Interview with ceramic artist Ken Eastman

Interview with Ken Eastman / Featured now
By Ileana Surducan
Published in Ceramics Now Magazine Issue 2

Ken Eastman’s work is on the cover of Ceramics Now Magazine Issue 2

Why did you choose the vessel as the central element of your art? Was there a transition from functional vessels to sculptural ones?

I have been working in ceramics continually since 1980. There have been periods when I have moved away from the vessel, but really it has been at the core of my work for most of the time since then. I do not make functional pots, but rather use the vessel as a subject - to give meaning and form to an expression. For a long time now I have realized that my overriding interest is making new coloured clay forms. This seems for me to be the essence of pottery- to make shapes which occupy and contain space and to decorate those shapes. By decorate, I mean to paint slip or glaze, to draw, to make image or line across the skin of the clay.

Ken Eastman Ceramics

Ken Eastman: For all we know, 2010, Stoneware with painted coloured slips and oxides, 43x31x37 cm.

Does your creative process start from a certain image in your mind, or do you seek for inspiration as you progress?

I have always made things - at first out of Lego and wood and for a long time now, using clay. Working on how to approach creating, so that I can go to work every day and explore shape and colour and move forwards, is always hard. The breadth of ceramic possibilities means that to make any progress it is necessary to build up some strict limitations. I use writing and drawing to approach the spirit of a piece of work, but I do not draw an ‘architectural plan’ of the piece that I am about to make: ideas that work in two dimensions are often different from those that are successful in three dimensions. Also, if I knew exactly what I was going to make before I started work in clay, there would be little room left for the play and invention that is an essential part of creative work. A large part of the reason for making is to see things which I have never seen before - to build something which I am excited about and wish to show and share with others. So I try not to plan anything except roughly how to proceed within my imposed limitations.

Tell us about the slab building technique that you use. What are the challenges that you encounter and the skills that it requires?

I roll out slabs of white stoneware clay by hand with a wooden rolling pin. Most of the rolling is bashing the clay flat and the rolling smoothens the material towards the end of the process. From the moment I start rolling out slabs I have to start making decisions - not what the piece will look like, which will in time become clear, but the details - how wide, how long, how thin or thick the slab, choices which determine shape. The objects which I make are clearly defined, they have drawn ground plans, smooth walls and clear edges, but this resolution emerges slowly. There are certain curves and curlings which a thin slab can manage better than a thicker one, but sometimes it’s the soft fatness of a rim or the weight of a piece which is more important.

Colour is an important part of your work. How do you see the interaction between colour and volume?

As soon as possible in the making process, I begin to make marks on the surface with coloured slips and oxides, whilst the clay is still quite wet. I paint on numerous layers of colour, firing the work repeatedly. I apply it in response to three dimensional form and it is in this way I paint the surface in order to explore and make sense of what I have made. I don’t know what colour I want a piece to be until I find it by working - building up layers of colour can often feel more like a stripping away to reveal what was meant. I am interested in the relationship between colour, the illusionistic space of a surface and actual space. This relationship is a complex one - as well as inhabiting the 2 dimensional space on a curving plane of clay, colour can, in a sense fill the actual 3 dimensional space of the vessel itself. Glen Brown in writing about my work said that colour becomes “volumetric, contained, like real space itself, by the vessel walls rather than merely carried on them: it becomes a fundamental content of the work rather than a superficial aspect of it.”

Today’s contemporary art puts a lot of emphasis on dynamics and interactivity. In this context, what is the merit of an art work that encourages contemplation as an aesthetic experience?

Being a static artwork does not exempt it from being dynamic or profound. Art work which is three dimensional demands that the viewer moves around the work and becomes involved in order to experience it and to contemplate it, which is of course a truly dynamic and interactive experience.

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James Tower and Contemporary Ceramics / Gimpel Fils, London

James Tower and Contemporary Ceramics exhibition at Gimpel Fils, London

James Tower and Contemporary Ceramics / Gimpel Fils, London
April 26 - June 9, 2012

Private View: Thursday 26 April, 6-8 pm.

Uniting art, design, sculpture and craft, James Tower holds a unique position in the history of British ceramics. As an artist who consistently challenged the perceived limits of his medium, throughout his career Tower explored the sculptural and painterly potential of ceramic forms. His vessels, plates and sculptures are exhibited here alongside recent works by six contemporary artists in order to demonstrate that the questions he grappled with have yet to be resolved.

This exhibition explores the continuing problem of how artists who work in ceramics are classified: ceramist; sculptor; painter; artist. The relevance of these definitions is actively tested by the artists included in this exhibition, all of whom explore their ideas in multiple mediums. At Brighton Polytechnic Tower was Head of Sculpture, and yet his ceramic works were not regarded as such. Indeed, his sculptures and drawings were overlooked during his lifetime. Displaying objects and drawings together, Nicholas Lees explores what he regards as the porous membrane between ceramics and sculpture in order to demonstrate their reciprocity.

Placed side by side works by Tower, Gordon Baldwin and Ken Eastman encourage a dialogue between sculptural shape, painterly surfaces and, indeed between sculpture and vessel. Like Tower, Baldwin has utilized both sculptural form and abstract marks in his work, while Eastman’s engagement with colour, and Martin Smith’s exploration of light and surface demonstrate that to work in ceramics, is also to be a painter. The scratched designs, the striated lines and dashes over the concave or convex surfaces of Tower’s vessels and plates are indicative of his desire to create a synthesis between the form and surface.

Like his contemporaries, William Scott and Peter Lanyon, Tower sought to refine an abstracted style based on natural forms. The sea and its inhabitants provided motifs and compositional models that Tower adopted and adapted according to his artistic ideals; in Snow Forest, 1982, Tower’s use of textured surface is reminiscent of a shell, mollusc or crustacean. The universality of these natural forms find commonalities in Edith Garcia’s recent body of work Absence and Presence. In a series of pressed clay forms she considers our ability to find the human form in the most minimal of shapes, objects and natural phenomena. Caroline Achaintre has also looked to Lanyon in recent work; but her interest in modern art and its legacies defy categorical boundaries and as such might be understood as uncanny hybrids of utopian ideas and human emotions.

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