that there has been a shift in the ceramics world today “There are more opportunities to experiment and work across disciplines and mediums, which is producing some interesting new and innovative work in clay. There are more exhibitions that explore this and a growing awareness of new potentials, which is attracting some serious students, collectors, retailers, industry etc. A good example of a shift in the awareness of ceramics is the trend in food and restaurants which has seen a rise in demand for bespoke tableware”. Using digital to incorporate ways of repositioning ceramics arts in a way that can be readily absorbed by the Z generation may be another interesting method to encourage increase in the demand for ceramic fin-art potters.

From this exploration it did become apparent that to make ceramic arts sexy (for want of a better word) was not as farfetched of an idea as initially thought. “Ceramics has become a sexy medium in the fine art world but there is also a renewed interest in Design which seems to be triggered by the interests of many of the international students” (Felicity Aylieff, – RCA). Some of the main issues being positioning in the cognitive of a newer audience, together with increasing the awareness of more ceramic artists as artists and not more as functional designers. Though as an art form there are examples of it being underrepresented, becoming significantly mainstream may not necessarily be the answer. Being in a specific niche in fact adds more value to this art form and with the right placement to its appeal. Another interesting point Southwood made from a marketing perspective was “All the marketing in the world won’t hide poor craftsmanship, or poor design. We need more dedicated high quality Ceramic shows, such as Innovations in Ceramic Art, at the Guildhall Cambridge. Art in Clay at Hatfield House and Earth & Fire at Rufford in Nottinghampshire. Shows such as CAL are fantastic, and a great showcase, but without financial assistance to exhibit, many of the best contemporary Potters simply can’t afford it.”

The challenge is that within education sectors some intuitions have not seen any significant rise in the demand for these course on speaking with Dan Kelly (City Lit) “Most of the cuts have genuinely been because of the decline in numbers of applicants. I believe this is because pottery is no longer really taught in most schools, it’s hardly taught on any foundation courses – this has been the case for many years. This means that hardly anyone comes in contact with working with clay. Those who have managed to come in contact with ceramics/pottery are faced with £9000 a year fees and no real prospects of finding a viable career afterwards, therefore they opt for more potentially profitable courses.”
Albeit significant cuts in these sectors within the education system may prove to be the biggest pitfall of future art based ceramicist. When there becomes more availability from the foundation stages of the education system of ceramic and clay classes, coupled with an expansion of events endorsed by medium to large brands with a specific focus on the emerging ceramicists artwork is more accessible this may prove beneficial to the successors of the world of ceramic fine arts.