Pottery like painting: spontaneity in form and finish
The work of Paul Davis
This article was first published in the April 2007 edition of the Ceramic Study Group Newsletter (No 420)
On 24 March 2007 Paul Davis, Head of Sturt Pottery1, was the Ceramic Study Croup (CSG) demonstrator at Dence Park. Davis has enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a potter in Australia and on the night he provided a wonderful insight into throwing and glaze techniques that are simple and spontaneous.
A generation of potters working in Australia today have developed skills based on European or South East Asian traditions. Both influences can bring with them formal constraints of construction and decoration that impede individual and regional expression. However, Davis showed his audience on the night that he has thrown off these constraints to develop forms and decorations that are all his own.
Since graduating from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) in 1973 Davis has become a major figure in Australian pottery. He was the Head of Ceramics at Monash University until 1996, where he also completed a Master of Arts by research. He received the Japan Foundation Fellowship in 1987 and Australia Council Grants in 1974 and 1987. In 1996 he travelled to Japan to become an apprentice at the renowned Saka Koraizaemon pottery in Hagi. Between 1996 and 2000 he lived in Japan for nine months of the year and Australia for three months of the year, where he ran his own school and studio - the Sekizan Pottery School in Victoria.
At Hagi, Davis says that in spite of over twenty years experience as a potter and teacher in Australia, he was only entrusted with menial tasks. Davis says that when he first arrived:
"As far as the potters at Hagi were concerned I was a complete novice, an apprentice, I didn't know anything about their forming techniques and I had to work from the bottom up."
Davis worked in Japan for five years, but says he could have stayed there for a lifetime:
"My teacher Saka Koraizaemon said he would enjoy working with me for the rest of his life, but that if I stayed in Japan I would never grow as a potter. He encouraged me to leave so that I could do the really important work, which was finding my individual expression and style".
Davis took his teacher's advice and returned to Australia in 2001 after he was invited to take up the position of Head of Sturt Pottery, where he continues to teach today.
Materials, techniques and influences
Davis has given his imprimatur to a commercially available clay based on the clay he used in Hagi. "Kagero - Paul Davis Japanese Style Clay" is made by Clayworks and based on Davis' recipe. Davis describes this buff coloured clay as: "like blotting paper, not totally vitreous, but it gives lovely tooth". He uses it for wheel work but also to handbuild large scale pieces. Ironically natural clay stocks in Japan are so low that Clayworks now export this blend to Japanese potters.
Throughout the CSG demonstration at Dence Park Davis talked of his moving towards a simpler way of handling and decorating clay. His pieces are not overworked, tending instead towards an "accidental" appearance. After throwing his pieces on the hump Davis deliberately handles his work when it is still in a soft clay state, leaving finger imprints and encouraging natural buckling in the wet vessel walls. Using the wheel as a tool and not "an end unto itself" Davis demonstrated his technique of altering forms on the wheel by holding the vessel wall between his index finger and middle finger with a feathering movement as the wheel turns.
Davis also alters the form by removing it from the wheel immediately after throwing while the wheel is still turning. He discovered this technique of soft distortion by accident one day when talking to a student. Davis says he spun away from the wheel with his hands still on the pot and the wheel slipped off. The effect was a bowl that retained its thrown shape but had a subtle collapse. Davis says that "working with the plasticity of clay and spontaneity of form" is more important to him than formally finished pieces. He does not tend to "over-turn" pieces, preferring instead to leave a rudimentary base to compliment the clay form. "I don't throw the perfect pot on the wheel, I am aiming for freshness and look at a piece like a painting".
In another example Davis demonstrated making a platter by laying out a big slab, carving out the clay with a large piece of hoop pine and then beating the clay. In this sense Davis is still controlling the clay, rather than the other way around, but he is accepting or acknowledging its natural properties of plasticity and movement.
Davis avoids using too many styles and techniques to decorate his forms. At Hagi, the studio only used two glazes: white and clear, with emphasis on the kiln and decoration that complemented form. Davis learnt to wood fire at Hagi, where the pottery fired every six weeks. He also learnt to achieve different results with the same glaze through variations in placement and packing. He often tumble packs (stacked without shelves) his kiln, using only seashells to protect the pots from the wood ash. Davis also fires pieces on their rim or edge to encourage movement in the glaze. By tilting the pots in the kiln on an angle the glaze drips move out from the pot.
Davis' clay was named "Kagero", because this Japanese word means "the colour of the sun at sunset", and this is the colour his clay goes after being exposed to the "flashing" of the wood fired kiln. The bare areas of the pot are left to pick up alkaline from the glaze and "flashing" from the kiln. These effects are obtained when the pieces are totally oxidised and not reduced. The white Hagi glaze, which Davis continues to use in Australia, (see recipe below) "looks like ice cream". This striking rusty orange is a foil to the creamy white of ash glaze. Finally Davis uses iron oxide brushwork to finish off the pieces, which he describes as having the "liquid movement and frigidity of snow and rock".
Iron oxide highlights
Davis suggested at the CSG demonstration that to obtain the ink like wash of oxide achieved in his work potters get their oxide pigments from nature. Davis collects his red iron oxide from the bush by waving a magnet over the ground to pick up the oxide flakes.
Davis is currently represented in an exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum Smart works: design and the handmade, which runs from 30 March 2007 - 19 August 2007.
Davis' most recent work includes his "origami pots". At the CSG demonstration he showed us how to make these folded pots by throwing a flat plate on the wheel, slicing it (like a pizza) and bringing up the pieces to form a small bowl. This technique can also be used on large-scale work.
Rice Ash Glaze
This is Davis's signature glaze taught to him by his Japanese teacher Saka Koraizaemon. The recipe is not a secret, but most potters baulk at the work involved in sourcing and processing the raw ingredients. Davis collects the wood and rice straw himself and burns it to create ash.
feldspar chips (unrefined) 50
wood ash (apple wood and pear wood ash) 30
rice straw ash 20
Plans for the future
Davis exhibits the energy of someone doing what they love and there is not room in this newsletter to detail his plans for 2007 and beyond, but they include:
- a recent commission for a large scale work in North Sydney
- designing exclusive dinnerware for top Sydney restaurants including Quay at the Overseas Passenger Terminal
- semi-commercial porcelain production in a recently purchased factory in Newcastle
- a trip to Jingdezhen, China to examine porcelain production techniques
- a trip to Japan to visit the potter Ryoji Koie
- a demonstration at Clay Edge Gulgong, 2007
- acting as a Judge of the North Queensland Potters' Prize, 2007
Belinda Russell - Ceramic Study Group committee member 2007