Impressions – a completely new way of working

It was the coldest, bleakest part of this last winter. That was when my right arm was gripped with such intense pain that I had to stop working with the clay. I was not happy! The medical advice was to take a break for a month, but what was I going to do?  It turned out that this was an opportunity to completely rethink my making process. 

All my forms up to this point had been made by honing them into shape using a metal scraper held in my right hand, and it was the tension in doing that that had led to the pain. I loved that process, and I felt that the gradual refinement of the firms over many days was part of what people perceived in them. I thought that, in some way, it was the source of their calmness and what they communicated. So to be deprived of access to that process was a challenge to what I had come to believe the work was about.

But my commitment is not to the outcome of the making process, it is to the process itself – to try to find a rightness in the making process and see what that quality leads to in the finished pieces. Clearly the scraping that I enjoyed was not right for my arm, so could there be a new way of making that would involve less tension and more balance in my body? 

For some reason I had also been reflecting on my early days of recording wildlife sounds which eventually led to my first career in natural history radio. Thinking back to the child who stuck a microphone out of his bedroom window to record the garden bird song I realised how long I have had a fascination with recording the natural world in one way or another. I was thinking how clay also keeps a record of everything that happens to it until it is fired, at which point the story of its making is locked into its form and surface. Maybe thinking of the clay as a recording medium could lead to a new way of working.  And so it did. 

In my head, these new pieces are called impressions. The word “impressions” seems to help me develop them. Rather than building with coils or slabs like a potter, I am pushing lumps of clay onto underlying armature in the way that a sculptor would work. 

I started working over an upturned wooden fruit bowl, but then I realised that I needn’t stick with conventional vessel shapes. I found an old Ash burr in the studio and a beautiful piece of driftwood and created clay forms over those. 

I am pushing the clay into shape with my hands and with simple tools like sticks and blocks of wood, and trying to use the smallest amount of effort necessary. 

My hands and the tools leave impressions on the surface, so the clay is holding the impression of the armature it is built over and of the process of its shaping. There is no scraping or honing involved! 

The results are really very exciting to me. there’s a definite energy and freedom to them. The process still needs technical development so that I can be sure that the finished pieces are strong, but I am blown away by its potential at the moment.

Today, the sun is shining and we are emerging from that cold winter.  The birds are singing and, for the first time, I am about to take some clay out of the studio into the local woods to see what happens if I create impressions in the wild.  Ha! I just realised that those other impressionists also worked en plein air, hoping to record the immediacy of the moment.

I’ll report back. 

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