Ceramics: Exploring the intuitive nature of the process with Connemara artist Deborah Watkins
I was drawn to clay during my first year at the National College of Art and Design, when I was given the opportunity to do a couple of weeks in the ceramics department. I was attracted to the hands on nature of the course and I immediately liked the tactile quality of the material. I continued with a five year degree course and returned to study a couple of years later to do a higher diploma in art education.
I moved to Connemara from County Kildare in the early 1990’s. I met my husband Gavin Lavelle in Clifden, although we had studied together for a year at N.C.A.D. Gavin is a fine art painter and he came here to take over the running of his father’s gallery. I came to Connemara for summer work, but loved the landscape and the people so much that I ended up staying for good. I started out in Kylemore Abbey Pottery and then I set up my own pottery workshop in town. Gavin sold my pots in our gallery and Michael D. Higgins opened an exhibition of ours here in the early years.
I took a break from clay when we had our three daughters, but I returned to creativity through painting around 2008 when the girls were still quite young. It was a practical decision as I needed to work from home and painting was simpler to manage than ceramics and in many ways just as enjoyable.
Clay and paint are very different materials. The pottery process is slow and disciplined and the rewards are somewhat delayed. You begin with a lump of soft malleable clay and you end up with something almost glass-like that is rigid and fragile. Each new piece is a technical challenge that requires slightly different processes. Working with paint is much more immediate – the colours are pure and instantly rewarding. I try to forget about technical issues when painting and focus on bringing some kind of energy into the work. Colour in ceramics is a science of its own - the glazes often appear very different when they are applied to the pots and they transform from powder to glass in the heat of the kiln. Everything is delayed while the firing takes place, usually over eight to ten hours, with another day to cool, but nothing beats the excitement of opening the kiln door after a firing.
In general, I think that my approach to creativity is intuitive or I at least I try to allow that to happen. I often endeavour to capture the fluid properties of clay during the making process. The same is true for painting. I think about the landscape and try to recreate the feelings that it provokes while allowing the paint to guide the direction of each piece.
My influences are varied and ever expanding. I was greatly affected by a visit to an exhibition of Rodin’s sculpture as a young student on a trip to London. The massive scale of his work and the tenderness of many of the poses was very moving to me. The experience bore no resemblance to my previous impressions of his work through books. I also loved reading about the American expressive potters of the 1960s led by Paul Soldner. Their work was all about the intuitive nature of the process, the notion of discipline was rejected. He inspired me to experiment with a westernised version of the ancient eastern technique of ‘raku’ which I explored in my studio in Clifden.
(Paul Soldner in studio) (Rodin: La Danaise)
I love all forms of expressive design and bold use of colour. I admire the work of Sandy Brown, Andrew Luddick and Grayson Perry. My favourite painters include Emil Nolde, Egon Schiele and Van Gogh. Seeing Van Gogh’s work in real life at the Musee D’Orsay in Paris also had a great impact and once again bore no relation to viewing cheapened reproductions of his masterpieces in media and advertising. His paintings are thick with paint that is almost luminous. Every brush stroke is visible – you can almost feel his presence in each piece.
(Grayson Perry's 2009 Walthamstow Tapestry :Partial)
I am in the early stages of setting up a pottery studio in my home. I work with clay in my teaching job at the Elm Tree Centre in Clifden, so I am in constant contact with the material but I am ready to make my own work in clay again. I made large decorative pots on the wheel before but I have grown to love hand building since working at the Elm Tree. I want to return to more figurative work and I think it will probably be quite colourful.
'Life experience is key to the development of any artist and the things that we do and see will naturally shine through our creative work. I see myself as an old lady in years to come, mucking about in her studio, experimenting with some new thing and being quite content with her lot'
I have lived in Connemara now for more than half my life. I can’t imagine being anywhere else. Our natural landscape is ever inspiring and it doesn’t always have to be the big stuff although the mountains, lakes and coastline in Galway never cease to impress. I enjoy the small things too - the simple beauty of our native plants and trees, the hedgerows and the heathers, the quiet and the damp clean air. Taking time out to appreciate my natural surroundings is the best kind of nourishment and it helps me to keep calm and focused in life.
Sustainable living for me means being aware of the impact we make on the world and trying to be responsible about it. I think we have to train ourselves to consume less and reuse and recycle more. I try to recycle regularly and locally when I can and I enjoy upcycling old and not so old pieces of furniture. Upcycling satisfies my creative and ecological needs all in one – win win!
I try to avoid buying supermarket produce with excessive amounts of packaging, especially fruit and vegetables. Most products we buy are excessively packaged and while some of the materials are recyclable, many are not and it all amounts to unnecessary waste. I believe that small changes can make a big impact and if we all let our supermarkets know that we would prefer less packaging, they might actually listen.
My eyes have been opened to sustainable clothing since I have known Sharon and the wonderful Ohh! By Gum. I love the clothes and am very happy to support this growing and very important part of the fashion industry. I love the striking designs of the Seasalt and Whitestuff ranges especially and find that they always wear well over time in contrast to most high street brands which are designed to be worn and thrown away.
A question we ask all our guest bloggers is : name one thing you are good at, one thing you could be better at, and one aspiration.
I am very reliable and while I may take a while to make a decision, once it has been made I will see it through to the end.
I could be better at doing more exercise. While I am naturally quite an active person, I shirk from most forms of disciplined exercise.
I aspire to having more time to travel and see new things. I love visiting galleries and craft markets when on holiday. I would like to experience more of Europe and I would also like to get to Canada and Iceland. I have no great desire to visit the U.S.A., particularly under the current administration, but I would like to see New York and also San Francisco one day.
Deborah's art work, along with that of a number of local and national artists can be found at www.lavellegallery.com. She is currently working on a number of ceramic works which will be available in coming months.