Since July 2017, my Instagram account (@sarahwceramics) has become the vehicle for my writings, where the image has often been secondary to the text.
Initially when I was developing my birdbaths in 1985 I hardly knew what I was making. Despite this I remember saying to myself, "Allow these forms to be more sensuous than anything you've made to date." The tarns encircled by hills in the Lake District had made a great impression on me, particularly when there was very little light in the sky and they became a silver disc appearing to float in the landscape. I had loved images of Tibetan stupas (which are shrines) and the cairns you find in mountains to indicate a route, and Saxon and Norman fonts, all votive sculpture, the human form and landscape itself. I wanted to make something with poetry and a kind of austere tenderness to it. So much great art has that mix of vitality and stillness in it.
I think such things have exerted a much stronger influence than the idea of just making something for birds. I'm not a gardener myself. I think at base I was trying to develop a sculptural form and landscape and water in it were strong influences. I wanted it to have a contemplative character and something that could stand in the outdoors and be revealed by natural light. Many customers buy them as a memorial which makes me now think that the death of my own brother had a significant influence on their creation.
On the practical front I had observed that birds felt safest in puddles and so my birdbaths were originally that shallow. I then realised that such a depth of water evaporated too quickly .So by degrees I deepened them. If they stand in an area of dappled light their water will evaporate less quickly. A quiet corner of a garden is preferable to an exposed one. That suits their character. I also suggest to customers that they place them near foliage so that birds can use this as cover and protection from predators. And that if they put food out nearby that this will encourage birds to frequent the birdbath.
I'm now completing the last salt glazed birdbaths I'll make. This is forced on me by the need for some routine surgery required because I've lifted and hauled one too many heavy objects down the years. I don't know what I'll make now. I'm hoping to have a lighter hand on the tiller than in the past, trusting that whatever comes will arrive in its own time.
I had an art teacher at school, a Pole (who had survived WW2 and a Russian gulag) who said to me, "Go and look at great Art." In my teens I prowled the London museums and became familiar with a lot of European painting. After that I was a nurse for 5.5 years and looked at 3 dimensional work in the British Museum nearby. It was seeing ceramics and sculpture in the Musée Guimet in Paris that got me onto the studio pottery course at Harrow.
By the end of the 4 years studying Painting I had lost my way, though I certainly couldn't admit that to myself at the time. Losing one of my brothers at the same time had a part in making me a nurse. Now in retrospect I think that touching people as a nurse led me to 3 dimensional work. When I then attended the Harrow Studio Pottery course I think I imagined that since I'd failed at Fine Art I might nevertheless succeed at making pots.
A big factor in moving up in scale, that is my progression to birdbaths, has been making things that are illuminated by the play of natural light (the outdoors). Landscape was what I had walked, drawn and painted from childhood till my mid 20s. Landscape painters and landscape photography has been what I've looked at a lot.
In recent years my birdbaths have bought me time to explore abstract sculptural work. I find the prospect, at my age, of finding new gallery contacts daunting. This year, after some years of being too frightened to go, I went as a visitor to the London Art Fair called 'Frieze.' Coverage in my weekly paper had got me sufficiently interested in something specific to want to go. I searched out that, found it very interesting, and then found the stands of 3 galleries I knew of but had been too scared to visit. That was very interesting too. I thought I wouldn't bother with the rest of the razzmatazz. The following day my legs ached from having walked on hard pavements all day.
But to be going to the lengths I am in developing this new work is witness to an intention and hope that is stronger than my fears.
Keepers : January 2016.
Last October I drove up to a foundry in Halifax with two large clay birdbath forms in the back of my van. In turn iron casts were made from these clay forms. This foundry does all sorts of bespoke work in cast iron. I'm a little in love with the place, most of it grimy, including the men. On arrival I'm handed the smallest size from a collection of men's steel toed boots and the obligatory high visibility yellow vest. The atmosphere during casting is not unlike my workshop when my salt kiln is being fired - fumes, heat, inherent risk and danger, a place of concentrated effort and skill. These recent new shapes are octagonal and taller than those the foundry first made for me 4 years ago. My ceramic birdbaths can't be delegated but by side stepping into cast iron I have found a place and people who can produce my forms.
Meanwhile I carry on here working with clay, making ceramic birdbaths and developing quite new work on the sidelines. The latter is taking so much longer than I anticipated. It seems almost silly to be attempting were it not for the feeling of movement forward that it gives me.
Keepers: December 2015
To be a potter such as I am means being responsible for every aspect of the work. Multiple decisions are made between start and finish. Though much of my working time is spent alone I now have part-time help from 3 individuals; a 23 year old sculpture graduate, a 45 year old 'all rounder' and a 65 year old mechanic. All are as much sounding boards as helpers with physical jobs. Between them they have many skills and much knowledge.
Keepers, Bo-peep Lane, Alciston, Sussex, England: Summer 2006
Throughout last winter and right up till now, each evening on getting into bed and again on waking, I've lit a candle in my bedroom. It stands on a chest of drawers at eye level as I sit up in bed. The upper third of the room in this old cottage is formed in the roof space and there's not a straight line anywhere at the point where wall meets ceiling. Instead, this angle is a subtly meandering line. A cat may have slept at my feet warming me. Or, on one coming in in the morning and jumping up beside me, I will have greeted it with a stroke down its thick silken back.
Now as I return to 'slab-building' after a twenty year interval, I look for ways of working the clay when it is at its softest. It only just stands up. But I'll let it stiffen from that first shaping and continue when it is firmer, all the time trying to preserve a softness that I have seen in the candle, the ceiling and the cat. When first evolving a shape, I don't mind if one technique blends into several others. As the form evolves, so will the technique with which it's made.
And I've a confession to make. During irregular attendance at Holy Communion, when I should be thinking of The Holy Ghost and praying for myself and others, instead I'm often more interested in contemplating the stone slabs that edge the windows, how these apparently haphazard, asymmetric-cut shapes stack one on top of the other to form that edge between the wall and the windows recess. I'm wondering how I can translate those forms and spaces into what I'm currently working on, all the while preserving what I like most about them, their gravitas and beguiling simplicity.
Lewes Station, Sussex, England: 1996
Yesterday I sat waiting for a train at a local station and watched one of the attendants as he signalled trains to depart. I've observed him over the years, the spring in his walk, the economy of his movements, his relaxed but attentive ways. He dismisses trains with sensuous ease and whistles while he sweeps the stairs at night. In a sense, he is a model for how I try to work now, and even for what I make too. I took him for ordinary until I saw he is so individual.