Updated: May 15, 2020
I was enjoying a gorgeous wood-fired pizza in a tepee in the Welsh coastal town of Cardigan when I first came across the word 'forest' with a double ff. A few beers had been partaken of and much laughter as we went through all the possible double F words. I absolutely love Wales. I have friends and family there and will probably end up living there... last year I spent a week working on the International Ceramics Festival (2019) http://www.internationalceramicsfestival.org where I seemed to spend most of my time chalking up the changes in programmes and signage on massive blackboards. Everything had to be written in English and Welsh so there were a fair amount of double Fs. There were also plenty of trees, and it was then that I decided to embrace my love of Wales and my love of trees and to name my sgraffito tree motifs, present on so much of my ceramics for years and years, as 'Fforest'.
It's difficult to choose just one story or explanation behind my tree obsession. I have literally 1000s of photographs of trees backed up on my computer.
There are just so many memories that I could draw from. Of course, the trees that I reproduce on my pots tend to be informed by my immediate local environment. In France I only had time to work on my pots in the winter, when the bare trunks and branches appeared a dark green, almost black, with the humidity that consumed us every year for months, living in the countryside between two rivers, the Saone and the Seille.
Plate commissioned for Greenwich Community Development Agency, 2017
In August 2018 I moved back to my old manor! south east London, bursting with trees and lovely urban parkland. We lived for a while within a stone's throw of beautiful Greenwich Park, and I actually started to take my biscuit fired pots up into the park and sit there drawing trees with an oxide pencil. It took me back to my O level art days- which must have been when this all started- myself and a mate sitting in the park, sketching trees as preparation for our final piece: I remember the exam question I had chosen was to be inspired by Ted Hughes' poem The Wind, and I had chosen a wonderfully twisted specimen to draw and include in my final composition... but that's another story!
Porcelain bowl sketched with Greenwich Park trees.
I recently sold the last in a series of plates that I would really love to talk about. I made them in France, some years ago, when I was working in the studio of potter and teacher Isabelle Rouaze https://isabellerouaze.fr
I learnt a huge amount from Isabelle: she really helped my to get to grips with good practice in throwing, and together we experimented with glaze and slip recipes and put on a series of exhibitions, featuring our own work and that of fellow students. When I first met her I was displaying a series of lino-cut images at a local winery (again- another story here!) and we talked about the relief printing technique and the wonderful fresh quality achieved as a result of carving an image with sharp tools into a hard surface. This was why, once I moved away from print-making to concentrate on pottery, I started to decorate my ceramics using the same carving technique, sometimes even using my lino-cutting tools to scrape away the leather-hard clay. It was some time before I discovered that in the ceramic world this technique has a name: 'sgraffito'. For me, it was just a way of using this technique that I found so satisfying to decorate my thrown pots.
This is the plate that I recently sold. I think I will probably make some more at some point, but really I ought to start working on the book about the year in my life that this image represents!
In the late 90s, for various reasons, I found myself living in the north woods of America. I spent winter months in New Hampshire, Vermont, Minnesota... I have never felt such cold! (minus 40 up near the Canadian border, on the shores of Lake Superior). It was a time in my life where, I feel,
I really began to 'see' trees. I worked for a while for the most wonderful wood-cut print artist, my friend, Matt Brown, in Lyme, New Hampshire. I proofed his prints for him, painting rice paste and pigment onto his finely carved wood-blocks in his peaceful studio, while snow fell thickly outside. I remember a day, very clearly, perched behind him as he drove his tractor down a rough woodland track. The sun was slanting through the trees creating wonderful contrasts and shadows. I suddenly realised that I was seeing things differently: the forms and tones and composition that would transform the scene into a wood-block print. I feel that working with Matt really did teach me to see the world in a very different way, and that this has informed my work ever since. https://ooloopress.com/index6/
In Minnesota, living in the fire-blackened basement of a cabin, deep in the woods, I spent days helping a lumberjack who was cutting trees through minimum environmental impact- in other words, with huge shire horses and a massive sled. I have to say I spent most of my time lighting fires with birch bark to stop my toes from getting frostbite (even through my mega snow boots), but sitting there in the snowy woods imprinted these images on my minds eye and they have stayed with me ever since:
These sketches bring back a flood of memories from my time in the States: using an axe to break the ice on the pond- our only source of fresh water; keeping the fire-burning, in deep forest, during the night watch for the dog-mushers on the 100 mile sled race through the boundary waters and across the Canadian border from northern Minnesota; wearing snow shoes to traverse deep snow drifts in the search for shoots of red dogwood to weave baskets from; watching a timber wolf, watching me...
And now, in 2020, lockdown: I have been lucky enough to find myself living in a beautiful house in Ladywell, Lewisham, a mere stones' throw from where I was born. The garden is surrounded by beautiful mature trees, and, true to form, it will be these specimens that no doubt inform my tree imagery as long as I am here. As long as there are trees to admire there will be plenty more additions to the Fforest series still to come.