John Newdigate is a South African artist who produces magnificent pots, churning with the vegetative forms and animals that surround him in his mountainside home. Vibrant colors distinguish his ceramic pieces. Large scale forms are also characteristic of John’s work, although he creates vessels in various sizes.
JW: Will you tell me something about your collaboration with Ian Garrett? (I think he throws the pots and then you take over with painting and glazing).
JN: Ian Garrett and I have shared our lives for over twenty years. We were both professional ceramists when we met, but our approaches could not have been more different. Where Ian has a MAFA degree, I have informal training. Ian works in low fired, burnished earthenware and I work in underglaze painted porcelain. Ian makes few pieces that he puts a lot of time into, whereas I saw myself as a studio potter, making multiple versions of functional wares. For many years we kept our professional lives separate as we both had clear directions for our own creative journies. However, over time we did start to influence each other. I learnt from Ian’s more disciplined approach, to take my work seriously and to devote more time to making fewer pieces.
I am a competent hand builder in my own right, and for many years made my own vessels, but Ian is widely acknowledged as a master hand-builder, creating vessels that are as symmetrical as if thrown on a wheel but his forms have the warmth and generosity of hand-built forms. Ian actively maintains his solo career, so is happy to play a secondary, supportive role in our collaboration, choosing not to do more than the making of blanc vessels for me to paint. As my painting can be exuberant, I appreciate that his forms do not compete for attention, rather adding a quiet sophistication that compliments the end result hugely. The aim for a successful collaboration should be for the the sum to be greater than the parts, I feel that we have achieved this.
JW: One thing wasn’t evident until I looked at your Instagram account: the scale of your work. These pieces are huge!
JN: The work varies in size, from 15cm – 110cm tall, with most being around 30-50 cm in height, so they’re not all huge!
JW: How do you achieve such intensity of color in your work? (I believe you use underglaze topped with a clear glaze. It’s really remarkable.)
JN: When underglaze pigments first became widely accessible they were immediately taken up by amateurs painting pre-made slip-cast bisque ware which resulted in the medium not being taken seriously by the established ceramics world. After years of working in carved porcelain, glazed in reduction fired celadon, I started yearning for colour and started experimenting to find a technique to express my ideas more fully. After each failed attempt I would retreat back to the safety of the carved celadon. But there was just enough of an inkling of a new and exciting possibility that made me persevere. Eventually I realised that mixing colours by overlaying thin layers and reserving areas with wax-resist I could create images that combined control with freshness and spontaneity, allowing me to share the images that had previously lived in my imagination only.
JW: Will you tell me a bit about your background? Were you always interested in ceramics? If not, what attracted you to ceramics?
JN: I grew up in a coastal village/suburb called Kalk Bay on the outskirts of Cape Town, in one of the very few places in South Africa at the time that was not (fully) racially segregated. The close-knit community consisted of people from a wide variety of socio-economic, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, which was highly unusual for South Africa at the time. Many of our family friends were artists and I was especially lucky to get informal training in childhood from two women, Peggy North for painting and drawing, and Barbara Bruce for ceramics. When I completed schooling and started studying Art at a tertiary level I didn’t thrive and left after six months. I was conscripted into the South African Military for two years, against my will and principles. On completion I worked in the Art department of a screen printing factory for a year. The following year I visited Europe on a working holiday. My return to South Africa coincided with the Rainbow Nation of a post-Apartheid South Africa, creating a current of great optimism and goodwill. In this spirit I started making objects out of various materials, but ceramics was always my favourite.
JW: I see a lot of vegetative themes in your work, plus of course fauna. Can you tell me about the sources you tap into for your painting?
JN: I like my art to be autobiographical, and honest. For me this means depicting the physical world in my immediate surroundings, melding it with my thoughts and observations of the wider world. I don’t aim to judge, influence, praise or blame, rather to depict concepts visually that I find difficult to articulate with words (as I’m struggling to do right now!), as a means to understand them better myself. While Nature is profoundly beautiful, I do not see it as cute and fluffy.
From the level of unicellular organisms to large mammals its a case of eat or be eaten. We humans have done a half-convincing job of concealing our animal instincts, whereas the natural world is straight forward which is why I do not sentimentalise it.
JW: I also detect an “industrial” theme in some pieces. Where does this come from? How DO you decide on a theme? Is this driven by your inspiration at the moment or are you preparing work to satisfy demand for your products?
JN: I know for example that a smartphone does work, but like most people I have no idea *how* it works, let alone anything about the processes that created it. How does one go from raw materials mined from from the earth to the iPhone in your hand? How can technology play such a huge role in my life without me knowing much about it?
In these pieces I am depicting my basic understanding of how these structures and processes work, and that I appreciate how much I do not know about them. To be honest I don’t know where my ideas come from, but often they come to me when I’m in a state halfway between being awake and asleep.
JW: Will you tell me more about your creative process? I found this on your Instagram account but honestly I don’t understand all the references
JN: While painting foliage on a vessel one day, I looked up and noticed that the scenery outside my studio windows was filled with the same subject matter. It occurred to me that it would be good to record the moment and what my studio looks like. The main reason that I like to paint on vessels is that all the imagery cannot be seen from one viewpoint. Time is required to reveal the images as the viewer moves around the vessel. This creates a static animation, or single frame animation.
On one side of this vessel I have the unpainted pots as given to me by Ian Garrett, in various stages of drying. Outside, viewed through the windows, is the natural world that inspires me and which I then paint onto the pots. Further along there are pots in varying degrees of completion. In-between I’ve depicted some of the equipment and materials that I use.
JW: I’ve got to ask: what is the story about “(The Attempted) Suppression of the Kikuyu Uprising”? (It seems like one of just a few “social commentary” pieces I’ve seen. I’m personally interested in this because of all the turmoil we’re experiencing in my country (USA).)
JN: There is a species of grass called kikuyu, named after the Kikuyu people, as it grows naturally in the region of east Africa where they live. The grass is also tough and resilient, like the Kikuyu people, and to get it to conform into a lawn requires constant attention. In the past, colonial authorities imposed their will on the locals using brutal methods, but it did not have a lasting effect, the people recovered and continued their resistance, eventually defeating them. I see Kikuyu grass as a metaphor for the human spirit that never gives up the struggle against tyranny, and the futility of imposing rules over unwilling subjects.
JW: What would you like people to know about yourself and your work?
JN: Ideally, I’d like people to view my work without presumption, maybe the less they know about me the more likely that would be!
I would like people to know that I put a lot of thought and time into each piece, and that I leave space for the viewer to have their own interpretation of what the work is about, so that there is a three way conversation between the maker, the vessel and the viewer.
In closing, here’s a short video about John’s work in his own words.