Selbst auferlegte Grenzen Ian Wilson

The pleasures of cooking and eating were one of the threads woven into the conversation about ceramics and clays and rim-lines which I had with Jennifer Lee when I interviewed her in her south London home.

Thus it seemed appropriate that it was while sitting drinking homemade mushroom soup and eating a seductive Scottish smoked cheese at her kitchen table, that I should look up and see, through an open door leading into her studio, the group of her vessels which we had been discussing. (The majority of these pieces were made over the last two years and are intended for her forthcoming London show)

Wholly unexpectedly this glance became an insight as to how the dynamics within the group of vessels is manifested. There was the linear interplay of tilted and horizontal rims, the fact that one of the paler vessels towards the back seemed bathed in a different light to its colleagues and an engrossing awareness of how grouping and juxtaposing can reveal the significance of scale.

Lee responds to the frequent comparisons drawn between her own work and the natural landscape by saying “For me, I am not making pots about landscape.”Lee spent the years 1980 - 1983 in postgraduate ceramic studies at the Royal College of Art, London after completing her first degree at Edinburgh College of Art where the small sizes of the classes contributed greatly to her enjoyment of the experience. Tony Franks, much of whose oeuvre has been inspired by the mountains of Scotland, was Head of Ceramics at the time and it is interesting to note that Lee responds to the frequent comparisons drawn between her own work and the natural landscape by saying “For me, I am not making pots about landscape.”

It was before starting at the Royal College of Art that she took up a travelling scholarship for seven months which enabled her to study the ancient pottery of Amerindian people in Arizona and New Mexico and visit American potters such as Peter Voulkos. It is the “spirituality” of the pots made by the Mimbres people and the fact that these artefacts have ritual uses that makes them so meaningful to Lee. But ancient Japanese ceramics, especially Jomon wares, as well as the Ban Chiang ceramics from prehistoric north-east Thailand are also high in her estimation.

A consideration of any of the vessels which Lee had placed on the studio workbench can serve as an excellent introduction to her oeuvre and for this purpose I have chosen one which she has called “Slate blue, bronze specks”. The names which Lee gives to her vessels can be seen as ”straightforward“ descriptions of their appearance, but the longer one gazes at a piece while being simultaneously aware of its title, the more strongly grows the conviction that these “straightforward descriptions” are concerned with telling us about the very nature of the pot, with conveying the qualities which make it what it is, the qualities which are the essence of the vessel. (Were it in more common usage, one might be tempted to use the term “haecceity” which comes from medieval philosophy and refers to the “thisness” of an object, that which makes an object what it is.)

The unglazed, uncluttered surfaces of Lee’s vessels alert the viewing eye to the appearance of any traces which are found there.Intriguingly, the clay which was used in making this vessel, had spent a long time in the storage bin located under Lee's work bench. Oxides which she had mixed into the clay approximately twenty years earlier, had reacted chemically so that when the pot was fired, what could be described as “metallic explosions” occurred. The result of these tiny, but violent, releases of energy, are the “bronze specks” which freckle the surface and which Lee describes as having a “volcanic” feeling about them.

The unglazed, uncluttered surfaces of Lee's vessels alert the viewing eye to the appearance of any traces which are found there. Some of these have been compared to finely drawn lines or Japanese brush strokes by collectors of her work. These result from the coloured clays which she has inserted by actually cutting through the leather-hard clay while the pot is in the process of being built. When looking at these “traces” it is important to consider how they manifest themselves on both the inside and outside surfaces of the vessel, and this in turn encourages a more thoroughgoing appreciation of the coherent relationship between the exteriors and interiors of the pots.

These vessels have pinched bases and the remainder of the body is formed by coiling. After constructing her stoneware artefacts, Lee scrapes back the surfaces and the fact that she builds so slowly means that her vessels have “taut profiles”. She burnishes with an agate, and undertakes this process in order to compact the clay as well as to produce a smooth surface. However, because the pieces are high-fired, the finished surfaces do not have a “burnished” look when they emerge from the kiln. Lee seldom produces more than eighteen vessels a year, and admits that even “a quick, small pot” will take a full nine days in the making.

Hanging within easy reach of her work surface are what appear to be strings or “necklaces” of clay wafers which, when lifted up, clatter against each other like sea-shells. These are test-strips and are part of the immaculate records which Lee keeps of the clays and oxides which she uses. There are also written notes, sketches and careful drawings, so that the achievement of her surfaces is no happenstance success; rather, these immensely subtle gradations of shades, as in “Dark peat pot, coned rim” (1997), the freckling encountered in “Pale, bronze speckled collar” (2005) or the “vibrating” bands of colour which characterise her newest pots, for example, “Olive, haloed umber band and traces” are the results of Lee’s careful and conscientious groundwork over many years.

T-material and oxides are Lee’s basic materials and for thirty years she has been using a clay which she appreciates not only for its gritty quality, its strength as a clay body and its ability to be fired at high temperatures, but also because it is a white body. It is this “white body” which is important for her because “One is not trying to colour something which is already coloured.” Lee is fascinated how oxides from different countries can give different colours, and how one of those from the United States of America gives a “graphite feeling” to the clay surface.

David Whiting in “The Circumnavigation of Form”, an essay which appeared in the catalogue accompanying an exhibition of Lee's work at Galerie Besson, London in 2003, says “Right from the beginning there was a concern with poise and balance; the curvature of her pots swelling from a narrow base - ” But this “balance” is not necessarily a matter of strict symmetry - rim lines can tilt or swell or be described as “coned” by their maker, they can also be a canvas for slender bands of colours. Lee speaks of working from one pot to another, which phrase is illustrated in practical terms by the fact that it might well be the rim of one pot which leads her on to the next.

Lee describes her creative work as a potter taking place “within a self-imposed limited area”, a phrase which I understand as both indicating and including the concentrated focus of her making, the honing away and elimination of what is deemed unnecessary or superfluous and her electing to remain faithful to certain materials and forms - a fidelity which allows for a deeper and profound exploitation of their natures. For the viewer, reflective contemplation of these works in clay is rewarded with a sense of quiet and trustworthy revelation. One is made to realise that the phrase “Truth to materials” - so often carelessly employed - has a particular, indeed a revelatory, applicability to the oeuvre of Jennifer Lee.

Ian Wilson
'Selbst auferlegte Grenzen', reproduced from
Keramik Magazin Europe, Nr.2, p22-25,
April/May - with kind permission © 2008.