Emerge 2023 - Part 1


Abbie La Rooy is one of the Emerge Bursary recipients for 2023. Here is an update on her progress so far!

Abbie’s current body of work carries anthropomorphic references, loosely centred around the “grotesque”. Working with both commercial and locally sourced clays, she employs traditional techniques to create innovative, unexpected outcomes to construct a narrative. 

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Photo credit: Andy Priestman
Photo credit: Andy Priestman

I first visited Dumfries and Galloway in 2018 (during my degree at Goldsmiths, London) when I did a few weeks work experience at Clay Works Studios with Chris and Lauren Taylor. Three years later, in April 2021 I moved to Dumfries to work at CWS, taking on the role of studio technician alongside some teaching. Having spent the last couple of years developing my ceramic practice I felt it was time to push my work forward and I was selected as one of the recipients for the Emerge bursary. My mentors are: Andy Priestman (potter) and Linda Mallet (painter).

Most of my mentoring time is being spent with Andy Priestman. Andy’s work is a great inspiration and he has endless knowledge to share so I feel very fortunate to have this time dedicated to learning from him.

Working from his home and studio set in Galloway Forest, Andy makes high fired pots. His pots are decorated using slip and glazes originated in Korea, China and Japan, for instance ash and celadon glazes. Along with commercially bought materials, Andy sources and processes much of the material himself, including local clays and granite sand. I have already been using clay from the region in my own practice so this is something I am keen to learn more about.

image: Andy's wood fired kiln[image: Andy’s wood fired kiln]

All of Andy’s work is fired in a single-chambered wood kiln with a bourry firebox, which he built himself in 1985 and has slowly adapted and refined over the years. Wood firing is a process I have wanted to learn more about for a long time, so this is a great opportunity to gain some hands-on experience.

During our first session, we prepared some of Andy’s pots ahead of the firing. This involved sticking ‘wadding’ to the bases of each pot. The wadding creates distance between the pot and the kiln shelf, preventing the pots from fusing to the shelf. Next, I cleaned the inside of the kiln, a necessary chore but also a great way to have a closer inspection of the kiln structure and get to understand it more fully.

image: Throwing the neck into a belly (photo credit: Andy Priestman)[image: Throwing the neck onto a belly // photo credit: Andy Priestman]

We also had time to make some pots. Andy often throws forms in two or three pieces; the belly of a vase is thrown first, and then a foot and neck will be thrown onto the belly later. Learning this technique opens up a huge amount of possibilities for a couple of reasons. Firstly, these shapes would be near impossible to throw in one piece as there are too many changes in direction. Secondly, I am relatively confident throwing smaller pieces on the wheel, but I am not at the stage where I can throw larger ones. Being able to throw and assemble multiple small sections gives me the opportunity to scale things up, whilst throwing at a scale I am confident with.

image: Vase coated in local clay slip[image: Vase coated in local clay slip]

Perhaps one of Andy’s most recognisable forms is the six-sided vase. These pieces expertly marry the slab-built belly with a thrown neck, and the two seamlessly blended. To learn this technique, I made some slab-built forms which are left to stiffen up and necks are thrown on next time. Joining straight edges to a circular neck is much harder than it looks… This will require some more practice!

image: Six-sided vase by Andy Priestman (photo credit: Andy Priestman)[image: Six sided vase by Andy Priestman // photo credit: Andy Priestman]

After a few days of preparing and packing the kiln, we were ready for the wood firing. Andy had been warming the kiln for a few days to ensure the kiln was dry and the chimney would have enough draught to give a strong pull. Starting early in the morning, Andy started the fire in the front ash pit. After a few hours, we bricked up and skimmed the ash pit and started to feed the bourry box with lengths of wood. The wood is stacked on a ledge above the flame, and as the lower pieces burn and collapse the whole stack moves down and more wood can be added to the top of the pile. We record the temperature each hour as the kiln gets hotter.

image: Loading wood into kiln (photo credit: Andy Priestman)[image: Loading wood into kiln // photo credit: Andy Priestman]

At 825°C we start the reduction. Firing in a reduction atmosphere means there is insufficient oxygen for complete combustion. This atmosphere causes the colours in the clay and glazes to change, producing rich surfaces. For example, the iron-rich slip Andy uses appears red-brown in oxidation but when reduced turns blue-grey. We adjust the dampers to restrict the oxygen entering the kiln and keep an eye on the atmosphere inside the chamber by looking through the spyhole. The atmosphere looks murky indicating we are reducing. We continue feeding the kiln to increase the temperature. Andy finishes the firing alone, working until the early hours to reach the top temperature, 1300°C.

After three days the kiln is cool enough to unpack. We talk through each piece; this is helpful to understand the firing and materials better. We also discuss glaze tests and more experimental pieces. Andy constantly pushes his work forward, testing new materials, combinations, and surfaces. This has encouraged me to keep striving to develop my own work further. After a few hours, the kiln is empty and the benches are full of beautiful pots – a very successful firing!

I am now halfway through my mentoring with Andy and my attention turns to preparing for Spring Fling. I am feeling motivated and eager to put all that I am learning into practice with my own work. I am looking forward to continuing to work with Andy and starting my mentoring with Linda.
Spring Fling Studios:

Andy Priestman: studio 15
Linda Mallett: studio 18
Lauren Gray (Taylor): studio 71