Seize the Clay – Who knew pottery could be so dangerous?

5 mins read

The Stirling Smith Art Gallery’s newest exhibition, Seize the Clay, oozes serenity. The cosy exhibition space has been filled with an array of beautiful ceramics for sale and crafted by three local potters: Kathleen Morison, Elaine Hill, and Rebecca Pankhurst. However, the work that went into these pots, bowls, and mugs was not always quite so peaceful. 

The trio of ceramicists have a love of alternative firing techniques which can create daring effects on clay. The processes are risky though, with the Japanese technique ‘Raku’ involving temperatures of up to 1000°C and the use of the toxic chemical ‘ferric chloride’ requiring potters to wear protective gear and breathing apparatus. Picture Breaking Bad, but we’re dealing with a different type of pot. 

“We accidentally set my kiln on fire a couple of weeks ago,” says Rebecca, the youngest in the trio. “I reckon we were probably a minute tops from setting fire to the actual gas canister. This is going to take the dog’s legs off, I thought.” 

Ceramics on display
Image Credit: Jodie Hagan

Despite their chaotic outdoor firing sessions, the potters have managed to retain some organisation for the exhibition which will run until January 22. They have long been sharing materials and kilns and so it was easy to band together for the project. 

“I’m the delivery driver,” says Elaine who frequently picks up ceramics from Rebecca. “I have to be incredibly organised,” explains Rebecca who is currently balancing her love for pottery with a full-time job and being a mum to ten-year-old Thomas. When she is not multitasking by throwing clay while listening to her son’s reading practice, she is trying to catch him before he steals another of her ceramics to add to his windowsill collection. 

Their trusty WhatsApp group has come in handy for organizing firings and sharing excitement over sought-after glaze coming back into stock, but in the past, its main use has been to provide live commentary during each run of The BBC’s The Great Pottery Throwdown. Kathleen says the show has “completely woken people up to clay” and even Brad Pitt has declared his love for the show. 

“It’s funny that so many people watch it and think they can do it as well,” says Rebecca. According to the ceramicists, the work that goes into pottery is not quite as romantic as portrayed in Patrick Swazey’s Ghost scene or in Lionel Ritchie’s Hello video where even a blind girl can sculpt a perfect clay replica of the singer’s face. 

Ceramics on display
Image Credit: Jodie Hagan

The potters all agree that you need a lot of physical strength. “You’re using the weight of your body to centre the clay. I’ve got quite strong legs, so I bring them into the work quite a lot,” explains Elaine. Kathleen agrees: “You need core strength and back strength to be able to throw clay.”  

Even after all of this physical effort, the potter’s hard work can be quickly undone due to the unpredictability of the kiln. The moment of truth when the kiln is finally opened is either defined by tears of joy or of frustration.

The energy put into each ceramic means the potters often find it difficult to say goodbye, but with each creation they receive the special gift of seeing someone else fall just as in love with the piece. “I like to be able to make something that has got an element of beauty to it, and I love to see other people feeling the same way,” says Elaine.

All of the potters seem overwhelmed at what they have achieved with the exhibition.  “I walk in here and I still kind of go, ‘Gosh, did we do this?’” says Kathleen.

With a long stretch of the exhibition still to go, the potters must prepare to replenish shelves throughout the festive season. With this in mind, we must hope that there will be no more near explosions in Rebecca’s back garden so that we may keep enjoying the unique creations of these three local talents. 

Featured Image Credit: Jodie Hagan

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