By Julia Ellen Lancaster, Leach 100 Residency artist
It’s been one month since concluding the Leach 100 Residency.
It seems obvious to say but now more than ever, in lockdown #3, finding ways to share your experience and engage with others, even for introverts like myself, feels important and can help evaluate the benefit of the residency. It’s a two-way process, after all residencies are a partnership, and an organisation has invested their trust in you. So, writing this blog, and sharing on Instagram and other platforms are some of the ways I can give back and also build on the new relationships which have been pivotal in pushing my practice forward thanks to the Leach Pottery and Porthmeor Studios, Borlase Smart John Wells Trust.
Needless to say, the Leach 100 Residency itself flew by and the abrupt conclusion tempered by the impending lockdown has left me bereft and forlorn, eager to return to pick up where I left off and continue the many conversations only just begun. It’s easy to underestimate the amount of work that goes into organising and realising a residency, at the best of times, let alone during a pandemic, both by the host and the artist. I know this from having been on both sides, so to speak having set up residency programmes myself for other artists in collaboration with cultural organisations and arts bodies and having undertaken previous residencies such as Troy Town Pottery in London and Youkobo Art Centre in Tokyo.
Since returning to my own studio I’ve continued looking at the work of Janet Leach, not least of all because her use of black clay distinguished her from much of what was going on around her at the time. At the St Ives Archive I came across some articles which provide a glimpse into her life. There are numerous folders and archive boxes relating to Bernard Leach and The Leach Pottery but for Janet Leach there is one solitary file. Before she came to The Leach and much earlier in her life, Janet went to New York to study sculpture, as there were no sculpture classes in the state of Texas where she lived. It was in New York, having studied there for twelve years, that she became interested in architectural sculpture. In recalling this she says “I was doing OK – exhibiting pieces in small galleries. Architectural pieces are essentially, large; if somebody liked a piece, I would loan it to them to take home and dust, just to get it out of the way! But a sculptor is socially isolated, and when I tried making pots, in the late 40s after the war, I found it very satisfying to make a bowl that somebody would put potatoes in…I found something that gave me a relationship with other people. I’m not a very social person, but I did enjoy the ‘pot’ contact which bridged the gulf”. This sentiment of connecting with people through the work resonates strongly with me and seems very pertinent right now. It’s a constant search in the making process to share that experience, that flow, and in finished work to somehow connect or move the viewer – in the same way you might respond to a piece of music or a film that can evoke emotions through its immersive qualities.
Images. Left: J. Darnell 1954. Image supplied courtesy St Ives Archive. Top Middle: Janet Leach at Leach Pottery. Photo by Ben Boswell. Middle bottom: J.Leach Pedestal bowl, black clay with black clay decoration. Right J.Leach Stoneware with partial glazed black clay body.
When I first started working with clay there were so many options I decided on some limitations, through what at the time was the only way I knew; colour. I worked with ‘white’ porcelain and ‘black’ volcanic clay. Black clay stains absolutely everything very easily, so I spent much of my time cleaning tools and surfaces before I switched clays. Seeing Janet’s work has re-ignited my obsession with the search for black! I’m always drawn to the ever-changing reflection and absorption of light on the surface, depending on the depth of blackness. I’ve come across many ceramicists in search of a ‘true’ black. It’s one of the reasons I can’t help but be drawn into the landscape around the coastline of St Ives, with its many outcrops of seemingly black rocks. Although mostly igneous and metamorphic in type, some lie below a layer of rust coloured deposits of glacial till and some, like those to the west of Porthmeor beach are, to my eyes, a dense black peppered with lichen.
Undertaking a residency during a pandemic has been significant and required a different way of thinking to make the residency work. In this both The Leach Pottery and Porthmeor Studios have been incredibly helpful and flexible and the impact of the residency is already evident in what I’m doing now. I tried to go with an open mind and not put pressure on myself to produce or end up with a finished piece necessarily, because in my experience that can limit your response to the moment. This is one of the very positive elements about the residency programme at Porthmeor studios, where the ethos is grounded in a fundamental understanding of nurturing talent through trust. The Leach Pottery concurs with that way of thinking. I’m never too certain if the moments I’m keen to undertake an opportunity like this are precipitated by an underlying desire to make a step change, or if indeed the change comes about as a result of it. I suspect it’s a little of both.
Having these kinds of ‘unpressured’ pockets of time, space and support is incredibly valuable in moving your practice forward. I’ve already mentioned the benefits of responding to the ‘present’ as opposed to going with a fixed plan and sticking to it. However, these kinds of opportunities to do just that are rare. But most artists will tell you, and there is plenty of evidence to support this, they are often the most significant periods of time in shifting your practice up a gear. The time to think and reflect, the space to make and experiment, the support to make it possible financially and logistically, are three elements that rarely converge conveniently at the same time.
I started the residency by taking clay casts of the Leach Museum but this quickly became less important than responding to the surrounding vicinity, exploring all the sites where local clay could be found or has been left behind. This became all consuming, with an abundance of forthcoming local knowledge and stories that led to discovering the drying pans of an old clay works filled with the residue of China clay, as well as seams of iron in the cliffs and wanting to excavate these and see if something could be produced from them. Digging and processing your own clay, albeit in a fairly rudimentary way, is incredibly satisfying and you learn so much more about the properties of the materials that way. It’s impossible to ignore the amazing landscape of Cornwall and so exploring and acknowledging this became a big part of the residency. There is less value in going somewhere new and only making the same work you’ve been making before. Much better to let yourself experience and be influenced by your surroundings and throw out any pre-conceived expectations and just see what happens.
Since returning, I’m lucky to now be based on the Kent coast. A very different kind of landscape but one which I’m set to discover through its geology and clay sites. I’m working with a regional cultural space to develop a body of work that will encourage participants to discover their natural surroundings through clay. The Leach 100 Residency has fired me up and as a result, I already have a much clearer idea of where I want to head with my ceramic practice, where and how I want to be doing it and some very clear goals for the next year.
The Leach Pottery is fascinating, both as a Museum and a working studio, and because of its prominence within the community, both historically and as a place of contemporary making, it’s naturally embedded with locals as a point of reference. I think this is significant in demystifying the idea of creative practice. Porthmeor studios has hosted some of the giants of modern and contemporary art and at the same time is providing opportunities to nurture and introduce new talent and redefine the parameters of artistic practice, both in terms of medium and concept. So, the residencies along with all the other projects being part of the Leach 100 celebrations form a perfect segue into imagining the next 100 years of ceramic practice, continuing to grow, expand, experiment and champion inclusive arts and creative making.
Thanks to the Leach Pottery and Porthmeor Studios, Borlase Smart John Wells Trust for making it happen. I look forward to returning.
About the Author
Julia Ellen Lancaster is a ceramic artist currently based in east London and Kent. Alongside artists, Anne-Laure Cano and Jim Gladwin she also forms part of the group ‘Eutectic’ which aims to initiate opportunities for research, exchange and dialogue between clay makers. Throughout December 2020 the three artists undertook a residency at Porthmeor Studios in St Ives, providing the opportunity to investigate, explore and expand their practice’s in response to the Leach Pottery’s centenary.
Lancaster gained an MA at the Royal College of Art. Largely self-taught, her work with ceramics began as an expansion of her practice. The properties of clay, its immediacy, fallibility and unpredictability mirrored a desire to re-connect with the real world. She went on to study ceramics at City Lit, London.
Alongside her practice, Lancaster headed up the Residency & Awards Programme of Acme Studios, until 2017 and was responsible for managing two London based galleries. She currently runs workshops in communities to encourage and support participation in making with clay.
Learn more about the Leach 100 Porthmeor Studios Residency artists here.
Follow Julia on Instagram to keep up-to-date with her progress: @juliaellenlancaster_ceramics