Starting Out - by Jim Robison
Growing up in Independence, Missouri, in the 40’s and 50’s did little to prepare me for a life time in the field of Art and Ceramics. Except, as the name implies, Independence was the jumping off point for wagon trains west and hopes of a better future. So, at the age of 17, on completion of high school, and with little idea of what my future could or should be, I joined a friend who was enlisting in the USAF for four years (my parents had to sign for me because of my age). It was, perhaps, a good time to be in the Air Force, post Korea and pre Viet Nam; lots of Cold War huff and puff, but little action. With an aptitude for things mechanical (I loved cars, had an after school job with a mechanic and remnants of no fewer than 6 old fords in our back yard when I was 16) I completed training as a Jet Engine Specialist and was assigned to 3 years in Germany. (Funny to hear Hahn Air Base now described as ‘Frankfurt Hahn’ for low cost flights abroad.)
Living abroad, travelling through Europe, and putting up with military life certainly widened my horizons and woke me up to the need for higher education. An application to Graceland College, a small college in southern Iowa was successful and in 1961 began 4 years study for a liberal arts degree. American colleges have wide ranging courses and you select from pick and mix, until building up ‘majors and minors’ in chosen subjects. Among the welter of Maths, Psychology, English and History options taken, was Les Wight’s Art Course. An imposing man who asked questions about design, advertising, and the nature of sculpture, painting and art history. Ceramics was there too, and his enthusiasm was contagious. We were mixing our own clay and glazes from the start and travelled to Des Moines, Iowa (Bill Bryson’s home town--The Big City!) to see sculptural ceramics by Daniel Rhodes and demonstrations by Peter Voulkos. It was the period of Action Painting and Peter had carried these bold new ideas into clay. Daniel Rhodes added fibre glass to his clay to strengthen large sculptural forms…Paul Soldner began ambitious Raku ware. (Many years before the new fibre clays now seen) There was lively discussion in Ceramics Monthly about the subversion of pottery ideals.
Somewhere in there, I was asked to teach a high school class, became convinced of the need for education in the arts, and completed enough credit hours to qualify as an art teacher. Successfully obtaining a teaching post in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1965. Working across a range of media, but with responsibility for sculpture and ceramics. I went on to complete a post graduate MA at Eastern University in Sculpture and Ceramics and began to exhibit in both areas while head of Art at the newly built Huron High School. There were many potters in the area and via the Universities, visitors from abroad often came into view. I remember watching Hamada apply vigorous brush stokes and seeing photos of a Michael Cardew demonstration. It was an optimistic time for both education and the arts.
How I came to be in England is often the first question I am asked. And I reply that I have a deep cultural interest, and I married her. Liz turned up in Michigan on a teacher exchange year from Yorkshire. A couple of years later, (1972), I took a leave of absence and temporary post as artist in resident/ teacher at Weatherby High School, the year they raised the age of school leavers. We were married in the Spring of 73 and remain so.
I’d decided that I’d had enough of being a ‘jack of all trades’ and wanted to become, perhaps, a master of just one…It was time to ‘have a go’ as a full time potter. First in the bedroom of our flat, then knocking on doors of garage owners in our Leeds’s neighbourhood. Asking them to rent space to me (fewer cars then!) turned up a small stable which was rented to me for £2 per week, electric included. With no money to buy anything, a wheel was built out of timber with a cast concrete momentum weight, and kilns cast from refractory concrete and fired on propane. Making stoneware and Raku pots, I began selling from the studio and arranged several exhibitions. I also had limited success selling wheel kits to Podmores (they took the idea!) and was about the first to see the potential of the incinerator bin with its chimney for a lid, selling Raku kits to schools and potters for several years.
Her Majesty’s Government intervened at this point to insist that I show some ‘approved employment’ to remain in the country. Women could not as a right, keep their husbands in the country—a strange rule, now changed, I believe. ‘Self employed potter’ was not considered sufficient either, so I found myself an acceptable part time job teaching Ceramics on the Barnsley foundation course, then Lady Mabel College (Sheffield) and then, Leeds University College, Bretton Hall (Home of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park).
Desire to have home, studio and gallery under one roof led to months of searching and ultimately to Holmfirth and purchase of small house with derelict barns attached. Booth House Gallery was opened to the public with a mixed Christmas exhibition in November 1975. Rather different to its current state 31 years later, gaps between the stone roof slates let the snow drift in and caused panic when it settled on the picture frames of exhibitors’ water colours. Pots were not a problem, of course, but keeping warm definitely was until the pot-belly stove got really hot.
Perhaps it was an oversight in my education, but I never understood the divide between Ceramics and the world of Fine Art. To me they remain intertwined. What else makes such durable architecture, murals, sculptures, beautiful and useful objects? Creation of large works for public places seemed a natural approach to the material. Several commissions involved groups of people and making clay impressions of objects or environments became part of the work in progress. Bisque fired impressions could be used as press moulds. There was a steep learning curve on how to make pieces more durable too.
I was fortunate in that an Architect and Cambridge City planner asked me to submit design work for shopping centres and new buildings. Often (usually) these pieces took far more time than the fee allowed for. The Grafton Centre sculpture in Cambridge (to celebrate its twin town scheme with Heidelberg) involved some 1500 hours of work for about £5000.00 as I recall. I thought that being in such a prestigious town, an automatic future in this work would be assured… Dream on… I do not think there was ever a request that came directly from seeing it. I found that the folio was building and the work was an enjoyable challenge, but my accountant repeatedly reminded me not to give up the ‘day job’ in teaching.
Promotion of large works also took place at our gallery in 1980. Dearly departed Monica Young, David Lloyd Jones, and Mick Casson were part of it. I remember the look on Mick’s face when confronted by Monica Young’s huge efforts. He had two enormous salt glazed jugs in his hands and he said: ‘ Never mind Jim, we will just call them cream jugs!’ Influenced by standing stones and trips to the British Museum, I created 9 ft stoneware columns with lustre hieroglyphics on the surfaces. These led to an exhibition with Tony Hepburn at the Yorkshire Sculpture park and subsequent exposure at Milton Keynes and other venues. The techniques of using wood supports, stacking sections and bolting pieces together were developed.
Fifteen years of working in the cold, nearly windowless barn (beneath the gallery) came to an end with the building of a new studio on the remains of 3 outside loos and my kiln shed. We also were able to purchase at auction, the farmland next to the house. Inspired by green thoughts, we planted about 1000 trees and put in a pond. We also had parking space for the gallery at last.
Ceramics is such an international activity now, and I maintained contact with potters in the USA and new friends in Europe. It seemed that there might be a book on the subject of larger works.
A trip to Australia to attend Clay Sculpt Gulgong, on Janet Mansfield’s extensive ranch made an impact on me. Lured by the hope of seeing Peter Voulkos again (he failed to turn up), this initial disappointment was overcome with the likes of Nina Hole and Robert Harrison’s architectural pieces and kiln building by Fred Olson, et al. This experience proved to be the catalyst necessary to bring together material for ‘Large Scale Ceramics’. It brought together many years of thought and effort and opened a few doors in the process.
Surprisingly, perhaps, when the book was completed, there was a period of depression… like where do I go now, and what to do next? It was such an effort to bring together this summary of involvement that everything seemed to come to a full stop. Life never does, of course, but it felt like it. I resigned from the position of ‘head of ceramics’ at Bretton, although agreeing a part time renewable contract, to spend more time in the studio and gallery.
My interest in things mechanical led to involvement with extruders and slab rollers and invitations to take part in the American annual ceramic conferences, and exhibitions there. New equipment and these challenges of approaching dates were like a breath of fresh air and I began to explore new directions and possibilities. It seems to me that deadlines and commitments are the best way to work yourself out of a slump. Don’t feel like working? Look at the calendar, work backwards from the exhibition date to ‘unload kiln’ and see how much time you need to make the required items. It does it every time. And with the abrupt closure of Bretton 6 years ago by Leeds University, the studio has become seamlessly full time.
Requests by a garden designer, followed by the opportunity of the Rufford Orangery exhibition meant that my desires to make fairly large work could be fulfilled with wonderful places to show them. Its centrepiece took about 12-16 weeks to complete and there was little else undertaken for another 6 months while preparing for the show. And as the exhibition enters its second period of extension ‘due to popular demand’ so to speak, the effort has proved well worthwhile.
Ceramics is so special. I enjoy anything connected with clay, pots and potters and have done what I could to promote it. Potters are also unique in their enthusiastic willingness to share ideas. In supporting roles, I became involved with founding the Northern Potters, (at number 28, the oldest current member, I was recently told!) and the CPA, helping at the many potters’ events over the years. Demonstrating at Aberystwyth, I vividly remember when the ultimate enthusiast, Mick Casson, turned to me on stage and suggested taking his place in fielding queries as he could ‘no longer hear the questions’.
Some years ago, a photograph of Michael Cardew appeared on the cover of ‘Craft Magazine’. He was labouring over a massive lump of clay, with a wide grin on his face.
He looked ancient! But he looked so happy. It made a big impression on me, to think that you could work that hard, be that old, and be that happy. There must be something in this magic of ceramics worth living and working for. There is.
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