Many potters choose to live in splendid isolation. How strange then that they can be such gregarious, social creatures. Events like Potfest allow them to be part of a creative community from time to time on their own terms, but working together in close proximity can be a disaster. Many express a desire to travel, meet new makers in a different cultural setting and broaden their horizons. What seems a good idea at the time might not always meet expectations but sometimes just going with the flow can lead to the adventure of a lifetime.
The following two articles are about Potfest potters working in studios abroad. Geoff and Christine Cox in Japan, and Pollie and Garry Uttley in India
A tale of two residencies :
Being 5 years old again - Geoff and Christine Cox in Japan
In 1999 Chris and I were members of an artist's co-operative gallery in Keswick in the Lake District. Each member of the group had to man the shop one day a week and on one of my days a Japanese family walked by, then almost as an after thought came back and into the gallery. It transpired that the son Kinya was living in Manchester and studying English. His family had come to see him on holiday and were spending a day in the Lakes. We talked for a while and I learned that the father Fumihiro was a potter and his son was taking a year off his studies in ceramics at Nagoya University to learn English.
From this chance meeting we found ourselves, a year later, invited to stay with the family and work with Fumihiro in his studio in Japan for a month.
The journey really started with us travelling to Keramisto, the international ceramics festival in Holland two days before we were scheduled to fly out to Japan, to see another group of Japanese potters exhibiting there. At the time the UK was in the throes of a fuel shortage and industrial action was blockading the fuel depots. We hoped there wouldn't be a problem in Holland and set off with just enough petrol to get us onto the ferry at Newcastle but little more. We were one day in front of the same problems on the Continent with protesters blocking motorway exits. We topped up at every opportunity, went to the show and came home with enough petrol to get us to Manchester airport the next day at the start of our Japanese adventure. We hoped the fuel situation would have been resolved when we got back to the UK as we didn't have enough in the tank to get us back up to Cumbria.
After many hours of travel we arrived at Osaka airport at 7.30 in the morning and were to meet our hosts later that day in Nara, a few hundred miles north. Our first adventure was the bus ride as we speak no Japanese and the bus driver had no English. Having already travelled many hours by plane we kept falling asleep on the bus, waking from time to time hoping we hadn't passed our stop, hoping indeed that we were on the right bus.
Eventually we arrived in Nara, the ancient capital of Japan,and got off on the main street - no one there to meet us - what to do?. With huge suitcases full of pots and clothes we walked around the town in sweltering heat. We felt like Babes in the Wood. Fifty years old and we'd suddenly become five again - we couldn't read, or communicate with anyone, we didn't have a clue what was going on - we were missing our mums!
Finally we met our new friends waiting patiently at the train station - then we were whisked off, Japanese style, to see the temples of ancient Nara before driving on to Yokkaichi where we were to stay with Fumihiro and his family. We were exhausted - everything so new and unlike anything we'd expected -thirty six hours without real sleep and confronted with the possibility of a month of kneeling at a Japanese table for meals and eating with sticks. (The sticks we more or less mastered, but Western knees weren't up to low Eastern tables ). Well here we were in Japan - we'd made it through the first day - no problem ! That evening Fumihiro said " I've just posted out the invitations to your exhibition. It is in three weeks, you'd better make a start in the morning" - no pressure then !
What had been a fanciful idea back in the UK was now a reality . He showed us to our room, a traditional Japanese one with tatami mats, futons and rice pillows like rocks. I could have slept on an ironing board that night.
Next morning arrived and with it the realities of the workshop - different clay, different tools, different glazes and kiln. At home we dry things for a month before firing but our exhibition was only twenty days away. We started by making the biggest pieces, then went on to smaller and smaller ones trying to co-ordinate size and drying time.
Japan was fantastic.We worked hard in the workshop most days but at the weekends out with our hosts we met many potters, went to exhibitions, saw pottery villages but mostly, now as five year olds, enjoyed just walking about in a totally Japanese working town. We couldn't read signs, we dodged the bikes on the pavement, watched to see how pedestrian crossings worked, figured out the cuckoo noises on the traffic signals. It was brilliant, especially with no grown up responsibilities. Japanese five year olds having tantrums in the supermarkets went quiet when they saw us. In all our time in Yokkaichi we only saw two other Western faces.
Slowly the time came nearer to our exhibition. We had fans going night and day on the pieces trying to dry them enough to fire. Finally came the day of the first firing. Fingers were crossed that the work would survive as we loaded an electric kiln unlike anything we'd seen back home. Luckily everything worked - big sighs of relief but now came the glazing with no time for test pieces - we just had to hope for the best.
With just four days to go we loaded the big gas kiln - ( we'd never fired with gas before ) Some of the work we covered in rice husks ( for a special effect !! ) -other pieces were half covered in charcoal. We made offerings to the kiln god in the form of a glass of whisky and some Grasmere gingerbread on the shrine and closed the kiln door. We just looked at each other - relief and trepidation mixed for Babes in the Wood.
It was now Thursday and the exhibition would start on Monday, so with nothing to do but wait for the kiln to do it's part we decided to have a holiday. We travelled from Yokkaichi to Nagoya by the school train then on to Kyoto by Bullet train. Many adventures followed - buying £100 tickets from machines with instructions in Japanese, ( the machine eating our money), getting lost in stations, buying Japanese fast food, but free from the workshop at last. Kyoto was wonderful, then on to Himeji Castle (of James Bond fame ) and its wonderful Japanese gardens, and finally back to Yokkaichi late Saturday night.
Once again we travelled on the Shinkansen to Kyoto, back to Nagoya then had a mini adventure on the slow train. When we arrived in Nagoya we were pointed to the Yokkaichi train which was due to depart in five minutes. A delay in buying tickets made for a last minute dash to the platform. We enquired of two young lads on a seat " Yokkaichi ?" pointing at the carriage we got the thumbs up from the boys and off we went - heading home.
All the stations have name signs on the platform but these were in Japanese so we couldn't read them. However as five year olds, and artists, we had identified that the Yokkaichi sign looked like a wardrobe, a window and a chest of drawers. We looked for the signs and listened for the station announcements. After what seemed like hours we began to have doubts. Had the lads been fooling us?- that's probably what I'd have done at their age. Was there more than one Yokkaichi in Japan? Then the train stopped, I heard a word like terminus and everyone got off. And this wasn't Yokkaichi. However, help for wayward tourists is never far away in Japan, and another train ride later and we saw the familiar Yokkaichi (bedroom furniture) sign. Home at last - but this wasn't the station we'd left from on our two day adventure. Then I remembered a casual conversation with Fumi some weeks before that there was an old station not used much. We headed for the city lights and soon came to familiar landmarks. All that remained now was a short bus ride and safety but it was getting very late. We ran and caught the last bus, but in the dark we went past our stop, got off two stops later and walked back to find Fumi waiting in the garden. " You shouldn't have worried, no problem, we're grown up, we've coped fine" we lied.
Eager to see the work we asked Fumihiro how the firing had been. He said " I don't know. I was afraid to open up the kiln after the earthquake ". What !!!. The whole house and kiln had been shaken violently. We slowly opened the door, holding our breath only to find that most of the work had fallen over. Some pieces had stuck together with glaze, others had warped.
Very early Sunday morning saw us breaking the work apart, grinding glazes down and loading salvageable pieces back into the electric kiln to re-melt the glazes and fire overnight. The next morning people were waiting on the doorstep of the studio for the exhibition while we were putting pots hot from the kiln out on display. There was lots of smiling, greeting, bowing but no English.
Still everything went OK - I think but wouldn't really know. Kaoru, Fumi's wife greeted people as they came in - we just bowed, smiled and probably looked really stupid. Maybe people felt sorry for us but we sold a lot, gave a lot away as gifts and had our first exhibition in Japan.
But most importantly we had an adventure - no, many adventures, far too many to mention here. And all this came from a chance conversation in a shop in Keswick. Maybe there are times when you just have to go with the flow and not be afraid of losing control. Seeing the world again as a five year old is really quite exciting.
Our host family was wonderful and gave us a month to remember for the rest of our lives
So back to Manchester airport and luckily the fuel situation had been resolved - hurray we can get home. Then I noticed the road fund licence on the windscreen had run out while we were away. We were no longer insured in the world of grown ups but what the hell we were only five anyway. So we drove home.
The following year,
seven Japanese potters from Yokkaichi came to take part in the first Potfest
in the Park. In 2003 seven Potfest potters were invited back to Japan
to exhibit and give demonstrations at the Banko Ceramic Art Association
in Yokkaichi. On our second trip we stayed in a Buddist temple, took part
in a Tea ceremony in a bamboo forest with kimono clad ladies playing traditional
Japanese songs on kotos, stayed with a potter in the hills in a traditional
Japanese farm house with rice paper windows and lived it up in Tokyo.
But maybe that adventure should wait for another time.................
A ceramics residency at the Global Arts Village
In November 2004,
in a moment of sheer madness Pollie decided to sign up for an Actionaid
charity trek to the Indian Himalayas to celebrate her 60th birthday in
November 2005. Actionaid is a charity that we have supported for over
20 years, India is a place we love and a very heavy influence on our work,
so this seemed like a good idea at the time
As all our work is
inspired by Indian tribal textiles and Indian architecture, it seemed
like the ideal opportunity to do some more research and perhaps have time
to experiment a little more without the pressure of committing ourselves
to work for our yearly round of shows.
Our application for the residency was accepted and we were set to go if we could get funding. We applied to the Arts Council for a grant to cover my airfare [Pollie would already be in India on her trek] & the accommodation and food costs for a month at $55 per day plus an amount for incidental materials & trips out into Delhi for more inspiration [not enough as it turned out]. 6 weeks then elapsed before we were told we had been successful for 90% of our funding request.
E mails to the village
received little response and we begin to wonder if it really existed
this set off alarm bells with both of us but we duly choose to ignore
With all but one
of our shows completed [ I was left to do the last one ] Pollie headed
off to India alone on 23rd November to meet up with the other trekkers
who would arrive on the 26th. So, she spent a couple of days checking
out the Global Village and visiting Delhi Art College in order to get
some plaster moulds made for the work we would later be doing at the Global
So, first of all the good points about the residency ..
3 acres of lawns and
small lakes with some wonderful traditional architecture dance studios
and accommodation block built in true Rajasthani style with mud and cow
dung walls and thatched roofs.
An excellent team of `boys` who cooked for us and looked after us generally
Sharing the ceramic studio with Joe Demetro (an American ceramicist who works and teaches in India) especially on Christmas day when we were the only 3 left working in the village.
A pretty short list then & the not so good?
The feeling that all
the artists were regarded as `milk cows` and should be milked for everything,
including paying for toilet rolls!
The lack of help and assistance regarding the ceramic studio from the financial manager. Promises were made & never delivered.
Being expected to pay for the clay for the installation we were doing, paying for the use of the kiln [ wear & tear] the gas to fire it, and having to find our own technician, & to pay him to fire the kiln as no one in the village had the experience of a gas kiln.
Because we were familiar
with India [ our 9th visit ] and have several contacts in Delhi, we were
able to get ourselves organised, but the less experienced artists found
this hard and became very depressed.
On a lighter note,
but not so funny at the time,
..we were obliged to do 7 hours of
`community ` work in the village so we decide to cook a meal for the group
but soon realised that it wasn't the black & brown marble work surface
in the kitchen that was on the move but the rat that appeared to live
There were times when I seriously contemplated throwing our work in the bin and just leaving the village but we had already put in a lot of time & effort, so Pollie resisted. We had already paid the GAV for our accommodation at $55 per day and they would not really bother if we then left.
However we both feel that we learned a lot from the experience, the opportunity to work on a much bigger piece of work on a fairly tight schedule with different clay with different properties. Managing the project, even with the difficulties encountered and the chance to look at more textiles has given us the confidence & ideas for future use.
We managed to complete
the panel and get it secured to the wall as a permanent installation with
just a couple of days to spare before we left and headed south on a 17
hour train journey to Mumbai to meet up with Panditji, a very well respected
studio potter who has made the transition from rural potter to studio
.a pretty rare occurrence in India. His son Abhay spent 3
months working with Peter Beard in 2005 and we saw the work that was beginning
to develop from that experience.
UPDATE: A viewpoint
from one of the present crop of artists at the village uses the words
`Ineffectual` and `Intolerable`
Global Arts Village main building
Working in the cold!
...a little help......
..... assembling the panel
artists with the finished panel
Temple at Ranakpur
3 blind Sadhus
potter from Bihar
Sikhs on parade, Delhi
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