A reflection piece for the Gatherers project exhibition.
Covid 19 has created extremely unusual life and work conditions for us all. In this 'Think Piece' article for the Gatherers exhibition at OmVed Gardens i was asked to reflect on how Covid had affected my work, outlook and progress on the Gatherers project.
My current situation
I sit here staring at a project half done. Two days before lockdown and in response to the extreme panic and anxiety that had built up across the country my wife and I decided to pack up our car and along with our son and dog move to North Yorkshire to look after Lottie’s parents and safeguard the health of the family. Even though this choice meant a huge upheaval to our lives, an undetermined break from my studio and inevitable financial repercussions on us we felt that family was far more important. Initially the imposed stasis on my professional practice and indeed this project was an extremely scary and daunting prospect and these feelings were coupled with the sheer frustration of not being able to make; Fundamentally I am a maker, I make therefore I am and I rely on the physical contact with my clay to help me exist in many ways and so I found it hard to adjust to a life without this outlet. However, over time this imposed exile has offered me headspace, helping me evaluate the project, my practice and my life in general, I now view this opportunity for ‘stillness’ as a gift.
Above: Stillness and a view to prompt reflection. The view East across the Moors towards Hawnby, a short bicycle ride away from my current residence with family in North Yorkshire.
I have lived in London for over twenty years and as a result I have become wrapped up in the speed of the city. This is fully reflected in my lifestyle and I have come to realise that despite the ‘slow’ nature of making ceramics it has overflowed into my practice too. Although this pace of life has benefits, it has its side effects too; I feel that living in a fast culture where time is constantly compressed can take away time for proper reflection?
Engaging my practice with the digital world has also had an impact on the pace at which I have been working but also my focus; Instagram is fantastic, I have it to thank for generating the interest in my work, the much-appreciated commissions and sales that have afforded me to keep going and ultimately the Gallery contacts that have enabled me to take part in shows such as Gatherers. Instagram has unlocked a global community of potters and artists and has put us all in contact with each other. However, Instagram is also a really good example of the fast culture we live in; the nature of the platform and the culture it projects encourages us to be slightly self-centred, to create our ‘brand’ and to shout about what we are doing. It encourages us to move and develop things very quickly and can often feel like an overload of perfectly groomed visual soundbites, I think that sometimes I have fallen for the digital anxiety to make to please rather than take time out to think about my role as a maker and artist?
I have been working at such a pace that maybe I hadn’t really stopped to take breath and fully understand what I was doing or where I was going? Time away from the city and the digital world as well as time away from making has afforded me the quietness and stillness I needed to reflect on what has been a whirlwind foray into pottery and Ceramic art over the last five years of my life. It has also given me the time I needed to think more deeply about my practice as an artist and to clearly identify the focus of my work.
Above: Some stills of the Clay refining process from a photo shoot with documentary maker Tom Broadhead. Tom was making a film about the project for the show before lockdown hit. I had lots of plans and a tight schedule for the project so there was a feeling of 'doing'. the documentary as it stands can be watched here: https://www.gatherers.co/the-wild-clay-project
What Covid has taught us?
Covid 19 has made us pause and given us the time to think a bit more about society. Its forced us to be less selfish and less self-centred and consider the impact of our own actions more than we are perhaps used to? We are staying at home to protect others, and we are thinking about each other a lot more than we perhaps used to? It has unlocked a wartime like sense of community and in some respects has forged better relationships with neighbours, families and friends. It has also made us think about where we are and our relationships with places; be it through longing to be somewhere else or by forcing us to explore and build a better understanding of the area local to our lockdown. Despite the hardship and loneliness of isolation, for most of us it has ironically rebooted a feeling of belonging to places and communities. These sentiments have had a profound impact on me and have allowed me to reevaluate what the work I produce should mean.
Above: A wartime sense of community and 'togetherness' has been unlocked and in some respects has forged better relationships with neighbors, families and friends. There have been lots of public showings of respect such as clapping the NHS and key workers that have supported the country.
What it has taught me
Although I am proud of the work I have created so far I have come to realise that the majority of the things that I have made have been simply about me and my relationship with the clay, materials and techniques I use, believing that my work is somehow an abstract form of self-expression in pot form. Up to this point in my career I have been striving to find my voice, my aesthetic, my ‘brand’ and establish where I exist as a potter and ceramic artist. The initial premise for my work for the Gatherers project is a good example of this, it was about making objects from materials that I gathered from Omved Gardens, it was about the relationship I was about to make with the site. I had a pretty fixed idea of what I was going to make and I would use the materials found to realise these pieces. However, the time and reflection that lock down has afforded has led me to clearly see that the project had been developing into something much more interesting than myself. And that the things I had begun to discover have become the focus and the driver for the investigation and will ultimately shape the objects I make in response.
Above: Some images taken by Tom of the experiments with the clay dug from OmVed gardens.
On reflection, a pivotal moment in the project happened one rainy Friday morning as Tom Broadhead and I discussed the things I had found at the site and the way I would use them. Tom stopped the conversation to reach into his pocket and pulled out some twisted dull metal objects and put them down on the table. In front of me were a selection of mangled spoons that he had dug up on the OmVed site. “There are loads of these, we dug them up, they were all together just sticking out of the ground” he said.
These peculiar objects were a ghostly conduit that instantly connected me to the past and to the other people that had used the site where OmVed Gardens now stands. My mind was racing with all the scenarios that could result in a huge hoard of bent spoons being dumped in the earth? It dawned on me that this was just one episode of thousands of acts that had taken place on that site over time and can remember feeling an overwhelming urge to respond to the spoons as a piece of history and human interaction with the site and use them in the work.
Above: Spoons dug from the Omved site. These proved to be an excellent reminded of the social history of the site and remind me that i was responsible for communicating the stories of others as well as my own.
I now realise that I had started making connections between the site, the local community, the materials, the history of London and these things started to become as important in shaping the project than just my relationship with the materials.
As the investigation has developed the project has taken on archaeological, historical and geological focuses. I often found myself wandering away from making things to read dig papers, explore local Facebook groups, read up on Highgate history, email experts in Roman Kiln making and to research ancient clay and glaze making techniques used in the Highgate kilns, study geological maps or sit down and talk ‘at’ Tom, my friends or my wife about the ‘exciting’ things I had found out about the area, its people and its history.
I now realise that the more I researched other people and the connections they had with the site the more I developed and learnt in terms of my skills and knowledge and that this project was becoming guided by the site rather than by me. The historical research that I was conducting into ancient pottery techniques and the visits and conversations with experts in that field were leading to a range of exciting experiments that had begun to shape the future of this project. Likewise, the form of the vessels and objects I had begun to make responded to the social histories as well as the contemporary use of the site. The investigation of people and their relationship with place was shaping me and shaping the project, it was this that was driving the project teaching me to become more open minded and fluid in my practice and informing what I was making.
I now know that the work I am making for this is a commentary on the relationship between ‘People’ and ‘Place’. My role as the artist is not to create a pseudo self-portrait using the materials and environment around me but to frame an interpretation/representation of the landscape, the people, the communities and the history using the materials I have ‘unearthed’. Fundamentally I must adapt and react to stories I find, and I must tell these honestly through the medium of clay. The narratives embedded in the pots I make for this show are now far more important to me than what the pots look like or the fact that I have made them.
Above: Generating ideas that combine the spoons, food storage jars, clay from the site Roman 'glaze' techniques and roman kiln firing techniques. All of these things were driven by the discoveries that i made researching and exploring the site. It became very apparent that the rich social, cultural and geological history had to start to guide the project and overthrow my need to control the process in my image.
With measures relaxing slightly and situations changing it looks as if I will be able to return to London with my family soon and I will be able to continue work on the investigation. I am pleased that the show is now exploring a digital opening as it has given me the opportunity to introduce the project to you, reflect a little but I am also thrilled at the news that the show will go on for much longer than planned so that eventually the public can come and see the work produced by all the fantastic practitioners that have been making work for the exhibition. This extension ultimately means that I will be able to present the work created as part of my investigation at a later date. I am very excited about the future of this project and where the history and relationships between people and place will lead me. I hope that the work that I produce will give everyone a more intimate understanding and of the site, its people and its history.
'Gatherers' will run from Saturday May 16th for a prolonged period. the website for the show can be found here:
My work and the documentary made by Tom can be found here:
Work for sale from the show can so far can be purchased from the Thrown Contemporary Gallery found here:
More information on the OmVed gardens site can be found here: