Linda Swanson on Ceramics and the Expanded Field Conference, 17-19 July 2014

Linda Swanson is a ceramic artist based in Montreal and Assistant Professor in Studio Arts at Concordia University.

The artist Theaster Gates launched the conference Ceramics in Expanded Field: Behind the Scenes at the Museum by observing that ceramics has an “excess of metaphors” that could be accessed in new ways. He suggested that ceramics draw upon the untapped potential of its traditional expertise and knowledge while looking for unconventional opportunities in the field of practice confronting it today. His savvy use of irony coupled with a sincere appreciation for craft can be seen in his project entitled Soul Manufacturing Corporation, which was discussed several times during the conference. In this piece, Gates recreated a pottery workshop space in an art gallery in which three experienced potters trained a group of apprentices over a period of several weeks. This performance, involving the transmission of knowledge and skill, has the potential to speak for ceramics as a practice that involves devotion, skill and community in ways that the artefacts themselves may not be able to. Gates’ initial talk set the tone for the conference that explored how ceramic artists and curators could expand the field of ceramics to critically engage museums and their collections in non-traditional ways.

Clare Twomey, Piece by Piece (2014). Sylvian Deleu Photography. Commissioned for the Gardiner Museum Toronto.

The conference focused on recent projects that took museums as sites for an “expanded field” of ceramic practice and that worked with ceramic collections in different ways while addressing issues of site specificity, viewer interactivity and the changing roles of artists and curators. A concurrent exhibition in the University’s gallery, Ambika P3, offered the chance to view works by conference organizers Christie Brown, Julian Stair and Claire Twomey. Of particular note was the trial run of Twomey’s Piece by Piece (above) destined for the Gardiner Museum in Toronto this fall in which porcelain figurines were methodically hand-cast by an assistant in moulds taken from three original pieces in the Gardiner collection and distributed in the vast space of the gallery so that the continuous pace of production, accumulation and arrangement effectively reanimated the figurines. Projects such as Twomey’s not only connect with the current desire of museums to reinvigorate their collections, they develop from a deep knowledge of ceramic techniques and processes and offer the viewer a window onto the experience of the maker.

Another artist working with a particular consciousness of viewer experience was Phoebe Cummings, who spoke about her residency at the V&A Museum where she worked in a glass-walled studio within a museum gallery. Cummings took advantage of this unique position to turn the studio into an evolving exhibition space where she built up an enchanting environment from raw clay elements modelled on patterns from the historical work in the collection that was exhibited on gallery shelves adjacent to her studio. Viewers observed the work as it unfolded and could follow her practice as she posted poetic descriptions of the artistic process on a blog. In contrast to the collection, her work was not intended to last, a temporary embodiment of her dialogue with history and the public, briefly enjoyed then recycled into the next work. Cummings’ work and Anders Ruhwald’s sculptural interventions entitled Anatomy of a Home that reinterpreted the interpersonal relationships of architect Eliel Saarinen’s family in the museum of their home at Cranbrook Academy outside Detriot, are exemplary of how ceramics can expand its disciplinary scope within contemporary art through new strategies that draw out aspects of its materiality and process in response to situation.

The conference demonstrated how expansive the field of ceramics in fact already is, yet ended on the question “Why clay?” What does clay have to offer to contemporary art? Rachel Gotlieb, Chief Curator at the Gardiner Museum, an institution dedicated specifically to ceramics, described a recent exhibition in which she invited conceptual artist Ante Liu to produce a new body of work in clay. Liu, who had no previous experience with ceramics, was given some historical background and provided with production assistance from mouldmaking to firing. Gotlieb remarked that the resultant work cast from throw away styrofoam packaging took the form of totemic constructions that recalled both antique and modern figurative sculpture and that they appealed to the “taste making elite” more than any previous exhibition at the museum.

What does it mean when an artist from outside the field of ceramics, without the expertise and skill gained from experience working with clay, experiments with the medium, as many seem to be doing these days? What distinguishes work made from outside “the tradition” versus inside? What we ought to recognize is that these artists are taking advantage of opportunities that already exist in ceramics as a practice, broadly considered. When Marcel Duchamp chose a ceramic urinal for the Fountain, it was something quite new for art, but it is not generally seen as directly expanding the field of ceramic art. As Ezra Shales has pointed out, artisanal manufacturing responding to societal hygienic concerns in fact furnished Duchamp with his urinal “ready-made.”[1] This is where we can return to Gates’ idea about “excess metaphors”. Ceramics can be considered more than just a medium; it comprises an entire body of expertise, knowledge and concerns across the entire cultural landscape as, in fact, a “tradition.” Let’s welcome new work being done in clay by contemporary artists, and especially artists from ceramics like Gates, Twomey, Ruhwald and Cummings, that demonstrate the relevance of ceramics in contemporary art while allowing the tradition of ceramics to continue to navigate cultural space in new and complex ways.


[1] Ezra Shales, “Mass Production as an Academic Imaginary (or, if more must be said of Marcel ‘Evacuating Duchampian Conjecture in the Age of Recursive Scholarship’)” Journal of Modern Craft 6 (3) (November 2013).

Alison Britton on Ceramics in the Expanded Field Conference, 17-19 July 2014

Alison Britton is an internationally renowned ceramic artist and is Senior Tutor and Research Coordinator in the Ceramics & Glass Department of The Royal College of Art.

This conference was the culmination of a three-year AHRC funded research project of the Ceramics Research Centre, CRC-UK, at Westminster University. I believe it to be the largest so far for ceramics funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Its aim has been to “explore the relationship between contemporary ceramic practice and museum culture.” The researchers involved in “Behind the Scenes at the Museum: Ceramics in the Expanded Field” are Professor Christie Brown, Clare Twomey, and Dr Julian Stair, and the project supported a PHD student, Laura Breen. Their interests, we also learn from the website, “span ceramic installation, art practice, ceramic history and the interface between ceramics, performance and museology.” The three researchers achieved a range of interventions/installations/exhibitions in museums and affiliated buildings, and each artist spoke, spaced through the two days, about what they had done. One project from each was exhibited in Ambika P3 the gallery space within the university, and Laura Breen reported on the progress of her PhD research.

Borrowing half their title from a prize-winning 90s novel by Kate Atkinson, and the other part from an essay by Rosalind Krauss of 1979 entitled “Sculpture in the Expanded Field”, the project’s researchers invite curiosity about where ceramics have expanded to, and what was to be found behind the scenes. But clearly a main objective has been to assess and evaluate a decade or more of innovations with the material, and make some new contributions. They have also commissioned a strong series of essays from critics and curators and historians and ceramic artists, now numbering twelve, which are to be found on their website, and will, I think, be enduringly useful (link to the essays here).

We also read on the website that “critical discussion is essential to the development of the discipline”. So this conference is a vital part of the whole project, the concluding exchange with an interested audience.

Did discussion happen? During the two days there was difficulty in finding time for repartee between presentations, and as so often it seemed impossible to back-track to interrogating the first speaker of the session after hearing two more. But the best discussion happens more slowly, in a residential conference or course where you remain for a while, get to know each other and can join all kinds of conversations in a more casual way. These of course are harder to preserve and document. For an actual disagreement being aired, I can only recall an exchange between Tessa Peters and Stephen Knott/Kimberley Chandler, who gave a joint talk, about the context in which the Theaster Gates project at the Whitechapel Gallery could be understood; was it a throwing demonstration, or was it a metaphor for social transformation, an idea about Utopia?

Theaster Gates gave the initial keynote presentation, “Five Brick Stories”. He is a contemporary phenomenon in the international art scene and gave a captivating performance, with aspects of jolly sermonizing, and as I write this BBC Radio 4 are about to re-broadcast a profile of him in Zeitgeisters, a series by Will Gompertz about artists whose ‘impact goes beyond mere commerce, it shapes contemporary culture’. I did feel though that Gates was not addressing this particular audience, and it was a pity that he had to leave that evening and disengage from the rest of the conference.

Over the next two days the conference sustained a full programme, quite internationally inclusive. Phases grouping the speakers posited a path through interesting territories to be explored: how museums evolve, how audiences matter, how artists have something to contribute institutionally, how stuff happens. On the final day two panel discussions surveying the critical landscape of theory and practice concluded the event.

There were three high points for me. Phoebe Cummings, exploring her astonishing finely detailed work in raw clay, made without a studio, in residencies and projects around the world, often in museums. “The Walls Come Tumbling Down”, given by Martina Margetts, was a wonderful explication of new museum practices internationally, with beautiful images, adeptly captioned, and best of all talked with clarity and precision from a few notes. It is so rare in conferences these days to hear a spoken lecture, not a reading of a paper that might work better on the page. Tanya Harrod also moved through many very interesting current questions in “Out of the studio, or, do we make better work in unusual conditions?” Abandoning the plinth, industrial nostalgia, or starting from scratch (again), all contemporary strategies for making new work that were delicately probed in Harrod’s talk.

So what is the expanded field – did I know more at the end? I realised that museums need artists to invigorate their programmes with fresh and less permanent things. This was the crux of expansion that these researchers have explored. But artists have intervened in museums for ages – when Christopher Dresser gave his collection of South American pots to the V&A he ensured that there would at least be a few South American pots in the ceramics collection, where at the time they were seen as material for ethnographic collections.

Scholarship is always changing, and artists can bring in the fleeting signs of new thinking. The research team has worked very hard. But such big projects cannot reliably engender the most significant artwork, even seen within the oeuvres of those involved; research grants can constrain intellectual/creative freedom as well as stimulating and facilitating it. What happens next might be what counts.

A Matter of Class

Cherry Ann Knott B.Arch(Hons), PhD [1], was Head of Conservation and Regional Services at the Crafts Council (1975-79), and was the first director of Gulbenkian Foundation’s Craft Initiative. She has been a trustee of the Crafts Study Centre for 20 years and has written a report for the Crafts Council entitled ‘I Can’t Wait For Wednesday’ published in 1985. In this article she responds to Stephen Knott’s paper in The Journal of Modern Craft 7.1.

Stephen Knott’s paper ‘Working Class, Middle Class, Upper Class, Evening Class: Supplementary Education and Craft Instruction 1889-1939’ (in the March 2014 issue of this journal) highlights the dismissive way craft courses in adult education were viewed by those advocating studio-based learning. Undoubtedly the concept of ‘total immersion’ in the practice and philosophy of a craft has had an enduring impact on some of the most important areas of the crafts in Britain, most notably, as Knott vividly describes, through the influence in ceramics of Bernard Leach and in weaving of Ethel Mairet. But he makes it clear that this was only ever available as a form of education and training to a privileged minority, and rightly asserts the importance of evening classes in the crafts to a far greater population well into the first half of the 20th century. The endeavours initiated in the last decades of the 19th century to broaden the availability of education much more widely across adults in society, and in particular to include those with lower levels of opportunity, may have had their origins in the philanthropy of a small number of individuals, but they were swiftly and widely adopted with the establishment of formal institutions that continue to play a significant part in adult education to the present day.

Knott’s paper is geographically restricted to London and southern England, being the area where the divide between studio-based learning and the opportunities provided through evening classes was sharpest. The founding in 1896 of the Central School of Arts and Crafts is cited as of particular importance in relation the legacy of the Arts and Crafts Movement. However, art schools proliferated across Britain in the last years of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th and, as outlined below, other key organisations were instigated at much the same period.  It should also be noted that these developments occurred in the wake of the mechanics institutes that had been started in the 1820s to provide opportunities for working men specifically to acquire scientific and technical knowledge.[2]

Early in the 1900s, the creation of the Workers Educational Association (WEA) to promote the broader education of working people had a major and far-reaching impact. It remains the United Kingdom’s largest voluntary provider of adult education, last year running some 9,500 part-time courses that involved over 75,000 people.[3] Its extensive range of subjects currently include practical courses in, for example, calligraphy, metalwork, stained glass, jewellery-making, knitting, paper and willow crafts.

Where crafts education is concerned, the 1876 initiative of some City of London livery companies that lead to the establishment of the City and Guilds of London Institute was also of great significance.[4] The resulting City & Guilds vocational qualifications and curricula still feature prominently in a number of craft fields today, most notably in the wide range associated with textiles (eg, knitting, embroidery, patchwork and quilting, upholstery and soft furnishings), but also in jewellery and wood-working skills.

In London, Finsbury College (1893) was intended as a feeder college for the City and Guilds Central Institution. The City and Guilds of London School of Art (established in Kennington in 1879 as an extension of Lambeth School of Art), [5] also Sir John Cass Technical Institute (founded 1899),[6] created further part-time opportunities to acquire particular craft skills. Morley Memorial College for Working Men and Women was founded in 1889 following the success of scientific lectures that had developed into a programme of evening classes; Morley College remains a dedicated adult education centre, continuing to engage highly respected professionals to teach some of its craft courses, most notably in ceramics and jewellery.[7]

By the end of the 1930s, part-time day and evening courses had become established as a ubiquitous and popular means of acquiring craft skills. In the years immediately after the Second World War, the need to extend people’s skills and learning opportunities was again a concern. Locally based branches of the Women’s Institute (WI, founded in England and Wales in 1915), and the Women’s Rural Institute in Scotland (1917) were initially primarily intended to extend women’s domestic skills, with the emphasis on cookery, but soon expanded to include sewing and dress-making. However, by the time of the founding of the WI’s Denman College in 1948, to provide short residential courses, a much wider range of WI part-time day and evening courses were craft-related, as they continued to be through into the 1970s. In the immediate post-war years, many local education authorities similarly set up residential centres for short, part-time and vacation courses, the crafts frequently dominating their programmes.[7]

When the Crafts Council’s study of adult education in the crafts was commissioned in the early-1980s, the provision of such courses across England and Wales was extensive and wide-ranging. But it had also become, both geographically and in terms of choice of subjects available, very uneven. Many of the well-resourced evening classes in craft subjects that had been provided by local authority funded colleges had recently been discontinued or were under threat of closure. Nevertheless, there remained many popular courses, and examples of exceptional, inspirational tutors. The overwhelming finding of the associated survey of students was participants’ enthusiasm and the extent to which the great majority valued the courses as a serious learning opportunity. Details revealed in the analysis, included the fact that for 22.5% their craft course was their first experience of training or formal education since leaving school (at an average age of 15).[8]

Stephen Knott’s paper and the complementary information offered here, suggest that there is considerable scope now to extend the time-frame of enquiry into adult education in the crafts to the decades between 1940 and 1980. There could also be value in a serious review of the current place of craft courses in adult education provision, and also their role in the training of professional craft practitioners.


[1] The shared surname is coincidence – no known kinship with Stephen Knott.

[2] A useful summary is Martyn Walker, ‘The Origins and Development of the Mechanics Institute Movement 1824–1890 and the Beginnings of Further Education’, Teaching in Lifelong learning: a journal to inform and improve practice, 4(1), 2012, pp.32-39.

[3] Initiated 1903, named 1905: 2014-06-01.

[4] The City and Guilds of London Institute’s Central Technical College (renamed City and Guilds College 1907, incorporated into Imperial College 1910) occupied some of the land adjacent to Exhibition Road, South Kensington, purchased for the 1851 exhibition.

[5] The City and Guilds of London School of Art, still in Kennington, continues to be the UK’s leading centre for courses in historic carving and gilding.

[6] Became Sir John Cass College in 1950; its department of Fine and Applied Art merged with the Central School of Art’s departments of Silversmithing and Allied Crafts to form the Sir John Cass School of Art, then moving to Whitechapel; merged in 1970 with the City of London College to form City of London Polytechnic, now part of London Metropolitan University.

[7] Morley College moved to its present site in Westminster Bridge Road in the 1920s:, 2014-06-01; Donald Hooson, ‘Full Circle’, Journal of Modern Craft Vol.7, I, 2014, pp.67-71. [8] Eg: Urchfont Manor, opened by Wiltshire County Council as an adult education centre 1947; only closed September 2012.

[8] Cherry Ann Knott, ‘I Can’t Wait for Wednesday’, Adult Education in the Crafts, 1985, pp.196-97;  abridged edition, Crafts Council, 1987, pp.41-44.