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Friday, December 17, 2010

Joanna Howells: A Potter in Wales

One of the United Kingdom’s most innovative potters lives in Wales with her husband Tony in a small house with a big garden. In the summer we sat for hours in the tiny conservatory (more like a glass shed really) that spills out to the terrace. In the winter we curl up with the dogs next to the fireplace in the living room, which enfolds you. A few steps from the house is a sturdy looking boxy building that houses the kiln and wheels. When we’ve gone to visit them we are too busy eating and talking about politics and family to talk about pots. We conducted this interview by email.

Q: You went to Cambridge to study medicine. How did you end up a potter?

Howells: I took physics, chemistry, maths and ceramics ‘A’ levels. My family were all scientists, and at the age of 17 I had my life planned – I was going to do medical research. Taking ceramics at A-level was a way of getting myself out of ‘General Studies,’ which was compulsory, but was a subject that was used as padding of the timetable. Students and teachers regarded it as a waste of everyone’s time.

Q: Sometimes the most valuable lessons are found in the wasted time.

Howells: I had always been interested in making things as a child. I had gone through various phases, including carpentry, wood carving, knitting, lace making and I drew all the time. That first contact with clay, though, was both memorable and gripping. I was hooked. In my first two years at Cambridge, I continued to make pots, and by my last year, I decided to go to art school, instead of going on to do clinical training in a hospital. A friend of mine had managed to get himself an invitation to go and view Henry Rothschild’s superb collection of 20th century studio pottery, and said, “I know someone who’d like to come too.” That, of course, was me. Through Henry Rothschild, I met Colin Pearson, who advised me on where to go to study – which was Whitechapel and then the studio pottery course at Harrow followed.

Q: Why did you decide to work mostly in porcelain?

Howells: While at Cambridge I haunted the Fitzwilliam Museum, and their collection of early Chinese and Korean porcelains were the pieces that inspired me to be a potter. In our first year at Harrow we were only allowed to use stoneware and I always struggled to make it attractive. I was interested in form and texture, and I always felt that stoneware needed a lot of ‘covering up.’ My breakthrough came when we had an assignment to make a porcelain tea-set. I loved it and I think it allowed me to think in the manner of the pieces which had early inspired me – those early Song celadons. Porcelain seems to me to be almost artless, transparent, and open. It can be left virtually ‘naked,’ and therefore has a fresh and direct quality. I think that is what attracts me most.

Q: The pieces are almost like flesh. How do you create these glazes?

Howells: My early interest in science and research becomes useful in the development of new glazes. It’s a fascinating blend of imagination, understanding of fundamental materials that make glazes, then intuition, perseverance, and serendipity. Just like any research, in fact. Sometimes, I have a clear idea of what glaze surface I’m trying to achieve, and with others, it is a case of figuring out how to use to best advantage a glaze effect one has stumbled upon.

Q: I see contradictions inherent in your work. Porcelain is very hard to work with and often breaks during firing. Should it survive the firing process it remains fragile. Is the symbolism of fragility and survival part of its appeal for you?

Howells: Very much so – I find it fascinating that this material embodies both immense durability and fragility. Ceramic will not wear or degrade over time – it is the material that survives intact and unchanged from the earliest civilisations. Yet it is fragile and easily broken if not handled with respect. Porcelain is fired to the highest temperature of all ceramic bodies, yet it has an aura of delicacy and fragility. It is also extremely white and fine. These are both images of purity and spirituality – trial by fire is one of the purification rites that come down to us from myth and the colour white has the same connotations. The contradictions that porcelain embodies do make it intriguing and containing a certain mystery and an echo of humanity – in the intense physical journey it has taken to come into being.

Q: Can you talk about other symbols that can be found in your work?

Howells: In ‘Ceramics’ Philip Rawson writes of “…the primal interweaving of matter, human action, and symbol that each pot represents. Inert clay, from the earth is made into something that is directly and intimately related to active craft, to the processes of human survival, and to social and spiritual factors in the life of man, all at once.’

Ceramic represents the transformation through fire of what is basically mud into a vessel – a container. In my medium of porcelain, that transformation is the most extreme – into something, which has pure, ethereal, heavenly and imperial overtones and so represents the most complete transformation of what is basically mud or dirt into a thing of value and elevated status. I used to concentrate very much on the colour (or perhaps non-colour) of white and very pale celadon blues and greens, but I have recently become interested in using the ‘Chun’ blue effect. ‘Chun’ glazes are blue by virtue of the scattering of light, due to the millions of microscopic bubbles that form in the glaze. This makes the glazes opalescent and with an ‘optical’ blue effect. A similar process by which the sky appears blue. A Chinese description of Chun blue is ‘the colour of the sky after rain. The colour blue is interesting symbolically, as it contains many and often contradictory images. A byword for misery and depression (as in ‘the blues’) – yet more than 50% of the world’s population cite blue as their favourite colour. I am in the middle of writing an essay about the meaning and metaphors of blue as it is a colour on which more than one ceramic tradition has been built.

Q: Tell us about the idea of “The Way We Live Now.”

Howells: ‘The way we live now’ was an exhibition in which I examined aspects of contemporary culture. Functional objects in craft are often portrayed as being without the ability to include what are thought to be the essential conceptual element of ‘Art’. With works such as the ‘Joanna-Pak Jug, ’‘No time for a break,’ ‘Pyramid Selling,’ ‘Stay-Home Dishes’ there was commentary on our consumer and disposable society, the shift of our eating, shopping, and cooking habits, work/life balance and so on. It was important however, that each element was a fully functional piece.

Q: How does living in Wales influence your work?

Howells: Wales provides many influences on my work. I continue to draw, and try to take a sketchbook with me when I go out walking. I live a mile from the sea, and the textures of water and sand are definitely reflected in my work. Then there are the cliffs and rocky, fossil-encrusted beaches, which inspire a more primitive response to the immense geological forces that shaped the landscape. My ‘Chthonic’ pieces (chthonic means primeval) have some resonances of this. I do not consciously use these influences, however. They are filtered through my subconscious and appear through some rather mysterious process of assimilation and reinterpretation, rather than a literal attempt to portray them in clay.

I have just started developing some new work using leaves and flowers to create etched, fossil-like impressions. This started with thoughts of using my garden as a theme. The ideas I am playing with are at the same time seasonal in that the leaves are only available at certain times, yet become transmuted to the ageless quality of the fossil. There is that fragile/durable dichotomy again.

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