Definition of alchemy
Jenny Lee describes alchemy as “a practice of a twofold nature – exoteric and esoteric” (Lee, 2014). This identifies a contemporary understanding of Alchemy consisting of two components; internal alchemy – the physiological world of the practitioner, and external alchemy – the physical world the practitioner occupies, and can also be described as a microcosm and a macrocosm.
My interest in alchemy stems from personal reflections on my work with ceramics. As a craft practitioner driven by material exploration, I feel alchemy relates to and has influenced my work because of its basis in curiosity and exploration of the world around us. Clay is raw and elemental; always changing state, transforming from one set of material characteristics to another as it reacts to its environment. The possibilities that come with these state changes are a source of endless opportunities for experimentation, and increasing my understanding of the material I’m working with. The key question I’m bringing to my practice is how I can imbue my working materials with new characteristics by adding or removing components, and influencing its reactivity to resonate with the principles of alchemy?
Christian Schou Christensen is a Danish ceramicist who principally experiments with glazes. In her work she challenges the conventional use of glazes as decorative embellishment by experimenting with their use as structural elements of the final product. It’s this questioning of established of ideas and exploring them in subversive ways that I think makes Christensen’s work alchemical and is something I want to bring to my own practice. Her work occupies a context where I would like to see my own – that being non functional intrigue.
Max Lamb studied at the Royal College of Art under the mentorship of the designers Martino Gampa and Tom Dixon. Lamb’s work fundamentally focuses on exploring different materials and processes while questioning established methods of working. Lamb’s approach resonates with alchemical beliefs and is similer to Christensen’s approach. however lamb works more broadly across a range of materials. this is something would like to bring to my work within the context of ceramics. shifting processes and materials as appose to focusing on one aspect like Christensen.
It was clear that I was working in earnest when I came back in September . This became clear after the first review tutorial. I struggled explaining the focus of my work. It was evident that I was approaching the subject of alchemy far too broadly. This prompted a session of self-reflection. I have chose to focus on adding materials to the clay body. Using the form of the crucible because of its symbolic importance in alchemy as a focal point of change.
I have experimented with several different construction methods exploring the crucible form. The exercise was to find an alternative to throwing the forms on the wheel. The most informative thing I received from this was not the method of construction but how the changing of scale effected the characteristics and personality of a piece. some of the smallest made in this session had more presence than the bigger counterparts. I will consider this in the future. possibly making sets of differing sizes to create a dialogue between pieces?
My method for testing has now been standardised. Using the same type and amount of clay for each one allows for rigorous investigation into the effects of a substance on a clay body at different concentrations. This standardisation was necessary to make comparable results that could then be used to inform future design decisions; a step toward professionalising my practice.
As part of my research I visited the Pitt Rivers Museum; A fantastic place. Amongst all the great cabinets of wonders I discovered a collection of crucibles. These objects were simple in the making but the surfaces were extremely complex. The way that the crucibles had been used had clearly become part of the object as a whole. On the surface of the Egyptian crucible a glassy sheen flows between the craters and valleys spawned by the fire. The beautiful way that the way the object is used has affected the object, simultaneously capturing and describing the processes that its undergone. What this makes you wonder is what if this connection between the way something is used effecting the look of the object. It’s curious; an untellable story that the object has been instilled with. A narrative that has no voice but only form.
Think of the vessels as people – they are put through situations that affect them and part of the outside influence effects the crucible changing it forever. Adding lumps, bumps, tendrils of glaze affixing to the surface, it’s truly beautiful. Mirroring the way people pick up additions from the outside world and add them to ourselves, experience, feeling, memories all added to us through external forces, just like the crucibles. Micro effecting the macro and macro effecting the micro. This is alchemy.
Preparing for the future and long term plans
The context that I see my work is the borderline between ceramics and art. I don’t intend the pieces to have a function. the key to selling to this market is about communicating an idea or ideology behind the work that people can buy into.
As a long term aspiration I would like to sell work in the Goldmark Gallery. It sits directly in this context at the borderline between ceramics and art . The underlying themes of the work it stocks are expressive, raw , primal clay. These are themes I feel resonate with my own connection to clay. However all the practitioners whose work is stocked at the Goldmark are very well established. To get there I will need to start at the bottom. I think the first step is to look for an apprenticeship with a ceramicist through the CPA mentor or adopt a potter scheme. This will help me to expand on the skills I have learned at university. Also it will be important to attend new designers in London to get the best possible starting platform for my work.
I have been assisting in and running workshops because in the future I aspire to run workshops that related to my practice. firstly I assisted Laura Negus in a workshop in Joe Hearty’s studio. my role was to help the students throwing on the wheel. Then I ran a throwing workshop in the Chatham ceramic studio for foundation students. From these experiences I have found that I really enjoy teaching small groups of people that want to learn this has confirmed that It is something I want to do. The next step would be to attend a workshop run by someone else to get a better understanding of structure and effective teaching method. An important consideration for the future is that I will need public liability insurance if I am to run workshops in my own studio.
Four years of living in the city of Manchester has made me realise that city life is not for me. There are definite benefits. But the environment is not one I feel attuned to. So I plan to move my practice back to the country after my degree where I feel more at home and inspired. There are other realities I will have to face after leaving university. Finding a job to support my practice will be important. I believe this will keep me grounded and more focused on work.