Re-apprenticed at the British Ceramics Biennial

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Artist Neil Brownsword tells CR’s editor, Sue Herdman, why he is apprenticing himself to past ceramic industry artisans

Re-apprenticed is a project with no little ambition. It’s aim is to ‘artistically reactivate a series of traditional practices from North Staffordshire’s ceramic industry’.

Neil Brownsword, The Clay Foundation artist-in-residence, is leading the project, which has at its heart ‘the transition of knowledge from expert to novice.’ The novice, here in Stoke’s old Spode factory, is Neil himself.

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Neil

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His practice explores the histories of the ceramic industry here and he works to raise awareness of the loss of skills. Describing himself as ‘an artist-cum-archaeologist,’ he highlights his interest ‘in the discovery of old processes, their materiality, and what can be brought back.’

For Re-apprenticed he is working with – and learning from – three past industry artisans, exploring the ceramic industry’s heritage through their skills, using film, object and image making.

As Neil speaks to me Paul Holdway, a master of copper plate engraving and printing, is at work. ‘We have a handful of experts such as Paul,’ Neil explains, ‘the last generation of such artisans, and I want to document their knowledge’. Alongside Paul, Rita Floyd, a one-time china-flower maker, and china painter Tony Challinor have also been re-employed for the project.

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‘Watching Rita work is extraordinary,’ Neil says. ‘Taking exactly the right amount of clay between her thumb and forefinger she can create, in three deft movements, an element of a flower. She could do it with her eyes closed’.

On a long table sit flowers at various stages of making. ‘I want to freeze-frame each stage,’ Neil explains. ‘This type of making was a human mode of mass production. One element of this project is about valuing the heritage of that human task force’.

There was a hierarchy on the factory floor. ‘People were kept in their place’. The result has been, perhaps, that these artisans did not fully appreciate or recognise the level of their expertise.

Their skills were and are, says Neil, ‘massively under-recognised. In a country such as Japan, Paul, Rita and Tony would be considered National Living Treasures. We’ve got to raise awareness of their skills for, when they go, their hidden knowledge, the intelligence of their craft and the poetry of the factory floor will go with them.’

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Find out more
Ceramic Review is media partner to the British Ceramics Biennial, which continues until 8 November. For more see britishceramicsbiennial.com 

No need to book!
On Friday 30 October the V&A’s Friday Late event will be The Potteries and will feature Re-apprenticed. Admission is free; see vam.ac.uk

Photographs copyright Ceramic Review

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