The Ian Currie Memorial Lecture

Written by Frances Smith and Jacqueline Clayton
Friday, 31 August 2018

The presenters of the 2018 Ceramic Arts Queensland Ian Currie Memorial Lecture knew Ian Currie well. Both Paul Davis and Jacqueline Clayton regard the “Ian Currie method” as a disciplined way of developing glazes, giving an appreciation of the extraordinary possibilities that lie within the materials used in every-day practice.

When used consistently, the Ian Currie method offers an incremental long-term understanding of glazes and surfaces, and an expanding knowledge base to draw upon in daily practice.

Paul Davis and Jacquie Clayton have developed enviable international reputations in ceramics and design, working with some of the world’s most acclaimed chefs to create custom ceramic-ware for their restaurants.

Paul and Jacquie have also dedicated a portion of their time to teaching and encouraging the next generation of ceramic artists in Australia. Paul headed the highly regarded Sturt Pottery, in Mittagong.

The couple has three key attributes: a deep understanding of ceramic practice, the self-confidence to participate at an international level and the down to earth common sense, humility and commitment to share their accumulated experience.

The morning of the lecture day was given over to a talk while the afternoon to more practical demonstrations of technique.

The opening lecture, A Tale of Two Cities, focused on two major, ancient ceramic production centres, one in China, the other in Japan and the vast changes that have occurred in each in recent times due the disruption of globalised international trade. The responses made by ceramicists in both these centres to reshape their practice and salvage their livelihoods in the face of changed circumstances may be of interest to Australian potters, as we accommodate the impact of low cost imported ceramic products into the local market structure.

Highlights of the lecture

Paul and Jacquie travel to Japan regularly. On a recent trip, however, they decided to detour via Jingdezgen, the traditional home of China’s porcelain industry and the source of the wares that fuelled the seventeenth-century craze for Chinese porcelain in Europe.

Named after the Emperor Zhenzong, the town of Jingdezhen became a major kiln site around 1004, though it had produced pottery from the sixth century. By the 14th century, Jingdezhen became the most significant production centre of Chinese porcelain. From the Ming period onwards, official kilns in Jingdezhen were controlled by the emperor, making imperial porcelain in large quantities for the court and for the emperor to give as gifts. By the late Ming Dynasty, the city was a primary contributor to the Silk Road trade in porcelain known as ‘white gold.’

During the mid to late 20th century as the Chinese Government enacted plans for stimulating industrial production, it built vast new state-of-the-art ceramic factories in the southern economic zones, in major population centres and close to ports. Consequently, the government sponsorship of pottery factories in Jingdezhen was withdrawn, the factories closed, bricked up and the ceramic artisans made redundant.

The traditional model of production in Jingdezhen had seen each individual as responsible for just one task in the production process. Each person was a specialist but only in their own particular field. They were experts in throwing, turning, decorating, glazing or firing but did not possess end-to-end skills in pottery production. This meant that after the closure of the factories, an individual could not set up on their own as they didn’t have the full range of skills needed. Over many generations, these craft workers had produced ceramics cooperatively. As a collective group, their skills were unmatched, but now, their ceramics industry was in its death throes after centuries of dominance.

Despite the withdrawal of government contracts and support, the determined craft workers re-occupied their former workspaces, dismantling barriers and reconnecting services. They set about generating viable workgroups and sourcing contracts outside the government sector. As a result, in many cases, it was necessary for them to jettison familiar but outmoded inventories and to update approaches to making and design.

Jacquie and Paul were astounded by the diverse skills of the city and were fascinated by the ingenious adaptation of traditional techniques to meet contemporary demands. Many makers were happy to work with western visitors whose projects provided insights into international design trends and requirements. At the time of their visit, they were taken to a small workshop that housed a locally built, pilot pressure casting plant copied from overseas equipment. This plant is now replicated across Jingdezhen with small scale examples providing a resource for individual potters and large, high-tech versions located in massive ‘closed’ factories that produce high-quality work for overseas manufacturers and export.

Paul Davis demonstartion at the 2018 Ceramics Arts Queensland Ian Currie Memorial Lectutre
Demonstration Images from left to right; Paul demonstrates how to throw off the hump, how to evenly remove the finished piece from the hump and creating clay discs to accommodate each piece in the kiln

Pressure Casting

Liquid clay slip is pumped under pressure into a canister and then used to fill moulds also under pressure. Slip casting under pressure produces robust and high-quality products. The process requires moulds made of especially hard plaster, but it also means that the pieces are leather hard within 20 minutes without seams that need fettling or finishing. Pressure casting is replacing ram presses in the larger factories.

Slip casting is a filtration process that has been used for many years in the ceramic industry for the production of sanitary ware and tableware. The water-based powder suspensions are poured into a plaster mould, which by its capillary forces removes liquid from the suspension (slip). However, this process has many disadvantages, mainly that a large-scale production requires large production areas and many plaster moulds. Plaster moulds have limited durability and need to be changed frequently. To avoid these problems, high-pressure slip casting or pressure casting has been introduced. Instead of moulds made of plaster, porous resin moulds are used combined with high pressure. This results in faster casting cycles than in slip casting.

The Makers Dilemma

In Jingdezhen, Jacquie and Paul found fascinating glaze shops where every conceivable colour is displayed on test tiles on the wall. Paul found a huge variety of celadon glaze colours, a glaze type he has been assiduously working on for many decades. It was ironic, he said, that in the main street of Jingdezhen, he could pick a colour swatch and the glaze would then be made up in two hours, packaged to take away in re-cycled soft drink bottles.

As a maker, Paul spoke of the dilemma that a city such as Jingdezhen presents. He observed designers and fellow international ceramic artists travelling to workshops in the city where drawings of their designs were expertly made, glazed and fired. In this situation, he reflected, what are the protocols of authorship? How does a maker attribute the work that is produced in these circumstances and exhibit it with integrity?

Japan

Seto, a city in central Japan, is a long-established centre of ceramics, both family-based, small scale production and larger industrial plants. The word setomono (lit: ‘Seto things’) is the generic term in Japanese for ceramic objects.

While in Japan, Paul and Jacquie found that manufacturing, including ceramics, had been greatly affected by its proximity to the new, neighbouring industrial powerhouses of China and Korea. Under global trade settings, large quantities of inexpensive ceramics are part of the import mix into Japan. As with Jingdezhen studios, many Seto potters have realigned their studio orientation to manage the economic predicament. A studio they frequently visit has reduced its intake of apprentices to reduce the time committed to on-site education, personnel management and wages. To balance output, they have embraced new technologies such as pressure casting, utilising a new local plant patronised by many studios in the area. Compromise of this kind, taking advantage of the new labour and time-saving techniques, has become a necessity that allows the family to continue the legacy of six generations.

The family have also set up a community access studio as an income-generating enterprise, and with similar ceramic families, developed twice-yearly community pottery festivals to generate an income stream via tourism.

The Red Shed

Jacquie and Paul have set up their new studio in an old ice factory in Newcastle NSW. The old brick building has allowed them to have separate studios in which each develops their individual art work, as well as a common space in which they collaborate on shared projects. Much of the equipment in their studio used in producing tableware for restaurant settings was purchased from an Australian based Korean manufacturer whose business had not survived the influx of cheap Chinese porcelain into the Australian market.

Working with Chefs

Jacquie and Paul have worked with many chefs of high-end restaurants who have definite ideas on the kind of tableware they want for their particular cuisine. Restaurants have moved from white on white crockery to something that reflects the style of each dish and enhances the dining experience.

Not all chefs are easy to please. Jacquie recalls meeting René Redzepi, the head chef of Noma when Tourism Australia brought him out to the new Barangaroo site on the Sydney Harbour foreshore.

During the interview, Jacquie showed the chef a range of ceramic tableware that she and Paul had prototyped for similar projects. Chef René was not interested. Jacquie persisted and asked what it was that he envisioned for Noma Australia. His response: ‘the colours of Australia …but not blue and no glaze on anything!” At last, a clue.

Jacquie went away and intensively researched the history of Danish immigration to Australia, to establish a focus and a series of design concepts. She worked with Paul to develop different clay bodies, ceramic forms and surfaces that might be used to best express these concepts.

The new prototypes were prepared for presentation. Before the presentation, Jacquie covered each vessel with a shroud, revealing each piece of tableware to René Redzepi while telling the story of Danish migration to this nation and its reference in each of the objects. The chef was entranced. He not only loved the works, but he also commissioned Paul and Jacquie to produce the entire suite of tableware for the restaurant!

Paul and Jacquie have also been working with Australian chef Peter Gilmore to produce work for the iconic Quay Restaurant in the Rocks area of Sydney.

According to Jacquie, working with Peter Gilmore was quite systematic. He outlined the purpose of each dish in some detail. He might, for instance, want a plate to reference the wing of a seabird as it hovers over the water and to maintain the allusion of hovering, ensure that its foot was not visible as the diner approaches the table. Peter, Paul and Jacquie worked together, producing the initial design concepts., then, back in the studio, Paul and Jacquie developed pieces to fit this vision, sometimes with Peter Gilmore watching on.

Once the prototypes were approved, production techniques were adapted to suit each design. The oyster dishes, for example, were slip cast from original handbuilt forms rather than from actual shells, while bowls with complex surfaces alluding to a sea urchin were thrown and altered.

Paul enjoys working with Peter Gilmore because of his rigour, attention to detail and clear vision.

In the afternoon session, Paul Davis provided notes from years of experience on tools and techniques.

Notes on Tools

  • Denser timbers are best for making tools, e.g. cherry, pear, apple
  • Loop tools; the sharp edge should be on the inside of the loop
  • Twisted cord for removing pieces from the hump can be sourced from serious fishing shops; it is used for repairing commercial fishing nets
  • Aluminium silver paint from auto shops can be used on teapot lid rims to prevent them from sticking as it has a high alumina content

Other notes and observations

Every potter has 1000 bad pieces inside them. Get them out of the way first, and then you can start on the good ones!

As makers, we can be flexible and adapt quickly. You can provide a unique product

When you are working for commercial enterprises, it is essential to supply a good product that can survive the rough and tumble of a commercial kitchen

While there is a difference between being a ‘maker’ and a mere business person, you still have to make enough to live on, even if making money is not the ‘driving’ motivation.

Jacquie and Paul plan to present master classes 2-3 times a year at their gallery and studio, The Red Shed in Newcastle NSW. You can visit the Red Shed Instagram page at:

https://www.instagram.com/redshed_studiojam/


HOW TO SOFTEN ROCK HARD CLAY

Take clay from plastic packaging keeping the inner plastic bag

Place the inner plastic bag into a heavier plastic bag

Pour about a cup of water into the heavier plastic bag

Seal the outer bag well

Immerse the sealed bag in a bucket of water to the height of the clay

Leave for 24 hours and viola - wedgable clay!