Earth and Fire


About 3500 years ago, when Tutankhamun reigned, Stonehenge was being built, and the Boyne Valley mounds at Knowth and Newgrange were already old, potters in South China noticed that the fine ash in their wood-fired kilns left a glassy surface on the pots. This was the start of high-temperature stoneware glazing.

The earliest high temperature glazes were simple mixtures of clay and wood-ash, later modified by the addition of powdered rock. It took the Japanese and Korean potters another 2000 years to make this discovery. Western potters only discovered high-temperature stoneware 500 years ago. Until the 16th century, western pottery was mostly low-temperature lead-glazed earthenware.

The magic of ash-glazed stoneware, with its subtle colours, is in the intimate relationship between clay and glaze achieved above 1250 degrees Centigrade. The ash-glaze and the clay form such a close bond that you seem to look not at the glaze surface, but through the glaze into the depths of an inner space, unique to this medium.

My recent work with “oil-spot” glazes demands very slow, carefully controlled firing to 1300 degrees C, to produce colours and textures of unequalled richness. The advantage of ceramic is that these colours will never fade with time or light.

For me this alchemy of transformation is addictive. Much of my work-time is devoted to experimenting with different types of local turf or wood ash and glacial clay to develop a wider range of colours and textures. My earliest stoneware glazes were inspired by the surface of sea-polished stones. Then the fluidity of clay, expressed in tin-glazed earthenware, was my main interest for twenty years. Now, returning to stoneware again, it is the sense of an inner space, of passing through the glaze surface to another dimension that draws me. Added to that is the exciting uncertainty, the element of surprise, never knowing exactly what will emerge from the fire.

The human figure is our oldest artistic theme, examples survive from the earliest cave and rock paintings. For me the body is an endless source of inspiration, and it is significant that potters refer to their material as the “clay body”. But the body is only a starting point and, whether working on paper or in clay, for me the final object is not about representing bodies realistically, but in exploring relationships of line, space, texture and colour through the light they embrace. More important is the fact that the act of drawing from life, at its best, is a process where the individual self dissolves into anonymity, in a continuum of awareness which unites model, artist and seeing.

Where the medium is ceramic, everything has to pass through the fire of the kiln, which may be generous, or destructive. The result can never be predicted, it is at the mercy of the elemental forces of earth, water, air, and fire. This journey into the unknown is the spiritual core of my art and my life.