CERAMICS CO-OP, BERMONDSEY

anna and tatiana

I visited Anna and Tatiana Baskakova (above) at the Ceramics Studio Co-op in Bermondsey on Wednesday to find out about their enterprise to support emerging potters. Although it’s their brainchild, the studio is a worker’s co-operative, owned and run by the artists who work in it, committed to the values of “self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity.”

They provide studio space for amateur and professional ceramists, run classes and offer a kiln firing service. Since The Great Pottery Throwdown there’s been plenty of demand for pottery classes and workshops. The co-op has eight resident artists including Anna and Tatiana. They started with a loan in 2014 , which they paid off this year, and they’ve had an Arts Council grant for kilns, but otherwise the co-op is a business and its expenses are covered by users’ fees. And being in an industrial area they can scavenge bits of kit from local skips – their tubs and buckets (which potters can never have too many of) were all got that way.

ceramic co-op

The Ceramics Studio Co-op is the new face of pottery training, offering flexible learning and open access studios. I wrote earlier about Turning Earth Studios and there’s also Clay College Stoke, formed by potters who were concerned about the potential loss of skills. These well-equipped ventures are emerging as university courses close, local authority classes price themselves out of the market and schools discontinue pottery under the pressure of exams and the national curriculum. They represent the growing enthusiasm for artisanal products and making by hand and a reaction to the retreat from the haptic to the screen There was a recent article about lack of dexterity in surgical students who had had too much screen time, and art teacher told me that new students didn’t know how to hold a pencil and thought that it was enough to download pictures from the internet.

The Co-op, Turning Earth and Clay College are making pottery more accessible and I expect their success to generate more initiatives elsewhere. When I looked for training  forty years ago it was difficult to find and quite rigid. There were a few potters offering apprenticeships, but they didn’t pay enough for the apprentice to live on, and there were a few degree and diploma courses. As the Craftmen Potters Association wrote at the time:

Anyone wishing to develop pottery skills to a professional standard has two choices: to enter a workshop direct as a trainee assistant, or to follow an art school course with a strong bias towards craft pottery. Many potters and students favour a combination of the two – a preliminary art school training followed by a period of workshop practice.

It was a huge leap from a leisure class to this sort of training and required a big commitment of time and money. The new ceramics training is more adaptable and responsive to the trainee’s needs. At the Ceramics Studio Co-op you can do a leisure class for fun, a more specialized course, or take studio space and progress to professional practice.

Ceramics Studio Co-op
Unit 17C
Juno Enterprise Centre
Juno Way
New Cross
London
SE14 5RW

020 8691 6421

PICASSO AND MODERN BRITISH ART, TATE BRITAIN

British curators want to say something new new about Picasso, about whom so much has been said already,  so they  don’t put on general exhibitions of his work any more, only shows with an angle. Tate Liverpool put on Picasso: Peace and Freedom in 2010; Tate Modern put on Matisse/Picasso in 2002; the Royal Academy put on Picasso: Painter and Sculptor in Clay in 1998; and the Tate put on On Classic Ground: Picasso, Leger, De Chirico and the New Classicism in 1990. This exhibition at Tate Britain covers Picasso’s reception in Britain and his influence on British art. To some extent, it is an art historian’s exhibition, detailing past Picasso exhibitions, his dealers and journal articles about him. A similar exhibition, Picasso and American Art, was put by the Whitney Museum, New York, in 2006.  A general exhibition of works from the Picasso Museum in Paris is currently touring the USA, Australia and Canada, but otherwise you will have to visit the permanent exhibitions of his work at the Musée National Picasso (Paris), the Museu Picasso (Barcelona) or the Museo Picasso (Malaga).

Picasso’s reputation in Britain is so big now that it is surprising to discover that it was uncertain here until he was almost eighty. It was not established until 1960, when the Arts Council put on a retrospective of 270 works at the Tate Gallery, including his series Las Meninas, based on Velasquez. It attracted 500,000 visitors. It was the first significant art exhibition I ever went to.

This exhibition concentrates on Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, Francis Bacon and David Hockney. Moore did not draw attention to Picasso’s influence until his own work was recognized; David Hockney is more open about it. The exhibition is noteworthy for Francis Bacon’s Picassoesque paintings from the 1930s. Bacon destroyed most of his early work and these are not often shown. Of course, many lesser artists were influenced by him as well. (I have talked about William Newland, Margaret Hine and Nicholas Vergette here.)

This is not a review of the exhibition and I just want to talk about three pictures that fired me up.

Picasso’s use of colour in Nude Woman in a Red Armchair (1923) (top) is arresting. Most of the painting is monochrome, but parts are brilliant red, dark green and pastel shades of green, blue and yellow, some with black outlines. The combination of monochrome, strong colour, pastel shades with sparing use of line is bold and novel. One cannot say that anything Picasso did was arbitrary, but the colour combinations in this work will never be found in any designer’s scheme. Despite making a formal analysis of this work, I have to say that Picasso was not a formalist. There is always something humane, erotic, historicist, mythic or autobiographical in his work – sometimes all five in one. The gallery note says of Nude Woman in a Red Armchair that it depicts his lover Marie-Therèse Walter. “She is presented as a sequence of sensuous curves and her face is made up of two profiles, the sitter’s own and that of her secret lover whose lips kiss hers.”

I was attracted to the work by Ben Nicholson. Ben Nicholson’s work in the early 1930s owes a debt to Picasso, but it was original. You can be influenced by other artists and be original at the same time. In fact, if you are not influenced by others, you are not original, you are illiterate.

The exhibition has three paintings from this period: 1933 (Coin and musical instrument) (from the Metropolitan Museum of Art) (left), 1933 (Musical Instruments) (from Kettle’s Yard) and 1933 (St Remy, Provence) (from a private collection). As an artist, I am interested in the way these paintings were made. In 1933 (Coin and Musical instruments) a dark ground of browns and blacks has outlines scratched through to the white canvas and there are textures made by the use of a dry brush of one colour over another, none of this visible in the reproduction. Nicholson’s adaptations of Picasso’s style and methods were formal and his formalist trajectory took him to the white-on-white constructions of his later period, a long way from Picasso.

Finally, Picasso’s Portrait of Emilie Marguerite Walter (1939) (left).  This is a deconstructed Picasso portrait of the type that generated so much mockery. Two things are now clear about such portraits. The first is that they are not arbitrary, as you will discover if you try to make such a portrait and arrange the features in an arbitrary way. David Hockney did some in homage, and there is a similar portrait of Christopher Isherwood, a good one, in this exhibition.  The second is that, although Picasso could make aggressive pictures like his weeping woman series, this picture of his lover’s mother is affectionate.

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CRAFT APPRENTICES: A RETHINK NEEDED

On this anniversary of the Arts and Crafts Movement, craft has been given a boost by the UK government. Last October, John Hayes, the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning gave a talk to the Royal Society of Arts on “Skills and their Place in Modern Britain” saying that ours must be the age of the craftsman. Parts of his speech could have been written by William Morris (left).

“In most of Britain,” he said, “the hard-won skills of individuals have been subsumed by brutal, impersonal ubiquity. Butchers, bakers and others reduced to anonymous shop assistants in soulless megastores.” John Hayes praised the humanising influence of the crafts and said he wanted to raise the status of hands-on education in schools and colleges. Craft skills are essential to manufacturing industry, he said, and the government will continue to promote apprenticeships. It’s encouraging to hear this, but the way the government is going about it will not help ceramists.

Training for the crafts is the responsibility of a government agency called the Creative and Cultural Industries Skills Council In 2009, in partnership with the Crafts Council, CCS produced the Craft Blueprint, the workforce development plan for crafts in the UK. It recommended the creation of a national system of craft apprenticeships. Any programme of craft apprenticeships obviously has to meet the needs of makers and those who want to become makers. The best way to ensure that it does is to consult craftspeople and to build on what has been proved to work already.

Ceramists are a significant part of the crafts environment, accounting for a third of craftspeople, so it’s essential to talk to them. But the Craft Potters Association were never consulted about the Craft Blueprint.When I talked to CCS, I wasn’t sure if they’d heard of the CPA, although they say they would be happy to enter into dialogue. The Crafts Council did consult ceramists, but it’s not clear how far the views of consultees were taken into account. One experienced potter who was consulted never heard anything about the Blueprint again.

Many craftspeople are adults seeking a second career. For two-thirds of those working in studio crafts, art school was their route into making. The purpose of an apprenticeship is to give graduates the workshop experience they need to practice professionally. That’s what Lisa Hammond set up Adopt a Potter Funded by voluntary contributions, and working on a shoestring, Adopt-a-Potter builds on Lisa Hammond’s successful experience of training potters to run their own studios. It provides workshop experience for ceramics graduates and subsidises employers who would otherwise find it difficult to take on an apprentice. It works well. Why not model national craft apprenticeships on that?

Unfortunately, it’s not going to happen.

The focus of craft apprenticeships will be school leavers without qualifications, who are the government’s priority for vocational training. The apprenticeships will offer a non-graduate entry route into the crafts and graduates will not be eligible. Apprentices will be trained to NVQ level 2 or 3 (equivalent to GCSE or A-level). There’s a clue in John Hayes’s statement that craft skills are essential to manufacturing industry. The craft apprentice scheme may meet the needs of industry and some heritage crafts, but not the needs of studio crafts. CCS are essentially considering training for employment, not for running a studio.

 It might be argued that existing routes into ceramics are too exclusive and that they should be opened up to people with lower qualifications. There may indeed be scope for training school leavers. The Leach pottery in St Ives is exploring this with Plymouth College of Art, and some other potteries are also willing to train young people. But training school leavers to the level of skill needed for independent professional practice takes far longer than the sort of apprenticeships being developed by CCS.

The dominant pattern of work in the crafts is independent self-employment and there are few opportunities for people who want to be employed as assistants. Only five per cent of craft businesses cent employ full time staff. The proposed scheme of craft apprenticeships will not offer financial assistance to employers. Similar apprenticeships in the cultural industries have so far been offered by institutions with public funding. Makers are not in that position: three quarters have a turnover of less than £30,000. Without subsidy, they are unlikely to take on trainees.

Unless these proposals are altered, looking at the way makers actually operate and taking account of what already works, they will not meet the needs of ceramists and I doubt if they will meet the needs of other makers.

(This piece was published as “Off-Centre”, in Ceramic Review, Nov/Dec 2011.)

HARROW CERAMICS COURSE TO CLOSE

Yesterday I went to a party to say farewell to Kyra Kane, (above centre) head of ceramics at Harrow, the University of Westminster. She is leaving following the University’s decision to close the Harrow course in 2013. The Harrow course is one of the leading ceramics courses in Britain and is respected throughout the world. The accountants have decided it costs too much. Of course, it always cost too much, but in past decades it was worth paying for; closing it means the University does not value it.

Kyra was one of my teachers on the BA Ceramics course. We also said farewell to Richard Phethean, Carina Ciscato and Daphne Carnegy, who taught on the first year of the course. There will be no more first year intake. Kyra, Richard, Carina and Daphne were important in my ceramics education, especially as they are all throwers and I am a thrower.

The Harrow closure is the latest in a series of closures of ceramics courses. There is no ceramics BA anywhere in Scotland now. The extraordinary thing is that the market for ceramics seems to be bigger than ever. The best data on this is in the Crafts Council’s survey of crafts activity in England and Wales, which found about 6,700 people working in craft ceramics in England and Wales. (Making It in the 21st Century, London, Crafts Council, 2004) From their data, I estimate that the annual sales of studio ceramics is about £114m. They say that, “During the 1980s there was an overall growth in the domestic market for crafts and an associated increase in the number of craft fairs and specialist shops,” and that the output of the crafts sector has more doubled since in 1994.

So why is a leading course training ceramic artists closing down? There is no national planning of vocational education and the universities can make their own decisions. There was a huge outcry from major figures in the crafts and education and I understand that there is concern at a senior level about the future of education for the crafts. Education in all crafts is expensive, because of capital costs and space requirements. If this is not squarely faced and adequately funded, training for this important industry will continue to decline.

Fortunately there is an imaginative initiative to provide another training route, complementary to university education. Lisa Hammond of Maze Hill Pottery is putting tremendous energy into a campaign to re-introduce pottery apprenticeships. Her Adopt-a-Potter scheme has a lot of support among ceramists and it deserves even more.