Ahead of Art on the Hill, Amy Hill went to meet two ceramic sculptors whose work will be on sale in Brill in March.
The sun in streaming into the rustic conservatory, lush pot plants are everywhere and a good cup of coffee is by my side. This is how I meet Carol Read and Richard Ballantyne on a working Thursday morning, and pretty soon I’m thinking a potter’s life might be for me.
The pair bounce off each other as they take me through what they make, how they sell, what’s great, what’s not and it’s a good thirty minutes before we go and have a rummage in the workshop and garage, by which time, I’m dying to clap eyes on the actual ceramics. I can tell they’re going to be good – something about the way they interact and their easy-going, off-the-wall nature. Richard Ballantyne is particularly tongue in cheek. ‘What do you like about AOTH?’ I ask him.
‘Well I like the Pheasant. I went up to the Pointer the other day and they did pretty good meal too!’
Carol brings us back to the art.
‘It’s a friendly group of people that run it. They always make us feel very welcome and appreciate what we do. And we’ve been pretty successful with sales- it’s all those things combined really.’
When we get to the ceramics, it’s been worth the wait. Their most successful pieces are animal figures- all sorts, but birds and hares feature heavily and they use a distinctive Japanese glazing technique called ‘Raku’, and inject the creatures with a hint of humour. The making takes a long time, and there are many different processes. The clay starts off on a potter’s wheel- this base shape is manipulated, ‘smacked around’ and cut. Then bits are added- legs, heads, fur. By this point what ‘it is’ is pretty firmly established.
‘It’s an amalgamation of skills,’ says Richard. ‘Carol might throw something and I’ll do the modeling, or part of the modelling- she might finish it off, and one or both of us might do the glazing or the firing.’
The firing is at around a thousand degrees- not unusually hot, but instead of being left to cool slowly, the pieces are taken out of the kiln at that temperature- the glaze starts to crack, and it’s put straight into a bin of sawdust which smokes and often catches fire. The smoke penetrates all the cracks in the glaze and that’s how you get the distinctive black ‘Raku’ crackle.
Once the piece comes out of the sawdust, it’s absolutely black, covered in soot. As you clean it off you see what’s happened in the firing. Each model is completely unique, and so is the ‘crazing’ of the glaze. ‘Is that the ‘wow’ moment?’ I ask. ‘It’s more ‘phew’ than ‘wow’.’ Says Richard drily.
Some of the figures are mounted on quirky objects that Richard has discovered at car-boot sales. An owl sits atop a large brass car-horn. ‘A hooter on a hooter’. A chicken on a battery? – of course, a ‘battery hen’.
Ballantyne and Read have been working together for nine years- after meeting at High Wycombe college where Richard was teaching the evening class. From there ‘the whole thing has mushroomed out of control’ says Richard, and they are now able to make a reasonable living out of their creations- not a given in the world of ceramics.
It seems that their success relies a lot on the partnership and the way they complement and challenge each other creatively: ‘A lot of the time when you work as an artist, you work in isolation. It’s really lovely to chuck ideas around with someone, have constructive criticism, we are each other’s best critics.’ says Carol.
Richard agrees: ‘Having an objective eye on it – that really helps. And just getting through stuff, there’s stuff that’s really boring to do- like cleaning off soot. And just the process of making is time consuming. So like today we decide we’re going to tackle hares. We get it done together.’
Their work is to be found in galleries in Cornwall, Scotland, Ireland and in Europe, and closer to home, Waterperry, Thame and Witney. And of course at Art On the Hill in Brill on the 23rd and 24th of March.