Featured in The Craftsman Newsletter issue 027 - Focus on the process not the outcome
About a month ago I was visited by Gianfranco Chicco for an interview for issue 027 of his fantastic 'The Craftsman Newsletter' The following is the article that Gian wrote about my work. Please do subscribe to Gian's newsletter and follow it on Instagram, it is a brilliantly written commentary on contemporary craft practice and he is a thoroughly nice chap.
The Craftsman: Issue n.027 — November 2020
Pushing back on sensorial numbness
1. As I write these lines, the UK government has announced a new lockdown. This means less in-person gatherings and more Zoom calls, virtual events and digital entertainment, eating at home, remote birthdays and what not. This imbalance of screen-mediated activities against physical ones creates a sort of numbness of the senses, which often leads to experiencing life at a lower resolution. 2. To fend off the loss of detail, we need to be more intentional with the sensorial experience of the world that surrounds us. It might seem trivial, but using handmade objects in our daily life can help achieve this. One characteristic of handcrafted objects is that they can provide richer sensations through their imperfections compared to their mass produced counterparts. It’s akin to the pleasure of browsing books, vinyl records, or even buying groceries at an independent store. We don’t do it because it’s efficient but because it can be more satisfying than doing it on Amazon. (It also supports our local community). 3. A few years ago professor Charles Spence and his research group at the University of Oxford demonstrated that wine tasted better when drank in a heavier glass, and food was more pleasurable using silver cutlery. Spence and his team revealed that the effect was real, our enjoyment did improve depending on the shapes, textures, colour, and other physical characteristics of the utensils used. I believe we can achieve something similar using handcrafted items, or others that have a special meaning to the user. If we are going to be spending more time at home, then we might as well invest in better wares. My current favourite cup for morning tea or coffee is the one pictured above, a gift from potter Joseph Ludkin, who I feature in the section below. 4. The yunomi-style cup is heavy, made using a combination of black clay and coarse grog that has been shaped through wheel throwing and hand carving techniques, with uneven cuts done with wire and bamboo tools. It’s decorated with a white clay slip and covered in a translucent glaze. Using this cup doesn’t leave you indifferent, and it probably makes my morning coffee taste better too. 5. Owning less but better things, and paying more attention to the craftsmanship that goes into them, could offer a way to reawaken our senses.
Process over product and slow culture
It was one of those rare crisp sunny Autumn days when I took the London Overground to get to Joseph Ludkin’s home studio in Peckham. I had reached out for an interview after seeing his cups and bowls on the Leach Pottery’s website. Every year, the pottery started by Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada in 1920 in St. Ives, Cornwall, features three guest potters to exhibit and sell their work at the shop, and Joseph had been selected last year. The two main characteristics that define his creations are reacting to the history of the site he’s working for or from, and prioritising process over outcome. He says, “I take on projects that allow me to explore specific places and make the objects relevant to the context of that space.”
Let the environment influence the work
In the beginning, Joseph’s interest in using materials from a particular location for his clays and glazes was about trying to find his niche. As he dug deeper into it he discovered something that had once been very natural to him, but had been forgotten since moving from the countryside to London almost 25 years ago. “I grew up in Norfolk messing around in mud and building things. I think that that landscape, the visuals, the tactile nature of being able to walk around and rub your hand over rocks and through dirt and things like that had always been there in my psyche and deep down in what I enjoy. That idea of exploration, and just naturally picking up things and going ‘What can I do with that?’, or ‘How can that connect with this?’ is one of the things that drives me as a human being, and it just naturally flows into the pottery side of things.”
Earlier this year, Joseph started a project for OmVed Gardens, an exhibition and food space in Highgate, North London. During a visit to the area, he found out that they were draining a massive pond that had beautiful seams of clay. His original intention was to dig out the clay and make pots with that. However, as the excavation proceeded, a large amount of objects surfaced, including hundreds of spoons, from what was probably one of Britain’s biggest Roman pottery settlements. Joseph created bowls and food storage jars akin to what the Romans made out of the same clay, finished them with ash glazes made from local shrubs and tree branches, and incorporated the spoons as embellishments.
His latest collaboration with the Leach Pottery has taken on a similar direction. “I was there this Summer for a week in what was meant to be a lovely relaxing time in the sun with the wife, but turned out to be a busman’s holiday. I went and scoured all the surrounding cliffs, dug the clay, got the silt from the river and started photographing and sketching out the objects that were there.” Joseph looked at the forms of the local environment for inspiration. “I kept seeing lots of discarded buoys, like lobster buoys, and many of the pots that I’ve been making have very similar shapes to them. My son was collecting a lot of shells, and I used some of those to create textures and patterns too.”
His findings in Cornwall kicked off a series of experiments mixing ash and clay to produce different looks. The clay for the body of the pots came from the Dobles Clay Pits, the same that Leach used for many of his homewares. Additional clay came from the nearby Godrevy river, also known as the Red River, which used to serve the local tin mines. In times of high water, the river would ran red like blood because of the mineral deposits washed down from the mines. Eventually, the sand dunes to either side of it became stained red. “So you just dig below the surface of the dunes and you find this really iron rich kind of red silt that when you mix it with the ash clays creates an incredible kind of green.”
Embrace the process Joseph’s grandfather was a potter in North Norfolk, but that’s not how he picked up the craft. “He died when I was five. My first, and pretty much only real memory of him is with me sitting on his knee at his wheel. I’ve inherited that wheel and all of his books, recipes, and tools, and I feel that I’ve learned through them a bit.” His proper start in ceramics was eight years ago, just before Christmas. Joseph’s wife — Lottie — said to him: “For your present, can I just take a punt and get you something I think you might like?”, to which he replied “Yeah, that’s fine” without giving further thought to the mystery prize. It turned out to be a four-week introductory course to pottery. “The background here was that I was struggling with the pressures of my work teaching, and psychologically I was in a bit of a low point as well. She got me that so that I could go back to process, because she understands that I am at my happiest when I’m making something.” At first he didn’t want to go to class but from the moment he walked in and sat down at the wheel there was an instant connection with the clay. “That was it. Done. I was ‘Why have I not been doing this all my life?’.” As soon as he got back home, Joseph started researching, watching YouTube videos, and collecting books on all things pottery. It was as if something from that child that grew up in the mud but had been living in the big city for so long had reawakened.
“There was an instant when I sat down and looked at that piece of clay in my hands and — it sounds bizarre — all of a sudden I felt that I was seeing through the eyes of my grandfather. It was a very strange sensation of a connection with somebody that I didn’t know in an adult capacity.”
After that, Joseph tried making different kinds of things, and soon enough discovered that production pottery was not for him. He made mugs for friends, but this was not sustainable either. During his research he came across a Japanese technique called kurinuki, which basically consists of hand-carving a pot out of a lump of clay, and is typically used to make tea bowls. This spurred an interest into the tea cultures of Japan, Korea, and China. It was the understanding of the processes used by Asian craftspeople, rather than fetishising the aesthetics, that grabbed Joseph’s interest. Some of the pots he’s now known for combine elements of kurinuki with throwing on the wheel. For a couple of years, pottery was more of a serious hobby rather than a career. Things changed almost overnight when he shared a few photos of his tea bowls on Instagram, and a person from Germany reached out to buy one. “I had never sold anything apart from mugs before. This person sent me a direct message saying ‘This is absolutely fantastic, I will pay you 150 pounds for it.’ And I was like 150 pounds for one piece? It suddenly dawned on me that I could actually make a living creating the things I was really into. And I didn’t have to sit there and make 60 of them that are all the same but instead I could put my soul into every single piece, take my time to make each one different, celebrate the process, and that people would reward me by paying money, understanding the process that goes into it.” It’s by embracing the process, and not the outcome, that Joseph gets entrapped in play and experimentation, and he often doesn’t realise if the results are good or not until days or weeks have gone by. “I can make maybe a maximum of four yunomi [a style of Japanese tea cup] in an hour. I can slow it down and get that kind of spiritual enjoyment of making. What I’m actually chasing is just being able to come up here [to my studio] and get my hands dirty and explore, mix stuff up in some kind of alchemy rather than chemistry.”
A return to the source?
Making and teaching pottery has become Joseph’s life. His projects have been taking him to explore new sites, working with and reacting to local materials. Seeing how his eyes shine bright whenever he talks about the countryside, it’s clear to me that sooner rather than later he will make a move that brings him full circle. When I mention this he says, “I’ve been in London for 25 years, and when I lived in the countryside I wanted nothing more than to be in the city. But I’ve constantly had that battle of being in the city, and yearning the countryside. I think the next logical progression for me would be to move back there, build a kiln, and fire it using the things around me.”