What is a potter’s most valued resource? Is it her supplies, her equipment? The pounds she pays for a studio space?
I wager most potters working at the very highest level would agree that time, more than any material thing, is most precious. A potter’s life is all rhythm: a dance, or juggling act, between the stages of making that pottery entails, each step in the process dependent on the others. Upset the rhythm – speed up , stretch out, stutter or halt – and for all that work, you may have nothing to show for it. Clays and minerals can be bought, kiln bricks cadged, tools handmade or hand-me-down, pots sold and money made; but time, at the end of it all, is irredeemable.
Lisa Hammond is exceptional in the share of her time she has surrendered for the sake of others. Over a span of two decades, she has brought up as many as 14 apprentices at her Maze Hill pottery in Greenwich, where she has been based for the last quarter of a century. With them all she has sacrificed prized kiln space and materials, inculcated rigorous standards and technical expertise, all while giving each assistant the time and space to grow their own ideas. That they have emerged makers of diversity and individuality, successful and self-reliant, is a testament to her compassion as a teacher.
In institutionalised ceramic teaching, where design and concept are now king, applicable, practical advice of the kind Lisa imparted to apprentices has been sorely lacking. To address that oversight, ten years ago, she and her trustees founded Adopt a Potter, a charity that places ceramics graduates with established potters to provide the invaluable experience of working in living, breathing pottery workshops. Two years ago, almost to the day, the foundation was extended a step further as Clay College Stoke opened its doors, welcoming its first 13 students on an intensive two-year diploma course. At the core of the college’s focus lie the practical skills for self-sufficiency. Few charitable boards were willing to back this renegade proposal: an independent, non-profit organisation, it received no public funding at its set-up, forcing Lisa and colleagues to raise funds from fees and donations alone. Just weeks ago, its first cohort graduated, while its second have already begun their first term.
For all this and more, at the close of 2016 Lisa Hammond was appointed an MBE for services to ceramics. Her medal is hard-earned and enjoyed; the gratifying result of nominations from peers and fellow pot enthusiasts, it can represent only the very tip of the iceberg in terms of the commitment and the contributions she has made, internationally, to the world of clay. But it will have offered her no respite. At the coalface of social enterprise she will have met new standards of bureaucracy, all amid a desperate chase for funding. Running an organisation like Clay College presents all the expected problems of an ordinary pottery, amplified by the scale of operation, and compounded by the multiple parties involved. More than patience, courage, conviction, or principle, it will have tested skills of negotiation and persuasion, the management of contingent groups and conflicting expectations, new pastoral responsibilities, public communications and electronic paper trails – demands that extend far beyond the gruelling remit of running an autonomous studio, and which inevitably, excruciatingly, sap away at those precious free moments, dragging attention and hands further and further from the immediate joys of clay.
Somehow – somehow – Lisa has managed in the three years hence to keep Maze Hill production at full pelt, replete with new apprentice, continued classes, and now a major new exhibition. And what an exhibition it is: pots that do not just match but exceed the breadth of those of the past ten years. As if reducing the time available to her were not taxing enough, she has increased her workload and reinvigorated her range. There are new shapes, new glazes – innovations that will have taken months to develop, test, moderate, and master. The febrile spectrum of colours in her Lichen/Moss pots is exclusively the result of reactions between soda, a simple clear glaze, and the composition of a dark clay, a combination now years in refinement. Some of the darker blues – as black and slick as ink – are of a quality it feels we have not seen before. But the stand-out addition are surely the paddled oval bottles. These are a kind of generosity incarnate: gorgeous, full swells of clay that, like a Brançusi head, seem so sure of their place in the world, the space and shadow they inhabit, the weight they put beneath them. They give at once grace and earthly gratification: like fat, ripe fruit, or a pebble rounded in the lap of the sea.
A favourite of Lisa’s own among this exhibition’s novelties has been her ‘horse eye’ decoration. Like much of her work, it has a Japanese precedent in Umanome, the nested iron brushwork circles used in some historical tableware from the Seto region, the effect of which is something like a stylised eye. But Lisa’s ‘horse eye’ is quite different – born more of her own love of the animals than the sight of some Japanese forebear. Taking a traditional hakeme brush, when the bound twigs have snapped and snagged a little, she drags quickly and roughly through a layer of applied glaze to form these beguiling designs. So much of Lisa’s pottery has its relations in ‘the East’ – the hakeme brushwork, the tsubo form and sake sets, the shino glazes, and the Zen-style ensō ring decoration this ‘horse eye’ recalls – but it never feels, or pretends to be, Japanese; it has remained exclusively hers, with a sort of personal intimacy that bypasses every subsumed influence.
Lisa has been firing with soda for four decades now. Its sudden movement across her pottery, its unsure, erratic temper, has become a fundamental part of her potting identity. Soda shares its basic, chemical principles with salt firing, and its effects are rudimentarily the same: as soda ash or salt is added at high temperatures it vaporises, and the sodium released throughout the kiln reacts with the clay creating a glaze that looks and feels like citrus peel. When salt firing was first chanced upon in Germany in the late 1300s, it was adopted in part for its efficiency: pots could be packed into kilns unglazed, leaving salt and silica to do their work. There is an inescapable irony that what was once a time-saving method has evolved into the process which has consumed so much of Lisa’s research and practice; one that continues, in her hands, to fascinate and surprise even after so many years of exploitation.
Soda suits Lisa’s environment and temperament. The waste product of soda ash vaporisation is carbon dioxide – far less harmful than the hydrochloric acid of traditional salt firing, and better suited to her urban location. But also its injection as a solution, through two tiny portholes at opposite ends of the kiln, makes for a very different distribution. Where salt vaporises with ease, flooding every corner of the kiln, soda – squirted in simultaneous streams and aimed to clip the inside edge of the kiln bricks, so dispersing vapour across the pots – is far more dependent on the variables: the cone of the spray, the shifting of the flame, with a contact point more violent and varied. High winds and weather extremes can play havoc with flame paths or climbing temperatures, all with knock-on effects on the circulation of the soda. Lisa has become expert at predicting these reactions; and in a kiln that would take the average potter less than two hours to fill, she will spend two days painstakingly composing a pack that will realise the most interesting results from a firing. Her moon jars and tsubo, and the tall, cut vases, are shaped with similar anticipation: the perfect foil to the vagaries of the soda’s movement. Its capriciousness is matched by the serenity of arcs and bellied shoulders, curves that ring they are so true, or by the severity of plunging facets. These forms have been honed for their setting: they lend themselves to every fickle change in the soda’s behaviour. Their chemical scars, flashes, bleeds, and scorched whorls are worn as if they were never meant to look any other way.
Spend enough time with potters, and you find that the world inside the kiln is a kind of theatre of life. Every firing is a test, a challenge to years of experience and measurement; one that reinforces old forgotten lessons or teaches new ones with every disaster. It is also the point at which the precariousness of life as a working potter is most violently apparent, as the kiln takes months – sometimes years – of effort and calculation to task in a matter of hours. The measure of a great potter is the limit they push with the work that they put in; and the fight they can give to getting as much of it out in one piece.
The atmosphere of a soda firing is not a kind one. In its intensity, it mirrors exactly the stresses with which Lisa has surrounded herself these past three years. She submits her pots to the kinds of weathering she embraces; that combination of mad chance and furious industry, without which the change she has brought to so many people’s lives could never have been achieved. In a beautiful allegory for her working attitude, the photographs illustrated in this catalogue were taken on a day this July as a recent firing was unpacked. Lisa had fired through some of the hottest days of the year, in one of the hottest summers on record. Three days later and the kiln was still clinging to its heat, topping 60˚C on the pyrometer; and from the oppressive heat of that space these pots emerged, defiant and resolute in their survival.
Lisa Hammond is a woman who faces every difficulty –and in ceramics there are a great many – with deliberateness, decisiveness, a composed poise and determination that is innate even to her calmest and wildest pots. As I write, another firing is taking place in Greenwich: another test of resolve, another throw of the dice, another chance for change and experiment. Fearlessness and openness have defined Lisa’s career; have shaped her approach to clay and seen her command projects many would have fated for early failure: in this extraordinary show, we see them instilled in material substance.