Before reading this Q&A, please watch the short video entitled “Masterclass with Barbara Gittings“. It forms a foundation for many questions I asked Barbara and it explains her process and interests.
JW: You worked in the fashion industry before coming to ceramics. How has that industry experience affected your ceramic work?
BG: My years in the fashion industry have certainly informed my ceramics. I visualize shapes in 3-D and make paper patterns for my bottles, instinctively knowing which angle will give the right amount of twist or lean. The exposure to all those fabric prints has sunk into my subconscious, surfacing every so often.
Pattern cutting is a very precise activity and when I first took up ceramics I was obsessed with perfection and symmetry. I had signed up for for an intensive residential course in smoke firing.
We were encouraged to use the teacher’s molds. I chose one which I thought would turn into a nice bottle. When it came out of the mold I was devastated to see that it wasn’t symmetrical and it was leaning. That evening I visited a nearby picturesque village and discovered that all the houses were leaning. I had an epiphany moment and ever since I have embraced asymmetry, chance and imperfect perfection.
JW: Your video also follows your process as you prepare porcelain slabs for assembly. Did it take you a long time to develop that process? Has it changed over time?
BG: It has taken a long time to develop the process of making the patterned slabs. The patterns were much simpler, much more rectilinear when I first started doing Nerikomi. I also made much smaller pieces.
Nowadays I make larger work and there’s always some patterned clay left over, which I will incorporate into the next piece, so the patterns are always evolving. Sometimes I don’t have quite enough for a piece and I will quickly make a small slab without thinking too deeply about it. Often that little square will be my favourite bit of the pot, and will start a whole new avenue of pattern. Occasionally the piece goes wrong and I will reclaim the clay, trying to save as much of the pattern as possible. The unforeseen end result of this process can often be serendipitous.
JW: You mention some influential experiences with African art when you were growing up in South Africa. Can you tell me more about those experiences?
BG: When I grew up in Johannesburg there were lots of what were called Curio shops. These were really art galleries selling the best work of black African artists and craftspeople from all across Africa. They would have beaten silver items from Ethiopia, Zulu beadwork, San ostrich egg shell beads, the making of which dates back at least 50,000 years and Yoruba embroidered pieces, combining cowrie shells and seed beads. There would be extraordinarily varied woodcarvings from all across Africa, beautifully decorated textiles, mats, baskets, carved gourds, the list is endless.
I also saw the San rock paintings in the Drakensberg Mountains, the Ndebele murals painted on the external walls of their homes, the Zulu dancers in their tribal dress of beadwork and ostrich feathers.
A lot of African art is very geometric which I suppose is why I am so drawn to geometric patterns.
JW: What do you mean in your artistic statement by saying clay allows you to continue to explore tension between “the biometric and geometric”?
BG: In fashion, the layering of textiles and the power of the cut merge to find new balances and forms, the biomorphic and geometric held in tension. My work in clay continues to explore this.
This statement really refers to the work I was making when I wrote this. My work at this time was veering more towards the biomorphic whilst still trying to follow geometric rules.
Although my work now still retains curves, it probably follows a geometric grid more closely.
JW: Your dustbin firing is outstanding! Where did you come up with that technique?
BG: I did a week long course in smoke firing with Jane Perryman early on in my ceramic journey, and fell in love with the process. I used to pit-fire in sawdust, a slow overnight process, but often the Nerikomi would be too heavily masked by the smoke effects. There was also a very high rate of cracking.
By speaking to other smoke firers and experimenting I have found a method which results in a much softer effect, using a dustbin with holes punched in it and crumpled up newspaper.
JW: Has your ceramic work evolved significantly? Can you give me a sense of the evolution of your work?
BG: My work is always evolving. When I started ceramics I was pursuing two separate threads, smoke firing and Nerikomi. After a couple of years I decided to try combining the two techniques and realized this was the path I wanted to pursue. I also used to make very small Nerikomi pieces, but as I’ve progressed and learnt by trial and error my work has gradually increased in size. The patterns have become more complex as well.
JW: Where do you see yourself going forward? Are there ideas and techniques you are pushing? Or are you comfortable with your work as is?
BG: Onwards and upwards! I’m constantly challenging myself to make larger work. I also like to develop new shapes, I have lots of ideas buzzing around. I have spent a large part of this year trying to perfect a larger version of a recent new shape.
I also want to pursue making some wallpieces and some more sculptural work. One cannot stand still, nor be complacent, always strive for better.
JW: What would you like others to know about you and your ceramics?
BG: I’m an introvert and ideally I would like others not to want to know about me, to let the work speak for itself. But in this modern age of social media everyone wants to know everything about the person behind the work, so I realise that I have to emerge and engage.
I’m passionate about my work and I hope the people who buy it enjoy it, as much as I have enjoyed making it.
More of Barbara’s work is available to view on her website or on Instagram @barbaragittings.