IT'S THE WEEKEND: The popular world of pottery
7:21am Saturday 21st June 2014 in News
HOW TO: One of the SWP members gives a demonstration on throwing a tea bowl at one of their regular demo events across the area.
EVER looked at a well-crafted bowl or vase and thought, 'I could make that'? People across Gwent are doing just that by throwing themselves into the messy but creative world of pottery, as EMMA MACKINTOSH explains.
IT IS a hobby like any other but one which produces some beautiful - and often thoroughly practical - works of art.
Unlike painting or drawing, pottery is a more physical skill which needs not only "an eye" for design but also sturdy arms and hands to "throw" pots and bowls on a wheel.
Just like paintings and drawings, the results can be admired from near or far - but can be used to drink or eat out of, too.
The South Wales Potters are a bunch of around 150 pottery enthusiasts, hailing from near the Severn Bridge in the east over to west and mid Wales, whose work is currently on show at Llantarnam Grange.
Many of them took up the hobby as a result of being lucky enough to be taught ceramics at school, explained former South Wales Argus editor and keen potter, Steve Hoselitz.
"I learned at school, as did the majority of people who are now hobby potters," said Mr Hoselitz, 66, who has an at-home studio in Usk.
Mr Hoselitz, who also sells his work via his website wainfield.com, said that during his working life as a busy journalist and newspaper editor he "went to the odd evening class", and upon retirement finally had the time to set up his own pottery.
Apart from clay, what exactly do you need to set up your own studio, the Argus asked.
"I bought a kiln and a wheel, and needed a work space either in my house or shed," he explained. "It's a messy hobby, but there are a lot of potters who convert a space and manage to do it perfectly well at home without wrecking the rest of the house."
An apprentice potter would take a grapefruit-sized lump of clay and pummel it to expel any lurking air pockets.
You then throw it onto your wheel (which is almost as it says on the tin - a flat circle which rotates) and using plenty of water try to keep it in the centre of the wheel, keeping your hands steady despite the wheel's constant rotation which is changed using a foot pedal.
The idea is to slowly raise the height of the pot with your hands, then create a recess in the middle with your thumbs.
Once the former ball of clay begins to take on a more pot-like shape, you steady the clay between the flat of your right thumb and left middle finger to thin out the walls, maintaining an even width.
Done correctly, this leads to a pot with sides of even thickness which you can then scrape and refine using rubber tools.
For those who haven't the space or the inclination to use clay at home, there are evening or afternoon classes, but the majority of the members of the South Wales Potters are hobby or professional potters working from their homes, said Mr Hoselitz.
"Most people want an electric wheel, which you can quite often buy second hand for a couple of hundred pounds," he said.
"But you might not start off wanting to throw on a wheel. A lot of people hand-build.
"A kiln you do have to have. Those cost a few hundred rather than thousands of pounds."
To quash any potential ideas, no, you cannot use an oven. There are air drying clays available but usually the pottery isn't waterproof afterwards, said Mr Hoselitz.
"You could make decorative pottery but not domestic ware," he said.
Most potters fire their clay. The lowest temperature for firing clay is about three times as hot as a domestic oven, so between 600 and 700 degrees C. This produces raku-style clay and requires inexpensive kilns.
For earthenware, stoneware or porcelain clay, a kiln of up to about 1,300 degrees C is required.
These are widely available and run on a domestic supply of electricity, so you do not need industrial equipment or a chimney. Only kilns using gas need a chimney.
"You wouldn't stand it on the lounge carpet, but if you have a concrete floor or just the ground that's fine, I know quite a few potters who have them in sheds," said Mr Hoselitz.
It takes often more than a couple of hours to fire pots. Once fired, leave them to cool.
"It takes me from 7am to 7pm to get my kiln up to temperature and a day and a half to cool down," said Mr Hoselitz.
"That's a big professional kiln, but even a small domestic kiln would take a day and a half for firing. An electric kiln, you can leave, they all have timers and even the most basic have automated features."
Most potters fire twice - the first to look like earthenware, known as biscuit firing or raw glazing, then they paint on the glaze and fire again. At that stage the clay no longer dissolves in water. The second firing is at a higher temperature and gives the pot its colour.
Very delicate figures would need firing twice, the first time at 1,000 degrees C and the second time around 1,200 degrees C.
South east Wales is a particularly rich area for pottery, with some of the best professional potters in Britain based here. The president of the South Wales Potters, Walter Keeler, is world famous and a number of its members are well known in the art world, while nationwide artists like Grayson Perry are bringing ceramic art into the spotlight.
There are roughly three to four times as many people who sell an occasional pot as there are semi-professionals who get a real income, and even fewer who would live on their pottery work alone, said Mr Hoselitz.
"It used to be that you would be a pottery teacher or do some lecturing," he said. "I make domestic ware and I do sell pieces, not so much to make money, but to move the pots on.
"My family have told me they've got enough of my pieces, and it's about being valid as a craftsperson. If you can't sell your work you don't feel valid as an artist, that you've reached the right standard."
A lot of well-known potters don't just make works of art, they make jugs and mugs too, and there are several categories of pottery: figurative work, ornaments, even 3D abstract work - from a mug to something quite off-the-wall.
But where do amateur potters buy all their tools from?
"I suspect most people source their tools and supplies online now," said Mr Hoselitz. "There are also various websites and forums where you can ask questions or post problems such as 'I'm getting a strange blue cast on my red clay, how can I get rid of it?'
"We've done taster sessions all over South Wales where a couple of people will take their wheels and school children can come along and have a go at pottery," he said. "The idea is that they might get the bug. If you wanted to regularly make pottery but couldn't do it at home, you'd start by finding an evening class."
The Potters are trying to get the next generation interested in pottery.
"That's a major concern - where is the next generation of potters coming from in Britain?" said Mr Hoselitz. "It's a real issue."
So if you think you've got what it takes, why not give it a go? Your work could be the next big thing - or just a nice tea mug to sip from while you're at work.
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