The Hand and the Glove... ramblings about making.

'Very Good'

‘Very Good’ Lecture – Norwegian Crafts, National Museum for Decorative Art and Design, Oslo. 21 November 2013

(This is part of the lecture that I gave recently in Oslo on the subject of the relevance of craftsmanship)

I have been reading a book by Robert MacFarlane (2012) called The Old Ways. In it he describes exploring ancient routes, on foot and by sailing ship. He talks about the way in which the creators and followers of these paths and roads have left their traces on the landscape and how present-day wanderers connect to past generations through those marks and signs, whilst adding their own for future generations.

MacFarlane defines the ancient Celtic word immram as a kind of sea-voyage from the known to the unknown. It can be used to describe a pragmatic journey, one from A to B, but also a mystical spirit-voyage, something like the Aboriginal walkabout. Through this journey the present can be reunited with the past and the real can be connected to the unreal. 
Whilst reading the book, I was thinking about how this could also describe the act of making. There are similarities. For one thing, making is not a static activity; it requires movement, often repeated movement, like walking. For the most part, the paths that the maker treads are familiar; we know our tools and the way to use them. But from time to time the conditions change. This is analogous to how a skipper of a sailing ship must constantly be alert to subtle signs that the wind direction is going to change. The tools and processes that makers use also need to be responsive and evolve. Traditionally, the knowledge and skills are passed on from hand to hand. Once they travelled the world along trade routes such as the Silk Road, and now they can be passed on over the Internet via YouTube. 

A few years ago I held some fourteenth-century pots excavated at the farm next door to where I live. When I put my fingers on the marks left by the potters’ hands, I felt an almost tangible electric current arcing back over 600 years and uniting us. It raised the hairs on the back of my neck.

Making is a voyage of discovery, one where we adapt our knowledge and experience to unfamiliar or unknown landscapes. For me, it is a way of visualising the abstract, of realising an idea or concept as an artwork. Recently, Grayson Perry described an artist ‘as a pilgrim on the road to meaning’.[1]

I would like talk about my practice as a way to explore how the methods I use have contributed to the blurring of boundaries between art, craft and design. I hope that this way of working will encourage the viewer to ask ‘what and why’ not ‘how’. Having said that, in making my artworks, I am very interested in the ‘how’, as I am using emerging technologies that were not designed to do what I try to make them do. But I hope the viewer will go beyond that stage and start to unpack the narrative and react to the ideas that the works explore.

We are now in the early stages of a new Industrial Revolution; over the past 20 years digital technology has made massive changes to the way things are designed and made. According to Grayson Perry, if Michelangelo was here now, he would be making CGI movies. And can you imagine what Da Vinci would be doing?[2] Designers and makers have always been interested in materials and processes, for without them it is impossible to realise an idea as an object.

Technological advances often create new movements in art and design. For instance, the American portrait artist John Rand invented the paint tube in 1841. Before that, all oil paint had to be prepared by an artist or assistant in just the small quantities needed for the day. You could therefore say that French Impressionism would not have happened without Rand, as the paint tube allowed artists to paint outdoors. But when we visit the museums in Paris to see Monet’s paintings of water lilies, do we think of John Rand?

Something similar is happening now with emerging digital technologies; there is a growing community of creative people appropriating these new tools and adapting them to purposes for which they were never intended. And as a result, there are questions being asked about the place of these new tools in the practice of makers.

My particular interest is in making meaningful objects that explore both the actual world and the virtual world of computers. To achieve this I use some of the new tools that are available to us, particularly Additive Manufacturing, which refers to the technology commonly known as 3D printing.

For me, the attraction is that this technology allows previously impossible objects to be made.

Many people, and this includes many of my colleagues from the studio pottery world, think that 3D printing simply happens by ‘pressing the button’, but through my works I hope to demonstrate that the new tools I use require the acquisition of new craft skills and thought processes.

Yet being seduced by this wonderful new toolbox is unlikely to produce great art or craft. I agree with Peter Lunenfeld when he writes that technological enchantment leads down a slippery slope to the ‘media of attractions’, defined as ‘[a]rtefacts of digital culture whose appeal is essentially their perceived novelty. They attract less for what they mean than for the fact that they are’ (Lunenfeld 2001: 173).

Working in the virtual world of the computer does not teach you about materials and processes. It should be underpinned by working with your hands, testing materials and exploring processes. In other words, it is a matter of learning by doing. Getting involved in making things at an early age and staying involved must surely be the way forward in order to reach a level where tacit knowledge and haptic skills can be applied almost subconsciously to the creation of a meaningful object.

I might not go so far as to say that we need a new Arts and Crafts movement, but if we do, I would like it to have a less romantic vision and a more inclusive philosophy than that of William Morris. I would want it to embrace the new technology and recognise the craft of working with code. I believe C.R. Ashbee, who was an important proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement, would have agreed with me for the most part, as he quotes his friend Frank Lloyd Wright in his journal:

“My God” he said, “is Machinery; and the art of the future will be the expression of the individual artist through the thousand powers of the machine, - the machine doing all those things that the individual workman cannot do. The creative artist is the man who controls all this and understands it.” (Wright, quoted in Hanks 1979: 79)

With this I am not saying that I have all the answers, but I would like to describe the journey that I have made as one possible route to creatively combining the old and the new skills and tools. I define myself as a Maker, someone happy to explore the overlapping grey area between art, design and craft.

Over the years I developed the traditional skills of a potter. For the past few years I have been learning to transfer these skills to some new tools, hoping to realise their creative potential. However, for over 20 years my wife and I ran a pottery studio where we designed, made and supplied masses of functional domestic ware to shops, galleries and stores such as Habitat in the UK and Barneys in the US and Japan. The work we produced was decorative and functional. So over time I developed the craft skills and tacit knowledge required to produce lively pots.

These pots are very much about the materials and processes that I used to make them. I was trying to freeze a moment in time, capture a curve with grace and energy and record the effects of flame interacting with rich lead glazes. However, in the 1990s, the work began to move away from the purely functional. I started creating pieces that investigated the abstract nature of forms, using surface treatment to create harmony or disharmony and to create illusion and uncertainty for the viewer.

Alongside my love of ceramics I had been developing an interest in digital technology. When websites came about, I thought it would be useful to have one. I wanted to design the website myself so I went to an evening class and learned to write HTML code. I discovered that it involved a different way of thinking, a different way of problem solving than what I was used to as a ceramicist. And I had also heard of something then called Rapid Prototyping, which referred to digital techniques for creating 3D prototypes. So I thought ‘Fantastic, I can make anything!’ But how could I bring these two worlds together?

In 2006 I was fortunate to be accepted by the Royal College of Art to undertake an MPhil research project. I needed a break from running the pottery business in order to develop the ideas that had been bubbling away for a number of years.

At this stage I started using CAD software and found it to be a very useful tool for exploring variations of a form. It makes it easy to develop numerous iterations of an idea, and, even though the virtual is no replacement for the actual, there is enough visual information to determine whether the geometry and proportions are going to work in reality.

Once I was happy with a design on screen, I could translate the virtual into the actual using traditional pottery methods. Through this investigation, I could explore the relationship between the traditional craft skills that I had amassed over the previous 20 years and the new digital tools that I had become interested in. In an early RCA project I tried to create a Torus form using traditional techniques, but I could not achieve the exact shape, scale and control over the proportions that I was looking for. So I began exploring a number of iterations of the form using Rhino CAD software, returning to the wheel at each stage to throw what I had virtually created on the computer. Once satisfied with the form of the piece, I then had a full-scale model produced by CNC milling, which shapes the object with high precision. From the resulting prototype, I cast a mould and then slip-casted the object from that. The final outcome of the project is called The Event Horizon, and I still hope it engages viewers in a sensory experience, rather than encouraging them to focus on how the work is made.

After this exploration of how traditional and digital tools can be creatively brought together, I came to the conclusion that they are only tools and that there has to be a reason for using them, whether it be a desire to explore, an idea to communicate or a problem to solve.

My final practical research project at the Royal College of Art was the first fully digital piece that I made. I believe it gives insight into the thinking and the craft that went into its production.

The project was intended to test the digital software and hardware, but I also wanted to tell a story with the work. I decided to redesign an iconic object from the first Industrial Revolution. Inspired by Josiah Wedgwood, the great ceramic innovator of the eighteenth century, I chose a tureen from the 1817 catalogue. I recreated it on Rhino software and gave it a delicately pierced surface inspired by bone and the natural objects used by Wedgwood and his contemporaries as sources of inspiration for many of their designs. The pierced surface also refers to the artificial bone produced by Additive Manufacturing for medical reconstructive surgery.

The tureen was printed on a ZCorp 3D printing machine in a type of plaster material. It was then infiltrated to give the plaster material more strength and then coated in a proprietary non-fired ceramic material, formulated to closely resemble Wedgwood Black Basalt.. For some versions I used traditional Wedgewood colours, like the pale blue we know from Jasperware pieces, and sometimes I used very strong modern colours.

The next project I did was based on a 1766 Sèvres porcelain jar with a lid, which I found on display in the Wallace Collection in London. Through this piece, I wanted to explore the cultural and financial value of objects. Its theme is pretence, but it also explores making and the importance of skills. I wanted to compare the materials and processes used in the manufacture of the two pieces. The original Sèvres piece is made of porcelain, a beautiful but non-precious material that has been skilfully fashioned by artisans. At the time when it was made, porcelain had been given enormous cultural and financial status, primarily through the patronage of the French Royal Court.

In contrast, my response is made of nylon, a useful but simple everyday material. The design took me about 150 hours to create on the computer. It was then printed using extremely expensive technology, coated in non-fired ceramic material and then carefully decorated with artificial gold leaf. It is now in a private collection in New York, appropriately displayed alongside an Andy Warhol painting. So how do we equate value and worth? And how does craft fit into the calculation? These are questions I try to address through my work.

Today there is an ever-expanding array of new high-tech tools at our disposal. They are all worthy of exploration, but I do not want to use them just because they are glitzy and new. They must enable me to convert an idea into a meaningful object. And I hope that my practice plays a part in demonstrating that the making of thoughtful objects – whether they are categorised as art, craft, design or some hybrid – is a process and must be responsive in order to make those disciplines relevant to the times in which we live.

Hanks, David A. (1979) The Decorative Designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, Mineola, NY: Courier Dover Publications.

Lunenfeld, Peter. (2001), Snap to Grid: A User’s Guide to Digital Arts, Media, and Cultures, 1st ed., Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

MacFarlane, Robert (2013) The Old Ways, London: Penguin.

[1] Reith Lecture, 2013. BBC Radio 4, 05 November 2013.
[2] Ibid.