Katie Spragg – Artist Profile

Katie Spragg creates intimate, plant-themed pieces that form an “environment” (of one scale or another). Behind each piece there is a story, or a collection of stories, essential to her creative process. The stories are not always evident to the viewer, but Katie regards them as essential to her work.

I spoke with Katie about her work and inspiration. She told me about the importance of stories in her work.

“My work has always been about storytelling. Before, [in my earlier work], there was more of an overtly humorous approach to what I did. I was making tableware that was then produced in Stoke-on-Trent [a major British ceramics center] with different stories about animals doing strange things.

“There was a transition in my work when I got my master’s degree in ceramics and glass at the Royal Academy of Art,” she continued. “My pieces now all have a story or agenda behind them, but on a more subtle level. The look of the work is much more serene and contemplative.

“My ‘Lambreth Wilds’ piece, for example, is about working with other people and collecting their stories, then distilling those stories into a large scale installation. For the project, I worked with Lambeth Young Carers, a group of young people who have unpaid home-care duties, normally for a family member. I ran a series of workshops and asked people about their memories of wild plants and the stories behind those memories. At the same time I was looking at botanical prints and drawings in the Garden Museum in central London. The ultimate project resulted in a combination of a heritage element and memories of everyday lived experiences. All the plants featured in the piece are plants mentioned in the stories or in the Museum collection, or both. The work, then, involves drawing connections across time through these porcelain plants.

“In this project I used wild plants as a metaphor for communities that surround the Museum. Many wild plants, as well as these communities, are overlooked or forgotten.

“I do other types of work – small pieces available for sale – but “Lambeth Wilds” is the type of project I most enjoy doing. I like working with other people and incorporating their responses into the work, rather than just creating a piece for a singular perspective.”

An earlier project, similar to “Lambeth Wilds” that Katie and I discussed is called “Wildness”. She created this unique “environment” populated with small plants underneath a concrete stairway. She tells me that she’s able to do these types of projects now that she’s found a part-time teaching position at the Royal Academy of Art. It provides some financial security and gives her blocks of time to pursue in-depth projects which she finds very satisfying.

I like Katie’s work. I like the way she creates intimate environments combining brutal materials such as concrete and rock with delicate porcelain wisps that mimic natural plant forms. I’m struggling to appreciate the storytelling elements of her work. Had I not spoken to her I wouldn’t have known anything about that, and I would still enjoy the visual impact of her work. That’s good enough for me.

Here is a YouTube video interview with Katie about some of her project work (around the 20 min mark):

Robert Ellison Collection of Ceramics

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York received another large donation of ceramics from Robert A. Ellison, Jr., and recently rolled out a new exhibition of 80 pieces entitled “Shapes From Out of Nowhere: Ceramics from the Robert A. Ellison, Jr. Collection.”

Robert Ellison started collecting ceramics in the 1960s – pieces that attracted him as an abstract expressionist painter. Over the years, his collection grew to over 600 items. In 2009 he began donating pieces from his collection to the Met, including this latest donation of 125 pieces which form the core of the new exhibition.

Andy Battaglia published an interview with Robert Ellison in ARTnews on March 18, 2021 entitled “Collector Robert Ellison Is Transforming the Way Ceramics Are Seen at the Met and the World Over.” In the interview, Ellison describes how he started collecting ceramics during breaks from painting, and gradually developed his sense of what to look for in ceramics. He sought out people doing “interesting work” and slowly built up his expertise. He tended to focus on one type of ceramic, build out his knowledge and his collection in that area, and then move on.

The interview inspires me because Ellison, a regular guy, started collecting things that interested him on a microscopic budget, and through diligence and persistence amassed what turned out to be a world-class art collection.

The Bellarmine Museum

I came across an online article in Beachcombermagazine.com by Jason Sandy entitled “Mudlarking: Bellarmine Jugs and Witch Bottles” The article follows the story of Jim Ward’s discovery of a Bellarmine jug partially exposed in the muck while walking along the Thames River.

Photo: Sharon Sullivan

Bellarmine jugs were salt fired stoneware vessels produced in 16-18th centuries In what is now Germany. They were widely exported into England as well as elsewhere in Northern Europe and even to the American colonies. Bellarmine jugs are immediately recognizable by two features: a round, bulbous shape topped by a thin neck, and a bearded face decoration carved into that neck where it met the shoulder of the vase. The Bellarmine is said to be named after a Cardinale Roberto Bellarmino, a famous anti-Protestant who proposed banning alcohol, prompting Protestant drinkers to toast him with alcohol poured our of jugs named in his honor. 

In putting together his article for Beachcombermagazine.com, Jason referenced the Bellarmine Museum located in the small English town of Swaffham, northeast of London. The Bellarmine Museum was founded by Alex Wright 4 1/2 years ago. The museum holds 150 Bellarmine jugs and over 300 other Germanic pots in its collection.

An extensive article about the Bellarmine Museum in the Eastern Daily Press explains more about the museum, its establishment by Alex Wright, and detailed information about Bellarmine jugs. Rather than repeat that information here, I’ll point the reader directly to the articles.

I found additional information about Bellarmine jugs on Wikipedia and at the Pitt-Rivers Museum (part of Oxford University’s museum complex).

Michael Kline – Artist Profile

I would characterize Michael Kline as a scholar of ceramics, not in the academic sense but in the sense of finding wisdom and deep satisfaction through the action of living a creative life as a potter. As you will see in our discussion below, he did not come to pottery easily. He struggled with what to do in life. But he ultimately did discover pottery, and made the leap to pursue life as an artist. This interview is primarily about how he found his path, and thoughts and concerns about staying on that path.

JW: I’m looking at your website and it looks like you basically have no pieces for sale. And when I look in your “archive” section everything is marked “sold.” That’s great – congratulations! My question is: Are you mainly selling your work through the shows that you do, online, or some combination of the two?

MK: In the last year, I had a couple of gallery shows – a consignment situation where the gallery handled the promotion, sales and shipping. In the rest of 2020 I sold online only because of COVID. It turned out to be one of my best years ever. In a normal year I tend to do a combination of direct sales from my studio to visitors or students at the Penland School of Crafts which is nearby. Also, I would sell online, at least 4-5 times in a year, and sometimes as many as monthly online sales. The other outlets I have for selling my work are occasional individual or group shows, online or in galleries, and 2-3 shows per year where I’m in person in a booth. All the shows I do are pottery specific, meaning they are not craft fairs or art fairs. In North Carolina there are several of these types of shows. One show I produce with several other local potters. The other show is a juried show in Charlotte, N.C., the Potter’s Invitational. I also do one national show in Washington, D.C., curated by Dan Finnegan, at the Hill Center, called “Pottery on the Hill,” a small show of about 16 artists displaying their work.

JW: How would someone know when you have new work for sale?

MK: I have an email list that I send out regularly whenever I have a sale or a show. The other way is to follow me on social media. I usually broadcast any sales or anything I’m doing on Instagram and Facebook. I would say my mailing list is where my blue-chip, gold-level customers find out about my activities.

JW: Has the COVID pandemic affected you at all (from a business perspective and/or a creative perspective)?

MK: That’s a really interesting question that I’ve thought about a lot because I usually have a diversified kind of experience in my business, whether its teaching, making pots, taking visitors through my studio, or doing shows. All these activities inform what I do when I go back to the studio and work. I get inspiration from other artists that I meet or see, maybe some pots or artwork that I’ve purchased myself. When I’ve travelled I’ve traded with other artists and those pieces may influence what I do.

During the pandemic I was here by myself most of the time. I found the psychic space caused by the pandemic affected my work. I moved, maybe not consciously, toward working on pretty safe pieces, nothing too challenging. Financially I wasn’t sure where we were going. I kinda’ “played the hits” most of the year which was interesting. I enjoy my work and what I’m doing, and I have a fair amount of variety within my work activity in the studio. I felt that if I could have done something differently, I would have taken some time off to work on something new and different. But with 2 children in high school and college I didn’t want to take a lot of risk so I played it safe.

I guess I didn’t realize how much going out into the world influenced my work. I like the rhythm of working and that’s something that changed. I didn’t really go anywhere during the lockdown. I was able to work and I felt a little bit of guilt, perhaps, or I felt lucky that I was able to work. Whenever I had a sale I felt grateful to have my customer base that I’ve been building for a long time. A lot of people my age – I’m 60 now – don’t have that base to work from. I spent a lot of time on the phone with friends from my generation who didn’t have a web or online presence. I helped them onboard to the online selling experience. That was very gratifying as well.

JW: You became a full-time studio potter after attending a workshop at the Penland School of Crafts in 1989.  What was so motivating about that workshop?

MK: That was a very long time ago but I remember it vividly. It was a workshop by Michael Simon who was a student of Warren MacKenzie. I met Michael Simon as a student at a workshop at the University of Tennessee. My teacher, Ted Saupe, had a lot of Michael’s pots and I was a devotee even at that early stage of my career. In 1989, after school, I was living in New York City, waiting tables, and working on a lot of artwork in my apartment. I was itching to get back into ceramics. I saw that Michael Simon was teaching at Penland, so I came for a 4 week workshop. That was pivotal for me. Michael made it clear that I could become a full-time artist if I was willing to live frugally. Michael made it clear that you don’t need to be a professor or an academic to make it as a potter. That was very revealing to me; I felt it was possible to quit my job and become a potter.

JW: I’ve read about your process in your “About” page and it doesn’t seem to match up to what I see in your pieces. (Many of your pieces seem more layered.) Could you please describe your current process – and how you came to work this way?

MK: There are a few processes I use. One body of work is tableware – stoneware that is fired in an atmospheric gas kiln called a soda kiln. So it’s essentially a salt glaze process. Pots are painted with a brush, and various patterns are painted using wax resist, and the the pieces are dipped in slip. That slip is then glossed during the soda firing and the sodium vapor that’s introduced into the kiln at peak temperature forms a glaze on the pots. It’s a 15th century German technique or discovery that is used in various ways today.

The other body of work is an inlay techniques where pots are carved, stamped and inlaid with white porcelain slip brushed into the impressions. Usually it’s a stoneware clay or an iron-rich clay and the porcelain slip inlay is a lighter color. I overfill the inlay, then scrape it away to reveal the original carved or stamped pattern. I use a lot of different tools and stamps. I put a final glaze over these pots and fire them in either an electric kiln or in a soda kiln.

Sometimes I do a combination of brushwork and stamped inlay work on a single pot. Sometimes the pot is carved or stamped and then filled with glaze.

JW: When you do some floral design coupled with lines – how are you creating those lines? Are those stamps too? (e.g., Yunomi-00406)

MK: That pot is an inlaid piece, and those vertical lines are created with a serrated metal edge, creating those little channels. After that’s done, I stamped the piece with floral patterns.

After all that, I covered the entire piece with white porcelain slip and carefully scraped the excess slip away. Each step probably takes about 15 minutes, so it’s fairly time-consuming process.

JW: How has your work evolved over time?  Big leaps and bounds, or a gradual evolution?

MK: My work has been a very gradual, slowly evolving process. Each of my firing cycles takes 4-6 weeks. Almost always I have ideas while I’m working (either making pots or decorating, or when I’m unloading the kiln), rather than by sitting down and brainstorming apart from working. Usually I make notes and keep track of experiments I try; I take pictures and notes in a journal for each piece in a firing. I try to build on the successes of each previous firing.

There was a time, about 5-6 years ago, when I was struck by a piece in the Smithsonian collection, a 15th century Korean bowl. I was with a curator and 15 other potters and we were looking at the collection, handling them and speculating on how they were made. This particular bowl had a very interesting Kinsugi (gold leaf) repair to the lip of the bowl; it was very unusual because it had a raised pattern in the repaired surface. That experience propelled me in a different direction which was very different but still related to floral patterns and surface design. I played with this idea, watching videos, and saw some Korean potters doing this technique. Over 6-8 months of trial and error experimentation, I developed this technique myself and began selling these pieces. So that was an example of a “leap and a bound” – but generally my evolution is pretty slow and gradual.

JW: I also see some workshops on your website. Do you do a lot of those?  Do you have a preference for the type of workshop you do?

MK: Up until last year, most of the workshops are me demonstrating my techniques, trying to focus on sharing the sequence of how I do things. The students are usually either serious amateurs or professional potters, sometimes students, depending on the venue. I teach at a lot of different venues. The last workshop I did last year was a departure from my normal workshop. I did go through my techniques, but I also focused on how one finds joy in their work and how, by repetition, one develops their own style. It’s hard to do in 5 days, but I had a lot of exercises prepared, some not pottery-specific but like painting with ink on different objects, lots of mimicry, and other elements of teaching that I’m interested in during future workshops.

I’m teaching a few workshops in 2021, including a workshop in Italy at La Meridiana.

I like to do a few (4-5) workshops each year, but I don’t want to do it all the time. I like to travel and meet people willing to share what I do and my passion for what I do. I get a lot of energy from teaching. I get a lot of ideas from students. I’m a student of what my students do and I keep my eyes open for how students interpret my techniques. And there’s also good discussion in my workshops and I enjoy that. There’s a lot of value in interaction with other potters.

JW: What is the most satisfying thing you’ve gained from your years as a ceramic artist?

MK: I take satisfaction in knowing that I’ve found a path. When I was young, it was very bleak. I didn’t know what I would do. I went to college as an engineering student. My parents thought it would be good for their son to learn a profession. In 1979, there were limits to professional degrees: law, medicine, engineering, science. It was never business, that was never a consideration which I find interesting because I now think of myself as a business person as well as an artist, of course.

Anyway, I emerged from college and it was kind of bleak. I went into engineering when I didn’t want to. I didn’t really have the attitude for it. I had the aptitude for engineering and that’s why my parents promoted it. I found in engineering school I wasn’t very happy. After 3 years I flunked out and was on my own. I took a pottery class and immediately fell in love with the clay.

So I take a lot of satisfaction in finally finding that path. It’s very difficult as a young person to find meaning in life. I try to teach that in my workshops: how do you recognize joy or something you like to do. How do you recognize it and go above the noise of what you think you should do – and what your parents and friends think you should do – and make individual choices, selfish choices sometimes, to find that path.

More of Michael’s work may be seen on his website.

Invader – Artist Profile

Invader is the nom de guerre of a ceramic graffiti artist who has been installing ceramic tiles with pixilated designs on the walls of cities around the world since the 1990s.

According to Wikipedia, “Invader sees himself as a ‘hacker’ of public space spreading a mosaic ‘virus’. He believes that museums and galleries are not accessible to everyone, and so installs his work at street level for ordinary people to enjoy…”

Invader originally targeted the walls of Paris, then moved on to other French cities, and from there he launched “invasions” of other cities: New York, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, and others.  A “FlashInvaders” app maps the location of Invader’s installations. App users are encouraged to search out and photograph the ceramic installations, which are tucked away in nooks and crannies or non-descript building walls. At the time of writing, there are 3,997 invaders in 79 cities, mostly in Europe.

Invader tile installations have become valuable collector items, with pieces selling in galleries for $250,000 or more.

Nice Transition.

Ceramic Art and Civilization

Ben Carter recently recorded a Tales of a Red Clay Rambler podcast interview with Paul Greenhalgh entitled “How Ceramics Shaped Civilization.”

I was so impressed with the discussion I purchased Paul Greenhalgh’s book “Ceramic Art and Civilization,” available online at Bloomsbury and Amazon. It is a meaty tome the size of a college 101-course textbook. I’m about 100 pages in and am finding the book extremely interesting and thought-provoking. I recommend the book.

Paul Greenhalgh is currently Executive Director at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich, UK, part of the University of East Anglia, where he is also a professor of art history and museum studies. He formerly worked at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London as head of ceramics research. He has written several books and delivered lectures around the world, many of which he has posted on his website.

Ardmore Design – Artists’ Profile

I’ve been struck by how much more collaborative creating ceramics can be than what is typically practiced in the United States. In the U.S., individual artists execute the entire production process (from sourcing clay, turning or handbuilding clay into forms, decorating those forms, glazing and firing the final piece(s)). In many parts of the world that work is divided up between several people. Ardmore Design, based in South Africa, provides an example.

Crocodile Equilibrium Sculpture by Teboho Ndlovu (sculptor) and Wiseman Ndlovu (painter)

Fee Halsted, founder of Ardmore Design, grew up in Zimbabwe and studied painting at university in South Africa. She also worked in ceramics. After school, Fee was teaching art in Durban and lost her job. “I was angry,” she recalls, “I want to teach people, and if I can’t teach privileged white people then I’m going to help people who don’t have opportunity.”

Fee started a ceramics studio in 1985 and shortly thereafter started working with Bonnie Nshalinshali, her maid’s 18-year old daughter, who joined the studio as a ceramics apprentice. That collaboration ultimately led to founding Ardmore Design, a full-fledged ceramics studio in South Africa that has blossomed into an international business venture.

Fee Halsted and Bonnie Nshalinshali, displaying the Standard Bank Young Artist Award in 1990

I found this “transformational story” fascinating, on both an individual and social level. Individually, Fee transformed her activities from those of an art teacher and individual ceramicist to the creative director of a large-scale production operation. Fee has provided job and creative opportunities to 80+ workers, each of whom has transformed from an inexperienced student into a highly skilled person doing one or more parts of the the overall ceramic production of Ardmore Design’s offerings.

Crane Vase, thrown by George Manyathela, sculpted by Victor Ntshali, and painted by Mthulisi Ncube

I contacted Fee Halsted and her son Jon Berning about the origins and transformation of Ardmore Design. Here is a summary of our exchange.

Work by Bonnie Nshalinshali

JW: How did Fee and Bonnie Nshalinshali originally collaborate on ceramics produced at the studio?

FH: I would come up with the concept and story of subject matter, and Bonnie would execute the theme as per her own idea on that theme. Fee would encourage her own naïve interpretation of the idea and express it in her own way.

JW: As additional women joined Ardmore studio, how did work styles evolve? 

FH: Everyone creatively interprets the same subject matter. Our blue print is never a one fits all, each piece is unique. In the beginning the new artists followed Bonnie’s style but not wanting them to execute poor versions of Bonnies’ work I encouraged them to hand coil functional works and have some creative freedom in which they could express their talent.

JW: Did each woman do her own ceramic work or did the women collaborate on pieces?

FH: In the earlier days we started with makers and painters, and each women chose if they preferred to mould a work in clay and some preferred to paint with underglazes, which resulted in more works becoming glazed. Women creating work together meant, we could produce works quicker and more efficiently.

Gilded Lily Vase, Made by: Qiniso Mungwe and Painted by: Mandla Ngwenya

Highly skilled, talented artists have always created the story-telling works.

Sculptures and art pieces of the smaller sizes and from our newer painters make up the bread and butter for more of our functional and popular items.

70 % of Ardmore’s’ income is made up of smaller hand crafted items and this income enables the opportunity for the larger fine art works that take longer to create. These Masterworks are harder to sell yet they give Ardmore clout and fine art status.

Crocodile Candle Holders, Made by: Sbusiso Ndaba and Painted by: Nondumiso Mfuphi

JW: Fundamentally, how did Ardmore studio originally function? Did Fee train and bring together various ceramic artists and allow each of them to pursue their own, independent artistic direction?

FH: Correct. In the beginning women from Bonnie’s family and friends joined the studio, but as the years went by artists joined from Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Malawi which gave a myriad of culture to our artworks too. I have always given ideas to the artists to work with and in turn they also come up with their own interpretations off an original idea. They are also often inspired by another artists work in the studio. We are a collective of artists that share Ideas and skills, we bounce off one another.

Baboon and Aloe Vase, Thrown by Lovemore Sithole,
additional sculpted detail by Moshe Sell, and
painted by Mthulisi Ncube

JW: Was Fee’s role more tilted toward the business & marketing side of running a commercial studio?

FH: I am still overseeing the running off the business but I have handed over the reins to my son Jonathan and daughter Megan. My eldest daughter Catherine is involved in marketing and design work. My main job role is creative director. I like to think I am the creative energy behind the artists and I aim to excite and stimulate the artists and encourage them.I crit art and design daily and keep the creative spirit up. It is all about caring feeding that creating energy.

Pair of Parrot Sculptures, Sculpted by Betty Ntshingila and Painted by Mthulisi Ncube

JW: Did that change over time?

JB: Not really. I just had to give up my own art as finding ideas best suited for 80 artists is a full time job. I research images and try to develop recognizable styles best suited for each individual’s talent.

JW: Looking at the history of work produced at Ardmore studio, I detect a transition from original “naive” tone to more “refined and sophisticated” products beginning in the early- to mid-2000s.  Can you tell me more about that transition?

JB:

This is an accurate observation. In the early days the women were untrained in their clay hand craft and as most had had little education. It was because of this that their work was naïve, but as the artists became more proficient with clay their art developed and became more realistic. In sculpting the work became more refined and realistic as men joined the studio. Additionally artists from other parts of Lesotho and Zimbabwe joined and they came skilled and trained in art and clay work and this set off a higher standard of art excellence. One should always aim for excellence!

JW: Around 2013, Ardmore started expanding into other design areas such as textiles & furnishings. What prompted that development?

FH: I had always been interested in the British art craft movement of de Morgan and Morris and had my own exhibition titled with De Morgan in Mind. This took place back in the 80’s at the Elisabeth Gordon gallery in Durban. I was teaching at the Durban Teck at the time.

After my son Jonathan completed University in Stellenbosch, I asked him if he would like to join me in starting a new business, and we started the journey together. In 2010 We were awarded the Share Growth Challenge grant, and this sparked Jon and I to start Ardmore Design which was the homeware side of the business. This part of the business has continued to be a success and is ever growing.

JW: As these new product lines developed, resulting in commercial success, has the organization and functioning of the studio changed? (The “look” of Ardmore products looks quite coordinated – as a brand and a “look.” I’m interested in how things have changed and evolved over the years.)

JB:

Ardmore ceramics and design has always been about the art and keeping thing fresh and in tune with current times. The ceramics and design of Ardmore are close in style because the designs originate off the one of kind ceramics and are always unique. They are hand drawn by our artists and then scanned and worked into step and repeat designs for fabric and then sent abroad. Our marketing and launches are all interlinked by theme so therefore results in a co-ordinated look.

 

We are the Ardmore group and have amalgamated the ceramics and home items under the Ardmore umbrella name. It is our African designs with animal and plant motifs and glorious colours that make us recognizably Ardmore in style.

JW: Looking at several of the “Collectors Items” on your website, it seems that there is quite a bit of collaboration going on. One artist may create the form, for example, and another will paint that form. Is this work still done at Ardmore  in a collaborative studio setting, or do various artists work from their own home and coordinate their own collaboration?

JB: Yes, we see ourselves as a team, Ceramics and graphic design involve many processes and each step takes more than one person’s involvement. Our motto is “we are because of others” and we value each and every one of our artists. This also pertains to the skillful kiln operators who do the glazing, as well as our international printers and CMT (cut, make, trim) team. Our sales team are also artists themselves as well as our packing team. The success of any business is the passionate leaders who keep the flags flying and carry huge responsibility. 

JW: What are your plans for the future?

JB: Our main focus for Ardmore is to build the company into a luxury South African business that celebrates our artists and designers. We want to have stores within stores around South Africa, and we have recently opened two beautiful Ardmore flagship stores. These being in Caversham KZN Midlands as well as in Dunkeld in Johannesburg. A new Ardmore wall paper collection will be launching shortly with UK company Cole & Son, and this winter we will launch a new outdoor fabric range. For this range we are also collaborating with another South African family business Melville and Moon.

A more detailed history of the firm can be found on Ardmore-Design’s website here and in this 2016 article about the development of the company’s distinct brand.

A list of current Ardmore artists, along with biographic information, is available here.

Another article illustrating a division of labor in the ceramics world, this time in India, can be found here.

Thomas and Ralph Toft – Artist Profiles

Previously, I posted an article about Early English Slipware. Two prominent producers of this style were Thomas Toft and Ralph Toft — so influential, in fact, that early English slipware style is sometimes referred to as “Toft ware” regardless of who produced the piece. Thomas and Ralph Toft created large slipware plates and platters, boldly decorated with trailed slip, and are highly prized pieces held in museums around the world.

Plate by Thomas Toft, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Thomas Toft worked in northern Staffordshire, England, in the mid- to late-1600s. He is known to have died in 1698. Thomas Toft, like other English slipware potters, first coated earthenware clay “base” with a uniform coat of slip, which is essentially clay mixed with water, to form a smooth, even foundation for his decoration. Toft then used “trailings” of liquid clay of a different color atop a the slip foundation. Typically Toft used darker red slip trailings atop a cream-colored pale slip foundation, but in one example below he used black and green slips. Slipware potters like Toft used a lead oxide glaze which gave the pieces a warm amber tone.

About 30 pieces attributed to Thomas Toft remain in various collections around the world. As can be seen in the few samples provided here, Thomas Toft employed a variety of decorative motifs (heraldic animals, mermaids, portraits, vegetative forms, and biblical themes). The slip drawing on all pieces is simple, casual and naive, suitable to a type of ware sold to ordinary citizens as opposed to the aristocracy.

The Victoria & Albert Museum holds several examples of Thomas Toft pieces, one called “The Mermaid Dish.” The V&A has extensive notes about this piece on its website here. Quoting from this source:

…whereas functional cups and posset pots were probably sold at fairs and taken in wicker panniers on horseback to distant parts of the country, these huge dishes emblasoned with the name of their maker seem to have been made as local advertisements for the (widely varying) skills of their creators. Despite the many surviving examples, they were apparently completely ignored in Staffordshire until Enoch Wood acquired two specimens for his factory museum, which opened about 1816…

Although such wares were recognised as interesting examples of folk pottery by the time that the South Kensington Museum acquired this piece in 1869, it was only in the 1920s that the writings of the art critic Herbert Read helped to raise them to the level of English Primitive Art. The striking simple image perfectly adapted to its ‘frame’ on the dish was much admired by early studio potters such as Bernard Leach (1887-1979).

“The Mermaid Dish,” Victoria & Albert Museum

The Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford holds a 3rd Thomas Toft dish, this one believed to show a portrait of the royal couple.

Because of the scale and preservation of these works, most scholars believe they were used primarily as decoration rather than cooking ware or dining ware.

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford University

I did find one multi-color piece by Thomas Toft, located in the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge University, shown below. (The Fitzwilliam Museum holds the single largest collection of English slipware that I found. Access their online collection here.) Notes on the museum’s website state: “The Temptation or Fall was a popular subject for the decoration of seventeenth-century slipware and delftware dishes. This one is unusual in having a dark brown slip ground. The angel, wyvern [winged dragon], and rabbit symbolize good, evil, and lust or fecundity respectively.”

Dish by Thomas Toft, The Fitzwilliam Museum (2020) “Dish” Web page available at: https://collection.beta.fitz.ms/id/object/73061

Ralph Toft

Ralph Toft was believed to be Thomas’ brother, but could have been Thomas’ son. Ralph, too, created slipware pottery (as did a Cornelius Toft and a James Toft). An example of Ralph Toft’s work from the Metropolitan Museum of Art is shown below. Once again the artist employs a cream-colored slip foundation and dark clay slip trailings for decoration:

Plate by Ralph Toft, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge University has 5 items from Ralph Toft, including these two vessels. The first shows an example of “feathered” designs on the top and bottom, probably created by blending wet slip trailings into wet base colored slip with a feather.

Posset Pot by Ralph Toft, The Fitzwilliam Museum (2020) “Posset pot” Web page available at: https://collection.beta.fitz.ms/id/object/73279
Dish by Ralph Toft, The Fitzwilliam Museum (2020) “Dish” Web page available at: https://collection.beta.fitz.ms/id/object/73141

Early English Slipware

Slipware was first produced in what is now the Netherlands and northeastern France in the 16th century. The product was successfully traded throughout continental Europe and found its way to England, where the imports inspired English potters to create local versions.

George Ward, Inscribed ‘GEORGE WARD MADE THIS CVP AN\D SO NO MORE BUT GOD BLESS THE QUEEN AND ALL HER PARLEME’, The Fitzwilliam Museum (2020) “Posset pot” Web page available at: https://collection.beta.fitz.ms/id/object/73745

The English potters had previously used slip when making medieval tiles, and had also employed slip to decorate pottery jugs, but imported functional wares seemed to spark a large increase in slipware production in England the late 1500s, first in Somerset and later in north Devon.

Slip is essentially just clay mixed with water. Potters would apply an even coat of this liquified clay across the vessel to decorate. Early on, English potters would carve away portions of the slip coating to reveal the color of the underlying earthenware clay, a technique known as Sgrafitto.

Harvest Jug. The Fitzwilliam Museum (2020) “Jug” Web page available at: https://collection.beta.fitz.ms/id/object/77087, dated 1724. English, North Devon.

Potters developed other techniques to blend together different colored slips into interesting, swirling surface patterns. English potters applied slip onto earthenware ceramic vessels with a quill, or through “slip trailers” made out of cow horn or pottery. Potters applied the slip “trails” directly onto the earthenware clay, frequently after first appling a light, uniform coating of slip over the earthenware surface. These “trailed” designs became quite elaborate and playful.

The Fitzwilliam Museum (2020) “Posset pot” Web page available at: https://collection.beta.fitz.ms/id/object/73732

I love English slipware for its simplicity – almost naïve quality. It is lyrical and fun. Warm and engaging.

I am preparing a separate blog post about two of the more prominent English slipware potters: Thomas and Ralph Toft. I encountered several other interesting slipware potters when doing my research on the Toft family, including Henry Ifield, John Eaglestone, John Finley, Samuel Malkin, William Simpson, John Phillips Hoyle and George Ward. I’ve attached an example of several of these artists below (all from the Fitzwilliam Museum):

Jug by John Phillips Hoyle, The Fitzwilliam Museum (2020) “Jug” Web page available at: https://collection.beta.fitz.ms/id/object/77104
Dish, probably by Samuel Malkin, The Fitzwilliam Museum (2020) “Dish” Web page available at: https://collection.beta.fitz.ms/id/object/76946
Tankard by John Eaglestone, The Fitzwilliam Museum (2020) “Tankard” Web page available at: https://collection.beta.fitz.ms/id/object/71974

An interesting booklet on English Slipware, by David Barker, is available from Shire Books.  Unfortunately, the illustrations are all B&W.

The Gardiner Museum has a small online collection of English slipware. Two delightful examples are shown below – the first a cup with the script “THOUGH NERE SO DEEP – YOU’L IN ME PEEP” encircling the rim, the second a “charger” or decorative plate.

Gardiner Museum, Object number: G89.5.1
Gardiner Museum, Object number: G90.1.1

Deighton Abrams – Artist Profile

Deighton is a ceramic artist and educator, currently teaching courses as the Artist-in-Residence at The Ceramics Program at Harvard University. He has also taught ceramics at Lesley University, Clemson University, Winthrop University, and Greenville Technical College.

Deighton grew up in Alaska, and has fused that experience with sculpture. Deighton’s work explores connections between humans, the creative process, and the physical landscape — with a particular focus on environmental stress and climate change.

JW: You do both sculptural work and functional work. Any preference? What does one offer that the other does not?

DA: For me, it’s hard to choose between which of the two are my preference since they offer different creative outlets and processes for me. I tend to call myself a sculptor and never a potter since I’ve never worked exclusively making functional work. Sculpting allows me pretty wide berths in terms of creative freedom as I’m not tied into any sort of explicit craft dogma (typically no one is consuming food from my sculptures) so I can make the call most times on what is acceptable in terms of things like glaze “flaws” and fissures in the clay.

Functional work, however, keeps my craft edge sharp as I try to make work that fits into more traditionally acceptable ceramic standards. A cup that doesn’t hold water is more clearly a failure than a sculpture with a similar crack. Much of my maintaining balance between wheel throwing  and handbuilding (whether it’s functional or sculptural) comes from my teaching practice and ensuring my students can learn any number of skills from my lessons and not feel underserved.

JW: You started as a printmaker.  What prompted your transition to ceramics?

DA: I started my full time undergraduate studies after almost a decade of working in retail and foodservice and I’d persistently called myself an artist in spite of not making much work. I’d always illustrated and drawn things from life but my undergrad program introduced me to the process heavy medium of printmaking. I really enjoyed carving blocks and working in a fairly old, traditional medium that had a heavy reliance on craft. My program required that I take ceramics as a foundations course and I saved it for the very end of my program as I really didn’t want to do anything with 3D work. I’d never touched clay in my life (other than playdough as a child) and had no interest. The first project was a simple pinch pot and I struggled with it so much that my wife actually finished it for me. The next project was a coil pot and something clicked with me and that process. My instructors John Jensen and Mac McCusker were very supportive and I ended up becoming a studio tech the following semester. Something about the vibrant, open community of clay really attracted me and I felt able to translate my drawing skills directly into sculpting from life. Haven’t been without clay ever since.

JW: It looks like your recent (2020) sculptural work is of fairly small scale, while some earlier pieces you did were larger. Is there a reason for that change of scale?

DA: My wife and I moved to the Boston area in late 2019 for her work and I started working at the Ceramics Program for the Office of the Arts at Harvard University as a work study intern and academic assistant to the director Kathy King. I didn’t have a dedicated space for my own work other than small shelves and my apartment was incredibly small with little storage.

This forced me in some ways to work on a very small scale but I’d also been a bit exhausted physically and mentally from making and moving large works. Aside from these practical concerns, I was beginning to think about how to make impactful work that didn’t rely on massive scale to operate and I’d also become hyper aware of my material consumption and this was a minor way to mitigate that. My space during the pandemic was also very limited and I didn’t have access to kilns or firing for the first time. It was incredibly difficult to find motivation to continue working on my own work and I’d transitioned to teaching ceramics fully remotely and the challenges of online learning consumed much of my time. For a few months, I’d actually begun making tiny daily sculptures inspired by Japanese netsuke at the suggestion of my wife. 

JW: You’re very focused on environmental changes – but certainly the pandemic has had large-scale impact on societies around the world. Has COVID wiggled its way into your work in any way? 

DA: I’m still dedicated to my research on climate change and material ethics through my art but the relative isolation of the pandemic in our new urban home gave me time to think about some of the root causes of disaster and human nature. I’ve started to think more intensely about living in different regions, whether urban or rural, coastal or inland, and so on change our levels of consumption.

I haven’t gone on to making things like caricatures of viruses, toilet paper, and kn95 masks, but the pandemic has certainly changed my view of the planet and the people in it. If anything, my concerns are even more outward facing with my work and I now have an even greater interest in how social and mental health affect our views on climate change and its perception within political theater.

JW: What specific steps have you taken as a ceramic sculptor and maker to mitigate your environmental impact?

DA: Most steps I take to mitigate my impact as an artist are through offsetting my consumption in other areas of my life. I drive as little as possible and walk or take public transit, something easy to do in my new urban home. I also try to limit the amount of meat I consume as there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that factory farm processes have a severe impact on the environment. Within my work itself, I constantly try to reconfigure older work or pieces that didn’t feel ready to exhibit when I made them and combine them in new ways that feel fresh. I tend not to cull too much of my sculptural work and hold onto them until I find a use for them. Most of the time my demo pieces from workshops or teaching serve as experiments for combining forms, such is the case with my piece Nilohuki/Molohuki which combined a demo coil pot and two sculptures that didn’t make it into my final thesis show.

JW: Are you satisfied with what you can do as a ceramic artist to alleviate your concerns about ecological catastrophes?

DA: Overall, it’s hard not to be a bit cynical about my impact as a ceramic artist. Much of what I discuss surrounding my work feels hypocritical as I convert raw earth that has taken millions of years to develop and then convert it into permanent ceramic which will then take perhaps the same amount of time to decompose. Compound that with the knowledge of the sometimes vast distances these materials travel and the often irresponsible mining practices that procure them as well as using fossil fuels to finish them off, the negative aspects of consumption seem very dire. I understand, however, that you can trace much of these same processes to any part of our daily life and the scale of my ceramic consumption often pales in comparison. I think much of my thoughts surrounding consumption stem from the closeness and abstract kinship I feel to clay and all of its stages. These thoughts often freeze me up in the studio but I also think about how much more mindful I’ve become with my work and that drives me forward to continue making, even if the pace is sometimes painfully slow. I’ve never wanted my work to be about making people feel awful about consuming anything, least of all clay, but an awareness of the materials we use and the means we take to acquire them I believe can make us more mindful and perhaps more imaginative when it comes to the future and how we move forward.

JW: On your functional work, I’m picking up several surface decoration themes (skulls/skeletons, eye symbols, & landscape elements). Can you tell me more about the origin and repeated use of those elements? 

DA: In many ways, the illustrations of my functional work are continuations and extensions of my printmaking work. There’s something special about drawing on clay, especially porcelain, that drives me to think about how I divide and fill the space. Skeletons are usually my way of striking a sense of memento mori, a reminder of death, but I try not to make them overly morbid and try to make them slightly humorous when I can. Eyes and clouds have been my default patterns and void fillers, there’s something about both motifs that enable me to work quickly and imbue a sense of the ethereal with them, something I haven’t really pinned down conceptually.

My landscapes are almost always fully imagined and drawn directly on my surfaces with little to no planning. My father grew up in Jackson Hole, WY, and my mother grew up right outside the west gate of Yellowstone in Gardiner, MT; in combination with my experiences growing up in Alaska, I’ve always had a deep connection to vast, open landscapes. I also love the atmospheric paintings of Chinese artists like Fan Kuan, the Romantic Era paintings of European and American artists like Caspar David Friedrich and Thomas Cole, as well as Japanese manga artists like Katsuhiro Otomo. These influences among many others drive me to make functional work that is labour intensive, atmospheric, and accessible.

JW: What would you like people to know about your sculptural work? 

DA: My sculptural work is driven by my need to express myself and viewpoints in deeply conceptual ways. Every part of them has some degree of meaning, especially the materials I choose to support them like salvaged, untreated wood and polystyrene insulation foam, the latter began as a pun with my thesis work titled Winter Kept Us Warm, a nod to a line in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland”, and the view I was trying to express that we often “insulate” ourselves from knowledge that conflicts with our conceptions of reality.

Even though I attempt to imbue every single component of my sculpture with meaning and/or symbolism, I think they are mostly meant as emotional conduits for the viewers. Generally I hope there’s enough ambiguity within them for people to interact with them on their own terms without needing all of the baggage of meaning I construct for them.  

JW: Where to from here? Any major projects or plans on the horizon?

DA: My focus since graduate school has largely been on teaching both on the community and academic level. Teaching is one of my greatest joys in life and I love developing students’ desire to create thoughtfully, both for themselves and the world around them. I’m currently teaching courses as the Artist in Residence for Harvard Ceramics as well as ceramics courses at Lesley University. I’m looking forward to developing new sculpture classes for both as well as completing a new body of sculptural and functional work. I’m working towards a new shop update for my functional work on my website and making sculpture for my solo show here at Harvard sometime in 2022.