6 November to 13 December 2014
Flower Brick, 2014, wood fired salt glazed porcelain, Celadon glaze
Resonant Objects by Dr Patsy Hely
Mix up a porcelain body
Throw a series of hollow shapes
Make the bases
Leave to stiffen
Join and manipulate
Add handles and appendages
Glaze and fire
So the rhythm of Moraig McKenna's studio routine might be described, a routine dictated in part by family and employment and in part by the directives of the objects themselves. Many potters work around the rest of life but in McKenna's case the exigencies of the firing techniques she uses; salt firing and long Anagama firing, need to be taken into account as well. Salt firings are done in a small kiln so are quick and can be done often and by herself whereas the Anagama kiln is immense; it requires months of work to fill and a team to fire.
Wood firing has been integral to McKenna's process since she began working with clay in the early 1990s. Since then she has built up a profile in the woodfiring and broader ceramic community, regularly exhibiting in both solo and group shows around Australia and, in 2013, in Singapore.
For Resonant Objects, McKenna has made a limited number of ware types: mugs, jugs, dishes and vases and all have been made with the landscape of the table, a broad bench or shelf in mind. The mugs, jugs and dishes take on instantly recognisable form, while the vases depart in differing degrees from more usual shapes and types. In the former, a preoccupation with the particularities of ceramic function can be detected: each ware type carefully calibrated for pouring, passing, holding and lifting, and placing. These actions have helped determine, for instance, the shape and thickness of a handle, the form's circumference, and its weight and balance.
Mugs have broad bases for stability, the handles are pleasingly shaped and well secured yet they retain their own character and are generous and easy to hold. All fired in the salt kiln, with salt introduced into the kiln at high temperature, the surfaces are of celadon glaze or else black slip with celadon interiors. Salt has only minimal impact on the celadon glaze, apart from intensifying the glaze shine in places, but on the black slip the effects are more noticeable. Surfaces facing the firebox - where the wood is fed into the kiln – have greater exposure to the salt and wood ash as these are pulled through the kiln towards the chimney. A high shine is caused then on the surface of the work facing the firebox and the characteristic 'orange-peel' mottling given by salt is also evident there. On the opposite side though, facing away from the firebox, a matt-er, softer surface, more subdued and with less visual depth results. It is such directional effects, in part, that give wood fired objects particularity.
Similar firing effects can be detected on the varying sized jugs. For the most part these are thrown taller than required, then an uppermost section of the form is removed leaving a narrow protrusion to act as a lip. This technique, leaving no interruption between body and lip, makes for a very energetic pouring spout. As on the mugs, handles are placed close to the top of the object, often ending at a defined midpoint and so drawing attention to the way the pot space has been segmented.
Ceramic forms often invite metaphor and jugs can embody the idea of sharing because to apportion out to an assembled group is their usual role. Often, too, they are passed from hand to hand, and the central raised line on McKenna's jugs helps provide grip in cases such as this, while the handles are generous and easily gripped. Design then gives an indication of function, or as Robert Nelson argues:
Design acquires expressiveness by involving a whole language of gesture: through design, manual actions receive degrees of acknowledgement, especially those manual actions which are necessary to the use of the item, such as the tipping of a jug or the pinching of a fine spoon for the stirring of tea.1
Nelson argues also for a hierarchy of domestic objects, based on the degree to which they serve human needs. Knives and tables for instance he says are 'instrumental', they serve us indirectly by cutting up food or acting as a repository for papers or objects. Implements such as forks, spoons and cups or mugs on the other hand enter the body and are therefore in much more direct and intimate human contact. Dishes for serving he describes as having a much more social role:
The food in the dish is not only presented in transition, a kind of transport vehicle, but it is social and institutional. All people at the table have a claim on its contents: it does not belong to one person and anyone who thinks that it does is surely a hog.2
McKenna's dishes have a generous feel to them, they look 'meant to be filled to the brim' and the act of 'passing around' has been carefully considered with lugs or handles poised ready for picking up, and rims solidly built to ensure safe passage around the table.
The 'trug', an English or Scandinavian receptacle for carrying gathered produce or flowers and a quintessential country garden form provides the prototype for handled vases, referred to by McKenna as 'baskets'. These and her flower 'bricks' – closed rectangular forms with a series of circular openings - indicate the thought she gives to the functioning of the object in an eventual interior setting. All of these vessels might be displayed as forms in their own right yet they retain a sense of being in waiting, 'flower-ready', their end function only temporarily dormant. And, just as the firing has caused the glaze to melt into soft rolls on the bottom edges of many of the works, it has also made the uppermost surface of the flower bricks settle unevenly in the kiln, so echoing the topography of the garden or the field.
With the title, Resonant Objects, Moraig McKenna expresses her hope that when users touch where she has touched, lift as she has lifted, traces of her making process will be encountered through the 'using' of it. And, as new owners make the work their own in ways such as this, it will be through its role in the rhythms and routines of their lives that another set of meanings are overlaid on those conceived by the maker.
Dr Patsy Hely is an Emeritus Fellow at the Australian National University School of Art.