Scavenging bricks and wood for kiln-building, camping overnight at outdoor firing sites, throwing hundreds of pots a day, and making your own pottery tools. It’s difficult to imagine students embarking on a ceramics course like this today. Yet for the last half-century, teaching ‘hands-on’ skills to ensure self-sufficiency as a working potter was the essence of the internationally renowned Harrow Studio Pottery course (most recently known as BA Ceramics, University of Westminster). Harrow students graduated with the workshop skills, creative identity, and business acumen necessary to survive the working world, setting this course apart from many of its type. That is, until this summer, as it closed its doors after its final thesis show. The course was sadly forced to close, despite a well-publicised campaign supported by names like Grayson Perry.
“Tradition and Innovation: Five Decades of Harrow Ceramics,” is an exhibition which celebrates the incredible achievements of past alumni and tutors at Contemporary Applied Arts Gallery, London. The diverse and dynamic works are a perfect reflection of how ideas, practices, and teaching methods of the course have evolved over the last 50 years. Besides the works on display, it is the rare insight into Harrow’s vibrant history and unique practice that is most fascinating.
The Harrow Studio Pottery course was founded in 1963 and was originally intended as a two-year intensive course for second career potters trying to set up their own affordable workshops. Since then the course underwent many changes—in name, structure, practice, and theory. These are aptly chronicled on a wall timeline, embellished with illustrations, photographs, and course posters. Students climbed over mountain-like firing pits like intrepid explorers, packing, and unloading their latest hoard of pots with anticipation; no one can deny that it was an exciting time to study ceramics, very much in line with the DIY ethos of the 1960s-70s. From the very first exhibition in 1965, Harrow Ceramics graduate shows banished traditional hierarchy and “White Cube” conventions in favor of a vibrant sense of community, shared passion and pride in creating things from scratch.
Despite an impressive historical introduction, the majority of the ceramics are by recent graduates. An eclectic range of functional tableware, elegant thrown forms, abstracts and experimental vessels, sculpture, site-specific installation, and video performance reflects the changing ambitions of students, and how the course evolved to meet these.
There is a refreshing cross-pollination of disciplines and materials, such as Christie Brown’s quirky hybrid figures in her installation z. The work challenges preconceptions of ancient artifacts. In this case, juxtaposing unusual mixed media and found objects (animal skulls, plastic toy limbs, cloth, photo fragments, teddy bears and ceramic scarab amulets) onto figures seated in an orthodox Egyptian pose. The curious statues have a glazed expression, possessing a charmingly esoteric quality.
Aneta Regel’s Metamorphosis and Anne Mercedes’ Fonte exhibited abstract and experimental sculpture. The former includes a meteorite collision of a Barbie-pink outer encasing a crumbly, granite-like interior, with anthropomorphic nuances. The latter makes a compelling, post-apocalyptic statement with a contrasting array of fused textures—ceramic shards, molten lava and fragments that suggest our transient human existence. Her intention is to suggest, “what it feels like to witness the kinetic beauty of the Earth’s destruction.”
There has been a growing trend in contemporary ceramics that critique modern society, most notable in Lawrence Epps, Winner of the Fresh Award at the 2011 British Ceramics Biennial. His extruded army of miniature office workers, Employees, are a bold visual statement against the erosion of selfhood within corporate culture. Cleverly placed on the stairs, it’s a familiar scene for anyone who uses the London underground during morning and evening rush hours—faceless silhouettes holding briefcases appear bored, wandering aimlessly in conformity. Thin layers are delicately spliced away from the figures, highlighting the gradual loss of individuality under such pressures.
The wide-ranging works clearly demonstrate a critical awareness of cultural, social, and commercial contexts. Sadly the future of ceramics higher education in the UK is less certain and in a digital age that emphasises speed and convenience, skills like kiln-building and clay-refining seem more and more obsolete. And with the decline of specialized ceramic degree courses in the UK, it raises concerns as to the future of manual technical skills. Yet despite our digital age, this final exhibit brings attention to the subtle, yet rich, experience of making something by hand.