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Art & Design - Feature Article

Studio Pottery: Creating New Life From Timeless Forms

The world of art is a many-faceted one and one which by its very nature involves a plethora of media, each as fascinating and alluring to art lovers as the next. Art is dynamic, ever-changing, and constantly presenting us with surprises. It plays with the concept of the traditional and the modern, it inverts expectations and continually redefines itself in every age. It is this, and much more besides, that makes art so vital, so appealing, and so collectable.

jane hamlyn salt glazed jug and pot

Over the past couple of decades, 3D art and sculpture in all of its forms have moved well and truly into the mainstream of contemporary artists’ creative output. Head into any gallery today, and you’re just as likely to come across impressively imposing installations, a sculpture carved from clay and stone, 3D art formed from light, sound, and anything else imaginable, as you are to discover more traditional paintings and examples of craftsmanship. However, it is has been the rise of studio pottery which has perhaps been the most impressive in recent years. This ancient, timeless, rustic artform has seemingly finally found its way to the fore, helped along by a handful of peerlessly talented potters and ceramicists, keen to show the world the wonders which can spring from the potter’s wheel and from the very earth beneath our feet. 

sonia lewis celadon glazed ceramic jugs and bowl

Studio pottery is, in many ways, an art form quite unlike any other. In a world where the concept of what art actually is has grown looser than ever before, the resurgence of pottery reminds us of the discipline and craftsmanship of the potter. While other artists working and selling their wares in the world today insist on only looking forwards, potters proudly take their place in a lineage which spans the rise and fall of civilisations. As the art world moves ever further into the realms of the ephemeral, the transient, and the digital, potters provide the perfect antithesis: their work is tangible, textured, and grounded in a rare sense of the practical. 

In various art scenes around the world, pottery is once again causing some real excitement and creative fervour. Vases, pots, and ceramic objets d’art (in the most literal sense) are hitting heady new heights at auction, and have cemented their collectable value like never before. Let’s take a closer look at studio pottery both past and present, its current champions and their influence, and consider why it might just be the perfect art form for our times. 

sonia lewis craquel glazed ceramics

Ripples of Beauty From Ancient Times

When we think back to the art of the ancient world, pottery is one of the first things which comes to mind. We think of the decorated vases and urns of Ancient Greece, emblazoned with images of epic myths. We picture the delicate pots of the historic dynasties of China and Japan, and we conjure up images of terracotta wonders, unearthed everywhere from Peru to Ethiopia, and from the Caucasus to the Pompeii. 

This isn’t to say that pottery is the only artform undertaken by ancient civilisations. Far from it, in fact. Painting was commonplace all over the world for thousands of years… but it is the pottery which survived, and the vases, urns, and bowls which remained to be rediscovered. As such, pottery has a special place in our collective psyche and our understanding of the roots of our culture. Pots, bowls, and other storage items don’t need to be beautifully formed, and certainly don’t need to be decorated - their function is a purely practical one. The fact that our ancestors chose to enliven them with colours, intricate shapes, patterns, and glazes, tells us an awful lot about what it means to belong to a culture, and perhaps what it means to be human.

This is possibly the key to understanding why pottery remains in relatively rude health to this day, and why it continues to possess a power over art lovers and those who appreciate real beauty and skill. It is the elevation of the functional, the beautifying of the practical, and the will to express something human and hopeful via the mundane (for what could be more mundane - both literally and metaphorically - than clay?) which gives contemporary studio pottery an aura of the timeless and mystical. 

studio pottery jug and bowl

Art vs Craft

Despite the aforementioned qualities of studio pottery, it’s important to remember that this art form hasn’t always enjoyed such a lofty reputation, nor has it always been a favourite with gallery owners and collectors alike. In fact, it wasn’t all that long ago that studio pottery was fairly looked down upon by the artistic elite, and struggled to make much of an impact in either public spaces or private auctions. Why? Most probably this came down to the confusion as to whether pottery was an ‘art’ or a ‘craft’, an unnecessary distinction which contemporary potters still rail against to this day. 

Towards the end of the 20th century, the art world - like much of the rest of the world - was obsessed with looking for new forms of expression. The rise of digital media and the success of immersive, abstract and conceptual installation art was all-encompassing, and contemporary art at the time was fixated on moving away from the sticky, tactile, and messy craftsmanship of the potter’s studio. However, this negative view of pottery was short-lived. As our lives became increasingly digitised and abstract, and so much of our interactions began taking place in a virtual realm, disconnected from tangible reality, the tastes of the art-buying audience began to change quite radically. 

Before the first decade of the 21st century was over, we found ourselves craving the essence of the real. We began celebrating those who made things with their hands - items which had durability and sturdiness to them, and which demonstrated artistry which had nothing to do with our increasingly virtual existences. Studio pottery began riding high on a wave of renewed popularity; the artform returned to remind us of timeless craftsmanship, and of skills and talents which superseded the ordinary and which couldn’t be recreated with a digital design suite. 

Studio pottery beautifully straddles the twin worlds of art and craft and shows us that these two concepts are merely different sides of the same coin. Art can be crafted, made with bare and muddied hands. The ordinary and functional could still be elevated as art… just as it always had been. 

angela mellor studio ceramic green leaf bowl and pot

Giving Form to Feeling

Studio pottery is currently enjoying a powerful revival, buoyed by the meteoric success of artists including Grayson Perry (who refers to himself as a potter far more often than he refers to himself as an artist or ceramicist), as well as the renewed success and popularity of the incredible Lucie Rie, and many others who have followed in their wake. 

Their skill was and is to give form to feeling; to reimagine shapes which are as old as human civilisation itself, and to give them new significance in the modern world. Perry, for example, uses vases and urns as biographical masterpieces, showing the ebb and flow of his life and his eccentricities via the medium of liquid glazes and undulating forms. The empty space within his vases are just as powerful as their colourful surfaces - these are artworks which appear both ancient and breathtakingly new, and which tell the same stories artists have always been telling about themselves, but on items which ripple with a sense of the mythic. 

Xupes is lucky enough to have a Lucie Rie pot in its collection right now, and it’s difficult to overstate just how important Rie was, and how vital was the part she played in the studio pottery revival. The word most commonly used to describe Rie’s work is ‘elemental’; a deeply fitting term which takes on the fact that her pots seem to be have been borne from the earth itself. Her use of texture and surface was truly masterful, and Rie’s work often looks and feels as though it has been dragged up from the depths of some forgotten kingdom, barnacle-crusted and bleached by sea salt. Lucie Rie used minimalism like a blunt tool; she took the concepts of form, shape, and size to their logical conclusions, and then took them further still, leaving us fixated by her item’s simplicity and purity.

lucie rie stoneware vase

The Lucie Rie stoneware vase, currently available via the Xupes ‘Hard to Find’ collection, is a stunning example of this remarkable artist’s work. Produced in 1960, during the peak of her career in mainland Europe, the piece is the perfect reminder of the power that studio pottery can have. Coated in a thick, uneven, pockmarked white glaze (a signature style of Rie’s), it puts us in mind of classical sculpture - there’s something almost Atlantean about that surface as if it is covered with deep sea spores - while remaining effortlessly modernist. Devastatingly simple, it looks as contemporary today as it must have done upon completion some 68 years ago… the mark of true artistic achievement, if there ever was one. 

Lucie Rie’s work and the refreshed enthusiasm and collectability of her creations shows that studio pottery still has so much to offer the contemporary art world. Potters will never tire of reimagining simple shapes and giving them bottomless meaning. The mundane practicalities of household vases, jars, pots, and other vessels offer no restrictions to the artistic mind; merely endless ways of taking the simple and making it complex, and of taking the ancient and making it stunningly new.