This body of work is vessels made from clay and plant fibres foraged from where I live, using timeless techniques for processing and constructing them. A love of working with natural materials, concern for sustainability, and connection to the natural world are integral to my practice. All my materials are foraged from the natural environment of Sussex: clay, bark, leaves, grass, antler and flint. These new pieces are a development of my work in experimental archaeology and interest in the origins of ceramics and basketry.
The ceramic stage
The clay I use is an earthenware, dug from the ground in West Sussex. Added to it are broken or cracked pots from previous firings which I laboriously grind up on a saddle quern (made for me by a local stone mason from Portland stone). The rubbing stone is a Sussex flint beach pebble.
Clay is wedged with the ground-up grog and detectable stones etc picked out. Grog gives the pots strength for the thermal shock of the firing and adds a unique texture to the surface of the finished vessel.
Pots are all hand-built in the studio using slab and coiling techniques, and beaten into shape with a purpose-made, split oak paddle. This makes each one unique.
Firing the pots
Firing is done outdoors in the garden or in the woods. I start the fire without matches, instead using flint and steel, pictured right. The steel struck on flint makes a spark, which is caught on dried bindweed and wild clematis bark. This fragile ember is coaxed into a larger blaze, which is fed with oak wood from a local farm.
Pots are introduced gradually to the fire and stacked on top of each other, rim downwards. Once the fire is burning evenly and steadily, the whole thing is covered in soil, to make a ‘clamp kiln’. Watched carefully for the first three hours to make sure the fire doesn’t flare too quickly and is burning well, it’s then left for 24-36 hours to do its thing. Undetected impurities in the clay can cause cracks and breakages in the firing so it’s always a slightly nerve-wracking process.
The pots emerging… this firing contains about two dozen pieces. Once cool enough to handle, the kiln’s opened out, pots are inspected, washed and sealed with Sussex beeswax. Each pot has its own surface colouration, known as smoke clouds, which are permanent markings from the firing itself. It’s an unpredictable process with many uncontrollable variables so you never know how a firing will come out. This one produced rather black pots and -thankfully- no breakages.
The plant fibre stage
Late summer is the time to collect many of the useful plant fibres when they’re at their full growth. Here, iris, day lily and phormium are drying out.
Stitching the plant fibres into basketry is done with an antler needle, which I made using only flint tools. The shape of needle is refined on sandstone and the eye drilled with flint. The flint tools were made for me by expert flint-knapping colleagues at East Sussex Archaeology and Museums Partnership.
Right, iris leaves being coiled into a lid for one of the ceramic vessels. The coiled basketry technique I use alludes to the construction of the ceramic parts of the vessels, and is one of the earliest known basketry techniques, with evidence dating back to Mesolithic times. Below, scraping the needle blank from the antler with a flint blade, an 8-hour job.
Bark that’s been gathered in the spring from crack willow and goat willow growing on a local farm, is dried in coils and stored. Later it’s dyed with wood ash to get a darker hue, and stitched onto the ceramic vessel with bark strips.
The surface texture of the finished pots, showing smoke cloud patterning, suggest age, a stony type of surface, with a depth of texture and colour from the fire. Below are some examples of the finished work. You can see more here.
This work was exhibited at Made-London, in collaboration with Kealwork. We’re friends sharing a common concern in our respective practices for the provenance of our raw materials. We also aim to preserve their inherent qualities in our finished work. Together we created an installation: an environment of treasures and hidden finds.
Selected pieces were also exhibited at The True Value of Materials at The University of Brighton as part of the Bridge project, exploring and showcasing sustainable practice. Also at Making Lewes, a festival of Making, Architecture, Design & Sustainability.