Cambridge Open Studios 2016 - Kathryn Hearn

Kathryn Hearn Ceramics
Our next two interviews for Cambridge Open Studios took us out to one of the furthest studios in the guide book. Kathryn and Stewart Hearn orignate from London but have now settled in Chatteris, with a dedicated studio and workshops for their ceramics and glass, and it is well worth the trip! First we speak to Kathryn about her ceramics...
It was fantastic to see your latest ceramic works in your studio, how has your move from London to the Cambridgeshire Fens impacted on your practice?
My workshop in London was much smaller than my new one in Chatteris and I didn’t have such an unusual garden and courtyard to look out onto. It’s also great being alongside Stewart’s much bigger barn. In the summer I can see him blowing glass as I am working, and we can have coffee every morning together with Alex Pearce his glass assistant, and studio manager Kim Downes, which means we can share discussions about work and life. It is our own small community, which is important, rather than being isolated, and makes for a lovely work environment. We have a variety of visitors into our space including clients from London, who seem to find it more accessible to visit us here than when we were in East London! But also delivery people and local buyers inquisitively intrigued with what is going on behind our listed cottage facing the high street. They are usually surprised about the hive of creative activity in our garden.
My work has changed enormously as I have reacted to this extraordinary East Anglian landscape. I had always been influenced by quite small and intimate surfaces and forms in London, but since moving I commuted across the Fen, 5 days a week for 4 years, travelling to my teaching job in London Kings Cross from Huntingdon. Now I only do this occasionally as I am enjoying the less intense full time employment which has been my norm for so long, but this train journey led me to reflect on my reaction to a new environment through photographs, drawings and ultimately my ceramic work.
The enormities of the skies obviously are amazing but it was also the compositions of the industrial agricultural and ancient landscape with the contrasts of light, translucent mist and obliterating weathers, where partial glimpses of trees and crops are exposed through the layers of atmosphere rising across the land.
Receding lines of colour and hues into the never-ending distance has chimed with my interest of repetition which is something of an obsession. I feel very small in this enormous circular vista that goes on forever.
I have also became really aware of the culture of production and the inherent craft processes used in the rotation of crops, including equipment and the recurring motifs common to the Fenland landscape. I had a visceral need to respond to it with my ceramic work as I felt almost overwhelmed by its impact.
What kinds of materials do you use, and why does clay do it for you?
Clay has always been my preferred medium since I was 16! It was the discovery that I had a material that could be anything, both in terms of aesthetic and dimension, which I found totally liberating despite its frustrations as it dries and is fired. Also that it can bring such a varied identity that could be changed with other materials like oxides and kiln firings and I could work with abstract qualities for their own sake.
I have used many types of manufacture in my career. I had a throwing workshop in the Lake District for a number of years making domestic ware, and throughout the years I have also been better known for decorative works using a laminated coloured slip casting technique which I called Strata casting. I have worked with it in relation to commissions but also for companies such as Wedgwood and their Jasperware clay. Their 12 coloured clays were very challenging and the myriad historic references to which I could respond. I enjoy the colour of the clay body being intrinsic to the form, my surfaces are almost exclusively integral to the making of the form. 
You have explored throwing pots and casting clay, what has been the push to make the hand built pieces that you are currently creating?
When I worked with Belleek Pottery in County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland I was fascinated with their handbuilt parian baskets which had flowers embellished on them, a company almost as old as Wedgwood with a rich tradition of decorative detail. I was a design consultant helping them develop the baskets in a contemporary context, as they were exclusively traditional in their designs. I worked with the clay which has Gum Arabic incorporated into it and therefore very robust in the clay state, it felt rather like rubber. At the time this was 2011, I didn’t realise that handbuilding with the crafts people on the production line would actually lead me into making work which has some of the same considerations in these recent pieces. 
This new work is in porcelain flax or 'paper' clay. Incidentally this is one of the newest technological developments in contemporary studio ceramics in recent years, allowing me to be able to help me make very thin sections and ribbons of clay which very often look as though they shouldn’t stand up. This is the beauty of paper clay. It allows you to make in the unfired state quite tenuous and risky forms. Also you can attach dry and wet clay together which with ordinary clay is not successful. I enjoy the brinksmanship of this as it may move in the firing, especially as porcelain is always so much more difficult to control. This uncertainty links very well with my subject matter, the farmer’s pragmatism and tacit knowledge of managing his fields, and how nature could respond both positively and negatively is always a gamble and a balancing act.
I make work which has a formal construction process which involved hand extruding straps of clay through wire profiles as though I am making handles. In fact this reference was intended as I wanted to use craft processes that potters take for granted in the production of their pots, in the same way as agriculture skills are used which are assumed and never celebrated.
With these straps I handbuild vessels which have a feeling of sequence and process, sometimes viewers confuse the undulating surfaces with throwing. The compositions capture the ideas from places and motifs that interest me, such as the use of ‘volunteer weeds’ which are the remainder of crops left in the periphery of the field following a planting rotation.
You are well known for your 'laminated colours' in your pieces, something that you introduced to the ceramic world many years ago. How does this process work in your current practice? 
I have mainly concentrated on unglazed surfaces and vitrified ceramic bodies as I enjoy revealing the identity of the clay. When I was a 2nd year student in my degree course at Loughborough College of Art & Design in the 1970’s I was drawing red and white Victorian beach huts and I wanted to create a striped rim. As I loved slip casting with its precise control I thought about how that could be achieved, I decided to cast layers of coloured slip that subsequently revealed the laminations in different ways on rims and feet of the pots. I remember David Leach who was teaching us throwing at the time, look rather askance at my work saying he had never seen a process like it before; I’m not convinced he approved of it!
However with these recent Cambridgeshire pieces I have been experimenting with glazes which will obscure and bring ambiguous surfaces to the pot. The glaze I have been working with mostly is a semi-matt Dolomite glaze recipe I acquired from a great potter, John Kershaw, who I worked for as an assistant in Windermere in the Lakes when I first left college. The glaze has a fantastic variety of qualities at slightly different temperatures and thicknesses, with great colour responses using oxides and underglaze colours.
I am trying to use more fugitive hues than previous work. However I realised that my strata’d work was not to be left in the past, because when I wanted an inclusion in the work with a very different colour and surface (as I had been looking at farm machinery which had a more graphic colour), it seemed absolutely appropriate to introduce strata’d elements between and through the walls. This also reinforced the tenuous impression I am keen to portray. It is interesting that when you work with a particular process for a long time it becomes the lens in which you look at the world. I am really pleased I have brought small shards of these to the handbuilt vessels and they make a really challenging and curious contrast to the soft walls.
You taught for many years at Central Saint Martins, how did you keep your own practice growing and evolving in that time? 
I was the Course Director for the BA(Honours) Ceramic Design course and Subject Leader for Ceramics for the MA Design: Ceramics, Furniture & Jewellery course, which I am still teaching on occasionally. Being a full time manager and lecturer makes it very hard to continue your practice consistently as you have such a wide range of responsibilities. You are of course expected to continue your subject not least because the government undertake a research audit every 4 years which brings money to the University, so the more staff who are practicing and have impact in their subject will not only enrich the student experience, but also raise the profile of your institution.
We developed a ceramic design identity and curriculum because we believed that courses were generally prioritising an art approach and students needed to realise the diversity of their practice and would help them work full time, and operate in a range of creative opportunities throughout their lives. So I made sure my practice reflect this rhetoric and translated my craft and ideas into design contexts, hence the three collections I made with Wedgwood, one of which was shown in the V&A in 8 cases in the Rotunda.
I brought together my work with jasper and the archive from the V&A and the Wedgwood Collection at Barlaston in Staffordshire, the works were called ‘Jasper Blues’.  This collection and the other two, one of which was shown at 100% Design during the London Design Festival were shown in Frankfurt and Tokyo. I had approached the V&A for this project. I believe you have to be brave but informed in promoting your work and make interesting partners who have a vested interest. This is what we have always taught the students.
Now you are no longer teaching full time, and you are free to do your own work, what are you planning next? 
I loved teaching and the students' passion for this subject, and I have been always interested in the human condition and how we process our creative thoughts. However it is fantastic now to be making more of my own new work and promoting myself again. I find my ideas have not lessened at all or my desire to express them in clay. I thought I would be making smaller work but in fact I am finding myself making bigger pots and getting them fired wherever I can. In fact I may have to buy a bigger kiln! I am really enjoying the immense freedom of making work for days on end without having to be thinking about when I have to stop to go to college or check emails. I am doing long and intense days that are really absorbing and rewarding.
I have just had a stand at the prestigious Ceramic Arts London show run by the Crafts Potters Association, which had 88 makers showing their work. This was very successful and I feel extremely lucky to have taken part. I also have plans to make another ‘brave but informed’ move to establish myself in East Anglia so watch this space!
Do you and your husband Stewart critique each others work?
Always… we enjoy being able to look at each others work, though we make with different materials. Glass and ceramics have many of the same properties and are often seen in the same contexts which probably helps. We value and respect each others point of view. We often take heed of the other one and would only not change the work if we feel very strongly and that would be usually because it is underpinned by our knowledge of our own subject. It is a real luxury having someone with a creative and sound judgement alongside you who has your success as a priority. I take his comments very seriously, as he does mine.
During your Cambridge Open Studio weekends, will you be showing people how you work? 
I intend making some big pots while the open studios are on. I have some access to a 4ft high kiln so this will stretch me further than I have ever achieved. It will be interesting to see if the flax clay will let me work to those extremities. Also it suggests something of the enormity this landscape suggests. I plan to work under a pergola in the garden alongside my workshop and hopefully we won’t have bad weather. It will mean the audience can see my making clearly. Stewart and I will have to work out how we co-ordinate our making so we don’t clash however.
The Cambridge Open Studios artists have been tasked with designing and making a heart which will go in to auction. The proceeds will go to the Arthur Rank Hospice. What design are you planning? 
I am just about to make a heart for this and have made some special inclusions to put into the form. I hope it will work as I plan, but I will have to make more than one in case it doesn’t. Design work is always iterative and they usually get better the more you make. My intention is to make a bowl that can be also hung up as requested.
Where can we find you work for sale? 
I can be contacted all the time on if anyone is interested in work I have in my studio or would like to commission me. In fact I am about to send a body of work to ‘The Byre’ at Millbrook near Plymouth for an exhibition called ‘Out of the Picture’ to be opened in July. I have just been accepted as a new member at the CAA (Contemporary Applied Art), 89, Southwark Street, London SE1 0HX, as of August so should have work  there soon.
We always have a Christmas Open Weekend the beginning of December but as Chatteris Lights, which are a big draw locally, have taken that weekend this year we plan to be the weekend of November 26th & 27th. This is always a great event. My website is being planned at the moment and I have a Facebook site Kathryn Hearn Ceramics which has an archive of work through the years too.
What dates can people come and visit during Cambridge Open Studios? 
Week 2 which is July 9th & 10th and Week 3 which is July 18th & 19th. We look forward to welcoming everyone and usually ship in family to help with refreshments too! We find these weekends are a great time to talk to people about the work and I am really pleased to be able to show my work this time more explicitly through making.

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