Within the first two years of my ceramics course at Bath Academy of Art in Corsham, Wiltshire, I had met three people who would influence the direction of my career:
Lesley (Les) Sharpe, the throwing tutor who had recently graduated from Harrow; Edward Hughes a fellow student in my year; and Wayne Hathaway who joined the course a year later. Les was as new to Corsham as the students, replacing Brian Newman who had left the previous year. Brian had built an oil-fired kiln that was to become the pivotal focus of the course. Les provided us with inspiration and know-how to achieve a high standard of throwing. Edward, Wayne and I worked with an unbridled enthusiasm supported favourably by John Colbeck, the head of department.
During my time at Corsham my partner Margaret and I married and had our first daughter, Layla. Margaret shared my aspirations and in the summer of 1976 we returned to our hometown in the North of England, where I found a job as a thrower at Seaham Pottery, a semi-industrial enterprise. The work was repetitive but proved a valuable discipline. I was given the unforgettable task of making dog bowls. At Corsham, John Colbeck had often warned that the lot of a repetition thrower was difficult for someone inherently creative. He predicted the onset of little mind games as the days of making one identical pot after another became tedious. He was right. After a year of low pay and with no prospects of saving towards the dream of our own studio, I moved on from Seaham Pottery, leaving behind a very unrewarding mountain of dog bowls.
Two years later, using savings derived from work quite unconnected with ceramics, we bought Middle Rigg, a redundant farmstead with attached outbuildings, which became our home and workshop. The first glaze firing was in the spring of 1980. It was nearly four years since my involvement with the firings at Corsham and it took over eighteen hours before I turned the kiln off, with only two sets of cones down out of the four placed around the chamber. Over the years we made improvements to both the house and the workshop, I became adept at firing the kiln and we made a basic living. Margaret became an accomplished thrower, joining me full time in the pottery when our second child, Hannah, started school in 1985. Our work was largely functional with the occasional individual piece.
Back on Course
When we leave university or college we do so with ambition and drive. Over time this is often tempered by the reality of the outside world where, to survive, we have to negotiate the challenges of the market place. We can gradually compromise our ideals without being aware of it. If we step back a little and view our circumstances we may find that we need to get back on course. Our circumstances had led Margaret and I to a position where we had become slaves to the order book. We had certainly fulfilled the role of the professional potter, earning a living solely from our practical skills, but we always felt that there was a little more to be had out of it.
Over the years we had experiments and tests going on in the background. Some led to new ranges of domestic-based work, others provided us with challenges in their own right. There was certainly a repertoire of technical expertise but little time to develop pieces that would fulfil our need to express ourselves in a personal and significant way.
In 1999, we seized an opportunity to visit Japan, essentially as tourists rather than ceramists, but ceramics readily found us. In the everyday culture of Japan ceramics are important; they have status. Handmade pots can be found in every town, in shops, galleries and department stores. Ordinary people are knowledgeable and supportive of the art of pottery making. This had a profound effect on us.
We returned to England with renewed conviction. Ceramics was indeed an important art form and our work would long outlast us. We needed to reassess in order to realise our objectives, to make work that was both significant and would stand the test of time. Our circumstances were changing, we had become more financially secure, our children had left home and we felt we were ready for the challenge.
In the past we had worked tentatively and experimentally with porcelain and felt it possessed the very qualities we needed to make quiet, simple statements. If our work was to speak to people we wanted it to whisper, not shout. We wanted it to solicit further exploration, to entreat deeper understanding, and reward with a feeling of well being; simple feelings so often felt, for instance, when observing the manifestations of nature. We had experienced such feelings ourselves with the works of others and we hoped our pieces might speak this language, to enter into dialogue with others via our work.
A New Connection
Over the past few years our quest has become clear and we have successfully developed ceramics that are both close to our heart and elicit the reactions we intend. We are committed to creating work that is connected with the material it is made from and celebrates the process of its making. The firing has become an integral and important part of that process. Using an oil-fired kiln allows us to work with fire, a fundamental force of nature, introducing a welcome degree of unpredictability. When the results are good we feel that the partnership has been successful.
It is important that our forms pay homage to long and widely held notions of proportion and balance; we seek to make the observer feel at ease. We employ simple shapes and undecorated surfaces but the intense and varied nature of the copper red glazes precludes our ceramics being regarded as austerely minimalist. However, they do not seem out of context in such an environment. Our work can be comfortably categorised as vessel-oriented but whether it fulfils the implied dutiful role of function or not must be assessed by the individual collector, its fragility precluding the genuine role of everyday use. The possibility for quiet dialogue with our work is our main intention
First Published in Ceramic Review issue 204 Nov/Dec 2003 Copyright Eddie Curtis.
"It's noisy, intense and very exciting, a force cajoled rather than controlled, and never tamed."
I have been making ceramics for nearly all my working life, perfecting technique and accumulating a repertoire of responses that I can call upon as the need arises. My approach is largely empirical, a required attitude if one is to garner gainful results when responding to the unexpected consequences thrown up when working with such base elements as earth and fire.
I work with a large brick built kiln, constructed by myself over twenty-five years ago. It stands some seven feet tall and six feet wide and is powered by two oil burners, driven by compressed air. Itís noisy, intense and very exciting, a force cajoled rather than controlled, and never tamed. The burners roar, the flames leap out of each tiny crack in the walls of the kiln, and the heat is searing. A typical firing will last perhaps fourteen hours and achieve a temperature in excess of 1300 centigrade. I tend the kiln for the duration of the firing, making adjustments to the burn rate and controlling the internal atmosphere. At critical temperatures it is important to have a good command of the atmosphere inside of the kiln.
Copper red glazes, which have become my passion, require working within a narrow set of technical parameters if they are to be successful. They rely on a reduction atmosphere where the fire is partially starved of oxygen and the only recourse is for the flame to seek out what oxygen it might find from the elements in the ceramics materials themselves. Consequently, a copper glaze which will take on a green colour in a fully oxidised firing, will if successfully controlled, become a beautiful and highly prized shade of red in a reduction firing. On a successful piece the story of the firing will be evident on the surface of the glaze, with perhaps ëbleachedí white areas showing where the flame has impinged and licked the very colour completely from the pot. ë
Porcelain has a certain reputation for being a difficult medium to work with but we found it a very rewarding challenge. Our struggle with this clay necessitated a close dialogue with the medium, responding to difficulties and accepting, indeed enjoying, all of the incidentals that were part of the territory of working with porcelain. As a vehicle for our glazes it was a revelation, lending them a previously unachievable lucidity. We had found a medium from which we could create works of a singular character.
Nagano Mountain Series 2005 - 2011
"We took the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Nagano and then a bus from Nagano into the mountains. It climbed for over an hour and still the mountains towered above. The colours of autumn surrounded us. Every shade of red, orange, brown and more reflected in the dark waters of the lake. Yet more mountains, darkened by the shadows, filled the landscape."
New work requires a new approach and new materials can often send one on a new journey of discovery. My first attempts with my new material, a coarse gritty clay was tentative and hugely experimental. I manipulated, cut, rolled stretched and generally played around with slabs, chunks and mounds of clay until I had something that I could relate to. I didnít set out with any preconceived ideas or designs but allowed the clay to "speak back" to me. I cant and won't sketch my ideas because I find it too prescriptive, preferring as always to respond to the incidental. Wire cut surfaces began to fascinate me. Here, manifested in clay, the very substance of landscape itself, were fractals of mountains, crag and fissures. Without deliberation or intent I had begun to recall from memory, journeys into landscapes, mountains and beyond.
"The Blast" Series 2010 -present.
In the summer of 2010 I revisited a particular stretch of coastline, locally referred to as ‘The Blast’ near my home town, Seaham. I hadn’t been there for nearly forty years. It had been the dumping ground for the local coal mine until the mines were closed in the eighties. When I was very small I had walked along the coast with my father, on ‘pay day’ to collect his earnings from the wages office at the mine. We’d stop and he would point in the direction of the horizon and explain that was where he worked; three miles out and deep below the North Sea. It was a concept I could never come to terms with. As a teenager I would occasionally visit ‘The Blast’ with friends. This was a place so desolate and grim it attracted various film producers and the iconic movie ‘Get Carter’ starring Michael Caine concludes with the bad guy meeting his fate here and finally being dropped out to sea from a coal conveyor. Later, the opening scene from ‘Aliens 3’ was also shot here; a bleak testimony to the qualities of The Blast landscape.
Forty years on since my previous visit, nature has made an amazing attempt to reclaim what is hers and the ravages of industry have been softened to a degree where a strange lunar kind of landscape now prevails. The sea has removed nearly all of the detritus and continues to eat away the coal/sand aggregate leaving an exposed shelf, revealing varying strata of industrial waste. At the foot of the limestone cliffs an iron inclusion weeps red-brown stains into a large marooned rock pool known as ‘Red Lake’. Sun baked mud dries cracked and crazed with visceral ooze seeping between the gaps. There is an overload of visual metaphor and yet a strange stark beauty has won over.
I don't actively go looking for new directions in my work. I guess I am at my most receptive to new ideas or themes when I am approaching a resolution or I have resolved the issues that my previous project presented. I can become inspired by some external experience quite out of the blue. If that inspiration helps with the current project then I will perhaps take it on board and perhaps make subtle adaptations to the way I work or I can begin on a complete new body of work if the experience is so profound that I almost want to drop everything and start afresh. It's rare that I will completely stop a project that I am already involved with, preferring to temporarily shelve it and come back to it later with fresh eyes. Realistically however there has been a very visible thread through my work for a very long time, with recognisable elements occurring throughout. I am still engaged in making porcelain and these diversionary projects and intense experimental periods give me much needed relief from pursuing what became an obsession with the thrown porcelain form. The making and thought processes are so acutely different, I feel I am discovering them with renewed vigour each time I return to either.
My current project “The Blast” was the result of one of the most strongly felt inspirations I had experienced in quite some time but I still began work with no real idea of how I could manifest this using clay. Naturally with a career of more than 30 years I have a few techniques and a practiced ability to work with clay; but new work really does require a new approach, so I set about trying to recreate the conditions that I thought might have come together in the brutal yet beautiful landscape that now inspired me. What I saw was a combination of textures, an unlikely juxtaposition of the man-made and the natural, objects long bereft of their usefulness and worn and encroached upon by erosion and encrustation. I was looking at sand, clay, metal and stone in various combinations and in isolation also. The textures were cracked, crazed, bright, blunt, sharp, wet, slippy, slimey smooth hard – you get the picture. All of those things can be evoked with clay of course. So I set about it, creating and constructing, pouring and torching. My first attempts were far too brutal by far. Too obvious, to close to what I had seen. I wasn't looking for absolute literalism. I could never evoke the memories using borrowed pastiche. I needed to create new works not replications. If I had been inspired, then my work ought to have the power to inspire. I stepped back, almost to the point where I could forget what I had seen and relied only on what my explorations in clay threw up. I became the observer of my own doings and discarded the futile and pursued the promising. I only accepted results that helped evoke that memory I needed to recall. It has probably been my most difficult project to date but it was never going to be easy to do justice to what I had experienced at The Blast. It has probably been my most rewarding project to date.
Availability of Work
Contemporary Ceramics Centre London, www.cpaceramics.com Porthilly Gallery, Rock, Wadebridge. www.porthillygallery.co.uk Mouncey Gallery, Barnard Castle, Co Durham. www.mounceyfineart.co.uk Turnstone Gallery www.turnstonegallery.net
Porcelain & stoneware
All work is wheel thrown. Some work is altered/beaten/planed at various stages of the drying process. All work is twice fired. Biscuit 1000c and glaze in excess of 1300c (cone 11 +) This high firing results in the optimum glaze qualities being achieved. Glaze firing is in a 40 cu. ft. down-draught oil fired kiln built by ourselves. To achieve good celadon and elusive copper red colours; a reduction atmosphere is maintained during the latter part of the firing.
Biscuit; 18 cu ft electric (25kw), 4 cu ft electric (7kw). Raku 2cu ft (propane barter burner). Glaze; 40 cu ft oil fired down draught (brick built forced air wade compressor)
1979 Established workshop at Middle Rigg
1976-1977 Repetition thrower at semi-industrial pottery
1973-1976 Bath Academy of Art - Training
Selected Solo Exhibitions
2013 - Beaux Arts Bath
2012 - Contemporary Ceramics Centre London “Eddie Curtis, Margaret Curtis: New Textures New Forms”
2011 - Beaux Arts, Bath
2010 - Metzger Galerie, Johannesberg, near Asschaffenburg, Germany; ‘curtis red’
2010 - Rufford Park, Notttinghamshire; ‘curtis red’
2008 - Beaux Arts, Bath
2008 - Lund Gallery, Easingwold
2008 - Inspires, Oxford
2008 - Brooke Street Gallery, Hay on Wye
2006 - Broughton Gallery, Biggar, Scotland
2005 - Lund Gallery, Easingwold, North Yorks
2005 - Galerie Mebius, Noordhorn, Netherlands
2004 - Beaux Arts, Bath
Award for excellence. Studiopottery.co.uk prize. Art in Clay, Hatfield, 2010
Juried prize, 1st prize 29th International Keramiekmarkt Gouda, Holland 2004
1st prize 2002, 3rd prize 2003 "Prize of the public" Gouda, Holland,
2nd Prize "Marche des Potiers" 9th Biennale de la Ceramique Andenne, Belgium 2004
The Cultural Foundation of Okada, (Banko Potters, Yokkaichi, Japan October 2003)
1st prize 2003, 3rd prize 2004 "Keramiekprijs Noord Nederland" Dwingeloo, Holland;
Sponsors 1st prize, Bols Liquers, 2nd Internationale Biennale Keramiek Park Van Brasschaat, Belgium 2002
ëHighly Commendedí by Sothebys, "dish of the day" competition, Potfest in the Park 2002
Arts Council England, 2006
Arts Council England, International Travel Award, July 2003
Arts Council England, ëíCultural Business Venture Awardíí, March 2003
One North East, Development grant, 2002
WVDC Marketing 2002
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford 2007
- Studiopottery.co.uk "Profit in another land", Review of European ceramic fairs 2002. Author; Eddie Curtis.
- Ceramic Technical (Australia) issue #15, November 2002 "Visceral Heat". Author; Eddie Curtis.
- Ceramic Review (UK) November 2003 "Getting to this" Author; Eddie Curtis. (Eddie & Margaret Curtis have achieved their ambition to make distinctive individual ceramics. Here Eddie Curtis charts their progress from art school in the early 70s, via the grind of production tablewares, to today's pots!
- Ceramic Review (UK) November 2003 "Fair Play" Author; Eddie Curtis. A review of international ceramic markets.