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Since my last posting I have moved into my new studio, which is where I am sitting and writing now, and I have had more time to reflect, contemplate and draw. I am consciously thinking a great deal about my working process in the studio. I work fast. I enjoy working at a pace, speeding through drawing, making marks swiftly and producing an amount that I can sift back through and reflect on.

This is not a new way of working for me, it is how I work, but I am going to consciously carve out more time now to look and observe what is developing, and with this extra space and the better light quality it affords I think I have a good environment in which to do this. My time is also sometimes limited. I lead a pretty frenetic working life and sometimes when I look through my diary I think how on earth am I going to do all that properly?

Currently half of my working week is spent in the studio, although it is punctuated by teaching and working in my role as a pastoral tutor. Whilst I have managed to find the time to reflect and respond in my own practice to the way in which I am working and developing new work, it seems hard to put any of this into practice in my role as a lecturer. I am constantly struck by the rush and pace of working in an institution where I always seem to be up against the clock.

I have just finished teaching a group of first year students enamelling and can report that broadly speaking the group embraced and enthused about the process. Although the notion of discussing kiln temperatures here seems difficult since hearing Paul Greenhalgh broad assertion, at the New Craft Future Voices conference last year, that we don’t need to hear the ‘maker’ talking of details of kiln temperatures. I can say that it is not something that I give a lecture on but that in order to get anywhere with the process it is something that I do need to discuss, and to be frank I for one would probably enjoy a lecture on temperature. I do understand what Greenhalgh was getting at but quite frankly I would rather hear more, not less, of the maker’s voice.

My own kiln does not have a temperature gauge, but after working with the process for 18 years I use my sensory perception: a mixture of a feeling for time passing, response to the colour of the metal/enamel and sometimes I even use the odd calculated risk and try to ignore my natural inclination to have a look inside the chamber, just leaving it a little longer I become aware of my heart beating and it’s in that protracted period that some of the happy accidents occur for me.

What I try to instil in my students is a slowing down when going through a process such as enamelling. Allowing time to be aware of the material and what it is doing and that the happy accidents do occur, but how do you get them to re-occur and become controlled? A great deal of reflection and tenacity is required and of course this needs time. My current teaching environment seems to be very time poor and I am meeting more and more students who lack confidence and conviction in what they are doing: again surely this requires time to develop and in a world where this has been constricted and stripped back it is very hard to find this time, or even perhaps hard to want to find it?

When Mary Herbert wrote on the blog back in March ‘The lack of any technical teaching or even structure in the course (although it’s not just my course) seems sometimes to exert a sort of pressure to produce things hard and fast, or simply facilitate ‘relational’ situations’.

I felt that I recognised instantly what she was talking about. Luckily for me I do still teach some technical skills to my BA students, but always within time constraints and I have certainly noted a seeming pressure to produce things in this ‘hard and fast’ way. Having just read a chapter from Designers, Visionaries and Other Stories edited by Jonathan Chapman and Nick Grant, called ‘Relative Abundance: Fuller’s discovery that the glass is always half full’ written by John Wood I feel a complete sense of working in a world that needs to change. In an incredibly engaging essay Wood wrote in 2006 he comments ‘In Some respects the growing resurgence in creativity has great potential for liberating citizens from a dreary life as passive consumers. However, this will require a shift in consciousness in which the creativity is understood as a manifold act of adaptation and integration that reconciles inner realities with their surroundings, rather than emphasising self-expression, or delivering a flood of exotically innovative ideas or products’

I have been very struck by this essay and how much I concur with some of Wood’s thought but it’s hard to understand how changes might happen in the society we live in. For example I have been surprised again recently by how little my students think about the materials they use: in terms of origin and quite surprisingly cost. As the commodities markets and the cost of raw material rocket the impact to the maker and consumer is high but what about the cost at origin, the cost to the environment, the cost to natives who are still being displaced? How do we understand this and find relevance in our working practices when we do not even recognise where the material comes from or how it is traded?

When we put together the 2006 conference, Carry the Can it was in response to this apparent lack of knowledge in the metal and jewellery world of issues of sustainability, which came from both practitioner and student and previously myself. However two years on and have things really changed? In my world things are still broadly product centered, my students broadly don’t like to work in teams and they see their studies and the work they produce as a form of self-expression, that may be fine but at what expense? Is it for me to say that there is anything wrong with this approach as I sit in my workshop contemplating my work? It is however one of the reasons that I don’t work solely on my making practice and I do try to engage in an outward-facing practice of discourse, reflection and thoughts on why we do what we do.

During the past month I have been to several lectures and last week I attended a very good day conference: Memory and Touch, organised by Lesley Millar and held at RIBA to coincide with the opening of the Exhibition “HAPTIC: Awakening the Senses” curated by Kenya Hara. It was a fantastic day and I was particularly impressed by several speakers: Mary Schoeser gave a great talk entitled ‘ My Father’s suit Part 11’ and Dr Mark Paterson gave a paper entitled “Material Sensibilities. Design, Affect, Sensation.’ I am still thinking through what I heard and saw, the exhibition, which is at RIBA and continues through 7th June. I particularly enjoyed a piece by Mr Hara, which has a profound lightness and sensibility and evokes all the senses in a very beautiful way.

Helen Carnac May 2008

Images below from “HAPTIC: Awakening the Senses”

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One thought on “Time to reflect

  1. Working notes

    I have just read your latest letter on Slow blog. Like you Helen, I am aware of running around listening, talking, writing, thinking, reading, and trying to keep half an eye on what might yet be made. The idea of routine, of regularly attending to work, of crafting, of making and developing ideas through the making process often seems a shattered fragmented notion. Perhaps it was always thus.

    I once heard a recording of the poet Sylvia Plath saying something about a poet only actually being a poet for tiny amounts of time in a lifetime- only actually engaged in writing poetry for a few minutes at a time. She described the way in which as soon as she stopped writing, the sense of being a poet began to ebb away. What was her identity for the rest of the time?

    I have a photograph on the wall of my workshop of Giorgio Morandi. The photograph is taken from behind the small group of objects which the painter is in the process of arranging or painting or about to paint. Morandi has his glasses perched on the top of his head and he is intently looking at the small pots- studying, contemplating them. Although he is known as a painter, there are is no evidence of that activity in the photo- no paintbrush, no paint- only a man looking. His paintings are what remain of a man intently looking.

    Since I started work with clay, ceramics has always been an uncomfortable place to be- living on the edges, in the metaphorical border country. That is of course its attraction too- a place of ‘perhaps’, of uncertainties, of difficulties and ambiguities. With the recent closure of so many specialist courses, most recently where I work at Glasgow School of Art, which has just decided not to recruit this year (the last ceramics course in Scotland) we feel a heightened sense of the thin ice on which we walk. It is a time for argument, polemic, for clarity, definition, and absolutes. So how does hesitant border country fare? Working out of a specific material- where that material itself might become the subject of the work- actually the question which is being asked, is more than ever a challenge. What is the shape of a practice which addresses ideas through a single material and gives space for possibilities? Trying to find the way forward here towards new work which needs to be looked at, to keep the idea of ‘maybe’ alive.

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