Clay Festival 2018

Friday 30 – Saturday 31 March

Messums Wiltshire hosted its second annual Clay Festival on the Bank Holiday Easter weekend (30-31 March). The festival commenced with a lecture from the Keeper of Sculpture at the V&A, Professor Antonia Boström.

On the Saturday maker and lecturer Duncan Hooson started proceedings with his presentation ‘What on Earth is Clay?’ He spoke in depth about clay as a medium alongside the science and history behind the material. He elaborated on its many uses: in paint, paper, medicine, tanning, rubber, pet litter, make-up, fibres; Kevlar, fireproofing and even mud masks. He described ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ clays. Primary clay remains where it has been formed, whereas secondary clay moves and pick up minerals and oxides, colouring it in the process. There are three basic artistic uses of clay: 1. Porcelain, 2. Stoneware and 3. Earthenware. Clay even has interstellar ramifications, with Curiosity, the Mars Rover currently transmitting data to earth for analysis comparing Martian clay samples to earth’s. Clay has the potential to generate life, (perhaps even life on Mars) as bacteria is always present and can quickly germinate mould. On a different note, Duncan has been involved in a project which brings together aspiring surgeons with craftspeople; ceramicists, sculptures and even hairdressers. For surgeons to be successful, they need academic training as well as proficient dexterity, the latter skill of which has recently been declining due to the overreliance on digital technologies.

The lunchtime talk consisted of artists Sam Bakewell, Claire Curneen and Malene Hartmann Rasmussen in conversation with Creative Director of the Craft Council, Annie Warburton. Each of the three artists is exhibiting work in Messums Wiltshire’s Myth, Material and Metamorphosis.

Sam Bakewell was first to speak on his inspiration and work. dead, dying and i, a piece in our medieval barn was inspired by a LA crime scene photograph of a man, head-down in oil. Sam spent an age transforming his parion corpse into an abstracted landscape, with a young boy perched on man’s ‘funny bone’ and watching a deer die below, caught in the fence. His first encounter with death. Sam admits that his father’s profession as a lay preacher is very influential on his already darkened mind and ‘morbid fantasies’. Interestingly, Sam sees objects as sentient beings, that they are ‘quietly dreaming on their own’. He is obsessed with hair, spirals and water, visual motifs which feature heavily throughout his oeuvre.

Claire Curneen was in fact Sam’s tutor when he was studying Ceramics at Cardiff and she said it must be ‘obvious’ to the audience that he was a joy to teach. She loves sculpture, especially those which contain religious iconography, as such object are able to depict their own time and historical location: from them we can learn a lot about the past. Claire grew up amidst the feverous religious background of Ireland, but sees religion as a fascinating litmus test for the culture and political leanings of a time. Tending the Fires, her longest piece at 2.5m, serendipitously includes a ‘quote’ of The Fonthill Vase, now one of Ireland’s national treasures. One of the first examples of Chinese porcelain in thirteenth-century Europe, The Fonthill Vase is also inextricably linked to this area, belonging once to William Beckford’s collection at Fonthill Bishop, only a mile or so from Messums Wiltshire.

Malene Hartmann Rasmussen came to ceramics relatively ‘late’, choosing to peruse it professionally in her mid-thirties. She was fortuitously offered a work placement with Dutch artist Carolein Smit (another in Myths, Materials and Metamorphosis) an experience which inspired her largely autobiographical and figurative work. Many of Malene’s ceramic pieces are inspired by nature those such as Nightfall, her ‘trolls’ and Corn Dolly series. She likes the idea that her ceramic objects have ‘grown themselves’, as if they were alive. Her dog Jango is as present in her work as he is in her studio. His upside-down head was the inspiration for My Inner Beast #5. Malene has been awarded a highly coveted Artist in Residence position at the V&A, which she begins in April.

Messums Wiltshire was delighted to host Margaret O’Rorke and Sandy Brown and their respective demonstrations. During Margaret’s demo, ‘Porcelain in Your Hands’, she explained that after holding porcelain up to the sky she had a ‘eureka’ moment about using domestic lights in her work. She explained her work and how it is made. Margaret then ‘threw’ one of the porcelain pieces that can be seen on her wonderful porcelain and woven fibre optic chandelier at the entrance of the barn. Champion of the positivity of making with the hand, Sandy Brown lead a ‘Spontaneity Performance’ and a hands-on making event for the many that joined. Sandy first exhibited her process and then gave the audience clay to make their own figure. She asked them to ‘empty the mind’ and not to have a goal: letting the hand think rather than the brain.

‘Clay Play’ enjoyed by Emily Phayre-Mudge at the Clay Festival

The last event of the Clay Festival was the highly anticipated performance ‘Resetting the Table’ with Steph Buttle and Duncan Hooson. This was a tale of two halves, first the scene was meditative, with lit candles calming the audience whilst we watched them throwing, (on the potter’s wheel as well as literally onto the central structure on the table) pots, plates, bowls, cups and strips of clay. The second half invited the audience to get up and get involved. Premade handles were stuck on objects in inventive ways and participants were encouraged the deconstruct the traditional tableware that had been made. The event was a success as far as audience interaction was concerned and enjoyed by all.

Workshops took place in regular sessions throughout the day. These included potter’s wheel classes with Wiltshire Creative’s Mirka Golden-Hann in the Long Gallery as well as children’s workshops in a marquee in the courtyard—‘Clay Play’ with Mel Coughlan and ‘Clay & Print’ class with Heidi Steller.

Photos by Paul Nicholls

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