Editorial 9: Ceramics

When a Hans Coper ceramic sculpture, purchased for £250 in the 1970s, was sold for £381,000 at auction it signalled the increasing value society is placing on ceramics. You might even say ceramics are having something of a moment. Oversubscribed doesn’t do justice to the waiting list for ceramics classes at places like Turning Earth, where our Spotlight featured maker Miyelle Karmi is based.

Karmi’s playful, shapely ceramics are testament to developing a skill. Watching YouTube tutorials and working closely with fellow makers at Turning Earth, she started out with a blob of clay and moulded it into a whole new aesthetic. As our interview with Hadiya Williams attests to, her own work with clay has seen her re-evaluated her design practice as a surface maker. Based in Washington DC, Williams owns the independent shop Black Pepper Paperie Co., an experience in craft and design with cultural influences from across the African diaspora. Like Karmi, Williams began using clay for fun before finding her design footing and creating beautiful, one-of-a-kind objects.

Ceramic studios might be pushing back the tides of those interested in taking up the throwing down but it also highlights the enduring connections making ceramics encourages. In a practice-based essay, Rosamund Coady explores how her practice has been a source of community-building when she began #flowerpotsinisolation early in March, just as the UK lockdown over COVID-19 set in. Leaving clay on her doorstep, and instructions on her Instagram, she encouraged people to make a flower pot, which she then fired in her kiln and left for collection. Inspired by the work-life balance of sculptor Ruth Asawa, who delighted in working with children, Coady traces other connections she has made during her work. Alice Clarke’s work with the collective Clay Clay Ceramics, who have also had to rethink their collaborative work in light of social distancing, shows us the possibilities in digital communication. And when we can connect together again, Jade French’s review of Live Form: Women, Ceramics, and Community by Jenni Sorkin provides inspiration on different models of activist-based, making communities. 

For Bisila Noha, clay opened up new avenues into identity. Journeys to pottery workshops in Mexico and Morocco introduced Noha to a community of women potters; for Noha, the closeness of their techniques bridge gaps between South America, Africa, and Europe, and between ancient pottery-makers and those working today to combine traditional practices with modern forms. Noha’s reflections remind us of what an intensely human practice pottery is – bound up with our earliest modes of making and dwelling. Lubaina Himid‘s work on ceramics also takes the viewer on a journey through hidden histories. Working with pottery salvaged from charity shops, Himid’s Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service sets up jarring juxtapositions between genteel evocations of English afternoon tea and the violent narratives of slavery and exploitation that underpin the British Empire’s facade of civility. In our interview with the Turner Prize winning artist, we find out more about the processes of ‘mapping and intervention’ that this ‘fragile monument’ enacts.

The legacies of Harlem Renaissance sculptor Augusta Savage (1892-1962) also have particular resonance for this issue, as she found her route into bronze sculptures by beginning to model red-clay from her native Florida soil. Her large-scale, public bronze sculptures made her name but her legacy was lost after financial struggles saw her move to a rural farm, making and teaching in her local community. As an artist, educator, activist and community leader, Savage always kept community front of mind in her creations. Contemporary writer and artist, Jaynce Denise Glasper, writes on the impact Savage’s archive has had on her own practice and her upcoming work on bringing together women of colour in imagined soirees in her printmaking practice. 

With deceptively decorative surfaces and pliable, constructed forms, ceramics enter into productive and provocative dialogue with poetry. In this issue, ceramics by Magdalene Odundo and Bouke de Vries, respectively, have inspired poets So Mayer and Emily Wilkinson to compose ekphrastic responses to their works. For Mayer, Odundo’s sculpted pots open up new histories, new possibilities, new forms; their response – M87 – captures the ways Odundo’s hand-built ceramics collapse time and examines the body’s relationship with space. In Wilkinson’s response, de Vries’ broken pottery inspires perfectly formed couplets broken by line breaks. The delicate nature of ceramics – cracked, broken, fractured – is transformed by poet Tanicia Pratt into a metaphor through which we can think about human relationships, technology, and communication. Just as a pot is vulnerable to clumsy handling, Pratt explores the very human need for keeping things together.  

Inherently vulnerable yet malleable, beautiful and utilitarian, an ancient technique that is still valued in our modern lives – ceramics are intimately bound up with humanity. Ceramics and pottery making are empowering practices, simple yet uplifting way of intervening in everyday life and leaving behind a trace of our touch. As Hadiya Williams puts it: “To be able to create a bowl, a mug, jewelry, something that we all use everyday, from mud, is a beautiful thing”.