Finding your raw material

The title was borrowed from a book about ceramic technology sitting next to me on the shelf, which took me back to a seemingly distant life not many people know about. It lasted seventeen years, and came to an end when I moved to Cornwall. My early artistic roots rarely come up in conversations.  

I was 15 years of age when I started my apprenticeship as a ceramicist. 

Without knowing at the time, clay was the first material to teach me the principles of animism, once so beautifully described by James Hillman, the founder of archetypal psychology: ‘…any phenomenon has the capacity to come alive and to deeply inform us through our interaction with it.’ 

I have to admit, I was never particularly fond of throwing pots. The learning process felt both exhilarating and frustrating. The endless repetition of throwing the same shape of pot over and over again until hand and clay work in perfect unison might sound tedious. Actually, it is. 

Yet, a lump of clay can inadvertently demonstrate the fundamental correlation of creative intention, natural process, plasticity, molecular memory and metamorphosis. The material was alive. It was delicate. It was temperamental and very articulate with its language of exploding air bubbles, cracks, sagging, a warp that developed the unexpected shrinkage. Clay crystals have a surprisingly good memory, too, which I learnt by trial and error.

I mastered the skill, eventually. I learnt the art of throwing pots, mixed silica, fluxes and aluminium oxide into a mysterious concoction to work in harmony with fire and air. You set the kiln. You fire the kiln. You might get a glimpse of the magical transformation of your ideas when you peek through the kiln’s inspection hole. With time you learn to read the fire and know the temperature by looking at the different shades of red, orange, yellow and white. The process never ceased to amaze me. Once the kiln cooled down two days later the transformation is complete. You feel excited and nervous as you gently open the door, just a fraction because the cold air being sucked into the kiln could damage the fragile ceramic. This is a moment of truth, as they say.    

I mastered the skill by becoming attentive to the process and the way the elements, earth, water, air and fire, interact. The material has its unique language to guide you. To impose your ideas onto the material without listening to the feedback is like shouting at a lump of clay. It will do its own thing no matter how much you raise your voice. Gentle persuasion, maybe, as long you respect the clay’s own ideas, memory and desires. 

Recently and as a strange coincident I came across ‘The idea that life began as clay crystals is 50 years old.’ The story on the BBC website was about Graham Cairns-Smith, a chemist who alienated the scientific community with an unusual crystals-as-genes hypothesis. I never read his book entitled Seven Clues to the Origin of Life, published in 1990. 

But the essence of the article and his idea didn’t surprise me. “People now realise that life is not arising just in water in a glass flask, but in all the chemistry of the environment and from geology. That’s his legacy: to say, look in more detail at rocks.”

I am not a scientist searching for the origin of life. Maybe, and only maybe my humble encounters with clay resonated something similar on a very personal scale.

I certainly found my own raw material, for which I am very grateful.