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December, happy outcomes

wintry

Strange things have been happening at the studio lately. Unexplained disappearances of ceramics, unfamiliar sounds coming from the ceiling, doors being left wide open at night and the kiln not firing on all cylinders. I decided to go for a walk up the hill to Frith Wood to blow away the cobwebs.

Storm Arwen

It was the usual steep climb up to Bradlow Knoll. The view was bathed in a wintry half-light but there was no wind as there had been these last few days with Storms Arwen and Barra which managed to blow a few trees down along the path deep in the wood. Barra (fair-headed) is named by Irish weather forecaster Met Éireann. Arwen is Welsh Celtic for “good”. The next one will be named Corrie, then Dudley, Eunice, Franklin, Gladys, and so on, according to a “name a storm’ project open to the public. What they all have in common is an ability to blow down trees and embarrass the big energy companies.

Fatball Slim

The only noticeable activity in the woods were the squirrels chasing each other up and down trees. One of their cousins lives in our garden and has been caught eating the fatball left out for the bluetits, but here in the Frith they seem to feed mainly on chestnuts. But I was too concerned with the studio to take in the flora and fauna.

I believe that I was so burdened by these thoughts that I went to bed that night and muttered the magical words that all potters do when they seek help; “hydrous aluminium phyllosilicates.” I fell into a deep sleep but awoke when I felt the presence of someone else in the room. It was, of course, St Spyridon, patron saint of potters, former shepherd and Bishop of Trymithous (c. 270 – 348), responsible for marketing at Peter Arscott Ceramics, who you may remember from a previous blog (passim December 2020).

Marketing strategy meeting

I knew it was him from the strange shepherd’s woven straw hat and the smell of sheep.

“This better be good”, he said, “you do realize I’m only for emergencies, don’t you?’

I nodded and told him about my worries. He rolled his eyes in a “seen it all before” way and took a cigarette out of a pouch and lit it, inhaling deeply.

“You don’t mind, do you? I really needed one after what I’ve just been through – a game of poker with Freud, Mohamed Ali and Mother Teresa, and they were fleecing me. Lucky you summoned me.”

Cecilia Colman, London

He blew the smoke up towards the ceiling, and continued:

“All your problems will be sorted by tomorrow. They are of little consequence compared with your pathetic marketing strategy however, which, despite my best advice, I see you have ignored.”

“The blog is still a little text-heavy,” I admitted.

“The more images, the lighter the blog. Vision trumps all senses; the human brain can process entire images in as little as 13 milliseconds.”

Taken aback as ever by the modern approach of this two thousand year-old holy man, I could only shrug and ask:

“So, how are things up in… Heaven, or wherever it you dead go to?”

“Fine, thank you. I’ve joined a club since I last saw you. It’s one for patron saints only, quite exclusive. We meet and swap stories. Why, last time St Blaise was telling us how he became patron saint of those with throat troubles after he cured a child who was choking on a fish bone.”

“Interesting. Anyway, you say the kiln will fire OK tomorrow?”

“Well, you might have to get an electrician for that.”

“Oh, I hoped you’d just snap your fingers and fix it.”

“I’m not a magician, you know, I’m a patron saint.”

“I’m disappointed.”

“I can get St Eligius to recommend one.”

“Who’s he then?”

“St Eligius? He’s the patron saint of electricians.’

“OK. Thank you. By the way, are you coming to the company Christmas party?”

“Er, no, I can’t. I’d be breaking the rules.”

“Covid?”

“No. We can only appear directly to one earthling at a time.’

“Ah,” I said, “but the other two guests will be Thelonious, who is the pottery pugmill, and Ziggy, who is the studio spider in charge of security, so strictly speaking …”

“Sorry, a spider is still an earthling.’

“OK.”

“I must go now. We’re putting on a Christmas panto and there’s a rehearsal.  Socrates will be surprisingly good as Aladdin, you know, and James Dean is playing Wishee Washee and John Wayne is Widow Twankey.”

Before I could ask him what part he was playing, he disappeared.

In the morning I had to face the inevitable accusations from my wife of smoking in bed and allowing sheep into the house, but as I entered the studio, I saw that the squirrel was running along its roof, which explained the unfamiliar sounds coming from the ceiling, and when I turned the handle of the door, I saw the latch was stuck, which explained the door always being open.

lost but now found vase

I went to the shed to get a screwdriver and saw in the shadowy depths along the bottom shelf all the “missing” ceramics that I had stored away and then forgotten during the Covid stockpiling. And when I opened the kiln to see the result of a glaze firing, I saw that everything was back to normal, the clock on my digital radio flashing away telling me that there had been a power cut which had gone unnoticed by me, which is why that previous firing had been a disaster. Good old Spyro – always right, in the end.

Happily just out of the kiln

One of the vases that came out of the kiln has some cheery colours that chime with the seasonal good wishes. By now in a celebratory mood, and in honour of St Spyro, I decided to do some serious research into a cocktail that might do the same.

a St Spyros – save the olive till last

To start with you need a bottle of Mastic Tears, a liqueur made from mastiha trees near Olympoi village, one of the mastic villages, on the island of Chios. It was given to me by my niece’s Greek partner, and I accept that not everyone has a bottle in their cellar. A generous slug in a tumbler, a smaller slug of sugar syrup, ice, some soda, a dash of orange bitters, a sprig of thyme and a black olive. I’m calling it a St Spyros. It’s quite interesting. The olive is particularly good at the end.

 

Peter Arscott Ceramics wish you all a happy Christmas. And If you live in or near Worcester, London, Chichester, Hove, Lymington or Cambridge and you are looking for that original gift, then why not drop in at the galleries whose names caption the ceramic images scattered throughout this blog?

Thelonious the Pugmill

Ziggy, Head of Security

Cheers. Here’s looking forward to 2022, and hoping it surprises us by bringing pleasure, gladness and delight. After all, the number 22 indicates that your angels have your back and are ready to help you in whatever way they can (apparently it is an “Angel Number”).

kalá Christoúgenna

 

November news

Potter Pete’s foggy day

Sitting on CJ’s bench and looking down at Ledbury from Bradlow Knoll was an autumnal experience in that it was misty, mellow and mushroomy, and there were no sheep bleating and no birds singing – everything was wrapped in a dull light that seemed to smother any sound, as well as the view. It is pleasing to see how a well-worn path has established itself and forked off the main path towards the bench – obviously it is well used, and the many backsides will add a patina of polish to the wood as time goes by.

fly agaric

November is a little late for mushrooms but there are still a few hanging around in the woods daring you to pick them, and there is that strange damp, rotten-wood mushroom whiff that appears at this time of the year. The one that stood out was a Fly Agaric that had had its edges nibbled by something – strangely, since they are somewhat poisonous, specially to insects. In northern European countries it was used to keep flies off the milk, thus the name, and it can induce psychedelic episodes in those shamans and hippies who ingest it.

Old Man’s Beard

Lots of ‘Old Man’s Beard’ along the path, named after the fluffy seed heads that can be found in the autumn and early winter, it’s a wild clematis that produces a mass of scented, white flowers in late summer and is pollinated by bees and hoverflies. Owing to the fact that the dry stems draw well and do not burst into flame, cigar lengths were smoked and hence it is also called Smoking Cane. But it is best known as Traveller’s Joy.

The main gallery at the Oxmarket, Chichester

And thus, dear reader, this seamlessly leads us on to the joy of travelling along the south coast on the A27 delivering my ceramics to some wonderful galleries, two of which we have visited before in this blog. However, Chichester provides a new outlet in the wonderful Oxmarket Gallery, a medieval deconsecrated church which has existed since the 13th century and was used as a church continuously until the mid-20th century, when wartime damage forced its closure.

Kilter vase at the Oxmarket

It was restored and converted into an arts centre opening as Chichester Centre of Arts, later renamed Oxmarket Centre of Arts. It’s right in the middle of Chichester, with a large car park conveniently next door, and an exhibition space that is airy and light.

Flower vase at the Oxmarket

Yes, Chichester, medieval town of narrow streets and birthplace of Tim Peake, British astronaut, and of William Huskinsson MP, whose statue stands by the river Thames in Pimlico Gardens, London, opposite the old Battersea power station – a nineteenth century politician and statesman, an eminent financier, Corn Law reformist and parliamentary reformer.

William Huskinsson, National Portrait Gallery

He was struck by George Stephenson’s Rocket at the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester line, and thus one of the first casualties of the railway age. It turns out he was born a few miles from the studio, in Birtsmorton Court at the foot of the Malvern hills.

Klee vase at the Coastal Gallery

On my way to the Coastal Gallery in Lymington, I stopped off at Arundel for the first time and had a close look at the castle and Catholic cathedral which are so striking when seen from the main coastal road. The Coastal gallery now have a partnership with the Palais des Vaches gallery in Exbury, Hampshire, and are showing work there too.

This is not Kevin Keegan

The stuff one learns on one’s travels. Did you know that Arundel’s river Arun is full of mullet, which is why its residents are known locally as mullets? I am referring to the fish, of course, and not the hair style so popular in the 1970s – those of you old enough will remember that finest of all mullets, which sat on the head of footballer Kevin Keegan and no doubt added some aerodynamism to his famously speedy runs up the pitches of the UK and Europe.

Garden vase at Cameron Contemporary

Back along the A27 and to the tranquil, upmarket town of Hove to deliver ceramics to the Cameron Contemporary gallery meant driving through a crowd protesting outside a secondary school at Covid vaccinations being given to children. Many banners, much shouting and a leaflet was handed through the car window. Still thinking of my visit to Arundel, I said I’d mullet over.

Chinese willow pattern protest vase 2

Back in the studio in Ledbury, and with protests in mind, I decided to make a bigger Willow Pattern Protest Vase with the conventional images on one side and the subversive ones on the other (I made an earlier version, see March blog). The firing went well and there was hardly any warping in the arms of the vase, those thinner more exposed parts tend to be affected by the heat than the main body of a work, so it was pleasing when it came out unscathed.

Willow pattern protest vase 2 – detail

You might want to see pearl mullet swimming upstream to spawn, Admirable little creatures, bless ’em – they don’t deserve having a bad hair style named after them.

Meandering

The Leadon, which gives its name to Ledbury.

It was a clear, bright September morning, perfect weather for a long walk, but the thought of trudging up Bradlow Hill for a view of Ledbury overcame any remaining willpower and my feet took the easier option, leading me in the opposite direction, across the bypass and along the (flat) Leadon River walk to the east of the town.

Leadon – Celtic word for ‘broad stream.’

Maybe I would spot a kingfisher, or see fish jumping, or some riverbank fauna. Perhaps it was the lack of recent rainfall, and it could simply be seasonal, but the Leadon was a trickle of its usual self, and looked muddy and, frankly, dead. There was no life in it, no fish, no birdlife, and I wondered if it had suffered another watercourse pollution incident like the one in 2016 which killed more than 15,200 fish after 100 tonnes of digestate had been pumped onto a field and had flowed into the Preston Brook, which in turn flows into the river Leadon.

A tributary to the Severn river

There have been efforts in recent years to help the Leadon thrive as a salmon river. In 2009, thousands of salmon were released, and two small weirs were installed near Ledbury, which were designed with salmon in mind to overcome barriers to migration. Also, roach, chub, and dace were added to the mix. Most fish recently re-stocked into the Leadon have been non-migratory species, commonly called ‘coarse fish’

fish vase – if only the Leadon were like this

So, I wonder if there is a problem, or whether my observations are not accurate, but I would have been very happy to spot any fish, even a ‘coarse’ one. I will return later to see if this is just a seasonal issue.

Three legged ‘Coarse’ fish bowl at the Bevere Gallery, nr Worcester

A tiny bridge leads onto a footpath which meanders away from the river and town, towards Little Marcle, with a distant view of the viaduct to the north. Five million bricks were used to build the thirty round-headed arches on their piers in 1859. It was built for the Worcester and Hereford Railway Co, the bricks made on site from the clay dug out for the foundations by a local company owned by Robert Ballard. Seeing the builders hanging by ropes as the structure went up, locals referred to the camp where the men lived (near what is now Beggar’s Ash) as Monkey Island.

5 million bricks = 30 houses

A Mrs Richards, who was meant to perform the opening ceremony in 1860, was left behind by the special train that was meant to bring her to the event. She did get there eventually and laid the final brick using a silver trowel – I wonder if she was allowed to keep it?

the foaming top of the Heineken fermenter

The footpath leads through Haygrove Farm where land has been turned over to vineyards, as well as to the traditionally grown local fruit, and then onto the Little Marcle Road which you can take back into Ledbury, passing on your right the huge Heineken plant which gives off a heady scent of old cider. In fact, I noticed that one of the giant containers was spewing froth from its open top, no doubt all part of the process, but looking like a colossal tankard of foaming beer. The robust fencing prevented me from tasting the foam on your behalf.

large warped vase

As you may remember from previous blogs, not everything that comes out of the kiln is perfect, and mentioning beer and cider brings to mind one recent large piece in particular that emerged meandering and twisted like the Leadon, looking as if it had spent too long in the pub and looking for a fight. If you saw the vase in the image above side on, you would see what I mean. On the other hand, the next one came out of the kiln looking good:

Green vase

These pieces are not necessarily practical but fun and visually interesting – eye-catching in the way the conventional shape of the vessels has been altered before they reach the kiln. Here are some early examples:

Ruby my dear

People might look at these objects and consider whether they could use them or not, or whether they just go for them because they are sculptures that fill a space in an interesting way.

Striped splash pot

People take them home, sometimes placing them in a particular place in a room, say a mantelpiece or a shelf, or putting flowers in them and changing their position every now again. The work swings between functionality and abstraction – this is what gives it its allure. It’s playful.

Jumble vase

A man walks into a seafood shack cradling a salmon and asks, “Do you make fish cakes?”
“Yes, of course,” the server replies.
“Great,” says the man, “It’s his birthday!”

Rutile

St John’s Wort in rutile vase

Last July I was going on about the names of all the different plants that grow wild in Frith Wood, as well as discussing the benefits of geophagia for some reason (the eating of mud or clay). I also think worms came into it, somehow. Click here if you want to revisit.

 

meadowsweet

This July, however, I would like to introduce you to Filipendula ulmaria, or meadowsweet. It could be because it was used in the Middle Ages as a sweetener for mead that it gets its name, but take a whiff and it might remind you of something familiar. Its chemical constituents include salicin, which was synthetically altered because it causes less digestive upset than pure salicylic acid used in drugs, and thus aspirin was created. It was Bayer that named it aspirin after meadowsweet’s old botanical name: Spiraea ulmaria.  It does have a whiff of aspirin.

meadowsweet

There is a lot of it now  flourishing on the sides of the roads all over Herefordshire: fluffy, slightly floppy, pale cream bundles framed by the hedges they grow by. I confess that the real reason I mention meadowsweet is to promote the Ledbury Poetry Festival and Edward Thomas’ poem, Adlestrop:

 

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—

The name, because one afternoon

Of heat the express-train drew up there

Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.

No one left and no one came

On the bare platform. What I saw

Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,

And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,

No whit less still and lonely fair

Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang

Close by, and round him, mistier,

Farther and farther, all the birds

Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

The Barrett Browning Institute

The Festival this year is mostly online, though there are some great events held in Ledbury itself over the weekend of 9 – 11 July. Click here for all the available events (online and non-online). The Festival is on until 11th July. The Barrett Browning Institute in the town centre  is the Festival’s headquarters, and if you go in you will find Sally Crabtree.

Sally Crabtree

Her latest installation is a sweetshop of conceptual confectionery which offers each member of the public a small gold coin which they can spend on just one thing at the counter and it explores the notion of choice in our lives-“Choose well. Your choice is brief, and yet endless” as Goethe says. It has the feel of a fairground stall with the excitement that each person goes away with a ‘prize’ so to speak. Of more value perhaps however is that each sweet that they choose comes with its own quirky, philosophical inner layer of meaning which they unwrap, depending on what they choose.

Festival A board

And for children… they can fill a jamboree bag with their own creations inspired by the Sweetshop of Words –  including lyrical lollipops, glass sweets and pop a pop a poem balloons!

stonewarew rutile signal vase

As I said in the last blog, the difference between poetry and pottery is only a “t”, and some new pieces have emerged out of the kiln which, if not poetic, are at least expressive.

Wavy rutile vase

The latest batch of ceramics has seen the rise of an ingredient called rutile.   Rutile is a glaze additive that produces colours ranging from light and dark blue, to tan, gold, yellow, and even purple.  It has a mind of its own, depending on the glaze base and the firing conditions and, because it is a mined colorant, its makeup also depends on the mine source. Many potters test their batches of rutile before committing to a full bucket of glaze – all the result of the mineral’s notorious inconsistency. But when it works, it produces many crystalline, speckling, streaking, and mottling effects in glazes during cooling in the kiln and thus it is highly prized by potters.

Wavy rutile vase verso

Of course, here at Peter Arscott Ceramics, and following in the contrarian, or maybe heedless, tradition, rutile is not used in this way at all but rather mixed as a powder with water and a viscous agent to produce a colourant that can be applied like paint to the bisque surface of the piece, and then dipped in a transparent glaze. In other words, it is not used as a glaze but as a colour that gives the object’s surface an effect halfway between wood and honey. See for yourselves.

rutile close-up

By the way, Brits pronounce it “root ill” and Americans say “root isle”, which I prefer. On the other hand, and digressing wildly, why do Americans say “rowt” when they want to say “route”? Answers please. And since we are on the subject, why do they pronounce “rubbish” as “garbage” and “chips” as “french fries”? I am sure that at least one of the three American readers of this blog will tell me in no uncertain terms.

my friend Edith

I got know a resident sparrow, called Edith, busy looking for anything to feed its chicks in their nest in the roof’s gutter. Luckily they were not flooded out, and I felt so sorry for her that I bought a  bag of mealy worms. She didn’t want to land on my outstretched hand but was OK on the table, where she would occasionally forget herself and leave a calling card. The fledglings have now flown, and she has lost all interest in visiting.  Spurned by a sparrow.

political pottery

wobbly shelf or shard luck?

Last week I walked into the studio and slammed the door behind me. There was a resounding crash. I knew then that I should have repaired the wobbly shelf that held stacks of three legged bowls. However, all potters develop a protective skin that steers them away from howling at the moon, so I swept it all up.

beyond glueing

I hope the night of March 28th is clear and cloudless because this month’s full moon, called the Full Worm Moon, is a “Supermoon”, the nickname given to a full moon when it’s closest to our planet. It’s named the Worm Moon due to the softening of the ground that typically happens in the spring that allows earthworms to emerge. And I couldn’t resist bringing worms into the blog again.

supermoon

But March in the UK is usually associated with the yellow splash of colour that daffodils provide, and we rather take them for granted.  I didn’t know that the word derives from “asphodel”, a variant of Middle English affodil, from Latin asphodelus.

daffs

Yes, we Brits do go on about our daffodils, but we’re not the only ones. They are also valued in China. They bloom around Chinese New Year, and symbolize good luck, prosperity, and good fortune. If the flowers bloom exactly on New Year’s Day, it means that you will have good luck for the entire year. The Feng Shui three legged Money Toad will also bring luck – in fact all things three legged are a good thing, unless they are on a wobbly shelf.

three legs = good luck

Now that we’re talking about China, I can remind you that this is a ceramics blog and that porcelain developed in China and exported to Europe was so named after its country of origin. Porcelain and china, by the way, are fired at a higher temperature than stoneware, which is what I use, but are made of a finer particle clay, which results in a thinner construction and more translucent body.

willow pattern story

So, still with China, many of you will be familiar with The Willow pattern. It is a distinctive and elaborate chinoiserie pattern popular at the end of the 18th century in England when, in its standard form, it was developed by ceramic artists adapting motifs inspired by fashionable hand-painted blue and white wares imported from China. Part of the marketing ploy, claims Spiro (in charge of Marketing at Peter Arscott Ceramics), was to come up with a good story to sell it.

the Duke arrives in his boat

This is the story: once there was a wealthy Mandarin, who had a beautiful daughter. She fell in love with her father’s accounting assistant, angering her father. He dismissed the young man and built a high fence around his house to keep the lovers apart. The Mandarin was planning for his daughter to marry a powerful Duke. The Duke arrived by boat to claim his bride.

the lovers escape, Dad with whip in hand

On the eve of the daughter’s wedding, the young accountant, disguised as a servant, slipped into the palace unnoticed. As the lovers escaped, the alarm was raised. They ran over a bridge, chased by the Mandarin, whip in hand, though it looks more like a ball and chain.

the lovers transformed

They eventually escaped on the Duke’s ship to the safety of a secluded island, where they lived happily for years. But one day, the Duke learned of their refuge. He sent soldiers, who captured the lovers and put them to death. The gods, moved by their plight, transformed the lovers into a pair of doves

protest vase

I decided I would give the traditional pattern a more up-to-date interpretation. My visit to Hong Kong three years ago was an eye opener, and I enjoyed the vibrancy and energy of the place – click here to visit the blog – so with the suppression of free expression and democracy in Hong Kong and the repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang in mind, I made a willow pattern protest vase, since I feel strongly about the issue, and I am a potter. Instead of the doves, two helicopters, instead of the lovers escaping over the bridge, prisoners with guards. You get the idea :

Confucius said that an oppressive government is more to be feared than a tiger.

And Confucius did not say the following:

 “Man who keeps both feet firmly planted on ground has trouble putting on pants.”

zaijian – 再见 (Goodbye)

The jumble vases of Mud Month

panoramic view from Bradlow Knoll

Apologies for the brevity of this month’s blog, which like the month of February itself, seems shorter than others and lacking a defined personality. Unfair really. After all, had it retained its original Old English name of Kale-monath it would be forever associated with brassica as Cabbage Month, which we can assume was the daily culinary highlight for the medieval English but must have been an off-putting addition to the domestic winter fug within.

muddy path

The other Old English name was Solmonath, which literally means “mud month.” Whichever way you look at it, February does not come out smelling of roses, until the Romans arrived and thankfully renamed it . So, thank you Romans. They named it after the festival of purification called Februa, during which people were ritually washed.

jumble vase

Three facts about February: in Welsh, February is sometimes known as “y mis bach” which means “little month.” It  is the only month where it’s possible to go the entire time without having a full moon.  February frequently occurs in lists of the most commonly misspelt words in the English language

dinosaur legs

However, Frith Wood. It was a cold day, as you can probably tell by the images, and my powers of observation were subdued. The only thing that drew me out of my reverie was the appearance of two giant dinosaur legs wearing green socks. The “green socks” of moss around the two tree trunks struck me as strange. The moss seems to only grow to a certain height before it applies the brakes and comes to a dead halt: “this far and no more”. Possible explanation? The air within 60 centimetres of the ground is moist because water is constantly evaporating from the ground, so moss, lazy like everybody else, just hunkers down and laps it up. Anybody with a better or more scientific explanation please tell us.

another jumble vase

So, to ceramics (about time, says Spiro). Two larger-than-usual vases came out of the kiln this month, and they do look different. They are part of a series called “jumble vases”, made from stoneware slab-rolled and cut into different shapes which are then applied to each other in such a way that the final piece looks as if it’s made from five or six different vases.

jumble vase showing its decals

After the piece is bisque-fired, each “fragment” is hand painted, then the whole piece is dipped in transparent glaze and fired at the usual 1275 degrees. When it comes out, the areas that have been deliberately left blank then have decals applied. These are fine transparent designs which are soaked in water then carefully placed on the glazed surface. Then the vase goes back into the kiln and fired to 800 degrees.

jumble vase 2

They are sculptural, visually arresting, but also practical, since you can fill them with water and put plants (or other things) in them.

things to put in a jumble vase

Lastly, if you’ve ever heard of flash-fiction (a self-contained story under six hundred words, in this case) and you are interested enough, you can read one of my stories at 365 Tomorrows by clicking here. They are an online site publishing science fiction in all its incarnations, from hard sci-fi to cyberpunk and beyond.

cyberpunk (benign)

Spring is around the corner, snowdrops have appeared, crocuses are out, next the daffs, and then it’s Summer. Antio sas, as Spiro the Greek says.

crocus sativus

worm grunting

May Hill hovering on the horizon

The fitter your legs, the fitter your mind. This is what I told myself as I slogged up Bradlow Hill to my favourite viewing spot one harsh cold morning last week. It’s good for you, colder temperatures help people think clearly, people perform tasks better. What’s more, people are less inclined to tackle cognitive problems in the summer, as opposed to winter, because the warm weather uses more glucose that’s needed for mental processes.

the slog uphill

Yes, a long, brisk walk is as good as a run when it comes to lowering risk of high blood pressure and high cholesterol because it’s the total energy used, you see, rather than the intensity of the workout, that counts.

frond vase

Encouraged, I tried tackling a cognitive problem. When did time begin? Where does a thought go when it’s forgotten? Where do lost socks go when they are missing? No answer presented itself.

hoar frost

But it was cold. Very cold. Everything was covered in wispy white and the mud, usually so slippery and just waiting to play with you, was ice solid and didn’t try any of its old tricks. I decided it was a hoar frost. Later, when I got home, I looked up “hoar” – it comes from an Old English adjective that means “showing signs of old age”. In this context, it refers to the frost that makes trees and bushes look like white hair.  It is formed by direct condensation of water vapour to ice at temperatures below freezing.

frozen worm roof

More cognitive problems: which came first – the chicken or the egg? Why do men have nipples? What would happen if somebody hired two private detectives to follow each other? At a cinema or theatre, which armrest is yours? What happens to worms when the earth above them has frozen? Just think how nice it would be to sleep curled up in a warm place, like a worm when the temperature goes down and the frost appears. They burrow below the frost line where they nest in chambers at the bottom of tunnels they dig, kept moist by the slimy mucus they produce. All that soil above them keeping them warm, like a blanket – bad news for birds, no matter how early they get up on a cold winter’s day.

do worms dream?

Do worms communicate? Do they produce any sound? My research later showed up all sorts of interesting facts, like worm grunting – which is the art of rubbing iron and wood to cause vibrations in the ground that cause worms to wriggle to the surface – but I read that earthworms do not have vocal cords, lungs or larynx to drive air through and generate noise, and why didn’t I enrol in a biology class, it was suggested, and get a life.

lobe vase

Looking around at the whitened landscape another cognitive problem came to me. What makes stoneware and porcelain white? I know this one: kaolin, or rather kaolinite, a mineral. Kaolin is the only type of clay from which a white, translucent, vitreous ceramic can be made. It is a refractory clay, meaning that it can be fired at high temperatures without deforming, and it is white-burning, meaning that it imparts whiteness to the finished ware, be it stoneware or porcelain. Ceramicists like Edmund de Waal usually like their pieces in their pure white state.

Much as I like the white of stoneware and porcelain, because I am a painter, I feel the need to colour the surface with stains and oxides before dipping the piece in a transparent glaze and firing it to 1275℃.

horn vase

By the way, it turns out that Kaolinite is also used in toothpaste, incandescent lightbulbs, cosmetics, paint, whitewash and paper.  Some people even eat it to help digestion or to lower food toxicity, but don’t try it at home.

bottom mystery

When I got to the top of the hill, I saw that someone had already beaten me to CJ’s bench and left his or her mark. In full Sherlock cognitive mode, I studied the patch left by the person’s bottom on the frosted wood: hmmm, not a large person, and very confident of the waterproof clothing worn, and given the heat required to melt the ice, I surmised the person had, like me, climbed the hill to the bench to generate such heat. Therefore, the person was ahead of me and in the woods. I decided not to test the theory. If I rushed ahead and approached walkers ahead of me whilst looking for damp patches on their bottoms I would only get into trouble.

three legged bowl 52

Instead, I looked at the low wintry skyline and noticed a thin finger of cloud below the top of May Hill, which made it look as if it were floating just above the horizon.

raven photo: www.copetersen.com

The rest of the walk through the woods was uneventful with only a few walkers crossing paths, no squirrels, no birdsong, only the neighbourhood raven who always croaks way above the trees. It made me think of Merlina, the Queen raven that recently disappeared from the Tower of London, presumed dead. It was Charles II who officially decree that the birds must be kept at the Tower at all times (otherwise the kingdom would collapse), and when numbers fell to just a single raven guard, Winston Churchill ordered that the flock — known as an “unkindness” — was increased to at least six.

Seeing the landscape beyond through the vertical grid of the trees, I was reminded of a vase I made some time ago, thus the next two pictures:

view through the trees

You may have noticed that I have taken the advice of my marketing manager, St Spyridon (see previous blog), and have scattered images of recently made vases throughout this blog in a haphazard manner unrelated to the text. He assures me it is called scattergun influencer marketing and all the kids are doing it, and why am I calling this  blog worm grunting? It’s got nothing to do with ceramics.

Brittle Star

Nor has this: some of you who read my verbiage, my waffle, my flannel, might be interested in listening to me read a section from a short story called sibling published in Brittle Star.  Please join us for the magazine’s first ever virtual launch, hosted by the Barbican Library through Zoom. Free to attend, just click here to register.  It is  the publication’s twentieth birthday, with readings by contributors strictly limited to five minutes each.  There will be no ceramics on view, no matter what Spiro says about it being a great marketing opportunity. It will be on 26th January at 6pm until 7pm (UK time).

Keep well.

December squelch

December from Bradlow Knoll

The month of December signals the full emergence of the cold winter season and, as the last month of the year, it promises a new beginning in January – who would not be looking forward to that?

into the woods

On the other hand, we’ve learnt to change our habits so much in 2020 that, as a result, bread-making, chess, virtual wine tasting, online bingo and TV bingeing may be on the up but to the detriment of other activities such as going to your local shop, meeting other humans and playing golf. I do go walking more though.

mud and leaf

Yes, there is always the great outdoors, and on this particular day the sum was out and the day crisp and bright as I made my way into the Frith. There was no point looking for colour other than the general grey-green-brown hues, no plants, no fungi, just the wet mud of the path and Autumn’s fallen leaves, lots of dead bracken and, somewhere high above, a croaking raven.

bracken

Most of the brown areas are the result of bracken. It was traditionally used for animal bedding which later breaks down into a mulch that can be used as fertilizer, and it’s best not eaten, as it contains a carcinogenic compound, though it is used to store freshly made ricotta cheese. Highly invasive, luckily in autumn it turns brown and dies down. Ferns are definitely prettier.

Cameron Contemporary Art Gallery

Walking in squelchy mud is tiring and forces one to use muscles you didn’t realize you had until you clamber into bed, aching and stiff. That night I slept as soon as my head touched the pillow. I dreamt of trees, squirrels, mud snorkeling and giant stoneware vases.

 

nocturnal advice

At some point, I woke up with a start. There, at the end of my bed, sat an old man with a long white beard. He wore a woven straw hat, so he wasn’t Father Christmas. There was a musky smell of sheep in the air. He looked at me and asked:

“Do you honestly think that they care that bracken was used for animal bedding?”

“Sorry?” I mumbled, “who are you?”

“Remember me?” he asked. “Come on. Your blog of November 2019?”

I searched my memory and suddenly it came to me.

“Ah, yes, of course. St Spyridon, patron saint of potters.”

“Spot on, though you did misspell my name on that blog.”

“How can I help?” I asked politely.

“I believe it’s the other way round. I am here to help you.”

“Oh, how?”

“You’re having trouble with your blog. It’s been preying on your mind, and last night before you fell asleep you muttered the words “hydrous aluminium phyllosilicates”. If these are the last words a potter says before sleep, I am duty-bound to make an appearance.”

“Well. It can’t happen very often then.”

“You’d be surprised how often a disturbed and troubled potter utters the magic words before drifting off.”

I sniffed the air, which was rude of me.

“Oh, I used to tend sheep before I became Bishop of Trymithous. That’s why I wear this shepherd’s hat. Anyway, your blog. You’re finding it increasingly difficult to relate its content to ceramics, when, after all, it’s meant to be a ceramics blog. Is that right?”

“Yes, I admit that.”

The Chuffed Store

“Your blogs tend to be text-heavy, filled with rambling non-sequiturs and partly related images. The last one was all about mushrooms.  I am here to provide a solution. Instead of trying to twist the text towards any ceramic-related narrative, I propose you write about whatever takes your fancy and intersperse that with unrelated images of your work. Each image, when clicked on, will link the viewer with details of the piece, where it can be bought, and for how much. The more images, the lighter the blog. Vision trumps all senses; the human brain can process entire images in as little as 13 milliseconds.”

Jewel Street

“Wow. You’re quite media savvy for a third century Greek monk. I suppose once you get to Heaven you absorb everything past, present and future, and take on a wisdom beyond anything human.”

“Natch. By the way, how many followers do you have?”

“Well, seven that I know of,” I hesitated, then added pathetically “not including my wife and mum, of course.”

Jewel Street

Wanting to change the subject I asked:

“So, who else have you helped in this way?”

“Oh, I gave Josiah Wedgwood a hand with his marketing, Bernard Leach too, Kawai Kanjirō, Pablo Picasso…”

“Gosh, all that knowledge at your fingertips.”

“Yes, but there are limitations. We get given one luxury when we arrive at the Pearly Gates but this is restricted to each person’s contemporary experience and era. So, for example, my friend Albert Schweitzer has a gigantic church organ, Siggy Freud has a gramophone player, Nelson Mandela has a constant supply of Dom Pérignon, and so on. Alas, I could not have any of these because they did not exist in my time.”

“So what did you choose?”

“Goat’s yoghurt. I’ve always had a passion for it, and it was considered the height of indulgence in my day.”

“But presumably you can share things, listen to Freud’s records, sip Nelson’s champagne…?”

“Yes, true. Albert is teaching me the organ, though, of course…… for a fee.”

“You use currency there?”

“No, we exchange things.”

“So how do you pay Mr Schweitzer?”

“In yoghurt.”

Jewel Street

St Spyridon raised a hand and signalled the end of our conversation.

“I will only appear when genuinely needed. It’s no good muttering “hydrous aluminium phyllosilicates” unless you have a real potter’s dilemma, otherwise I’d be forever at the beck and call of potters.”

He stood up and waved, then slowly disappeared through the bedroom wall.

The Chuffed Store

Later my wife woke up and, despite my protestations, accused me of allowing sheep into the house while she was asleep.

Parfum d’Ovine

Just click on the images of ceramics to find out more about each piece. Jewel Street is a new outlet you might like to visit, and if you do want to buy a three legged bowl for Christmas the voucher code is PETERARSCOTT10, which will get you a £10 discount. St Spyridon is full of ideas. Meanwhile, back in the workshop, recently made up vases are drying in readiness for their bisque firing in a few days.

waiting for the kiln


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abstract painting on canvas

Batten down the hatches

With Covid 19 swirling around, we are all having to prepare for a difficult situation, in different ways, and with varying consequences – I’m thinking in particular of the galleries and staff that exhibit my ceramics and who are facing a bleak few months, and of all those involved in the leisure, culture and retail industries. But we are all in the same boat.

ruminant from Rouen made in 1882

“Battening down the hatches” means to fasten the entrances to the lower part of a ship using wooden boards. When bad weather was imminent, the hatches were covered with tarpaulin and the covering was edged with wooden strips, or battens, to prevent it from blowing off. Sailors called this ‘battening down’.

There in the wood a Piggiwig stood with a ring at the end of his nose (Paul A. aged 9)

But I confess I am no sailor. My priorities include getting the essentials into the Covid Cupboard (red wine, beans, caviar) in readiness for any eventuality. However,  it may be that after 2 or 3 months we will be over the worst of it, and though it could be a distressing period  it is also an opportunity for all of us to do those things we have kept postponing year after year. Perhaps it is time you sat down and read all of Dickens, or took up knitting or the harmonica, or both. Ever thought of perfecting your stone skipping, or tapping maple trees, or inventing a cocktail?

Sneaky Pete cocktail

How about downloading a birdsong app and learning the tunes of every garden songster in the UK so that when we are released from any lockdown  we can burst into the countryside, the parks and gardens, with a new and receptive vigour? The robin, in my opinion, turns out to be a surprisingly refined singer – click here.

the Trini Lopez of the bird world – photo: Zhang Xiaoling

The obvious suggestion from a ceramicist is that you should try your hand, if you haven’t already, at making something out of clay, but I know most people cannot afford and do not have the room for a wheel or a kiln, which is why at this point I would have promoted a visit to a ceramics community project such as CUP in Hereford. Alas, for obvious reasons, it is closed until further notice but will reopen with the “all clear” and with great fanfare. Keep an eye on its website for updates – there is nothing to stop you buying a bag of earthenware clay to play with at home, specially with kids, who love it.

Dalek – by Paul A. (aged 9)

And children, and adults, love it because clay appeals to basic impulses, the pleasure of building form or shape-making,  – a base material, malleable, sensuous.  The hand is everywhere – pulling, thumping, pinching, squishing, rolling, painting, – playfulness which, once harnessed to technique, leads to objects being made and to a whole world to explore. Very satisfying. Look at the individually expressed  interpretations of animals made by different people of different ages and backgrounds

Waving vase – stoneware

Once you have made your cups, bowls, animals, Elvis Presley figurines, and they have dried, you might consider joining CUP and learn how to blunge, dunt, engobe, frit, pug, slip and wedge.  Potters are the only people, other than children, who play with mud.

This why they seem so earthed and so calm.

Dear readers, pottery is good for you: it is a creative outlet, it reduces stress, exercises the hand and wrist, encourages sociability and generally improves your quality of life.

ochre vase with black lines – stoneware

I hope to be delivering new pieces to the various galleries who sell my work, though that trip has been postponed until further notice. We are not being encouraged to go out and visit places, so may I suggest you go online and have a look at what they exhibit; it is one way to support them. If you click here it will take you to my web page with their links.

a valuable stash discovered buried in the back garden of a Covid hoarder

For now, things depend on a whole army of issues playing out, and on Saint Spyridon, the patron saint of potters. Daily life will get better and we’ll be back having parties.

Bumblejig will hold a party – acrylic on canvas

The Patron Saint of potters

Llangollen

It must have been hard for Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby living in Plas Newydd, a stone built house converted into a gothic ‘fantasy’, since all they wanted was to be left alone after running away from their families and setting up home in Wales in 1778. They lived there for 50 years but became such objects of curiosity that they often had to politely receive visitors.

“Who is it at the door this time, Sarah?”

“Oh, it’s the Duke of Wellington again. Shall I show him in?”

And so on and so forth: Wordsworth, Shelley, Sir Walter Scott, Josiah Wedgewood, Byron all beat a path to the heavily ornamented Gothic door of their remote “Cottage.”

the two ladies of Llangollen

I, however, was on another mission linked more to the great Josiah Wedgewood than cultural curiosity, because I was delivering some pieces to Gwalia Ceramics in the heart of Llangollen and discovering that ‘The Ladies of Llangollen’ must have been attracted to the area by the beautiful Welsh hills, the fast running River Dee and the woodlands that surround the town.

Gwalia Ceramics

How to pronounce Llangollen: [LAN] + [GOTH] + [LUHN]. Or click here to hear it pronounced.

big Klee vase

The Gwalia Ceramics is a jewel of a gallery run by Jacqui Atkin, herself a very fine ceramicist and potter, as well as editor of Clay Craft magazine. Any visitor would enjoy dropping in – it is a small space but the ceramics are beautifully displayed. Wedgewood would have loved it because even though he is credited with the industrialisation of the manufacture of pottery, it was the beauty of ware such as the Portland vase that spurred him to innovate.

loop vase

And Llangollen is a place with an easy charm that invites walking about and exploring.
The Ellesmere Canal runs along the Dee here and it is unusual amongst Britain’s artificial waterways in having a strong flow (up to 2 miles per hour). The route, twisting through hills and across the Dee Valley, has made it the most famous and busiest in Britain. The canal is an important part of Llangollen’s attraction as a holiday destination. A marina, built at the end of the navigable section, allows summer visitors to moor overnight in Llangollen. I mention this in case any of you decide to visit by boat.

another vase

You can get there by train, changing in Liverpool, and then getting a bus, alighting at the Llangollen Memorial. And for steam enthusiasts, there is the Llangollen steam railway located beside the Dee Bridge. The journey is a relaxing 10 miles travelling through the stunning Dee Valley to the lovely town of Corwen the crossroads of North Wales. This small section of line, which in its day went from Ruabon to Barmouth taking people to the seaside on holiday and transporting various goods including slate and chemicals, follows the River Dee for its entire length, passing through some of the finest natural beauty North Wales has to offer.

torrential Dee

The bridge over the Dee is 16th century and gives you a dramatic view of the torrents below (it was a particularly wet and rainy day), and the High Street has enough good coffee shops for a break. I discovered a seriously good pastry shop selling something I have not come across before: Yorkshire Wraps. This is essentially a large circular Yorkshire pudding with raised edges which is then filled with a delicious thick meaty stew – not very Welsh, I agree, but somehow it did not matter, and it means I can slip in the one about the man from Barnsley who goes to the vet. Vet says:
“I hear you’ve got problems with the cat?”
“Aye” the man replies
“Is it a tom?”
“No,” replies the man, “I brought it wi’ me!”

Yorkshire wrap

Llangollen was established in the 7th Century when the monk St. Collen was instructed to find a valley by riding a horse for one day and then stop and mark out a “parish” a place to build his hermitage. This got me thinking about saints and I realized I had no idea who the Patron saint of potters is.

St Spyridon

Well, it is St Spyridon. He converted a pagan by using a piece of broken pottery to illustrate how one single entity could be composed of three unique entities (fire, water and clay); a metaphor for the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. As soon as Spyridon finished speaking, the shard is said to have miraculously burst into flame, water dripped on the ground, and only dust remained in his hand. So, good man though he undoubtedly is, it is probably best not to lure him into the Gwalia gallery