Pottery is an old art form. As old as the Bible.
You’ve heard the lines sometimes referred to as “The Potter’s House and the Ruined Vessel” from Jeremiah 18: 3: “So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was doing work at the potter’s wheel. But the vessel he was working on with the clay was ruined in the potter’s hand. So he remade it into another vessel that seemed appropriate to him.”
Unlike the potter in Jeremiah, Frances Ward doesn’t use a potter’s wheel. She uses a slab roller (a large tool that rolls the clay out into a consistent slab). And she doesn’t abandon “ruined” clay. She works with it, moulding it into the aesthetic beauty of the vessel she’s working on. “As I am hand-building, I usually start with a slab of clay and often layer strips of clay onto the slab and keep rolling the clay with the inlaid pattern until I like what’s happening. It is like drawing with clay on clay,” Frances tells me. She often incorporates her scraps and offcuts into the design of the piece. “During the forming stage and the glazing/firing stage, there’s an element of risk; results can be disappointing or much better than anticipated,” she says. There’s an element of mystery.
Frances Ward is a painter, a photographer, a poet, and, recently, a potter. Of all the arts, pottery is what she feels most connected to.
“There is something extremely satisfying about forming an object from “earth” and holding that object after it has gone through the various processes (forming, bisquing, glazing, firing) and has survived and is beautiful. I don’t get quite that feeling from a finished painting or a photograph. I guess it is the tactile quality of a clay object that is the most compelling. It’s something to hold, not just look at.”
Sometimes Frances makes functional objects such as jewelry or pendants or cups. Functional objects sell better than non-functional objects. But the ideal for her “is an object that works on a sculptural level,” hence her preference for raku.
Raku objects are less functional than high-fired objects since “you can’t use them for drinking or holding water. The glazes are not as stable and the clay is still somewhat porous. The Japanese technique of raku is Frances Ward’s favourite way of dealing with clay, cracks, and all.
“It’s more immediate. You glaze it, place it in an outdoor kiln, and wait until it’s ready. You pull it out when it is still glowing hot. You do whatever post-firing things you want to do (cover it, sprinkle it with reduction materials, spray it with water, etc.) and when it has cooled down it’s ready to be cleaned. Cleaning the ash and soot off a raku piece and revealing a beautiful object is like panning for gold.”
As I’m looking at a small black-and-white raku vessel I happen to own from Frances Ward’s hands, I see a crack at the back running the length of the vessel. I think of a stonework of a female figure by Constantin Brancusi called Wisdom of the Earth. The woman looks smooth and flawless until you notice a crack running down her back. Wabi-sabi, the Japanese say – the beauty of the scarred, the weathered, the worn, the partially broken. The perfection of imperfection.
Isn’t an object more beautiful, more human, if it has a crack?