How Making Ceramics and Web 2.0 taught me to speak out and gave me a voice.

This is an extract from a talk first given at the Material Matters Seminar at Manchester Metropolitan University on 10th December 2014.  It was presented with the following Svend Bayer YouTube video in the playing Background. It was originally published on my research blog.

 

In my early twenties I started searching for my own identity, I was stuck 200miles away from home studying the most hands on of all the classical science degrees, chemistry. Though as hands on as chemistry was there is something very hands-off about concentrated Hydrochloric acid that had a permanent place on my workbench. My hands were restless, my mind was restless, I wanted to do something creative, and so I left.

Over the next three years I changed courses every September I tried technical drawing, a 3d design course where I tried wood, metal and plastics, but with each of these I was still restless until I found ceramics. Discovering ceramics was a revelation, here was a material I could easily manipulate with my hands which was so freeing, but also with a little work I could make hard edged, smooth, or rough objects.

In the first year at university we weren’t supposed to be using the wheel so I went off to Whetheriggs which was an old country pottery and at the time it was a visitor attraction. I paid to have a go on the wheel and it was just ten minutes with no instruction, the pot that came off there was truly awful but I was in love with the process.

There is something indescribable about clay rotating through your fingers and acting your will upon this material, I caught the bug, that night I turned to eBay. I bought my first wheel; a friend helped me get it from south Manchester to my home in Kirkham. We carried that cast iron and wooden wheel up each and every step then over the banister and into the spare bedroom.

My first year on the wheel I practised blind not really understanding how to throw clay on a wheel other than wrapping my hands around that clay and opening it out with varying degrees of success. Having gone through schooling in a science background if there was something I didn’t understand or know I would pick up a text book and read until it made sense. During this first year I would often try and pick up a how to book and I could not decipher the pictures, the text just seemed to jar and not describe what I was trying to do with this clay.  The second year came and there was a demonstration, and that was it. Like a child waiting for Christmas I was disappointed.

Not long after that pottery lesson my oldest son was born and my education had to be put on hold for a few months. He didn’t sleep through the night so neither did I, it was around that time I really started wasting the hours awake in the night looking at the biggest waste of time in the world, Facebook, but I also found YouTube and  I found Simon Leach throwing pottery trying to teach people, at that time they were shorter grainer videos, but you could see what his hands were doing how they were moving. He explained the how and why in his very down to earth way. The thing that made him accessible as my tutor was that I could watch him make the same thing again and again and he would never complain.

The only problem was at first was I was watching these videos again and again but I didn’t have much time to practise, much time to make, caring for my young son took up a lot of time. I ended up having to do my second year again. This was good, it gave me more time to work, to make, to consider. And it brought a group of students that were much more engaged with making and sharing ideas. Through that second, second year I experimented a lot with materials as well as still trying to learn to throw.  I also discovered the blogging community and they were amazing to interact with at the time; they were sharing a lot of information in a more human way than the how to books ever did.

I entered my third year not being that good at throwing but I knew from Simon’s videos I needed to immerse myself in the process. And so after not really submitting many thrown projects I decided to make tableware, to be honest it wasn’t my first idea, my first idea was just throwing small bowls and stacking them to make a walk through that people had to navigate and see small details from the objects but never a whole, but that felt too ambitious for a year.

Regardless I settled into making, at night I would watch videos in preparation for the next day. At university I would arrive, wedge up the clay going through the processes in my mind. I would prepare thirty to forty lumps of clay and I would throw until lunchtime. Depending on how frustrating the form was to throw would depend how long a lunch break I would take. . There was also a certain energy I wanted to instil in pots, I always felt it was there as I made but got lost during the bisque firing, and some reappeared in the glaze firing.

Soon after graduating I knew I didn’t want to stop making and I wanted to try and make a life at it so I jumped in at the deep end and opened a shop. Web 2.0 became a major part of my marketing campaign, I was blogging, I was filming myself for YouTube videos to further share everything I was learning in my making technique. I would also sit in the window as a living window display, making as people walked past the shop. It was the act of making that drew people into the shop, they wanted to make too so we started running classes, mainly for children. So much so I gave demonstrations at various local schools, dragged the wheel to local shows and school fairs all for more business.

At the same time as trying to expand I slowly stopped experimenting trying to make objects that I thought would sell, that people would want to buy, I worked harder at making faster and faster and less so of the energy I wanted instilled in my pots faded, as so did my passion.

The day I closed the shop I took six crates of soul destroying pots to the tip and I smashed them one by one against the side of a skip. The release of pressure from smashing a bad pot is a load of your shoulders and makes things so much easier to store. Another load of average pots I donated to several different people raising money for charity. I kept the best with the vow not to make pots I wouldn’t like in my own house.

I spent another year making after I closed the shop, though I was more careful considerate and changed my work completely. After meeting Adam Field who was carving geometric patterns in his work, and he shared his processes with me I bought one of his carving tools and I started making earthenware. I carved in images I had made in my sketchbook of what I saw at the beach on days out with my son. It was the same beach I grew up on and he was growing up on, I wanted to make connections. I shared my development of that work from the start on paper to the finished project on my blog.

I finished that work and my youngest son was born, I knew I couldn’t afford to live as a maker any more so I went back to school to become a teacher. I quickly found that what I saw these young creatives needed was at odds at what an institution was willing to provide, so I started teaching skill workshops. It was in my comfort zone and it challenged their attitudes of what do I need to do to get my A grade, it made them think. I taught them three sorts of bookbinding that I had learnt from a YouTube video, origami and taught them how to mount artwork.

Also I started researching teaching with augmented reality embedding the making videos on the objects. The problem I had with teaching was there was no time for making and across the year I trained I touched clay three or four times, it wasn’t enough for me.

Over the last year I have worked on ever changing materials, trying different processes never really making finished work but documenting the process on Instagram. I made a few things like jugs which were all really practising the shape the form and trying decorating again. I learnt how they were made watching Svend Bayer work through his process, I watched it again and again analysing his making in a way a beginner couldn’t. I picked apart various sections from videos that aren’t always meant for teaching like the Goldmark Gallery. I have even picked apart photographs now I have the background knowledge of the processes.

Once I started my Masters in September, I knew I didn’t have the focus to even develop work on that scale, in that way. So I went back to process, back to material and started again. I always worked on throwing as it quieted my mind easily and I could just focus, but there are always jobs to go back to and I only have half a day to work a week. So I have started coiling clay, using my hands and pieces of wood around my workshop. These are then recorded and the process develops every week changing slightly.

The whole plan is for this process to be uploaded and taught as an e-lesson to see how people respond to it. I have questioned for a while about how to get more meaningful experiences from web 2.0. I have done an e-course and although that was fascinating, in ways it failed because of its success because if the number of people trying to interact with it. In the end I am just a maker looking for ways to connect with people through making, with the material I enjoy.

About Joseph Travis

Maker of ceramic objects, Ceramic Researcher and full time dad to two boys
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