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Pottery of Great Humanity

His work offers solace, not as something into which we may withdraw or retreat, but as a pottery that sustains through its form, through its warmth and confidence, and through the food it so naturally holds for us. His is pottery of great humanity; for it gives us the earth.

My sister once told me how on an afternoon pottery course she set out to channel the work of Jean-Nicolas Gérard. Forming a squat, dumpy beaker with her clay, she gently clasped it in her hand and squeezed middle finger and thumb, forming two personal ‘nooks’ to help the hand settle around the pot. The course instructor, peering over to inspect her work, smiled: ‘Here, let me fix that for you,’ she said, gently taking the cup and rethrowing and thinning it until it sat perfectly symmetrical and slender.

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Could a better story be contrived to illustrate the disjunct between Gérard’s approach to clay and that of most contemporary studio pottery? Somehow, I doubt it.

Gérard is a potter who will always split opinion. One self-described lover of ‘proper’ ceramics wrote to us recently to pronounce his work – rather too delightedly, I thought – ‘an insult to the art of Pottery!’ (her capital, not mine). And I am told that his work elicits more comments from window shoppers than any other potter at Goldmark; a fact I can well believe, having spent a few summer weekends manning the gallery pot shop and watching the double-takes of passers-by who, glancing once absentmindedly at the displays, were abruptly stopped in their tracks and compelled to move closer, squinting in at the jugs and tureens. Reactions to his pots vary wildly, from the effusive to the confused and disbelieving. One family, noses drawn up against the glass, seemed divided on the spot: the mother, her curiosity piqued and a bright smile spreading over her face, turned to her husband, but he, hurrying the group along, replied flatly that ‘a kid could do that.’

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It’s an unthinking accusation – one too easily levelled at an artist like Gérard, and which takes the appearance of difficulty in place of beauty, joy, or meaningfulness as its baseline, as if simplicity or naivety were easy things. For one, it misunderstands how deft the hand and eye must be to maintain the inner form on which Gérard’s looseness rests. If you were to watch him throwing his large salad bowls and dishes, you would see how carefully he draws up his clay, how watchfully he approaches that imperceptibly fine line between form and formlessness and, with gentle confidence, how he leaves the clay alone just as that line is met and a balance between freeness and structure is arrived at. This is ‘the moment’, as articulated by the Polish poet Julia Hartwig, when ‘shape surmounts the shapelessness’: it is a difficult thing to describe, far better witnessed in person, and is the source of that unquantifiable ‘justesse’ – the quality of rightness – that Gérard’s pottery possesses; and which those who try imitating it, thinking it simple, find almost impossible to replicate. In a world where ceramic artists so often overwork their clay, exacting a mean and contradictory thinness from a stuff that is fundamentally tactile, Gérard’s throwing – ostensibly casual – is a masterclass in restraint; and yet unlike such contemporary ceramics, his pots lack any sense of restriction, reminding us instead of the imperfect and primitive beauty of the earth from which they were formed. There is a reason he is known as ‘the potter’s potter’.

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Ignorance of Gérard’s unsung skill aside, it has always struck me as odd that the charge that an artist’s work is ‘childlike’ should be taken as an insult. Matisse, a great influence on Gérard, wrote perceptibly on this very point in a short essay titled ‘Looking at Life with the Eyes of a Child’ the year before his death (1953):

‘…for the artist, creation begins with vision. To see is itself a creative operation, which requires effort. Everything that we see in our daily life is more or less distorted by acquired habits, and this is perhaps more evident in an age like ours when cinema posters and magazines present us every day with a flood of ready-made images which are to the eye what prejudices are to the mind.

The effort needed to see things without distortion demands a kind of courage; and this courage is essential to the artist, who has to look at everything as though he were seeing it for the first time: he has to look at life as he did when he was a child and, if he loses that faculty, he cannot express himself in an original, that is, a personal way.’

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To look and to create as children do is to be unencumbered with the anxieties of technique and ultimate control – concerns Gérard has made a concerted effort to shed. Rather, the childlike perspective is characterised by frankness, limitlessness, an embrace of accident and of spontaneity, all of which in Gérard’s hands have directed him more closely to the ‘essence’ of which he often speaks. Like children who eagerly throw their whole person into creation, Gérard’s presence is gloriously embedded within his pots in crumpled rims and the indents of squashed fingers and thumbs. It seems strangely serendipitous that the shallow round metal tubs, inherited from his grandmother and in which Gérard’s larger pots are now daily bathed and daubed in slip, served once as the baths of his own youth.

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Much of Gérard’s pottery evokes the innocence of Matisse in its markings: plates bearing sgraffito spirals and miniature loops scratched onto the sides of vases recall the artist’s flower motifs, the expressive line of his drawn portraits. More generally, there is a likeness in their philosophy of making. ‘Travail et joie’, bore the title of one Matisse exhibition: ‘work and pleasure’. For Gérard, who speaks excitedly about ‘la joie’ as his objective, the two are indistinct. And for both Frenchmen, the central importance of colour as a medium for expression, form as fundamental, and nature as a source of influence are encapsulated in their work. Gérard’s pottery, with its scarifications, its radiant yellows and browns and brilliant fingertips of blue and green, is the perfect portrait of the sun-baked furrows, vines, and lavender fields which blanket the hills of rural Provence, withering and flourishing with the waxing of the seasons.

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Gérard’s studio has been located in hilltop Valensole for more than thirty years now. The grand vista below, his materials, and the creative parameters these have set for him situate him in a longstanding tradition of southern French terre vernisée – a tradition in which he has firmly established his own principles and aesthetic. All of Gérard’s work, from the pitchers and plates to the gargantuan jars swallowed in his terraced greenery, comes alive in interactions with food and the garden: even the largest dishes, with wires affixed in order that they may be hung on walls for display, feature feet for placing on a table or on the ground for use as a communal platter. Yet this rootedness to tradition and function has not deterred him from change. He has experimented with darker pots, swathes of unglazed clay, and layerings of slip: green, burnt-butter browns, and especially black, applied alongside runny yellows. In combination they bruise and fringe into beautiful mottles of colour, occasionally levelling out into thicker runs of that unmistakable sun-gold yellow, while patches on rims break in their own crests and waves. A white slip, rumour has it, with vibrant new colours is in production, to be premiered at Goldmark next year. Contrasting this more diverse use of slip, Gérard has also had the courage to leave whole rims and edges unglazed on more pots and to cut with deeper sgraffito, relishing the juxtaposition between the coarse, scorched reds of raw clay and the vibrancy of glistening slip.

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The depth and range of expression Gérard achieves in this narrow palette demonstrate he is a master of the slipware medium; a potter endlessly recasting his voice, using the same vocabulary to speak in entirely different ways. Each year, for all their levity and play, the work seems to feel stronger and more purposeful, each pot sitting with greater presence. He is still a conjurer of warmth in abundance: tureens and jars have kept their bobble-hat lids, reminiscent of lop-sided clowns, the mixed slip pooling at their feet in glazings like creme-brulée crusts. But beneath the whimsy is a quiet gravitas, a grounded quality that sustains Gérard’s infectious joy but asserts its importance a little more vocally each time, as if to announce, reassuringly, ‘I’m here.’

The late, great poet Seamus Heaney, writing in the literary journal Irish Pages (2002), once described how two American friends, holidaying in Florence on the day the twin towers were struck, dealt with the shock by seeking out and looking hard at the pictures and sculptures they had travelled to see. ‘This was not a case’, he writes, ‘of trying to forget atrocity by escaping into reverie’, but a desire for the ‘upfrontness’ of made things that ‘kept standing their ground…in spite of the shaken state of the world around them.’ Gérard’s deep love for terre vernisée makes his pottery the kind that can ‘stand its ground’, an idiom that aptly captures the essence of earthenware’s rootedness in nature. Heaney knew a thing or two about earth; the man who, in the elegiac Digging, wrote how ‘the squelch and slap / Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge / Through living roots awaken in my head.’ The quality of vernis – slip as veneer – is a vital aspect of Gérard’s work. It affords his forms a sense of life and liveliness through colour and marking. But ultimately, his pottery is of la terre, clay drawn from the same ground that nourishes and feeds us, bears us up beneath our feet – pottery that is grounded precisely because it is a reflection and celebration of its earthen source.

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When my sister tried to recreate Gérard’s beakers that afternoon, moulding the cup’s walls to the shape of her grasp, she sought to do what Gérard’s pottery has always done – to put clay in our hands and make us feel its worth. His work offers solace, not as something into which we may withdraw or retreat, but as a pottery that sustains through its form, through its warmth and confidence, and through the food it so naturally holds for us. His is pottery of great humanity; for it gives us the earth.

Max Waterhouse