Brickfield artists’ reflect on Brickfield Newham

We are Zenna Tagney and Bobi McFadzean, ceramic artists from mid-Cornwall. We have been working as support artists for Brickfield since early 2020, exploring the lost craft of brickmaking by hand, in the heart of Cornwall’s ‘clay country’, a landscape shaped by the China Clay industry.

Zenna and Bobi stoking the kiln at Brickfield Newham © Sean Ebsworth Barnes

For Newham Heritage Month, we were part of Brickfield’s collaboration with V&A East, V&A Research Institute and University of East London’s Performing Arts department. The community engagement project involved people from many different backgrounds with diverse interests, and knowledge, joining together to learn and develop skills centred around the humble brick. We were invited as part of Brickfield Newham to spend time reflecting on the project and create artwork inspired by the experience. Some of our work was on display in the Medieval and Renaissance galleries at the V&A for London Design Festival. Below are some words from each of us, and some images of the work we have created.

Work by Bobi McFadzean and Zenna Tagney on show at the V&A in Room 64b for London Design Festival

Bobi

My initial works were pots thrown from the East London dug clay, unprocessed and flint-filled. This brick earth acted as a canvas for the various things I had picked up on throughout the project, including sketches of the kiln in action with graphite, ink and charcoal and abstracted shapes of architecture slipped on brick tiles.

Vessels by Bobi McFadzean made from clay dug in Newham, London

Ultimately these objects didn’t feel as though they resonated with how I felt about the experience of Brickfield Newham. I knew I wanted to capture the project as a whole, keeping the community that formed and disbanded in little over a week, at the forefront of my thinking.

Armando’s hand (bottom right) blackened with soot on the kiln alongside other clay gods © Sean Ebsworth Barnes

With space between me and the project, and time to reflect, test clay and explore ideas, one thing had stuck in my mind and rooted itself into everything I made: a clay hand, created by Armando. Armando was one of the Brickfield Makers, a new group drawn together from the local community by their interest in clay, brick and housing issues. Armando made his hand from clay dug in Plaistow, and proudly displayed it on the kiln for favour from the gods.

Work-in-progress of a clay hand by Bobi McFadzean

I moulded my own small clay hand from stoneware to echo his, stained it with the Plaistow yellow clay and marked it with charcoal from the kiln. It evoked thoughts of land, how it is used, consumed and reshaped. It brought to mind the clay, the earth beneath our feet, which is dug, shaped, fired and stacked to become the buildings that we explored in our history walks around East London. It made me think of the temporary brickfields in whose fire our cities were forged, and the people by the kiln side, then and now.

I went on to explore the various things I had collected in London, arranging them into varied compositions: rusted nails found on the concrete floor of the yard, charcoal and mangled metal swept from the kiln, a shard of brick. This came to be Land, Fire, Hand and Clay, an abstract collection of objects that made their way into the V&A. While I don’t feel I am quite finished with my response and exploration into this line of thought, it did feel a suitable end to the Brickfield Newham summer and such a privilege to stand beside our cabinet of shared work, among the curated crafts of the past in Room 64b.

Detail of Land, Fire, Hand and Clay by Bobi McFadzean

Zenna

Brickfield Newham was an intense week. We were working so hard on the project that I had little time to think about what my response would be. It wasn’t until a while later that some threads and themes that had been simmering during the project started bubbling up, and I began piecing them together.

I wanted to do something that weaved together ideas around home, the significance of place, of women and labour, personal and local histories, relationships to materials and wider concerns around sustainability in the construction industry, and what it means to be part of a collective making process.

Although I’m not a writer at all, and would normally avoid writing, there were a few words and phrases that kept returning to me, and which I found myself wanting to get down onto a page. Here is a link to a recording of the written piece that emerged from this:

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I also wanted to make a physical piece, and an image kept returning to me: Francis Wollaston Moody’s sculptures of women on the Ceramic Staircase in the V&A. I was taken by them, by their muscular bodies, and the way they reminded me of classical caryatids, traditionally presented as pillars.

South Kensington Museum, plaster cast of ceramic frieze for Western (ceramic) staircase, designed by F. W. Moody and made by Minton, Hollins & Co, about 1865
New work by Zenna Tagney

The sculptures are holding a piece of cloth draped around them, and gathered at the front. I wanted to represent this by combining a variety of clays – some of those used in London, and some from home. The variety of textures and colours contrasts with the image of the smooth porcelain body, and the diversity of stories and histories embodied in the clays are gathered together in the clasp of my caryatid women. These sculptures also seemed to me to represent women’s labour, but instead of the labour of holding up the staircase, in my versions they are either carrying bricks, or in some cases an arch, alluding to the brick arch in my mother’s kitchen. This idea developed out of a drama workshop led by Lynne McCarthy from UEL during Brickfield Newham. We were asked to think about our favourite place in our childhood home, and this is the place that my imagination went to. For me the physical material- clay – links this myriad of ideas that are at once personal, political and universal.

New work by Zenna Tagney

We are both very grateful for this opportunity, and would like to thank: Rosanna Martin and Katie Bunnell of Brickfield, and Georgia Haseldine of the V&A for making this possible and their support along the way.

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Brickfield Newham was made possible with the support of Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Newham Heritage Month and Arts Council England with in-kind support from Newham Council and ThisisProjekt.

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