‘Everything begins, always begins, with a lump of clay and me sitting by myself.’
This quotation from ceramicist Edmund de Waal was positioned next to his sophisticated ceramic work Arcady in an exhibition of modern ceramics. At the entrance to the exhibition was a potter’s studio where a potter was working at her wheel; hands, arms, floor, table, covered in wet clay. But as the wheel turned a pot was taking shape.
Clay is the most basic material to work with, dug up out of the ground, shapeless, ugly, but capable of being formed into something beautiful. Like God, potters make things that are both beautiful and useful out of the most seemingly unpromising mud. But clay is not just another medium: it symbolises the origins of humanity and life itself.
‘I was first drawn to the basic, sensual pleasure of making – that simple enjoyment of squeezing a bit of mud and giving it shape.’
On the shelves near the working potter were some of the pots made by children and adult participants in the practical workshops (‘Clay Time’). They were lop-sided and lumpy, very different from the finished pots created by the professional ceramicists.
‘To make pottery is an adventure to me, every new work is a new beginning.
Videos showed the artists making the works that were actually on display. They worked with the clay with confidence, knowing both its limitations and its strengths: the clay, as it were, cooperating with the potter until the form was beautiful, as though potter and clay were in an equal, covenantal process. And if necessary the pots were remade, not thrown away.
‘I become part of the process.’
Not all of the exhibits were pots. Some were architectural or sculptural forms. One display, by Jenny Stolzenberg was of many beautifully modelled shoes: a dancing shoe, a T-bar sandal, a slipper. These were all modelled from from the shoes of concentration camp victims.
‘I can create beauty out of the unspeakable.’
Edmund de Wall’s exhibit is called ‘Arcady’ , evoking utopia or Eden, a beautiful unspoiled place. It consists of eighteen white porcelain vessels of slightly different sizes and shades in a metal case. None of these pots can exist separately They belong with each other and they are placed in relationship with each other. Even the subtle shades of the glazes on the pots are in harmony with each other.
Originating from a lump of clay, each artwork in the exhibition had become so much more. They were creations that were beautiful in their form, proportion and space. They were complete, satisfying, finished. They originated in earth, but belong to heaven.
“It’s an inscrutable material in the sense that it comes from earth but seems to aspire to something else. It seems closer to glass – closer to air – than the earth.’
(Edmund de Waal)
‘Shaping ceramics’, was an exhibition of 13 ceramicists who were themselves, or were the descendants of, refugees from Nazi Europe, at The Jewish Museum London, November 2016- February 2017.The quotations are from the artists whose work was displayed.