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An Interview with Carys Davies

March 8, 2016

Carys Davies is a ceramicist who works from a studio in Parade Mews in Tulse Hill. Having left her career as an engineer she re-trained and set up on her own as an artist, making porcelain pots.

How did you first become interested in ceramics? I was good at science so there was never any question that I would do art A-Level let alone an art degree. I was lucky because although I didn’t study art at school, my school had a pottery club so I got to do ceramics right up until I left.

I went on to do an engineering degree where I developed an interest in design and problem-solving. I became an engineer and consultant working on the design of systems. After a 30 year career, I jacked it all in and went back to college to do a ceramics degree at Harrow.

I finished college and I got a job in Parade Mews working for another potter. After 5 years, I set up on my own as a ceramist.

What does your background in engineering add to your process of working?  I was attracted to engineering because of the materials. As an engineer, I made gas turbines for aeroplane engines. Throwing a pot and making the combustion chamber for a gas turbine engine are quite similar. They both go round.

I was always very interested in materials and how they work and how they affect what you can make out of them and also the importance of the feel of design. When you are making ceramics, it’s all about the feel of it. There is quite a lot of feel, even when you are designing the very high tech stuff in industry.

I was an engineer at a time when it wasn’t very common for women to be accepted on the shop floor so I moved from engineering into computers. It wasn’t that long ago, but it was long enough ago, that you couldn’t get a job as a woman. A lot of design also happens in computing. There are no materials in software, although code has a sort of materiality.

Today people talk about the correlation between knitting and coding and say girls should be able to code because they can knit – it’s bonkers! The first computer programme was written by a woman, Ada Lovelace, who was directly inspired by the Jacquard Loom, which used punched cards. The Jacquard Loom is considered an important step in the history of computing hardware. I like the idea that weaving gave rise to computing.

Where do you your ideas for your ceramics come from? I think it’s from the materials actually. I throw in porcelain, which is a very recalcitrant material – it doesn’t do what you want. It wobbles and goes pyroplastic in the kiln. It’s always a collaboration between you and the porcelain. The pots I love the most are the ones where that’s most strongly felt. I make these oval pots that are called ‘Volcanic Oysters’ where I just squeeze the pot when it comes off the wheel. In the kiln, the shape will be impacted by the stresses within the walls of the porcelain, like engineering. Sometimes it becomes rounder because the stresses make it go back into a circle. A lot of my work comes out of these processes.

I’m also inspired by the landscape and its textures. I make these blue and white pots, where I use the horizon line, the sea and the sky. The textures I use are also very landscapey, volcanic or inspired by rocks and things like that. I’m much more into nature than urban stuff.

I spent years working with metal making aeroplanes in titanium, but I’m not inspired by the look of the industrial environment, just its dynamics.

Can you be more specific about what you like about working with porcelain? With porcelain you get a fantastic colour response so you can get very pale and beautifully subtle gradations of colour. You just don’t get this range of colours with stoneware because of the iron in it. I also like it as a material, because you working with the edge of its ability to cope. It’s like making things out of silk, rather than out of felt. You can make anything you want out of felt, because it’s not going to fray. Somehow there is no challenge in that. And the challenge is often what makes you make the mistake that makes you think harder about it.

Are you inspired by any particular artists? Does that inform what you do? I’ve been inspired by poets and people who write text. I use a lot of text on my pots. Although I’m Welsh I’m not very good at Welsh but I have used the text of Welsh poets in my work. A recent work, ‘Wylan’ which means seagull in Welsh in inspired by a very famous poem ‘The Seagull’ written by Dafydd ap Gwilym, who was born around 1315. Wales was the centre for poetry in Europe at this time, and this poem, which is about his girlfriend, is fantastic, because it still feels very contemporary. The emotions in it are very sharp. So I like the idea of that, of bringing disparate things together. Like writing on pots.

When did you start working with text? At college I was writing formulas on the pots. There are lots of formulas to do with rotating bodies and things going round and the descriptions of the stresses and strains of the spherical vessel. They are very pretty because they are all in Greek writing so I was writing these on pots.

I did a site-specific installation at a National Trust property called Cotehele near Plymouth. When you do a site-specific installation, your work needs respond to the environment. I needed to change my work to make it fit into this place steeped in history. I started to write on the side of the pots so that they had a ghostly pale look of something from the past. The writing was related to the history of the place – things written in the 1640s by the people living there.

Can you talk a little bit about your process of working. How evolved are your ideas before you start making the piece? As I’m material based, the work develops through the material. The way the writing is put onto the pots has evolved through experimentation. Some of the writing is incised and some of it is done with the resist of shellac. Until you use the shellac you don’t know what it’s going to come out like. In the past I made a lot of work with single writing and then started using double writing, which I prefer. I want to make my pots more complex.

Market pressure is another factor in the way I make work. In ceramics, you either sell a lot relatively cheaply or a few very expensive. There isn’t really a middle way. All the galleries are one or the other. Sometimes you make something which you think you’ve got right and nobody wants it. It makes you think again about the work and what you want. I do have to make a living so this is a factor in the way I make work. Recently, I’ve been making a lot of bigger and more complicated work because these are the works that are selling.

How interested are you in the technical aspect of making pots? Harrow, where I did my degree, is well known for being more technical than other places. It’s not something that everyone is interested in as a ceramicist. I really enjoy this aspect of ceramics; it relates to the engineer/scientist part of me. My glaze books are where I record my work and write down and document the technical processes involved in getting certain colours and affects. If you fire in a gas kiln, where the work is positioned in the kiln alters what comes out. So you have to take a picture of the position of the pot in the kiln. A lot of it is very technical.

Do you welcome mistakes or accidents in your work? I welcome mistakes and accidents. Out of mistakes, I have sometimes discovered really lovely effects and because I’ve always made a note of what I’ve done, I can work out how to get the same effect again. The ‘mistake’ glaze is sometimes nicer than the glaze I was trying to get!

My volcanic work came from an accident. Whenever I’ve approached a gallery these are always what they take first. It’s always what the new customers buy first because it’s so distinctive and it’s also plain. Distinctive and plain is really hard to do. Nobody else can make this because it’s complicated. Even if I gave them the recipe it’s really hard to make it work.

How long have you been involved in the Artists’ Open House? I have been involved for around 5 or 6 years.  My current studio is in Parade Mews but I used to work in Edmund De Waal’s old studio, which is a very nice artist-designed space based in the Mews. At the time, the Dulwich Festival didn’t really come over this far. I applied a few times and was the first person in the Mews to get in. I think half the people who came that first year just wanted to see Edmund’s space and not my pots! Over the years more and more people in the Mews have come on board.

What I love about it is that you are meeting people and talking to them about your work and you are not really trying to sell them stuff. It’s more relaxed. They are seeing the whole of you as an artist, not just what a shop has bought, or a show has decided to let you show. And by seeing people’s response to my work, it sometimes makes you revaluate what you are doing.

Visit Carys Davies during Artists’ Open House