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David Roberts
Raku Ceramics

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Elusive Distillation of Experience

Ceramics: Art and Perception 20, pp-15-18

DAVID ROBERTS' SELF-CONTAINED VESSELS APPEAR to possess an inner life, a gravid and mysterious presence. Their forms seem at once familiar and yet strangely difficult to identify, to have some purpose which we should recognise but cannot quite comprehend. They are more than decorative. How conscious is he of meaning in his work?

I cannot give you a comprehensive or neat analysis of my pots. I do not like the term metaphor; it is a literary term which seems more appropriately applied to language. A better way to describe the references in my work is as equivalents or echoes – embodiments, not images. There is a poem I wrote which may express it: Bow through water, Geese through sky, Vapour trail. Paws through snow, Plough through soil, Waterfall. It is as if my pots exist independently of me; ultimately I make them because I feel a need, almost a physical compulsion to do so, to bring them into being. I have an intense, almost personal involvement with my objects during their making – a kind of primitive animism. Also, I believe that the length of time and almost obsessive handling involved in coiling impart a transferred intensity, an energy or presence into the work itself. I am concerned with the pot as archetype, volume and internal space expressing containment, inner life and mystery, held by the thin membrane of the clay wall. Circularity and roundness are potent symbols of resolution in a world of complexity and fragmentation. However, on a more rational level my work explores various concerns which have importance for me, some of which might be labeled decorative. I am also interested in the self-referential qualities of pots, not so much truth to materials, more a sensitivity to the expressive potential of material and processes. This is what excites me about the distinctive markings made by firing and what attracts me to the crackle surfaces of raku with its evidence of spectacular and rapid cooling and turbulent smoking. I try to exploit and orchestrate the manner in which crackle has an inherent relationship with the form.

Wide, open bowls have been prominent in your work. Earlier versions had dark, unglazed, cantilevered rims; others had irregular edges and lines which radiated inwards from the rim, like river deltas running down to the centre. Later forms became more enclosed, sometimes like bulbs or pods in which narrow necks rose from a horizontal inward slope at the shoulders and gentle, fluent curves sprung from narrow rounded bases having minimal contact with the ground. Some were jug-like vessels with pouring lips and latterly you have been making two-piece forms where a shallow carapace-like bowl balances on a separate base. How have these forms evolved?

My way of working is evolutionary and slow, making, looking, improving, and I usually work on a series of pots which may vary in scale and proportion and surface qualities. I am concerned with the unification of open and closed forms but not as an intellectual exercise. When I work, the considerations at the forefront of my consciousness are engaged with making a skin of clay into a satisfactory form, how to resolve a complex tangential series of curves into a fluent, composed pot. Judgement is by touch, sight and intuition, not by rational analysis, I sometimes begin a piece in a state almost of rapture, a reverie of haptic precognition. Then l try to make a form which approaches those initial sensations. Although my work appears symmetrical, in fact it is not; the shapes of my pots are intended to reflect a formal language that is both appropriate to and a reflection of the coil-building process. Ideas for forms come from many apparently disparate sources: the skyline or the lines of hills and horizon, or from the curve of a water-cooling tower or an electrical insulator. Recently I have been looking at smooth eroded pebbles and prehistoric flint and stone tools and the sculptures of Brancusi. My work is not avant-garde, but neither do I feel that I am working within a clear tradition. I see my work as having an affinity with both contemporary and historical pots, especially hand-built pots from West Africa, Pre-Columbian America and Bronze Age Cyprus.

Your work has been described as decorative art for a luxury market (Stephen Brayne in Ceramic Review c. 1985.). Do you want your work to be tasteful or disturbing and which of your forms do you feel are most successful?

I don’t think about it. I have no interest in finished pieces except as references for future work; they are not made to satisfy anyone else’s taste or to offend or disturb. So far I think the open forms have been most successful, the most resolved; they have a certain authority. The enclosed forms are more complicated, the language is more difficult, but they are interesting to work on. My work is concerned with pushing process to the limits, and I often feel completely incompetent to achieve the perfection I seek, yet when I begin a new piece it is with an almost overwhelming feeling (rather than a conscious thought) that this pot will be the best yet, the perfect pot.

You have developed a method of firing using a large top-hat fibre kiln in which you fire a single pot, giving it your undivided attention. After an initial high bisque, the later fired effects are achieved below 1000ºC as post-fire reduction smokes and darkens the surface, especially surrounding the cracks which form in the rapidly cooling glaze or penetrating between the cracked slip resist. This later falls away to reveal a blurred, shadow-like negative imprint on the underlying burnished surface. The colours are generally cool and restrained: white, black, smoky-greys, and at one time a subtle deep mauve. Would you describe your work as raku and what is the relationship between making and firing?

The only work that can properly be described as raku is that made by the generic or honorary members of the Raku family in Japan. The firing technique I use is an American development of traditional Japanese practice. Some potters ascribe philosophical and spiritual attributes to the word ‘raku’ rather than simply using the word to describe a firing process. In my terms the word is a kind of shorthand which indicates a context, an eclectic and idiosyncratic combination of aesthetics, building techniques and firing processes. Although my work could be placed in the diverse contemporary practice described in common parlance as raku, it would be more accurately described as coil-built, rapidly fired, carbonised, non-vitreous ceramic. The low firing temperature and non-vitrification means there is no distortion or slumping of the form. It is impossible to disconnect the firing from the building process, I hope to achieve a unity, a fusion of form and surface. While I am coiling 1 am already considering how the marks of smoking or crackle will lie, how the flatter surfaces Will collect thicker layers of the slip-resist and cause deeper and more dramatic crazing and planning how to orchestrate these qualities to articulate the form of the piece. My work is the result of a dynamic process in constant evolution, attempting to extend yet at the same time control the processes of making and firing.

How do you maintain a balance between control and unpredictability; is there a conflict?

In any inherently unstable, variable firing system you must impose some control or else the process controls you. But I don’t see a conflict here, rather a duality between opposite ends of a continuum. I enjoy the challenge and creative tension that arises from attempting to control an apparently unpredictable process. I think there is sometimes a confusion between means and ends with raku. One uses the process which one understands from long experience and can therefore control to a large extent, to engineer a degree of control over a random effect. You take a risk but it is a controlled risk (although inevitably there are failures and losses). In any case, as far as I understand Chaos theory, there is no such thing as pure accident. Apparently random events such as crackle pattern on a pot’s surface are governed by physical laws concerning heat expansion and contraction, smoke, turbulence, etc. The balance between control and uncertainty is paralleled in life itself, in man’s attempts to make order out of chaos.

Your work displays skill and virtuosity, Raku has been associated most famously with the small, intimate, hand-held object. You work on a much larger scale, sometimes spectacularly so. One would need outstretched arms to encompass a large bowl.

When I began making raku pots in the late 1970s my pots were large for British ceramics; certainly I did not know of anyone else making large coil-built raku pots at that time. My motives were twofold: to extend the repertoire and also as a reaction against the small and rather precious porcelain that was fashionable then. I like the physical challenge and involvement from working on a large scale and when making I tend to use arm and wrist movements rather than a finger pinching action. I want my pieces to have a monumental feel, a certain presence which reflects their serious intention.

What has most influenced your work?

I cannot identify one single underlying influence but they include the philosophical doctrine of phenomenalism (the appearance which a thing makes to our consciousness as distinguished from what it is in itself); a sense that simplicity and restraint can convey powerful meanings; a reductionist approach to process and aesthetics, the working over and over again of simple forms and themes to extract their essential qualities; and a conviction that, as Hans Coper said, “ceramics is about the distillation of experience".

My conversation with David Roberts went some way towards clarifying my response to the elusive nature of his pots. One might have imagined that it was the drama of the firing which exerted a dominant influence on the final result but it is the adventure of coiling which is more mysterious. The relaxation of awareness in which he becomes so absorbed as to lose himself in trance-like meditation, is the exact opposite of the particular and focused attention and control which the firing involves. A clear affirmation that what some may perceive to be a tedious, repetitive activity, can become a vehicle for a transcendent state which somehow transmits itself into the pot.

Despite being so labour-intensive, his pots don't look touched; no marks of the hand are visible, yet neither do they seem objects of industrial manufacture. The shatter-patterns seemingly have arrived by an act of nature rather than the hand of man. The fractures and fissures are only skin-deep, the surface is permeated but the underlying form remains unscathed, undamaged. Form and surface markings seem to have grown together organically; one is reminded of speeded-up film of a growing plant, frozen at the moment before it bursts into bloom.

Crazing is a potent signifier of meaning, the most obvious of which is an effect of aging and Roberts’ early work exploited this. He has developed crazing into a language capable of conjuring up a dense and multilayered set of associations through a whole body of work. Sometimes a double-layer of crazing is produced, a larger filigree underlaid by a finer network like veins on the skin of the pot; at other times the surface may be read as dark lines and pinpoints of blackness which have the graphic quality of a photocopy of an ancient map; and where carbon smokes over crazing, a fuzzy, out-of-focus quality appears. David Roberts is continually searching for more eloquent expression: his latest pots are more bold, his use of contrast more dramatic, the relationship between form and surface more dynamic, yet they still retain that intriguing ambiguity which is the secret of their mysterious self-containment.

Jane Hamlyn

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