Alison Britton on Alison Britton
I'd roll out the buff clay, put [on] a white slip side, flip it over and do either a brown or a blue slip side. Then when it came to build I already had some marks on the clay which made suggestions about the shape that it would be. And I could have a choice of having a dark inside or a dark outside, but there'd be this strong contrast.
This is one, I think,fairly early in the group; and what I do sometimes do, when I'm not sure what the next direction's going to be, is a real patchwork one. This is many pieces, this is using up, in a way, it's make do and mend, in a way, using up lots of bits and building in a very casual way to start with, and making it difficult before I resolve it.
AB: Yes, this was the stage when I really put a lot of imagination into my titles. You'd think it would be easy to talk about your own pot, but actually it isn't.
It was from a show that meant a lot to me; 1987 was a really enthusiastic, strong moment. It was a show at Contemporary Applied Arts, which was then directed by Tatiana Morrison. It was a new body of work from a new studio. I'd been at the Railway Arch for a decade or more and moved to a butcher's shop in Stanford Hill and had about six months off scraping the meat off the ceiling and everything. So I set off to make the new work with a clearer set of rules than I normally have. I was only going to use three colours and they were very classic ceramic things. The blues were cobalt, [the white was] white slip, and red clay slip gave me a dark brown. There are a few bits of dark brown under here, but basically this is a blue and white piece.
I was going to have a strong contrast from one side of the clay to the other. I'm always painting the clay before I build, so [video clip starts] I'd roll out the buff clay, put [on] a white slip side, flip it over and do either a brown or a blue slip side. Then when it came to build I already had some marks on the clay which made suggestions about the shape that it would be. And I could have a choice of having a dark inside or a dark outside, but there'd be this strong contrast.
This is one, I think, fairly early in the group; and what I do sometimes do, when I'm not sure what the next direction's going to be, is a real patchwork one. This is many pieces, this is using up, in a way, it's make do and mend, in a way, using up lots of bits and building in a very casual way to start with, and making it difficult before I resolve it. [video clip ends]
Not placing it on the blanket would feel more stable I think.
So it's playing around with bits of clay to build something in a way that's fragmented but in the end resolved. The spout proper spout and an inverted spout, so you've got quite a yes/no choice there. The handle is just twisted coil that makes a reference to Crabstock handles, and that kind of thing. But [it has] a much softer feel; this is just purely 'slab, slab, slab,' there's no coiling. Nowadays I make things that are much softer in the end by coiling a lot in the upper section of the pot. But at this point I was just using the slab. So to thicken the edge here I actually put a bit of slab on its side to get another painting surface.
MP: When you sat down to begin this pot, did you have an idea of what it might look like or its size?
AB: Hardly at all. I think I probably thought big, and I probably didn't even think jug, necessarily. Having made tons of jugs early on in my career I then tried very hard not to make jugs for a while, and only began to relax about it again in about 1986, so not long before this. So I think I would have started off not knowing about this handle. You know, that would be a reaction to what I've got. I think I'm fond of it. I felt that it was gutsy at the time, and I'm pleased that Oliver chose it. I mean, it's the painting that pulls it together, isn't it? It's the blue lines. It could be a real worrying shambles, I think, without the dark blue that straps it together.
MP: How conscious was the blue and white?
AB: Very conscious, very back to basics to see what I could do with this convention. Messing it up, you know.
MP: Is your making [like] a need [that] you have to make?
MP: Is it something you couldn't get by without doing?
AB: Yes, although it's only part of my life now, because I'm teaching regularly. I'm also writing quite often and curating sometimes. The core of it all is this: because it's work that you don't know about, because it's a discovery and it's unpremeditated, that re-balances all the other things I have to do. It is a bit like different parts of the brain that you switch from side to side. So if I've been teaching for three days, which happens most weeks now at the Royal College, I can't immediately find that other way of operating. There has to be a little island of time where I find that other route, because they are such different ways of thinking. This is not thinking, whereas all the other work has to be more up front, more in control. So I might have half a day where I make soup or do something really domestic, [in order] to feel the vitality coming back before going into the studio.
MP: You're perceived as an example of someone who's a ceramicist or a potter, or whatever you want to be called.
AB: That's right.
MP: A potter who's articulate about their work [and] talking about their practice. Do you think your work has been received well?
AB: I think it could work both ways. I think that I have sometimes met people who, if they first come across me lecturing about somebody else, are very surprised to find that I make anything at all. There is a suspicion of people doing more than one thing, I think. It's as if you couldn't do both seriously enough. And I think having the reputation of being articulate can be really hard work sometimes, [and] that there are plenty of times when you are not articulate and where you're really struggling, and yet the expectation is that you're going to come with it again, you know. So if my hands ever seized up and I couldn't make any more, there would be real unbalancing. I don't know how well I'd be able to do the other side. That's - faintly - a prospect. I am beginning to get slightly funny hands and the last group of work I made was smaller scale to take some of the weight out of it. So I'm sure I'll find ways round it, but it would be very much clearer that the balance between the two kinds of work is the crucial thing, and that if I had to give up one of them I'd give up the writing and the teaching, if I could, and just make. Having said that, no, I don't think I want to make all day, every day; concerning yourself with other people's ideas and other people's things is really exciting and it feeds you.
MP: You said about making a lot of jugs in the early days, and there were those things with the birds on and different things in the very early days, but you're still working in the vessel tradition. Have you ever thought about not making vessels or is it just something that is simply [such a] part of what you do?
AB: There was a phase in the mid-eighties when things were much more obviously body-like, or torso-like. I did at some point perhaps cover it up completely, but it lost interest for me then. Whether it's because it's like a pot, or whether it's for some other reason, I like to look inside something, I like that hollow, in the sense of comparing this and that, a dark and a light. But I think in recent years, since I had a show in Germany in 1995 which I called 'Form and Fiction', I think I clarified [that] there is a channel for me, because a pot is such an ordinary and easily recognisable object [that] you move straight into a kind of viewability. Nobody's going to say 'What on earth is that?' - you know it's a pot. And having reached people like that, then you can do all kinds of other things; you can play around in all sorts of ways and hopefully always in slightly different ways. But [there's] something about balancing form and fiction; that form is very inchoate, if you like, it's to do with touch and being able to pick it up and have a sensation of it, and then the fiction for me is all the other stuff, all the kind of nonsense of making this shape nearly fall over but then correcting it with a painting. That's the fiction part of it, and I think it's a much more exciting pairing of words than form and function, especially for me.