INTERNATIONAL CERAMICS STUDIO

KECSKEMÉT RESIDENCY AWARD 2017

In July 2017 I was awarded the International Ceramics Studio - Kecskemét Residency Award. This opportunity has been set up in partnership with The Internationl Ceramics Studio,(ICS) Kecskemét, Hungary, in association with the International Ceramics Festival (ICF) and Potclays LTD.

Applications were open to all ceramic practitioners including mid-career and late adopters of ceramics wishing to work in a rich and cultural environment.

 

The ICS Artist-in-residence program allows artists to work in the context of a different country and culture. The ICS is a centre of international cultural exchange, allowing artists to work alongside others from a variety of rich and culturally diverse backgrounds as well as local arts professionals and students.

The residency at the ICS is for a month from 25th June until the 26th July 2018, and I will return to the ICF in 2019 to present the outcome of my stay and share my experiences with a wider audience. 

 

Week one:

It was something of a whirlwind experience getting to Kecskemét, I literally arrived home after a very busy three days at Earth & Fire, and after unpacking a van, grabbing a few hours sleep, and packing another suitcase I found myself on a train heading towards Manchester airport for a flight bound to Budapest.

 

I finally arrived at my final destination at around 8:30pm where I was given the keys to my room where I would stay for the next month. There I met a number of other ceramic artists that were on residency, and also those attending a master class in 'Lithophanes' which was being led by internationally renowned ceramic artist Ilona Romule

The first day or so I spent sorting out my studio space, getting to know others at the studio, and familiarising myself with the town. Keckskemét is a large town approximately 80km south of Budapest, it is a centre for agriculture and has the most fantastic market selling amazing fresh produce and all manner of other items. The architecture is colourful and quite grand, the townhall which dominates the square has a wonderfully coloured glazed tiled roof, there are big open spaces with lots of trees & flowers planted along boulevards. 

The studios are situated very close to the centre of the town, but its hard to fully comprehend for a few days as it's like being in a walled monastery in the countryside. Its peaceful and has a wonderful atmosphere which is calm but constantly inspiring and thought provoking.  The studios were established in 1978 while Hungary was under Soviet rule. The idea behind this was to create a place where ceramic artists from around the world could come and work, share and live side by side without barriers and borders, and the underlying principle is still as strong as ever. The grounds of the studios have a number of kilns under neat little roofs, one of which is a salt kiln. Dotted around the grounds, on window cills, on the walls, in niches there is an array of sculptural ceramic pieces that have been made at the studios over the past forty years.

Looking out into the grounds of the studio

One of the most impressive things about the ICS is that they houses a collection of over 3000 ceramic works that have been made by over 400 artists world wide, and must be one of the most important collection in existence. Part of the studios has a dedicated gallery - 'Kápolna Galéria'. There was an ongoing exhibition of figurative work that had been selected from the studios collection while I was there. The wide variety was awe inspiring, and contained work from some of artists that have been such an inspiration to me, such as Susan Halls, Michael flynn and Schrammel Imre.

Káplona Galeria.

Click on the images below to see full picture and details

János Bozsó  - The collection

Kecskemét has a number of museums, the one that I found to be the most interesting is the 'Bozsó Collection'. This amazing collection was donated to the city of Kecskemet by it's creator János Bozsó in 1975, and is housed in the building that was once his studio. Bozsó was a self taught painter from Kecskemét and once he had started to make a living from his painting, he began to collect items of Hungarian folk art and other pieces from across Europe. The collection is very broad and consists of Painting, Ceramics, Glass, Furniture, orthodox religious iconography and a large collection of clocks of all sorts. There is also a gallery where they had a temporary exhibition of paintings by Hungarian Impressionist landscape painter Paál László (1846-1879). His subject matter was predominantly trees. I visited twice during my stay, and had lots of fun exploring the collection with a guide who spoke no English at all, thank goodness for mime!!

Setting up my studio space:

I wanted to get into my studio space as soon as possible and start making. I was given a choice of spaces, and opted for this one which had 2 windows onto the street outside, and a covered area outside so I could work outside if I wanted to, It is also the studio that Sándor Kecskeméti uses when he is at the studios.... And I have the utmost respect for his work. The weather was so glorious I did most of the work in the daytimes sitting in the shade and spraying the clay down often to prevent it drying out too quickly. Working out in these conditions actually allows you to work very quickly, unlike January and February at home in my stdio when its freezing cold and damp!

Getting into the clay groove - Week 2

'Make something you usually make'... Very useful words words of advice given to me by ceramic artist and friend David Binns. I had many ideas running around in my head like a wild herd of beasts, none of which had direction or purpose, so I diligently followed the advice and soon relaxed into making some familiar forms such as goats. It was quite difficult not to be directly influenced by some of the work that was surrounding me, and I soon got over the fear that I may make something that is derivative of some other work, After all, what is actually completely original in its form or concept? In the back of my mind I had ideas for a new chess set project, I wanted to develop new forms and surfaces, and even use glazes!! I haven't used glaze in my work for many many years, probably since my student undergraduate days and this residency offered me the opportunity to explore something completely new, Wood firing. 

The choice of kilns and firing methods at the Studios are very broad, and there are four wood kilns (One dedicated to salt firing) the smallest of them is the 'Fred Olsen' - 'Super E'. Positioned centrally in the kiln shed this kiln is has a large swing brick door for easy packing and the fire boxes are on one side, so is manageable to fire it single handedly. In the first week I had ben at the studios I had seen the kiln being fired and had decided it was the kiln for me.... Although somewhat daunting in size given the limited time I had to make work in order to fill it. 

Starting with the familiar:

Goats are a favourite subject matter for me, their long association and close relationship with humans is endearing. Having lived alongside us since 10,000BC they are on an equal footing with dogs as 'Mans best friend'. They are intelligent, inquisitive and serve as metaphors for our own existence. Much of my work does indeed allude to 'the family' and to the challenges and situations that arise from those experiences, so what better place to start? So one of the first pieces I made was a lone goat on a journey.... I'll leave that there!

The 'plinth' has been part of my work for some time, and it is something that I am continually developing. Previous work has employed slab built and polished bases, but this piece offered an insight into possibilities of future ideas. The centre image (above)shows layers of texture that are suggestive of the environment, the weather and conditions.  My choice of clay was to use the local Kecskemét clay, not only is it an absolute joy to work with due to it's plasticity, texture and fired qualities, I wanted to use materials that were closely associated with the area. 

Birds are another subject matter that I have been exploring over the past 12 - 18 months, particularly the gatherings of birds. Collective nouns such as a 'Siege' of Bitterns or a 'Murder' of crows sparks the imagination, Tree tops and chimney pots serve as the garden fence or the school gates, there is much 'discussion' and 'dispute' to be witnessed... So as part of getting started I made a group of four birds experiencing the dizzy heights of life!

While I was on residency I was asked by a gallery to send some images of the large chess set that I had made as part of my Masters degree, so they could show a potential client with a view to a possible commission. Using the same format as the previous one, I set out to make a couple of pieces using goats as the animals, again as they are a familiar subject matter. It was good to make on a larger scale, I made one at about 45cm tall and then a couple at around 70cm tall... As they emerged they soon became individual pieces of sculptural work, reflecting a sense of turmoil that I was experiencing at the time. I admit that it took a week or more to start feeling at home and relaxed about working, feeling that there was a pressure to perform, which of course there wasn't, only the pressure I was placing on myself. 

The Turul Bird

Looking for inspiration that was specific to Hungary, I began to research Hungarian mythology and folklore. Hungarian mythology works around the principle that the 'world' is divided into three spheres of being. There is the 'Upper world' which is inhabited by gods and the major celestial bodies such as the sun and moon, the 'Middle' world which is shared between humans and an array of mythological beings, and also at the centre grows 'the tree of life', and then there is the 'Underworld' which is a place for the 'bad souls' and the home of The Ördög, a shape shifting demonic being who creates all the creatures that are bad for humans such as  fleas, lice and flies. 
'The Tree of Life' is a widely used archetype and appears in many mythologies and religions across the globe. It is believed that the Hungarian mythology we know today was written down in the 12th Century and probably has shamanism and other early religious concepts as it's origin, which transcended the ages through folk songs and stories. 
The Turul bird is still to be seen in modern day Hungarian culture, and has been adopted as a national symbol, and is on the coat of arms for the Hungarian Army, the counter terrorism centre and the Office of National Security. Below are some well known Hungarian depictions of the Turul.

I had been making a few bird based pieces earlier on in the year and is a subject matter that offered lots of potential. As the Turul bird is mythical made it a little difficult to find much in the way of imagary. Often described as a bird of prey was about all that I had to work on. I started with making some thrown bases on the wheel which I would hand build the branches of the a tree, to create a 'Tree of Life'. Previously the bird pieces I had been making tended to lean towards an architectural aesthetic, the tree was more organic, and I was really enjoying the local Keckskemét clay. The warm weather and working outside in the porch of my studio in a slight breeze meant everything was drying quickly...... Which meant I could work very quickly, which was good, because I was already 10 days into my time here and was aware that at most I had 20 making days to allow for drying, bisque, glazing and then the glaze firing.The piece below is approx 64cm tall before firing. 

Getting on the wheel provided a route to making the bases of the tree pieces quickly. I'm always drawn to pottery that has the marks of the maker integral to the surface and form. It's the quality of the material that the potter brings out that I have often strive to achieve. I knew I would be having to take to the wheel to create some kiln 'fillers' as well, so was good to get some practice. I made four or five thrown bases that I would use for the tree forms. The first piece (pictured above) just wasn't working, It was static, the 'Turul' looked laboured and lacklustre. I find this is often the way.... It takes several attempts to get the the feel right, to find a rhythm and fluidity, and a balance between me and the material, and where the clay starts to speak in its own right. 

 

This is where the  tree themed pieces started to develop and continue to do so many months since the residency. I started to see the tree much like any other communal environment. Whether that was the school gate, the garden fence, the local pub, all places where exchanges and companionship can be witnessed. This is of course metaphorical, and a form of anthropomorphic projection.

With that in mind, I started to consider the types of exchanges we have as people, and how as an artist I witness this and allow it to manifest in my work. 

As I've previously pointed out, the local Kecskemet clay that I used is very 'plastic and forgiving', as well as being rich in iron. The atmosphere in a reduction firing tends to pull iron to the surface and can significantly affect the colour and surfaces, some of which can be stunning, but there's always the possibility that it can just turn out a very rich.... brown! Not that I am opposed to 'brown wood-fired pots' I just didn't feel it would be suitable for my work, hence the application of slips. I worked with just a black and a white decorating slip, Something that at the time, I wasn't  to have such an influence over the work I was to produce later.

I became very aware of the time passing, I had to allow time for bisque firing, glazing, packing the wood kiln, firing and cooling, then packing work to ship back to the UK. I worked at least 10 hours making most days, ensuring that I would have enough work for the Olsen super-E. I wanted to make one more quite adventurous piece. I was working intuitively and had no idea quite how things would turn out, or even if I would have a full kilns worth or not.

Standing over over 70cm tall, this was the largest piece that I made while at the ICS. Again the trees base was thrown then coiled to create the organic tree form, twelve birds occupy the branches, some enaging with one another, other looking to the distance. Such a large piece was risky so close to the end of my making time, I invested a lot of time in it, and that time was rapidly running out. Of the entire month of my stay I knew I had at most seventeen days to make, so I put in the extra hours, and got this finished in time for slightly slower drying while I got on the wheel to make my kiln fillers. 

There's something quite exciting about being out of my comfort zone. There's a daily challenge with understanding written signs, Identifying foods, listening to the language, which, incidentally is very difficult to make any sense of! It is what is known as a 'Finno - Ugric language', closer to Finnish than the Latin based languages we are familiar with.... And it can be quite good fun, A mobile phone was so helpful! The 'unfamiliar' was also experienced when it came to firing kiln. Klari, one of the best technicians you could hope for was very helpful, and we managed to discuss and work out bisque firing cycles to get everything through ready for wood firing.