I was immediately attracted to the simplicity of both form and palette in Mike Byrne’s distinctive ceramics. After some correspondence, I’m now also appreciative of his thorough focus on a particular object (the sculptural jug), and his dedication to exploring the versions and possibilities of this core idea. Nuance, balance, levity, control, abstraction – I could go on with what I see in Mike’s work. I’ll let Mike elaborate on his vision and approach.
JTW: You mention that your work has evolved from “making large jug forms using a loose interpretation of the elements”. Can you tell me more about that evolution?
MB: For many years I worked as a designer and later in my teaching years I taught design in the Ceramics Dept of the Limerick School of Art and Design. When discussingbasics with students I often used the jug as a starting point, I like it as a domestic object that does everything, one can play an amusing game imagining the very first time the jug was even considered, ‘guys, maybe we should make a thing bigger then our drinking things so only one of us needs to go to the river to get the water’…….and so on, the brief expanding with each new discovery.
When I started making one off pieces I had had enough of function and design in the formal sense and all that goes with, it but I couldn’t shake my deep-rooted connection to the domestic and the vessel. The answer for me, was the jug form. The Sculptural Jug.
Here was an opportunity to make an object that was clearly identifiable as a jug yet clearly non-functional, clearly not a jug. The jug has three elements, the body, handle, and the pouring lip. I have enjoyed reimagining these three elements, sometimes using found objects, sometimes pieces made in a different way to the others, attached using glue or slip or wire. These pieces are also large, between 45 and 50 cms, far too big to use, fired low so still porous, dry slips and glazes. They hovered in the grey area between being obviously a jug and not being a jug at all.
JTW: What attracted you to that particular jug form, and what prompted you to focus on that one form for such an extended period?
MB: Well, I have focused on the jug form for the past eight years or so. Before that, since the late nineties I concentrated on printmaking. Long before that when I started making one off pieces, I dabbled in a lot of processes and styles and was never one to focus over an extended period. I did stick with ideas and processes until I personally had wrung them dry and was tiring of them, for example I worked solidly for over three years handmaking forms which I then Raku fired, at the time I loved the process but came to see it as a bit of a trick western potters did without understanding all the Japanese philosophy etc. In fact, I hate meetings at Ceramicists events where all the talk is of firing temps and glaze recipes and all the process stuff, the ‘hows’ are far less important than the ‘whys’. Unfortunately, my switch from slides to digital didn’t go as well as I hoped and seem to have lost a lot of my early pictures.
JTW: You mention that you previously used sketchbooks as an integral part of your creative process, although now you’re “reacting more in the clay stage”. Does that mean you no longer sketch prior to working with clay? And how has this change in your creative process impacted your work?
MB: As a designer one’s sketchbook is a vital piece of kit, the very idea of not making a drawing however rudimentary of a piece before starting a 3D version would be unheard of and I always insisted on it with my students. I wrote about reacting more in the clay stage when I was trying to ween myself away from or at least include other forms in my repertoire.
JTW: Can you describe your creative process more generally?
MB: My process is very simple, I roll out a large sheet of clay, about 50x70cm (on my old etching press, silver cloud) and stand it up and make it into an oval cylinder. I then work from the inside and try to breath a bit of life into the form, I like it to look like it has been slightly inflated. I now have my body, if its going to be a ‘jug ‘I will more or less know from my drawing the next move, there may be a number of tweeks and slight changes for any number of reasons, but in essence, it’s of the drawing. But if I’m not sure of the plan I might just go with the form, all of the parts and their relationship to each other, height, the oval, the width the amount of inflation in the form, will suggest the next few actions. This can be very exciting especially if these actions are unusual and I may not have used them in that way before, problem solving at every level. I find working like this very fruitful, each piece leads me to the next and keeps my interest peeked, not knowing what will emerge can be addictive.
In my late teens I was introduced to clay as a way into Sculpture, which was the direction I saw myself going. At an evening class while still in my final year in school, I was put on a wheel and found the process enjoyable and learnable, each week I got a bit better, and slowly and without much fuss I became a ceramicist rather then a sculptor. Now, I see my pieces as abstract sculptures. I use the vessel form in one way or another as my guiding light. I have tried in the privacy of my studio to make other kinds of sculpture but with no success. I have enjoyed all aspects of vessel making, plaster model and mould making, slip casting, even throwing pots for living, when not long out of Art school, I was traveling in Germany and spotting a small pottery in Frankfurt of all places I went in with no German and asked for a job, the owner eyed me up, took off his apron and put it on me and pointed to the wheel and a pile of prepared balls of clay, I spent a very happy six months there, it was in a very social part of town so there was lots of beer and apple wine, we made pitchers and mugs for all the surrounding pubs. Now I hand build using slabs, so that to an extent guides my actions. I could never coil build, I would die of boredom, it would take so long to get to any sort of scale. I work quickly, making all the elements as I go, I change pieces all the time cutting things up or out, changing shapes, adding and subtracting elements.
About four years ago my son came home and set up a knife making business in my print studio. Thankfully its going very well and I give him a few hours every day, and a few hours for my own work. This arrangement I find good because each time I pass a piece waiting attention I can reappraise it over time and decisions can be made with a bit more consideration. This I think has brought something to the process.
JTW: You have a very restrained and somewhat muted color palette. Has that always been the case? Did you experiment with different finishes and more intense color?
MB: Yes I did have a muted palette, on those early big jugs I only used a coloured engobe. Engobe because I could use it straight on to bisque, slip would just fall off and the pieces are too big to pick up dry and fill with slip to colour the insides. I would apply a layer and then fire it and sand it smooth and repeat until I got the required result. The engobe was close to transparent so the build up of layers gave some very nice and unexpected results, in fact it was always a surprise, I’m not a great record keeper, so I like the hit and miss quality of the process. I did feel a while ago it was time for a change, so now my colours are much more vibrant, I heard someone call then ‘candy’ the other day so maybe it’s time for a rethink. I am now using a dry glaze which gives the colours a real lift and I sponge the glaze on rather than paint as before. I also apply at least two layers at a time and let them get together in the fire, this can also throw up some nice surprises.
JTW: My sense is that your ceramic work is quite large. How important has scale been in your work, and have you played with scale during your career?
MB: For me scale is important, most of my pieces are between 40 and 50 cm high. I have made smaller pieces but find them just as difficult as the larger pieces to make and they end up looking like reduced versions and subsequently unsatisfactory. This does make selling pieces difficult, finding a place for these pieces in your average home is not easy. An outgoing head of the Chamber of Commerce was given a piece as a retirement gift and was delighted until she got it home and quietly rang me a week later wondering if she could swap it for a print. I do like making pieces that have a bit of heft to them, the scale can make quite simple elements more imposing
JTW: You worked as a printmaker for a period of time. Do you think that experience influenced your ceramic work in any way?
MB: I don’t think so, other than make me think I have something to bring to the ceramic table whereas after quite a time of making prints, other then enjoying the process, I don’t think I brought much to the print table. I did try to marry both for a short period of time but found it unhelpful and moved on.
You can find more of Mike’s work on his website.