Steve Dixon: Ceramicist in Residence (2009 – 10)

The V&A’s inaugural Ceramics Artist in Residence, Professor Stephen Dixon talked about his work and residency at the V&A. Stephen worked in the studio 3 days a week, holding open studios for one of those. In these sessions he invited the public to explore the world of ceramics through his practical experience.

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The Big Head

Wow, what a day! It’s half term week and South Kensington is awash with families and small children, most of them in the ceramic studio at the V&A. What a great week to host my swan-song public event, the group modelling of ‘The Big Head’. 131 visitors throughout the day contributed their enthusiasm, imagination and modelling skills to a weird and wonderful portrait head, christened ‘Albert’ by one of the children. It’s always a joy to see young children revelling in the direct tactile experience of handling wet clay, and some of today’s helpers were barely out of their push-chairs. …

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Studio Assistant

This week began with the arrival of Lisa, a third year ceramics student from the University of Westminster, who will be helping me in the studio for the next two weeks on a professional practice placement – perfect timing, in the run-in to the end of the residency. She’s already proving invaluable, as I’ve been able to unload some of the studio donkey-work (glazing, kiln packing, bat washing etc.) as well as some of the more skilled plaster casting jobs. It’s been a case of ‘in at the deep end’ as open studio day on Thursday was the busiest yet, …

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Impatience

This week at the V&A began with a car journey from Manchester to London, to deliver the timber and plaster armature for my large head sculpture. I started out late after a hurriedly arranged appointment with the Indian visa office in Manchester, and arrived late afternoon following an interesting (albeit unplanned) tour of North West London. I’ve begun to model a third head, this one based on a small terracotta temple sculpture from Northern India. Open studio day this week was the busiest yet, the highlight was a visit from first year ceramics students from Central/St. Martin’s, researching in the …

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Two Heads

Finished modelling the second (Chinese) head and made a plaster mould of this one and the Pandora head. Both are rather straight ‘copies’, though simplified, and are merely the first stage towards the deconstructed hybrid heads. As usual, the plaster casting takes longer than I’d imagined, and combined with a day on the Frankenstein project my three days in London are soon swallowed up. I’m feeling that time is slipping away, only four weeks left in residency here! Time to adopt a strategic approach, and focus on gathering the information I need from archives, stores and collections while I still …

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Frankenstein Project

Continued with the Frankenstein project inviting the visitors to my usual Thursday open studio day. Not everyone chose to participate but enough did to keep me busy running between camera, computer, printer and light-box, and they have produced some fantastic drawings and Frankenstein collages. I’ve begun the second modelled head, this one based on a cast iron sculpture of a Chinese Buddhist monk, with the most amazing ears! Also been on the look-out for more vessel-forms to add to the growing alphabet of ceramic skeuomorphs, and I’ve found an interesting pair of early medieval two-toed socks from a burial at …

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Pandora and Frankenstein

Modelled the first of the six clay heads, this one based on the marble sculpture ‘Pandora’ by John Gibson. I’ve also started ‘the Frankenstein project’ which will replicate the process used to make the ‘identikit’ drawings, but will use ‘mug-shots’ of studio visitors/volunteers instead of heads from the collections. Visitors will be invited to make a light-box drawing of their portrait print-out, as well as creating their own ‘Frankenstein’ collage. I tried the system out over the weekend with visiting family members Alison, Joyce and Billy, and it seems to work well.

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Snow!

Planned to bring the armature for a large clay head to the V&A this week, but am unable to drive down due to the severe weather. Instead I have press-moulded the six generic clay heads. Earlier in the week, in Manchester, I screen-printed a series of ceramic transfer prints (head drawings and archive text material) and fired these onto some test tiles and small plates. I’ve experimented with both the original and identikit drawings, and with overlays of text from the ceramic archives.

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Christmas is coming…

Christmas is looming, the weather is rather grim, and the museum is unusually very quiet. I spend the week making a clay model and casting the plaster mould for a small ‘generic’ head. Pressings from this mould will form the common ‘core’ for a series of six modelled heads, based on the same six multi-cultural heads I’ve used in the identikit drawings.

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Second visit to Blythe House

In my second visit to Blythe House I trawl the Asian showcases for skeuomorphic vessels, and turn up dozens of examples; mostly forms emulating Chinese ceremonial bronze vessels, but also pieces which copy rhinoceros horn, and a Japanese wall vessel which takes the form (and even the wood-grain texture) of a carved wooden Noh mask. Returning to the ceramic studio I begin to explore this idea, selecting a Byzantine bronze vessel to ‘copy’ in porcelain paperclay. This is something of a digression from the heads project, and I’m not sure where it will lead, but I’m happy to have a …

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Skeuomorphic vessels

In my regular browsings of the ceramic collections I am struck by the number of ‘skeuomorphic’ vessels I encounter. (Skeuomorphism has been defined as ‘the manufacture of vessels in one material intended to evoke the appearance of vessels regularly made in another’ (Vickers and Gill, 1994) and commonly refers to ceramic vessels emulating the forms, and perhaps the value and status, of metal vessel-forms.) I look out and re-read Carl Knappett’s excellent paper ‘Photographs, Skeuomorphs and Marionettes: some thoughts on mind, agency and object.’(Journal of Material Culture. Vol. 7(1), which contains some fascinating ideas on veracity, sympathetic magic and the …

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