Working Potter: Jo Davies

1 Choker Vases, 7 in. (18 cm) in height, porcelain, crackle glaze. Originally developed in 2011. Photo: Matthew Booth.

I discovered clay at school, but at that time I had no ambition to be a potter. I just knew I loved to manipulate clay and make things using it. I was lucky enough to have an art teacher, Mrs. Glenys Major, who specialized in ceramics and saw that I had an affinity with it. When it came to a university choice it seemed natural that I would take ceramics and learn everything about the material. Back then, I worked with clay as a sculptural medium and continued to do so all the way through my degree and beyond. It was when I started in the master’s degree program at the Royal College of Art in London, England, in 2005 that I began to question the validity of the way I was working and began to introduce function to my practice. However, my years of interest in pure shape and form informed my practice as a potter.

Beginning a Career

In the beginning, I was a reluctant potter; it took me a while to know myself. When I began my training in the 1990s, craft and pottery were not as respected as they are now. At that time, I saw a lot of elderly potters, with no one of my generation in the pottery world, so it seemed inherently old fashioned and not something that was a viable option for people of my age. I had to arrive at pottery through another route—to set out to be a potter in the first instance felt too narrow. I had to spend time with a wider practice, even though I was exclusively using the wheel from the third year of my degree. Someone looking in from the outside might have said I was in denial. In the UK at least there has now been a huge uptake in ceramics, which has translated into ceramic knowledge becoming a bigger part of the lexicon; over recent years I have been surprised at the level of understanding my clients now bring compared to ten years ago. When I first began, I would spend a lot of time fielding some very basic questions about the material, which could be quite frustrating.

2 Jo Davies smoothing and compressing the form of the Speak Vase to reinforce the structure of the closed form and prevent cracking of the porcelain.

3 Jo Davies throwing at her wheel making a Speak Vase. This is the halfway point before the form is closed to create the body of the vase.

4 The Speak Vase is now closed and being taken off the wheel.

5 Jo Davies’ throwing wheel. 2–5 Photos: Tim Jobling.

In 2017, I was asked by a lecturer at the Jingdezhen Ceramics Institute (JCI) in Jingdezhen, China, to provide her with some images and information for a book she was writing on Western ceramics. I happily provided this and, during the course of our emails, she told me that there was an opportunity to teach at JCI for a few weeks and that the institute would pay my travel expenses and provide room and board during my visit. How could I say no? So in September 2018 I went to Jingdezhen.

Allowing Impressions and Finding Inspiration

Jingdezhen is the birthplace of porcelain, so it is an important place for a potter specializing in that material to visit. I discovered an open, friendly, sometimes fierce place with a 2000-year history that showed me how the porcelain tradition started and how it continues with essentially scaled-up studio ceramics at its core (unlike the British or German ceramics factories, which are often populated by high-tech machinery to aid production). In the atmosphere of Jingdezhen, there is the opportunity to look closely at, as well as handle, objects that are hundreds of years old, a privilege that is rarely the case in the UK. To feel the weight of a Song Dynasty cup, turn it over and see the fingerprint of its maker crystallized into the clay 1000 years previously was a special thing and very hard to not be inspired by. My aim while I was there was to simply take as much of it in as possible and allow my impressions to percolate into new work once I was back home. One of many things it highlighted to me was that porcelain is not just one thing, and that the reverence that many potters hold it in is an inhibiting force that assumes lots of difficulties and inevitable failure. The porcelain fear I often encounter in students is the result of a myth that porcelain is difficult and unforgiving—a myth that is passed on again and again, stopping people from even trying. In fact, porcelain is just another clay (whichever variety you use) with material qualities that can be learned like any other.

6 Chinese tea set: small jugs, 6 in. (15 cm) in length, porcelain—white version: crackle glaze; black version: manganese glaze, 2019.

When I came back from Jingdezhen, I began experimenting with cobalt, having been inspired by the hundreds of Ming Dynasty blue-and-white shards I had seen and handled in China. I was fascinated by the way that these shards forced my focus onto the materiality of the brushed-on cobalt and the way that each shard was suddenly a tiny, abstract image—a piece of something larger whose wider meaning was lost. Cobalt and gold surface designs have since been applied to existing shapes within my collection, emulating the rawness of the cobalt in these shards.

Since coming back, I have also developed a Chinese tea set. Having been served tea many, many times during my time in China, I was able to observe the process and ritual, both formally and informally, allowing me to see the use of the individual objects in detail. These new developments, as with all my work, are wheel thrown. The wheel is the linchpin to my working practices, having virtually become a way for me to think about and translate inspirations. The tea set and new blue-and-gold Speak Vase, among others, were shown at my solo exhibition in Shanghai in September 2019.

7 Blue and Gold Speak Vase, 5 in. (13 cm) in height, porcelain, crackle glaze with cobalt, 24-karat gold leaf, 2019.

8 Chinese tea set: small handle-less jug, 4½ in. (11 cm) in length, porcelain, crackle glaze; tray with pouring lip, 11½ in. (29cm) in diameter, porcelain, manganese glaze, 2019.

Investing in the Future

For the first few years of my career, I spent a lot of time at fairs and finding galleries, but I learned that these venues can be hit or miss. I continue to work with a select number of galleries whose partnerships I value, such as the Contemporary Ceramics Centre in London. A year ago I made the decision to spend the budget I would normally use for fairs on professional expertise to improve my digital presence and increase my visibility. I could see that people were principally finding me through online sources, and so improving this means of communication was vital to my survival. As a profession we tend to work alone, so investing in another person as part of my practice felt like a leap. However, I could also see that this was what other bigger and better businesses were doing and, to be honest, I was becoming tired of lugging boxes of pots to fairs. I needed a break from that way of working. Fortunately for me, the investment is working, with sales doubling via my website compared to the previous year. Social media is slower in terms of numbers of followers, but there is a direct correlation between engagement on Instagram and sales on my website.

In terms of brick-and-mortar space, my studio is one of 25 artist studios in a former chocolate factory in Hackney, East London and, having been there for 10 years, quite often my customers will arrange to meet me there to view and hopefully buy new work. Most of the time, other than our Open Studio events twice each year, it’s exclusively a making space where I make my work as well as offer workshops and masterclasses. East London has been a haven for artists and creatives for many years; I had visited the Chocolate Factory N16 to see friends several times before I made it my studio’s home. The Chocolate Factory N16 is well known in the area as a longstanding gem for studios—down a cobbled street and around a corner, the studios flank a beautiful, working courtyard populated by plants, seating, and the appealing detritus of colliding creative practices. It’s a really wonderful place to work.

9 Gilded Speak Vase, 5 in. (13 cm) in height, porcelain, manganese glaze, 24-karat gold leaf, originally developed in 2015.

10 Chinese tea set brew pot, 4 in. (9 cm) in height, porcelain, crackle glaze, manganese glaze, 2019. 6–10 Photos: Matthew Booth.

Career snapshot

Years as a professional potter
14 years

Number of pots made in a year
800–1000

Education
Master of Arts in Ceramics and Glass, Royal College of Art, London, England, 2007
Bachelor of Arts in 3D Design: Ceramics, Bath School of Art and Design, Bath, England, 2002

The time it takes
Making Work (Including Firing): 40%
Promotions/Selling: 40%
Office/Bookkeeping: 20%

Favorite Tool
Aluminum pottery knife with square at handle end

Favorite Process
Throwing with porcelain

Where it Goes
Retail Stores: 10%
Galleries: 15%
Craft/Art Fairs: 25%
Studio/Home Sales: 25%
Online: 25%

Where to See More
Contemporary Ceramics Centre:
www.contemporaryceramics.uk

Learn More
www.jo-davies.com
Instagram: @Jo_Davies_Ceramics
Facebook: Jo Davies Ceramics
Twitter: @JoDaviesCeramic

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