Ruthanne Tudball: Throwing on Hans Coper’s wheel

British potter Ruthanne Tudball was recently invited by the Centre of Ceramic Art (CoCA) at York Art Gallery to take part in a very special demonstration: throwing a piece on Hans Coper’s wheel, as part of their ‘Day of Clay’ events in June. Here, Ruthanne writes about her experience:

Ruthanne Tudball on Hans Coper wheel. Photo York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery).

Ruthanne Tudball throwing on Hans Coper’s wheel at CoCA, York. Photo Ian Harrison 

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“Hans Coper built his momentum wheel himself in 1959, when he first moved out of Lucie Rie’s workshop and into his own studio. It has a motor that can be engaged for creating larger work, and although the motor doesn’t currently work, the wheel can still be kicked into motion. Coper’s family gave permission for it to be used, here in CoCA’s wonderland of historical and contemporary ceramics.

The wheel was set up next to a large display of Coper’s pots, most made and finished on that very wheel. The demo was to take place surrounded with nearly 400 pots by the most eminent potters in British history.

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Hans Coper, Bottle (1958-59), CoCA, York. Photo York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery)

Hans Coper, Bottle (1958-59), in the collection of the Centre of Ceramic Art, York. Photo York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery)
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The wheel is beautifully built. It is made completely of wood, with the throwing wheel-head facing an integral tabletop on which tools and work can be placed (a forerunner of Paul Soldner’s innovative electric wheel with its ‘desk’ front). As I climbed up onto the seat and put my hands on the wheel head, I could feel a softly worn groove surrounding the higher middle six inches of the wood. This is where the clay would have sat, Coper’s hands rubbing on the wood as he grasped the clay. Tools would scrape along the wood, adding to the wear. That groove has been witness to and participant in the creation of hundreds – maybe thousands – of his pots.

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Hans Coper wheel, York Museums Trust. Photo York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery)

Hans Coper’s wheel. Photo York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery)
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I sat, looking at the wheel, then put my feet to it. I quickly realised that this was made by a man who saw just one way of throwing and kicking the wheel: counter-clockwise. It was designed to be impossible to use any other way. Of the two platforms where the feet rest, the left forms a solid barrier between foot and wheel, while the right is cut away, allowing the right foot alone access – the result being that the wheel can only be propelled counter-clockwise.

Coper was from Germany, and had clearly not been influenced by the Japanese school of clockwise throwing or the Shimpo wheel with its ability to go in both directions. Most of the wheels built in the west in the past didn’t have a ‘reverse’ (clockwise) option.

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Ruthanne Tudball's teapot, thrown on Hans Coper's wheel. Photo courtesy CoCA

Ruthanne Tudball’s teapot, thrown on Hans Coper’s wheel. Photo Ian Harrison

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I throw on a momentum wheel that turns both clockwise and counter-clockwise, and it had never occurred to me that you couldn’t always kick a momentum wheel in either direction. I first taught myself to throw on an electric wheel and that wheel also had this limitation – no counter-clockwise. As I now throw clockwise, it was surprising to discover that Coper had limited himself in this way.

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Ruthanne Tudball on Hans Coper wheel. Photo York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery)

Ruthanne throwing on Coper’s wheel. Photo Ian Harrison

Teapot by Ruthanne Tudball. Photo Ruthanne Tudball

Ruthanne Tudball, soda-glazed teapot. Photo by the artist

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As I threw a teapot and a vase, I thought of the magic of turning a lump of clay into a vessel. This magic never diminishes for me, and sharing it with others is such a pleasure – and to do it using the tool of a potter who is such an important part of world ceramic history was humbling, to say the least. I am grateful to CoCA for the opportunity to throw on Hans Coper’s wheel.”

– Ruthanne Tudball

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