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An Uncompromising Vision

Sometimes a thing in front of you is so big you don’t know whether to comprehend it by first getting a dim sense of the whole and then fitting in the pieces, or by adding the pieces until something calls out what it is…

As I sit to put finger to keyboard I am looking around my home at pots I have collected from Nic Collins over the years, drinking coffee from a tankard, gazing out at the huge platter leaning against my barn wall, thinking how he and his pots have influenced my life. Nic has just finished his second firing this spring in preparation for this exhibition, bringing home feelings of isolation as he completes another firing for which I would normally crew, and can only watch from a distance.

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You might know of Nic’s work, but how well do you know it? What do you know of the man, his working practices and environment, that have come together to make the pot you hold in your hand?

This is written in June 2020, with the world plunged into isolation because of a virus now known well to us all as COVID-19. We are living in times that none of us were prepared for – or at least not many of us. Life in isolation is alien to most people, but not all.

For the past 3 months and more, the majority of the population in the UK and the rest of the world have been advised to stay at home, to shop only weekly, to have no contact with anyone outside their household. Schools, shops, pubs and cafes are closed, with only essential shops able to trade, and we have learnt to live very differently. During this time, Nic has continued his rhythmic cycle of making pots, packing and firing his wood kiln in isolation as he prepares for a major exhibition.

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Nic pots in a small village on the edge of Dartmoor, isolated in itself, and more so as the Barn Pottery is to be found at the bottom of a hill at the end of a lane. If you weren’t going to visit Nic or his family, you would have no reason to be there. The pottery is a serene, calming and peaceful place, far removed from the normal hustle and bustle of regular life. Were you to ask him, Nic would say he has mostly lived on the edge of normal.

Isolation is not unusual for many potters, Nic included. He works in quiet contemplation, preparing his clays and throwing pots on a barely audible momentum wheel. The process might seem quite intro-spective. Nic himself is a quiet, self-assured, self-reliant man. His pots are equally quiet; it is only when you get to know them and give them time that they begin to talk to you and tell their stories, from their calm beginnings to their frantic, almost violent birth from the wood kiln. Living with them, holding and using them, allows you to see and appreciate their subtle variations in form, colour and texture that are so loved and admired. Some can be hard to appreciate or understand. These are uncompromising pots, from an uncompromising potter – making the kind of work that he himself enjoys, that have a connection with him and his environment. He and his pots belong on Dartmoor; I cannot envisage Nic potting anywhere else.

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Nic can also be seen as a self-challenging potter. As one of the leading wood-firers of his generation, he has an international reputation, yet is continually evolving his own craft –perpetually learning and experimenting, driven to test the boundaries, and always developing rather than accepting he has found the right, or only, way. In 2019, over the course of 7 days Nic designed, constructed, packed, fired, opened and dismantled a wood fired kiln in front of an audience at the International Ceramics Festival, packed with renowned potters, ceramists, students and collectors. As if this wasn’t challenging enough, Nic decided here was a good opportunity to test a new kiln chimney design. Had the firing failed, with dunted or underfired pots, his reputation could have been irreparably damaged. But Nic is one of the most open people I know in sharing his knowledge with those who share an interest and enthusiasm.

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If you pick up a pot from mediaeval times or an old German bellarmine – or one of the pots in this exhibition – you may see the thumb print of its creator, a scratched mark, throwing rings or imprints of the fingers when the pot was being dipped in glaze; marks of the maker. What you feel when you pick up a pot is the life and vitality of the potter working to create that object, leaving tangible evidence and links to the present, and maybe past forgotten potters. Those beautiful bellarmines and balusters with forgotten makers are no less special. They demonstrate how a pot can carry stories of the clay, the slips and glazes, the fire and the potter across centuries – and, in this exhibition, through isolation across months and years.

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It is in the firing process that Nic’s vision becomes embodied, as flame and ash come together. Some pots are placed on their side, stacked on top of each other, placed on a bed of shells, and even stacked upside down to benefit from the path and lick of the flame, the falling ash, and the brutal addition of charcoal at just the right moment to create the final pot Nic had envisioned when it was still a lump of raw clay. The long wood stoked firing of the kiln, the choice of woods and how their ashes might react with the pots to help bring out colours, holding the temperature at the right level for the right time, like controlling a gently snoring dragon, waking it to roar at just the right moment to allow the flames and the kiln to take life of their own. This knowledge, gained over 30 years of potting, of countless firings – both spectacular successes and some spectacular failures – lead to the skill and seemingly effortless ability to tame the firing dragon just enough to deliver the pots you see here today.

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Nic, while encouraging others, casts a critical eye over his own work and often dreads the unpacking of the kiln. Like many potters, he has to live with his pots after unpacking for a while before he can see the beauty in them. We all choose a pot for our own reasons, but for Nic there is an expectation of how a firing should end and how a pot should come out, and occasionally the firing doesn’t deliver against that expectation. Often it gives more – but it can take time to see that in the work.

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The following quote from Jack Troy’s Wood Fired Stoneware and Porcelain explains how Nic’s pots feels to me: about how you discover them bit by bit, how they reveal themselves and win a special place in your heart.

Sometimes a thing in front of you is so big you don’t know whether to comprehend it by first getting a dim sense of the whole and then fitting in the pieces, or by adding the pieces until something calls out what it is…

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Nic’s pots spark thought and conversation, and those conversations – both internal and external – continue to evolve our greater understanding of what pottery means. As you are walking round or viewing this exhibition online, drawn to a pot because of its feel, its shape, the glaze, the effects of the flame, or its slight imperfections, I hope these words offer some insight into this extraordinary body of work.

Jon Cullum, June 2020