Gareth Mason is an English ceramicist who pushes boundaries in both form as well as surface treatment. I’ve found his work inspiring and challenging. Inspiring in that he pushes the viewer to consider his or her own concepts of what the act of making ceramics is really all about; challenging in that his manipulations and the thought process behind those manipulations of both form and surface aren’t immediately evident. You have to dig in a bit, spend some time. I encourage you to take some time with Gareth’s work now – I think it’s worth the effort.
I will admit that I struggled to find images to accompany this article. The modifications to form and surface that Gareth does to his work happen across all areas of a three-dimensional form. I’ve included several images of individual pieces, taken from different angles, to give you a better idea.
JTW: You say most of your work is “ridiculously involved” with wheel turning just a starting point of the process. Can you describe your creative process in more detail? Do you start with a sketch or specific idea in mind, or is your work more intuitive and spontaneous from the beginning?
GM: I have done a great deal of drawing over the years, sat squinting and frowning in front of objects and beings, whether life drawing or sculptures (I spent a good few days in the recent Rodin exhibition at Tate Modern, London) and I still draw from time to time, usually on museum visits (I’ll take a sketch book: I describe myself only partly tongue-in-cheek as a ‘shape thief’). So I’ve acquired great mental store of imagery and forms and surfaces, which I subconsciously draw from because it is part of me. However drawing is not a direct part of my working process, other than the odd marks and glyphs I will apply to ceramic surfaces from time to time. It is certainly not a ‘design’ tool in any formal sense. I do not ‘draw’ what I am going to make. It doesn’t work like that for me, rather, making is an unfolding and intuitive process, deeply tactile, ‘felt’ rather than thought through or predetermined in any recognisable intellectual way. I place great value on unfolding experience and my small sense of the unknown. I guess it is just my love of wonder: I am a bit addicted to the mini explosions of awe that Ceramic Experience affords me.
[Although this video demonstrating Gareth’s process is a bit long, it merits watching (particularly from 18:00 to the end) to get a sense of the way he manipulates the surface of his vessels]:
The vessel—the pot—remains important to me for all sorts of reasons (which I can go into but it that would be a long digression), so for the most part the things I make retain a strong echo of ‘pot-hood’. As part of the above drawing (shape thief) process I must have sketched many many hundreds of pots in museums over the years, and pieces of glass (I have a fondness for ancient glass). The aspect of familiarity is part of this I think, on the part of the beholder I mean: that someone encountering what I do will at some level recognise it, from the mental image of what a pot is, or should be, which many people carry around subconsciously: even if they know nothing about ceramics and ceramic history, there’s still a cultural store based on archetypes people have encountered if only in the most superficial way. And part of my treatment of the vessel tweaks at this often-dim sense of recognition: the ‘tough love’ I put my things through must be about challenging that familiarity, or, better, imposing upon it another layer of experience that the observer must contend with (I was tempted to use the loaded word ‘meaning’ but backed away from it). Yes, experience: that’s where the ‘unfolding’ part comes in. If the experience is not unfolding for me, then how can I hope for it to be so for others? It is in this experiential osmosis and ambiguity that potential magic lies, rather than in products that are sown up in advance and put on a plate. I have a horror of formula.
‘Unfolding’ for me includes staring down what potters of a more orthodox bent would rightly regard as disaster, and doing so again and again. By that I mean confronting the little ceramics arena’s multifarious ‘thou-shalt-nots’ and essentially pissing all over them. That is by no means as disrespectful an act as it seems, though I have great respect for creative disrespect. Rather, it is the necessity to follow-through on deep felt and hard won conviction. Nor is it a light-hearted task, though it has its moments of levity. Ceramic orthodoxy represents powerful hard-wiring and it takes some effort of will to resist it. I do so in search of that which I do not know. Working from that place is precarious and always unpredictable. Don’t get me wrong, there’s an awful lot of knowing in what I do, a lot of hard wiring still intact. I am just far better at flexing the icy grip of control nowadays, and allowing serendipity to intervene to a greater or lesser degree. It’s a push-me-pull-you, a relationship, which allows me to explore what skill can achieve, rather than linearly enacting its pre-learned and unwavering precepts.
JTW: Early in your career you made terracotta gardenware. How important was that experience for you? What did you learn from it?
GM: I mention skill, above. Much as a great deal of contemporary art sidelines it, I am ‘out and proud’ as to the enduring importance of skill; it is up front and centre for me, the foundation of all I do. I worked for three years at A. Harris and Sons Pottery Works, Wrecclesham, Farnham from 1992 to 1995. The place is no longer a terracotta gardenware pottery though the original buildings are still there. It was founded by a brilliant Victorian pottery entrepreneur called Absalom Harris (what a name!) in 1873 and closed its doors finally in 1998 I think, so I was there during its declining final years. Terracotta garden ware is no joke to make. I thought I could throw when I left art school a few years earlier. How wrong I was. I went there to work for the sole reason of acquiring that skill to the point that I would never have to think consciously about it again. I managed it just about, and it was a chequered time, which definitely had its low points, but on balance it was three years well spent and I felt lucky (perhaps that’s me applying the word ‘lucky’ with the luxury of hindsight) to be able to develop my skill on someone else’s time. Nobody taught me—I had to sink or swim and wasn’t paid properly (I use the word advisedly) until I could do it. The conditions were somewhat…Dickensian shall we say.
Throwing (on the potter’s wheel) remains an important part of what I do but it is not always completely ‘visible’ in the final work. Still, its ‘voice’ has certain echoes and resonances, which can call though layers of surface and influence the final ‘feel’ of a piece. For example, ‘throwing rings’ can be more or less visible, or rendered extremely visible, their concentric ‘spiral’ intimating growth, rhythm, organic flow and certainly the imperfect human hand. Different components made on the wheel can be constructed, sculpted, manipulated in unexpected ways. The wheel is a tool like any other, not really a special case, worthy of respect and creative disrespect. Throwing is a part of my maker’s DNA and though it is just one making process I use amongst others, and it by no means sums up my pottery identity, I am deeply fond of it and I will always let its feeling show.
JTW: You describe the importance of touch and tactility in your work. You feel certain elements within the clay as you work, and these tactile sensations seem tied to your creative approach. Did you always work this way, or has this evolved? How did touch and tactile sensation become so important to your process?
GM: Yup. I already mentioned the word ‘tactile’. A theorist would no doubt intone about ‘the haptic’ at this point. I am a champion of embodied intelligence and it is a great shame and loss that it has been so neglected in formal education since time immemorial. Not that I believe that ‘brain’ and ‘body’ are different organs, far from it: the mind and the senses are ineluctably bound. My argument is that, without body, what is brain? Just, hypothetically, suppose it were possible to separate them, what would brain be? A useless jelly in the dark. To relegate sensation to some deniable, fringe aspect of intelligence seems to me a great injustice, when the senses are the foundation of all we are.
Clay, as the ultimate malleable material, calls naturally to sensation and to touch especially. Touch is a little bit taboo, at least in many up-tight industrialised societies. It delights me that a given work of art will physically influence a person who beholds it through sheer force of its corporeal presence. I have seen people ‘double-take’ my things then surreptitiously fondle a surface. We are embodied and our bodies read other bodies, other beings, other entities at a level that underpins and precedes all intellectual processing. Some art screams at you in this way, body to body. No prizes for guessing the part of the tactile/emotional-to-intellectual spectrum that I want my things to occupy. Intellectual reflection is crucial but the solar plexus is my preferred point of initial impact.
JTW: I sense a strong tension in your work between creating some formal, architectural foundation and then breaking that architecture down in some way by cutting, tearing, stretching, etc. It then looks like you’re layering on top of that an assortment of surface “ornament” or treatment. You mentioned in your video that “I leave a trail of evidence behind me that any viewer can later read – almost like a geologist looking at a cliff.” Is that mental reconstruction by the viewer what you’re primarily driving at as an artist?
GM: To say a thing is ‘open to interpretation’ is pretty much a cliché. I never want this to get in the way of the extent to which I place value upon my fellow beings’ interpretive powers. I credit the people who encounter my work with the same sensory apparatus I have myself and dislike work that relies too much upon ‘interpretive text’. I am fond of words but I will never instruct anyone on what to think about what I do or intervene in their experience with obfuscating art-speak. I do comment and write in relation to my work from time to time (because, let’s face it, if I don’t who will?) but overt narrative exposition is creatively stultifying and frankly great art should make demands on the viewer, cause their perspectives to shift a little, undermine preconceptions perhaps, and at its best it should rock people back on their heels and leave them wide-eyed in a new reality. Now, how dare something as mild mannered as pottery aspire to such seismic aesthetic territory? My chosen field carries with it a whole set of associations in the popular imagination that are rooted, quite understandably, in a certain homely parochiality that stems from the medium’s primarily domestic incarnations. Consequently, people have no experience of those experiential aspects of ceramic experience that I live with; the ones that are loaded with igneous intensity; utterly transformative moments that fire transmutes into physical form. Metamorphosis is wholly ceramic. What better medium to seek to stir the spirit?
Hence the ‘tension’ you pick up on, and yes, there is tension. Sometimes it is very stark. This stems from my attraction to material-in-extremis, which of course is a stand-in for experience-in-extremis, because we are anthropomorphic beings and psychically project our own being and experience into the material world around us, all the time. This requires no specialist interpretive powers, no authoritative curatorial expertise. Just personal being: the cumulative ‘knowing’ of an embodied lifetime. Let me offer an example, because this is arcane stuff and can come over like riddles: we become ‘sharp’ when we witness a thorn, we become ‘liquid’ in the presence of a waterfall. I ask no more or less than this innate universal skill because this is what I am when I make; this is what I bring to my work. Material has a ‘voice’. I let it speak.
JTW: You’ve included gravel, wire and scavenged waste in your surface materials. Are you continuously experimenting with materials in small studies or test pieces?
GM: Ah, see the close of the above paragraph. It has to be said at the outset that I know intimately how the bulk of my materials behave and can exercise a high degree of control over them. That is just the outcome of long practice. But yes, the ‘voice’ of some materials under fire is more extreme than others, and these have a special ‘pull’ on my ceramic sensibilities. Hence my search outside of the material vocabulary of ceramic orthodoxy for unfamiliar voices, cadences that will surprise and perplex (and sometimes horrify) me. I am a scavenger and a mudlark, for sure. And on a prosaic note, yes I do ‘test’ materials from time to time but mostly I work on the piece at hand, directly, without pre-testing, with unknown material. This is me ‘putting my money where my mouth is’, aesthetically speaking. I have to be willing to follow through on my convictions and risk all if I have any hope of capturing and communicating those aspects of ceramic experience that so entrance me. I very often suffer the consequences. This is part confidence and part foolhardiness, but it is part and parcel of the ‘search’. Put it this way, my kiln shelves are a mess.
JTW: What do you have in mind for your website update? How important is your website in communicating to your audience? What other forms of communication do you use?
GM: My website is a mothballed snapshot of my work as it appeared some years ago. It badly needs up-dating and somehow I can never muster the will to do it, nor would I farm the task out to anyone else, so the issue goes on as an unresolved aspect of my digital life. But when I do it, the site will be much simplified and the work featured will be more recent. I am far from a ‘slick operation’ in all matters digital. Alas, I am an analogue being. Luckily I have good professional representation in the form of Jason Jacques Gallery, who photograph my things and always have some to view on their website. Also, a good number of images of my work from various sources will have propagated the web by now, for anyone who wants to search for images of my things (some people I am told have even assembled Pinterest pages). And there are some articles out there too. I am also a faltering user of Instagram. My engagement on that platform is not systematic. I will sometimes go months posting nothing but I have been posting regularly in recent weeks to support my current exhibition with Jason Jacques. Contrary to its primarily visual nature, I write on Instagram too; I use it as a method to encapsulate a thought, a discipline of sorts, so I am doomed really, because it is many things but Instagram is not really a place that encourages reading. I have no other dalliance with ‘social media’, which is a phenomenon that troubles me at many levels and I am still a long way from embracing it. I resist the lure of the touch screen in the main. Though I will promote this good blog post of yours on Instagram when you are ready to ‘publish’, in the spirit of communication.
Communication by the way is very important to me. Otherwise why would I bother doing anything at all? It is the basis of my life. Its primary medium for me is the goodly mud itself, in its fired incarnation, as composed by me, as it exists in the world, pushing whatever buttons it pushes in the beings who behold it, in a manner of serendipity gloriously beyond my control. That ‘manner’ is distinctly non-verbal and I love that in spite of my deep love of and respect for the symbolic power of these glyphs I am composing on the screen before me.
I have written in the past sporadically for periodicals and the like, and will continue to do so. There is a story to be told, which most writing in the art world completely overlooks, and I have scratched its surface a bit in my responses to your questions. I also talk in public from time to time, demonstrate, lecture, and teach throwing (very infrequently). When I have a group of people in front of me I am always mindful of their experience and try to deliver something real. There’s a natural drama that accompanies disclosure, and this underpins the sense of occasion that can lead to truly memorable moments. Those are always worth gunning for. As in art, so in life.
JTW: Are you involved with any artistic community? Is that connection with other artists important to your creative process?
GM: I am a lone wolf: thousands and thousands of solo hours over the years. It is desirable in my line of work to enjoy one’s own company. Having said that, and following on from my thoughts on ‘communication’ above, there are periods from time to time when I am public-facing. I am referring to the occasional residencies I undertake, in host organisations and I talk and demonstrate from time to time. Part of the quid-pro-quo of a good residency i s that it should work well for both the artist concerned and the host organisation. For the host that usually means employing the artist as a net enhancement of its offering, either to teach or talk or interact with the public, and for the artist it involves practising under the host’s aegis for a while, utilising their materials and facilities to create a body of work and perhaps exhibiting at the end. I was resident artist at Syracuse University in 2019, where I was essentially working in public, in the studios where students had full and open access to me. Lots of occasion for impromptu response and conversation, positive interaction, and some more formal talks along the way, one at the renowned Everson Museum in the city, and an exhibition there a few months later. These intense experiences have their stresses: new place, new people, new materials, unknown equipment, little or no ‘wiggle room’, compressed time scale—all pressures that cannot be anticipated fully or planned for yet need to be accepted and worked with, adapted to. However, serendipity is a wonderful thing, and there are invariably deeply rewarding human moments of genuine communication that seem to be enhanced when an ‘exotic’ foreigner enters an otherwise ordered and familiar environment with their own bit of cultural alchemy. An institution that finds space and time in its ethos to incorporate such open-ended creative endeavour, complete with all the risks, is to be applauded in these days of increasingly prescribed institutional experience.
When the spotlight is on me (for two solid months of 12-hour-plus days in the case of Syracuse University) I do keenly feel a kind of ambassadorial responsibility, and in that sense, ‘community’ comes home to me in some important respects not evident in the confines of my own workshop. It is about being exposed to people who like me seek enhanced experience each in their way, whether through formal education in the arts or by attending a gallery or exhibition, or taking courage to sign up for a one-off class, mustering the confidence to speak out in a question and answer session, or just indulging the curiosity to approach this stranger who’s suddenly appeared working in their studio…whatever the ‘moment’, I look it in the eye and try to treat it right. Because you never know. I never know who I am speaking to, who I might affect and what impact the encounter might have, and most importantly, what I might learn. The residencies I have undertaken over the years have in fact been one of the joys of my practice, for all my ‘lone wolf’ tendencies. And they are occasions where, perhaps against the odds and in spite of the pressure, I have ‘pushed’ in a way I never would have otherwise, and consequently made some of my most gratifying work.