Clay, nature and us – an interview

An interview with Grant about his creative life and the 2023 exhibition.

Clay, nature and us – can you say some more about the that title?

Well, it’s about connection. If I look back at my creative life connection is a theme that runs right through it.  The radio programmes were part of my exploration of our connection with nature, but I got frustrated because what I was sharing was at best a second hand experience and largely an intellectual understanding of that connection, so the painting and furniture work was about trying to express the more visceral connection that I feel to nature and landscape.  Now, with the ceramics, the connection that interests me is both wider and more personal than that.  Its about an intimacy with our own nature as well as external nature and that gets hard to put onto words – a lack of separation, a sense of unity.  I think it’s best expressed through the wordlessness of what I do now in clay… so I’ll leave it at that.

What was the first thing you remember making?  

It has to be Lego.  It feels as though I spent the whole of my early childhood imagining and making cars and planes and houses in Lego and immediately dismantling them to start on the next idea. Making is something I’ve always done. I don’t really know how to live without it. 

When did nature become important to you?  

I grew up in the countryside and used to go for walks with my elderly next door neighbour, Mr Ling.  He was like an honorary grandfather to me.  The walks gave me a sense of nature as something to explore, but also a place of safety and comfort.   I also remember trailing the microphone of my Dad’s reel-to-reel tape recorder out of the window to record garden bird song. I must have been 7 or 8 at the time.  I don’t know where I got the idea.  I think I’ve still got the tapes somewhere.

Nature is a theme that runs through the radio, television, the furniture, landscape paintings and  ceramics that you’ve made, but is there something else that connects all these media? 

Well, I started in radio which is a story-telling medium and I still see what I make in terms of a narrative of some sort.  A sculptural piece isn’t resolved until it tells a single, coherent story.  I like to shed detail, like editing a radio programme, until the underlying story of the piece is simple and clear.  I think that’s where abstraction comes from, and I think that’s part of looking for something underneath the detail that connects everything.  Increasingly I’ve found that connection not only in the subject matter of what I make, but also in the making itself.  I think that’s at the heart of good work and at the root of my love of making, and its independent of the medium I’m working in. 

Why clay?  

There are so many ways to answer that, but what makes clay different from any other medium I’ve worked in is that it’s all about touch.  When you paint you paint with your hands, but look with your eyes.  With a musical instrument you play with your hands, but listen with your ears.  With clay, the hands that shape the clay are the same hands that sense its contours, consistency, thickness, surface and form.   And when someone holds the piece you’ve made, all that you’ve put into it is received by them through their sense of touch.  Touch is our first sense in life. It’s visceral and immediate. I like that. 

Do you believe in the kiln gods?  

Well, with some forms of firing, especially wood firing, there are so many variables that the final appearance of a pot is down to what goes on with smoke and flame inside the kiln.  Potters can control and perfect their forms, but what emerges from the kiln is in the hands of the kiln gods.  But I like to extend that unpredictability to the whole of the making process.  I seldom design my pieces in advance.  There is an idea, a source of inspiration, and then a conversation with the clay in which anything can influence the final result – mood, music, memories, light, weather, conversations, found objects, a lunchtime walk, as well as what the clay itself suggests. It’s a play between my ideas and what the world makes of our plans and expectations.  So the work embraces unpredictability.  I think that’s more true to life.

Who are your biggest creative influences?  

Miles Davis, for the space between his notes.  Bach, for the stillness at the heart of his music. The folk fiddle player, Sam Sweeney, for repeatedly proving that a simple tune played with feeling is the most beautiful thing in the world. And two of the St Ives artists of the 1950’s: Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, for her minimalistic line etchings and her progression from figurative to abstract art, and Barbara Hepworth because I will never understand how her work touches me so deeply.

What do you do when you’re not making?  

I live on a narrowboat and there’s always something that needs improving, maintaining or mending.  I play the cittern, which I discovered after years of guitar, and I dance Argentine Tango – now that is all about connection!  I do also love to sit and do nothing.

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