Behind The Kiln Door

Leach Pottery staff, Left to Right: Matt Foster, Britta James, Shannon Bartlet-Smith, Callum Trudgeon, Roelof Uys, Laurence Eastwood, Kat Wheeler. Front Center: Annabelle Smith. Photo Credit: Charley Gaidoni.

“Experience keeps a hard school but we shall learn in no other.” These words, reportedly uttered by a bystander upon the opening of one of the first kilns ever fired at the Leach Pottery, are still appropriate as a motto for all of us who work in this tradition. Every potter knows that behind that kiln door lays the fruits of their labor, a final judgment of their craftsmanship, temperament, and perseverance.

Humility is the one thing we can teach to all about the art of making objects from earth and fire. It was with this sentiment that I took on the role of senior production potter, and later lead potter, in late spring 2013.

1 Standard Ware pitchers created at Leach Pottery, stoneware, ash, dolomite, and tenmoku glazes, fired to 2336°F (1280°C). Photos: Sarah White.

2 Standard Ware mugs created at Leach Pottery, stoneware, ash, dolomite, and tenmoku glazes, fired to 2336°F (1280°C). Photos: Sarah White.

A New Appointment

Prior to my appointment at the Leach Pottery I worked at the Gaolyard Studios, a shared workshop founded in 1999 by John Bedding, a former student of Leach. I worked there for twelve years, exhibiting the work I made in my gallery in St. Ives and at solo exhibitions and art fairs across the UK.

My journey to St. Ives began in 1989 at the art department of East London Technical College on the East Coast of South Africa. This is where I first encountered teachers who really cared about their students and were able to guide them toward expressing themselves through their art; it was there that I first learned to see properly. Although I was a painting major, I had to choose two minor subjects, of which ceramics was one. It was in pottery class that I was first introduced to raku firing. The ceramics facilities at my school were very limited with only a couple of electric kilns and a few wheels shared by some two dozen students; however, the immediacy of the raku firing captivated me. There was something about the danger of removing a red-hot pot from the kiln and placing it into a container full of combustible materials that appealed to my rebellious and slightly reckless nature. Taking something you’ve made with great care and attention only to then put it quite deliberately in harms way, letting go and surrendering your work to the forces of nature still informs my attitude to this craft.

Although I had learned about Bernard Leach during my time at art school, I was ignorant of the Leach Studio Pottery movement and it wasn’t until I met a group of potters from Cape Town who worked in the Anglo-Asian tradition that I began to take a serious interest. There was something about their work that spoke to me. The beautiful simplicity of the forms and the lack of ego with which they approached their work allowed the materials and processes to speak for themselves, producing pots with a sort of carefree swagger but with a mindfulness that always respected the user.

4 Portrait of Roelof Uys. Photo: Charley Gaidoni.

5 Roelof Uys’ platter. Photo: Sarah White.

The Team Dynamic

The Leach Pottery workshop team consists of between seven or eight potters at any given time, of which six are employees plus one or two volunteers or interns. The workshop produces a range of Standard Ware designed by myself in consultation with other members of the team and we supply the Leach Museum Shop as well as about two dozen other retailers. Because we are in essence a training facility, no-one specializes in any particular area. However, each person has his or her own strengths and we allow these to lead the dynamic of the team. Our main design principal is functionality, for both maker and user. If the work is enjoyable, the end product will reflect that.

The workshop currently consists of seven individuals alongside myself: Deputy Manager Kat Wheeler, Apprentice Coordinator Britta James, Production Potter and all around fixer Laurence Eastwood, and current volunteer Shannon Bartlett-Smith. Since my tenure we have worked with three apprentices. Callum Trudgeon, who finished his training in May 2017, will be taking a one-year sabbatical in spring 2018. Matt Foster is just starting his third year and Annabelle Smith has been with us since October 2017. Our apprentices train for three years, allowing them to get as much experience as possible. We also offer an international volunteer placement for skilled potters wanting experience working as part of a team in a production pottery. They usually stay for about a year. It is unpaid work but we supply them with accommodation, a stipend for basics and full access to the facilities. At the end of their tenure with us they are given a month to produce a body of their own work for an exhibition in our shop.

6 Kat Wheeler’s pitcher. Photo: Sarah White.

7 Laurence Eastwood’s cups and bowls. Photo: Sarah White.

8 Callum Trudgeon’s bowl. Photo: Sarah White.

9 Matt Foster’s teapot and cups. Photo: Sarah White

Working as a Team, Start to Finish

Alongside processing clay for the workshop, the first few months of an apprentice’s training involves learning the basics of throwing. At first they will practice centering and making cylinders, then they will move on to making egg cups. Once they’ve made about 300–600 cups, they will move on to making our small mugs and at this stage they will also learn to pull and attach handles. As part of learning our workshop aesthetic, trainees are encouraged to use the treadle wheel. Designed by Bernard Leach, throwing on these wheels forces the potter to economize the stages of making and the slow speed helps produce a pot that looks more handmade and in tune with the body of the maker. Once an apprentice has a better feel for the throwing process, they will start making larger or more complex shapes.

We develop new shapes by making prototypes on the wheel and sending them through the whole making process. Drawings, although useful in the early stages of development, are not that important because of the three-dimensional nature of the product. We make the new shape many times, refining it and ironing out any problems we might encounter during its development. Working in this way, we often find that the best solution might be different from what we had anticipated.

We maintain our standard by working as a team, relying on each other to do assigned tasks with care and consideration. One person will throw the pot, another will trim or handle that same piece, and someone else will glaze it and load it in the kiln. Working in this way teaches respect and understanding of everyone’s labor, allowing this synergy to translate into a house style whereby an aesthetic is jointly created rather than imposed from above. With my first solo exhibition at the Leach Pottery fast approaching, I am mindful that I take inspiration from those who have gone before me as well as learning from those I teach. One of my greatest revelations in working as part of a team in this extraordinary place is the way it has affected my personal practice. Preconceived ideas are constantly challenged and the immediacy of feedback from peers encourages quick development and forces you to experiment. With so many creative people working in a very intimate space, there is an energy that would be hard to replicate.

10 Britta James’ lidded jar. Photo: Sarah White.

11 Roelof Uys’ vase. Photo: Sarah White.

12 Roelof Uys’ cups. Photo: Sarah White.

This way of working is for me the most important part of the Leach legacy. For almost a century, people have come from all over the world and for a short time have worked in this creative environment facilitated by Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada. Many have taken with them ideas that have evolved from the communion of people working together. These ideals were reinforced by my recent trip to Minnesota as a guest of Jeff Oestreich at the St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour. It was a great honor to be exhibiting my work at Jeff’s studio along with Clary Illian and Warren McKenzie, all former students of Leach. I met so many kind, wonderful people, both potters and collectors alike. Many of the potters I met were former students of McKenzie and Oestreich and I was deeply moved by the way the Leach tradition had taken root and evolved in America. Despite being thousands of miles away from home, and on a different continent from where my journey first began, I felt that I was among friends and that the language we speak with our hands and the materials that flow through them remain universal.

the author Roelof Uys is the lead potter at Leach Pottery where he designs and oversees the production of the Standard Ware range. Born in South Africa, Roelof moved to the UK in 1998 where he worked as a studio potter in St. Ives, Cornwall until taking up his current position in 2013.

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