Its a funny thing, but I always take it as a good sign when, as a volunteer, I arrive at an event and am immediately presented with a tin of paint and a brush.
Maybe I have some sort of subconscious desire to be a painter and decorator. But one of the first things I remember from my time at the British Ceramics Biennial (BCB) is this same situation. So when I arrived at Rufford Abbey Country Park a few Thursday’s back (time is flying at the moment!) to volunteer at Earth and Fire International Ceramics Fair and was presented with a tin of black board paint, a brush, a large white piece of board, and left to it while staff made final preps for arrival of over 100 ceramicists, I knew I was on to a good thing.
A bit of a strange anecdote to start I know. But there is something tangible as a volunteer about being given something practical to do. The task also represents a small but welcome initial sign of trust and good faith between organiser and volunteer.
Earth and Fire took place between the 20th and 22nd of June. My first time at the event, arriving on the 19th to help with set up, I was immediately struck by the beauty of the Rufford Abbey Country Park setting, sweeping green lawns surrounding the beautiful ruins of a 12th Century Abbey (within which some ceramicists were lucky enough to exhibit). This beautiful setting accompanied by the timely appearance of the sun were especially encouraging given that I would be camping in the grounds throughout the event.
Now in its 20th year Earth and Fire was originally modelled on the ceramics fairs and craft markets which had long been common in other European countries but previously had not made the jump to the UK. Unlike some of the other more exhibition style events I have volunteered at this is very much at the selling fair / market. I actually found this made for an immediately approachable, maybe, in some ways, less intimidating atmosphere. Individual potters and makers attend these fairs because they are integral to the business of being a studio potter, being one of the primary ways in which many sell their work and make their daily bread. And as always this contact with makers in situ with their work was something I (as well as many visitors) relished, and added immeasurable value to the work on show by directly injecting it with story, provenance and the makers personality.
Camping on site with many of the potters from all over the UK and Europe was a particularly special feature of this event. After a long day on Thursday lifting, shifting and setting up I found myself pitching my tent in a field full of other friendly slightly ceramics obsessed people like myself. On hand for nourishing ceramic chat and (no less importantly) to lend me a pump to inflate my borrowed air bed. With the sun still shining beyond 9pm, the summer solstice just a day away there was a pre show expectant and optimistic atmosphere. Increasingly I feel an affinity to this community of people amongst whom I would like to work in the future and the opportunity to live among them for a few days, learning a bit more about the people and their lives outside of ceramics; was both very enjoyable and inspiring one.
Friday saw the opening of the event to the public and the start of one of my main tasks over the weekend . This involved going round all the makers and arranging stand cover for those taking part in that days talks, demos and potters games (an idea which I gather was birthed out of the olympic fever a couple of years ago and has became a permanent – highly entertaining fixture – Relay Pot Throwing anyone?).
As with other events this provided a brilliant excuse for me to meet more potters and learn more about their work and their background. I had the chance to see how many different potters (ranging from utility to sculpture) laid out their stands and what effect this had (something the Shipley based potter David Worsley discussed in a recent post). It also gave me the chance to talk to those people interested in buying ceramics (and in some cases – happily make a sale or two!). Why were they interested? What did they look for? Which pieces were they drawn to? What did they want to pick up? To handle? This in itself was fascinating and hopefully may even one day be useful – if and when I sell my own work.
Over the following few days I once again had the chance to catch up with members of the studio potter world I had met before as well as meet new ones. It has been nice to begin to arrive at these events and start to recognise one or two faces. I start to feel a bit less like a slightly nutty random volunteer, and more like part of a community. Though still being pretty new to this world; even meeting past acquaintances can still create a strange sense of Deja-vu between myself a potter before one party can place the other. It was only half way through helping Richard and Helen Heeley unload their beautiful new – but tragically AA-tow truck powered VW Transporter on Thursday evening that I finally realised I had met them before – at Ceramics in The City at the Geffrye museum last year. Thus explaining why we had been giving each other such odd looks.
In Japanese ceramics there is a tradition known as kintsugi – it literally means ‘golden journey’ and involves repairing damaged ceramics with resin and precious metals – normally gold. in this process the pot gains in value and significance as it wears part of its story, its provenance, on its surface. The results of this practice can be stunning to view and intriguing to contemplate. In a similar vein, at this event one of the things I particularly valued was learning more about various potters journeys - where they came from, how they got involved what inspired and motivated them.
Taking advice from one of my cousins, I built on this interest by taking the chance to informally interview a few of the makers on show. This was a new challenge – considering the questions I should ask, that could hopeful be interesting for other people to read (more in a later post) . But if nothing else it provided a really good excuse for me to delve more into these makers histories, backgrounds and experiences – leading to some fascinating conversations. For lack of super speed note taking abilities I recorded these interviews and hope to write them up and post them in the near future. But can I say a massive thank you to Sarah Malone, Andrew Pentland and Richard Heeley for being so friendly and amenable to my slightly odd request!
Come Saturday evening there was a chance for all the potters to have a look at Pollie and Garry Uttley’s stunning Indian Inspiration exhibition being held in the Rufford Craft Centre gallery adjacent to the Abbey. An evening at which, whilst handing out small trays of Bombay mix – I managed a few more interesting conversations with a few of the potters. This included learning more about ceramics in the Netherlands from Diedrick Heyning and Niek Hoogland and about their respective journeys into ceramics – thanks to them both for some international insight.
I have found – as with many things ceramics, the makers pathways are not as simple as may be assumed. Many had completely different careers and lives before arriving at ceramics, spanning from venture capital to medicine. This event served as further evidence of the fascinating depth to all things ceramics. Be it the techniques, the people or the exhibitions and events.
Later Saturday evening came the Potters Meal . This was a great chance for all the potters, event staff (and me) to relax and socialise (as well as talk about ceramics) and was further evidence of this events extremely friendly atmosphere. I think this opportunity for all exhibitors, volunteers and staff to get together is an inspired idea – something it would be great to see at more events like this. (and I’m not just saying this because the buffet laid on by the Coach House Cafe beat hands down the sun baked supply of oatcakes and bananas in my tent!).
The combination of ceramics, makers, sun, more sun and a beautiful setting made this event a brilliant one for me to volunteer at. I need to say a massive thank you to all those from Nottinghamshire County Council organising and running the event. From Helen who originally reached out to me about volunteering at this event, to Kevin who very kindly gave me lifts to and from Nottingham train station and everyone else in the team. From the start they always made me feel welcome, helped me out with camping supplies and importantly were also happy to trust me with tasks so I could help contribute to the event. They showed me that it doesn’t take a massive team to run a successful event like this – just some committed enthusiastic people happy to pitch in.
Thanks also to all those makers who were happy to speak with me, talk about their experiences and offer advice and knowledge.
For me, I’m now on the hunt for my next exhibition to volunteer at – as always if you’re reading this and happen to be searching for enthusiastic slightly nutty ceramics related volunteers – please get in touch – its always welcome! In the mean time I’m still Stoke based with Reiko Kaneko (I will get round to that blog at some point honest I will) and with lots of exciting projects on the horizon its a role I am thoroughly enjoying. Im also hoping to be involved in building and firing a wood fired kiln at some point – possibly with Andrew Pentland – fingers crossed – it sounds brilliant. If and when I wil try and at least post some pictures on here.
All the best.
(more sunny pictures from the weekend)…