James and Tilla Waters: Enigmatic Tableware

1 Gray and orange lidded jars, to 4 in. (11 cm) in height, wheel-thrown porcelain, slip, glaze, 2010.

The climate within which contemporary ceramic practitioners operate seems increasingly hostile toward utilitarian work as we frequently see the allure of the conceptual, particularly in younger makers’ work. That the world of fine art is hierarchical is not news, yet anecdotes of experiences of snobbery, even from other ceramic practitioners distancing themselves from potters are common. Ceramics that does speak the language of art (but perhaps not craft or design) has fought hard to earn a place in the art world. In the UK, ground breaking exhibitions such as “The Raw and the Cooked” in 1993 exposed those hierarchical attitudes profoundly. Examples of artists being discreet regarding their ceramics training in order to sustain credibility in the fine art world have been mooted (e.g. Rachel Kneebone). It is perhaps important to differentiate between someone such as Grayson Perry, an artist who makes pots that could equally be a film, or a painting, as opposed to someone whose intention it is to make work suitable for the table.

2 Mugs, wheel-thrown porcelain, slip, glaze, high fired, 2009.

3 Large pourers, decorated and black and red, 5.5 in. in height, wheel-thrown porcelain, slip, glaze, high-fird, 2011.

When I first saw examples of James and Tilla Waters’ work at the “Origin” exhibition (2008) at Somerset House in London, England, I was not aware that they had both studied as painters (James at the Slade School of Fine Art, Tilla at the Bath School of Art and Design). Upon learning of their backgrounds, I thought it was a curious thing that two people who had trained at prestigious painting schools should establish themselves ultimately as potters. Even today, it seems a rare occurrence. I can think of a number of established and respected makers who started out their creative lives in fine art as sculptors or painters but few who made or make pots that can or should be used at the table.

Since that initial exhibition experience, I have been fortunate to examine their work more closely at several more Origin exhibitions held in Spitalfields, London; the 2013 “Made in the Middle,” held at the Midlands Art Centre, Birmingham, England; and more recently at the 2013 British Ceramics Biennial, held in Stoke-on-Trent. Each time I was rewarded by different work and a different experience of it. Although the work is vessel based and includes teapots and other tableware, there is no sense that this is necessarily repeated production. Each viewing has revealed work that has been considered as a series or has evolved out of a particular set of responses.

4 Beakers, 3.2 in. in height, orange/grey line blend, wheel-thrown porcelain, slip, glaze, high fired, 2009.

Influences and Inspiration

In the earlier work I have sensed what I can only describe as a very British response to Modernism, the Folk Modernism of artists and designers such as Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious, or Robin and Lucienne Day. Tilla acknowledges the influence of her mother who trained in printed textiles and of growing up surrounded by examples of 50’s and 60’s textile design. Later work has reminded me of those meditative photographs of seascape horizons by Hiroshi Sugimoto. However the Waters do not consciously reference landscape or suggest that other people read this in their work any more than they do. The work is not nostalgic and the resonances with the past are refreshed and feel less familiar, having some of the spirit of these influences while remaining contemporary.

It does share the spare, uncluttered influence of contemporary minimalist taste in design without being burdened with its extreme adherence. They are clearly aware of urban influences despite living and working in rural Carmarthenshire in the west of Wales, where they relocated to in 2002, which is beautiful but relatively remote. Recent work has leaned more heavily toward  their earlier training in fine art, to which they credit a broader attitude. Since 2011, they have worked on a series of cylindrical forms in response to a yearning to do something more expressive. Initially experiments, as they describe them, “to see what would happen if we removed the demands of function and the associated expectations of time spent making,” they see the series as a kind of “pure arena for trying out ideas.”

5 Ferrero Rocher, 3.5 in. (9 cm) in height, wheel-thrown stoneware, slips, high fired, 2013.

6 Unglazed tea set made for the British Ceramics Biennial, wheel-thrown porcelain, slip, liner glaze, high fired, 2013.

The Waters carefully distance themselves from the proliferation of multiples presented in installations. In a recent conversation they spoke of how each piece deserves to be viewed on its own merits. This led to a discussion about the tableware they make. They talked about the challenges involved in making a teapot, from shape and form considerations to making sure the various elements work together visually and also function well. More broadly, they also shared their belief that there is a noble aspiration in making something that plays a genuine role in someone’s life. As they work, they think about the experience of picking up a pot, and the way that something as simple as a handmade teacup can be enigmatic and enriching.

Apprentice Training

After graduation, James worked on a variety of organic farms, and Tilla trained and worked as a school art teacher. They wound up as apprentices to Rupert Spira who arguably, although celebrated, deserves more credit for preparing some of the ground inhabited by the now ubiquitous Edmund De Waal. Spira was one of the last apprentices to Michael Cardew and, according to Tanya Harrod in her biography of Cardew The Last Sane Man (2012), it took Spira some time to shake what must have been a powerful influence. James and Tilla both appear to have absorbed some of the best traits of Spira, like approaching clay work as an exacting craft, and yet the work has been liberated from what must have likewise been an incredibly powerful influence.

7 Circle Series (1), to 4 in. (10 cm) in height, wheel-thrown stoneware, slips, high fired, 2012.

8 Small and large pourers in orange, gray, and smog glazes, to 5.5 in. (14 cm) in height, wheel-thrown porcelain, slip, glaze, high fired. 2014.

Current Work

The Waters make their pots using stoneware and porcelain clays and, excepting the cylinder series where they are both involved with surfaces, James throws all the work and Tilla designs and decorates.

Their work evidences a practice informed by art, design, and craft and I enjoy the fact it dissolves those categories in unexpected ways. It seems a pity that more fine-art trained ceramic artists ignore the rich potential of tableware. There are historical examples of fine artists who have designed wonderful tableware but I can think of few who have successfully married the aesthetics of art and design with an underpinning of craft knowledge and experience such as that demonstrated in the work of James and Tilla Waters. This territory is often aspired to but rarely achieved.

the author Paul McAllister teaches at the University of Wolverhampton’s School of Art and Design in Wolverhampton, England.

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