The Wheel Is
Her Sketchbook

Ceramicist Jo Davies on pottery stereotypes, the emotional rollercoaster of the firing process and how ceramics are a material tonic to our screen-based lives. 

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Skiving off other classes to make things in clay, ceramicist Jo Davies has been inspired by clay since childhood. After studying in Bath and living in the South West for a while she moved to London for a Masters in Ceramics and Glass at the Royal College of Art in 2005. She set up her studio soon after at the Chocolate Factory N16, an artist-run studio complex on a quiet street cloistered from the Dalston hubbub in East London. 

What your starting point? 
I tend not to sketch, but I do always have an idea in my mind before I sit down at the wheel. The wheel is my sketchbook - I have a rough idea of measurements and scales because I need to be able to visualize tangible things like height or diameter, but no drawn plan. It's hard to describe what happens when I'm making... it's an enthusiastic bringing into being of a physical object. I'm not always sure of the end result when I start, and can end up making many of the same item - each with slight variations in order to develop the design. I often say that this process for me is quicker than drawing - plus I'm teaching myself how to make the object at the same time. Every item has its own technical considerations that need to be overcome and it also allows the material to speak in unison with my aesthetic.

Can you tell us a bit about your the techniques you use to make ?Mostly I wheel-throw porcelain – this is a practice I started at university. I was resistant to it for ages because I didn't want to be ‘a potter', but I eventually softened to that idea, and really fell for it. I wanted to fight the stereotypes of a potter as a bloke in dungarees, which seemed to be prevalent at that time in the late nineties. I also hand build, working with wheel-thrown elements that I construct together to create one piece. My glaze palette is limited to just three glazes I have developed and I will dip and pour all of them.

Do things ever go wrong in the making process?
Every time you make a piece you are taking a leap of faith. Ceramics are prone to warping, cracking or the glaze crazing and that's before you've even factored in things like the 20% shrinkage of porcelain when it's fired, so you never precisely know what the end result will be. I'm always working on a strong approximation.

With some projects I'll have a sleepless night whilst firing especially if I'm up against a deadline. If I really need a particular piece for an exhibition or commission there’s that hideous moment I open the kiln to see if everything has gone okay. It’s so gratifying when it all goes to plan! You always expect lose something in the firing, it's the nature of the process, particularly with porcelain so a good kiln load is when you only lose a handful of pieces.

Do you think the general perception of ceramics and pottery has changed in the last decade?
In the early 2000s people were very concerned about the hierarchy of art and design, ceramics was a dying art form, and seen as being lower down the pile. Now, everyone wants a piece of ceramics. The impression of ceramics and ceramicists has changed a lot, there’s a lot more respect there. 

There’s also a makers' revolution going on which, I think, is a direct result of the recession. People have started making and fixing things themselves, learning how to do things from YouTube and in recent years with technology becoming all-consuming, you need something else. I think this has lead to an increased interest in the slow art of ceramics.

What inspires you?
I’m inspired by clay first of all and then the process with its various abilities to produce in different forms. I have an interest in shapes that I find within the landscape, particularly architectural domes and decoration. After this, there is the crucial consideration of the ergonomics of each item; the way something I’ve made is handled is key to the development of its shape. 

What would your dream project be?
I'd love to work with an amazing National Trust property, filling spaces with my work in order to create an installation or exhibition. I have been part of a group exhibition that did this at Newark Park a few years ago but it would be great to curate and fulfil this ambition as a solo project. Another dream is to go on a research trip to Japan to see the ceramics towns. I was in Vietnam a few years ago and it was so inspiring to see the local techniques being carried out there.  

See Jo's latest work at Made Bloomsbury from 29th April to 1st May and at her Open Studio on 18th and 19th June.

Photographs Oliver Douglas
Interview Sian Tomlinson