Beyond Measure

Context

 

This work exploring authorship and ownership as part of Leeds Cultural Institute's online exhibition Beyond Measure makes use of moulds that were created during a series of sessions in 2019 at Changes Health and Wellbeing in Stoke-on-Trent as part of Clay Works, the British Ceramics Biennial’s year-round Health programme.

 

The project began as an open-ended exploration of clay that would create an opportunity for people to find their own connections between their mental health journey and clay. We started with the idea of space, playing and reflecting on the arrangement in space of objects I had brought in, with participants then making structures using clay in its plastic, liquid and firmer states.

 

After the first session, participants expressed what they would like to do in future sessions, and the rest of the weeks were planned around this. Many expressed a wish to make multiples of a single object, making their own moulds. Some wanted to make something functional that they could use in their homes, others were more interested in the process of exploring the material. Engaging in a process rather than creating a product was key to our work together. The participants made sprig moulds (small moulds which are normally used to add details to a bigger piece) based on new objects they created, or by making moulds of small objects of significance to them. In my own work, I often mix stains into clays to colour the clay body.  This was something that appealed to people and was explored towards the end of the project. At first we weighed out the stain very carefully and then added more by eye, intuitively.

 

The sessions were documented in a film by Blythe Taylor, also a member of Changes, capturing the process as it evolved.

 

Developing the Commission
This Beyond Measure commission has been a wonderful opportunity, enabling me to take time to reflect on the themes of the Changes project, and the idea of ownership/authorship in relation to it. In preparation for this Beyond Measure piece, I read the reflections and words written by the Changes participants:

 

‘that’s cold

that’s quite warm

It’s a different feeling

fragile smooth pastry’

 

“with clay the end is a new beginning.

the process is more important than the product.

its like the journey is more important than the destination.”

 

“need the knowledge

sharing

helping

your fingers get on with it”

 

These words were my guides for this work, urging me to be experimental in making multiple sprigs and taking time to experience the sensations of working with the clay. In addition to the moulds made in the Changes sessions, I used moulds that I had shared with the group from the BCB studio and my personal collection. I made notes as I was working, not only about what I was doing, but also the sensory experience of the process.

 

Material process

I mixed different clay bodies together: porcelain and brick clay, fluxes and oxide, some volcanic sand from a holiday. I noted the qualities of the materials mixed together, which would change the colour, the plasticity, the melting/ vitrification points of the clay. Different clays have different shrinkage rates, meaning that the pieces that come out of the same moulds would end up being different sizes. They were all fired to the same temperature, which was risky in itself, but embracing uncertainty was a key aspect to my approach. One of the clays I used melted completely, turning into a pool of glaze in the kiln. To protect the kiln shelves I made batts, and pieces left oxide shadows on them. Some of the clays were measured carefully, others by eye. This freedom to try different things is an important aspect of working with others and developing new knowledge.

 

Reflections on measuring and recording
In my practice there is always a tension between a drive to record, measure and be accurate and a desire to work more intuitively.  This seems to apply when working with people, in both cases it is a balance between the two.

 

In the past while working as a lecturer in Further Education, assessment and recording progress often directed planning, attempting to record incremental steps. Working creatively does not necessarily follow this type of linear trajectory. In the Clay Works sessions, as an artist working with others, it seemed important to rather create a space for self-reflection and reflection, where participants took the lead in noting the impact of their creative work. In sessions, making time for writing or drawing seemed to be effective, alongside other tools for reflection and documentation such as film, photography and discussions.

 

In the new work, I tried to replicate some of these processes through my note-taking, both about the combinations of materials and the sensations of working with the clay. Photographs video footage and the pieces produced also provide a record of the enquiry.

 

Artistic and socially engaged practice

Following the first stage of the commission, using the different clays and making multiple pressings of the different moulds, I felt that it was important to create a new work that embraced the transformative effect of the process on my own practice from input that came about through making and in correspondence with others.  As a ceramicist, I often make vessels, thrown on a wheel and then decorate them with various slips (liquid clay) mixed with oxides and stains. By taking this a step further and including sprigs made by other people, this commission has lead me in a new direction. It has made me think about how I explore ideas with others in my work, the value of a process that is in conversation with others.  This pot is a meeting point between these ideas and my own work. The work would not have come about without the Changes collaboration. By making this piece, further questions arise: Who does this work belong to? Is replication simply copying? What part of the process defines authorship?

 

Image credits: Jenny Harper

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© Sarah Fraser