Monday, 27 February 2017

The Deep End

About two weeks after starting at Winchcombe Pottery, much to my surprise, Matt asked me to throw some beakers, not simply as throwing practice for me as the new apprentice but with a view to them going through the firing process and being sold as part of the range. I was amazed and terrified - I had only been involved in pottery for a year and my throwing was not particularly good having never had any real sustained time throwing pots. I was being thrown in the deep end, but now, a few months later, I fully understand the wisdom of it. Being put under pressure, in a supportive but challenging environment and being asked to do things that you think (rightly or wrongly) are way beyond you, is, I believe, the best and perhaps only way to learn a craft.

Me at my wheel - looking suitably uncomfortable and nervous - as I throw the very first few beakers at the pottery
I had imagined that I would need to work for a few months at the pottery behind the scenes as it were and only after quite some time would be allowed to start throwing, and even then away from the pressure and responsibility of making for the range. Before this, I had never thrown more than a dozen or so pots at a time and my skill level had stopped me from being very accurate in repeating the same shape. I had to allow for quite a lot of variance in my throwing without being too hard on myself, otherwise frustration would have made me give up. But now I had been given a weight of clay and a set of dimensions to throw to, the same weight and dimensions that all the throwers at Winchcombe had been given before me, and I had to throw the beakers to that standard, no excuses.

My first board slowly filling up
So, I filled up a board with carefully weighed-out balls of clay, gathered together a basic set of tools, sat down to my spotless wheel with an example in front of me and I threw my first beaker at Winchcombe - a little short, not quite up to the height measurement, not quite the right shape and lacking any real finesse in the way I finished the rim, but I was so grateful to even get a pot of the wheel I was so nervous!

Five full boards, each with 18 pots and starting on a sixth.
And then I threw another one. Much better shape this time, but still a little short. And then another one. This time managing to get the clay out from the bottom of the pot so I could reach the full required height, but a bit too narrow in the base. Then I threw another, again with some good points and some faults, and then another, and another, and another... And some time later, looking at the shelf next to my wheel, I had filled up a board with beakers - It was quite a rag-tag bunch of pots, but they were there, a document of two hours' worth of serious effort and concentration at a level I had never maintained before. I was exhausted but elated. I went through them with Matt, together we looked at the shapes, discussed what to aim for going forward, looked at some more examples in the shop and the stock room, all made by different makers with their own slightly different personal emphasis on the shape, and then he told me to throw another board.

I felt a real sense of pride putting my first
Winchcombe stamps on pots that I had made.
After two days, in between countless other jobs around the workshop, I had probably thrown the same amount of pots that I had made in total in the previous 6 months. I could start to see huge improvement in the shape and consistency (still with much room for improvement). I had never been in an atmosphere where my throwing was required before, where it was necessary and where someone else was relying on me to make pots. The pressure made me determined to throw them well and I had my first taste of professional pride in my work, with a feeling that what I was making, if it was good enough, could go on to be seen and understood as part of the collective output of a pottery. It was a wonderful and humbling feeling. It made me even more determined to continue to improve in my throwing, to earn my place by making beautiful pots.

My beakers on the shelves in the kiln room, along with work
by the other potters, glazed and waiting for a firing.
Decorating a beaker by combing through iron slip

Combed decoration through blue slip
It was a huge thrill when my first pots came out of the wood kiln, especially after being involved in the firing. I kept two of the decorated beakers and as I progress in my career it will be a pleasure to keep them as markers to look back to as some of my earliest work. I have now had my pots in a few firings and have seen them in the shop, personally sold them to customers and had them included in orders. Excitingly, now some of my work is going to be included in Winchcombe's contribution to an exhibition in Tokyo, at Gallery St. Ives, as part of a group show of English slipware. I cannot imagine a time when I will feel complacent about making things with my hands that mean something to someone else.

The pots stacked on the shelves after unpacking the kiln - the first time my pots were included in a firing

The two beakers I kept from that first firing.

Slipware beakers, with two styles of combing, being sent as part of the exhibition.
In amongst all my other responsibilities (mixing and preparing the clay, biscuit firings, glazing, preparing and packing the kiln, cutting and stacking wood, firing the wood kiln, and countless general workshop jobs) I now also throw the plates here at Winchcombe as well as some other pots in the range. The truth of course is that throwing is only one aspect of working as a potter, and within that it is only a portion of what it takes to make an individual pot, but I see throwing in terms of learning a language, a skill that allows you to express yourself - rather than an end in itself it is the means by which you say things, and greater fluency leads to more beautiful work. I have a long, long way to go but I have a real hunger to become a highly accomplished production thrower, knowing full well it will take decades of hard work. I will be forever grateful to Matt for throwing me in the deep end like that. He somehow seemed to know that I would be able to swim even though I did not know it myself.

Joseph Fuller

Monday, 20 February 2017

An Introduction from Winchcombe Pottery

Winchcombe Pottery - a view of the workshop from the road. This is looking towards the kiln room and you can see the chimney sticking through the roof. 
Hello, my name is Joseph Fuller and this is my first post for Adopt a Potter about being an apprentice at Winchcombe Pottery. I started here at the end of 2016 and there are so many things I have learnt already and I will use this blog to post about the different aspects involved in working at the pottery. I also want to write posts about my thoughts on pottery in a wider sense and use the blog to chart how they develop as my knowledge and experience increases. First of all, though, I will just introduce myself a little with a bit of background.

Outside the workshop, where we cut and stack the pine before moving it under cover to season for around 6 months. We cut the wood using a saw attached to this beautiful old tractor.

Some years ago now, I studied at the Ruskin School of Fine Art, at the University of Oxford, concentrating mainly on painting and film, and after graduating in 2010 I worked as an artist’s assistant in Brussels for a while and then in Mumbai between 2011 and 2013. I then tried a number of different jobs, including time with Oxfam and as a teaching assistant in a secondary school. After moving back from India, alongside working, I spent a lot of time looking into finding a craft, but nothing ever quite seemed right. I missed working with my hands, which I had not done properly since university, but, importantly, felt that I wanted to find something away from art (I am hoping to write about this move away from art and towards craft, in greater length, at another time.) I really wanted to learn a skill, to be able to get to the end of my life having committed to a craft and attempted to really understanding something.

The glazing room at Winchcombe - this is where the biscuit-fired pots are glazed before being taken through to the kiln room for a firing.

Then, as a Christmas present, my parents paid for me to attend a ceramics evening class at my old sixth form college. I had no expectations at all. I was very fortunate: The course was led by Graham Hudson – a wonderful, patient teacher. About half way through the course we had our first go on the wheel. I was attracted by the difficulty of the process and it felt like a challenge, especially with my initial struggling compared to the grace of Graham’s throwing. More immediately, I was drawn to the directness of the relationship between my hands and the material. I decided there and then that I wanted to work towards acquiring the skill of throwing and to become a potter, and to challenge myself to commit to what would clearly take years and years of serious hard work. After the course, I was fortunate to be able to spend a year at Dove St Pottery with David Worsley in West Yorkshire, for my invaluable first experiences of a pottery workshop.

My wheel at Winchcombe on day 1 - completely clean and spotless, before I have thrown a single pot on it. It is quite different now and one of my favourite feelings in the pottery is the rhythm of shelves filling up and emptying as you move through the making process.

That brings us up to now, and I am very excited to be joining Winchcombe Pottery, which will be an amazing place to develop my skills. There is so much history at Winchcombe, which in truth is quite intimidating for someone at such an early stage in their career, but I see it is as one of the best challenges: to study it, to understand it, to respect it and to then learn to be confident and humble enough to make your small contribution to it all. I am looking forward to experiencing life as a production thrower and to being part of a team at a pottery. I am keen to learn about wood-fired kilns, something I have no experience of, and to explore making slipware alongside the standard range. Up until now, my own work has tended to be quite minimal in design with quiet glazes, but I am going to take this year as an amazing opportunity to experiment and explore and to be open to picking up different techniques and languages within making pots, with no fixed ideas of where my work should go.

So, this is the beginning.

A view from Cleeve Hill, a few miles away from the pottery. I went for a walk up here on the first evening when I moved down to the Cotswolds. It is an amazingly beautiful part of the country and it was a great place to ponder this next stage in my life.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017


So, Christmas came and went, and we're just now just about recovered. Here's a picture of the late-night oil-kiln pack we managed to get through just in time for the last Christmas rush. It was a really special firing for me for number of reasons, one being that I got to pack the majority of it. Its a complex task that combines grouping together pieces of a similar size, and placing certain glazes to suit certain areas within the kiln. An example of this would be, placing Tenmoku on the outer edges of the shelves, into the firebox (the area in the kiln in which the flames are directed), because it can take a lot of heatwork. Or placing the combination chun and plum glazes, with wax resist, higher up in the kiln, because if they get too hot, the brush lines will be lost and the glaze may run off the pot and fuse to the shelf.

The firing was successful, bar a bit of under-firing at the bottom. This caused some of those wax resist decorations to come out white-ish instead of a the shiny, brown and speckled blue we hoped for. 

I have continued to purse throwing larger forms, with some success...and some disaster :) Below is a photograph of a 8lb jug form I have been practicing. Its very, very satisfying to make something so big when it is successful. I could justify keeping only four, after turning and fluting (another danger zone for error) and handling, and will fire them in our first firing this year. 

January has been an opportunity for us to get on with finishing the Gas Kiln too. We did our first biscuit firing a few weeks ago which was overall pretty successful. It was a lot noisier and smellier than we had imagined, but it got up to 970 degrees (after getting stuck at 930 for a while) and the pots came out just fine. Helping and watching Matthew to put it together has been a really valuable experience. Its really given my understanding of how built kilns work greater depth. I may have even caught the bug! In June last year, I got the opportunity to go to the Earth and Fire ceramic fair at Rufford with Adopt a Potter. Seeing all the beautiful pots opened my eyes to lots of different ways of firing, and I'm most definitely more than intrigued by wood firing.  I love it when we get variation of tone over one pot in the oil kiln, and it would seem that this is all part of the beauty of firing with wood. I hope to learn more soon!

the new Joe Finch Gas Kiln

And just to finish, here's a picture of me in my December get-up. We do our glazing in the kiln shed, which is literally a big shed and not at all a warm space to be.  The plastic bags are because I refused to swap my boots for my usual workshop shoes (chef's Birkenstocks - they're brilliant!), but iron oxide  (a key ingredient to many of our glazes) on leather is never a good thing.  I won't tell you how many layers I have on under that boiler suit! Sometimes you do have to sacrifice looks to get the job done.