Getting fired up and going potty over handmade tableware
HANDMADE ceramics, whether decorative or practical, are beautiful pieces. Eleanor Flegg participates in the demanding firing process.
I've just finished a 24-hour shift. Writing to a deadline? No, I've been helping the potter Mandy Parslow fire her kiln. It's hard work – it starts at dawn and continues to dawn the next day – and you need several people to stoke the flames. I volunteered a couple of years ago because I wanted to see how it worked. Now, I'm addicted.
Mandy Parslow (www.parslowpottery.com) makes salt-glazed, wood-fired stoneware in her Co Tipperary studio, both domestic pieces for daily use and expressive pots that are made to be looked at. Her kiln is about the size of a garden shed with six months' worth of pots stacked inside. It's an exciting process, working through the night beside the glowing kiln.
Then, around two o'clock in the morning, Parslow begins to put salt into the kiln. There's a dramatic puff of smoke as the salt vaporises in the heat. This, she says, is how her pots get their subtle shining surfaces.
Two days later she opens the kiln and the pots inside, which went in a dull pinky-white colour, are magically transformed into shiny green and bronze. Some of them look like they're dripping with gold.
Before I experienced the firing I had wondered at the price of her work – which starts at around €29 for a small beaker – but, now that I have personally witnessed and participated in the hard work that goes into their creation, they seem cheap to me at that price.
On a personal level, I love handmade ceramics. But the question remains – why would you pay €100 or more for a handmade Irish serving bowl when you can get a perfectly decent version in Ikea for a fraction of the cost?
Mairead McAnallen is the owner of Gourmet Pots, a small gallery-shop of contemporary studio pottery near Schull in Co Cork. Gourmet Pots stocks work from English and Irish potters, including Anthony O'Brien, Mandy Parslow, Lisa Hammond and Caroline Dolan. It's one of the few places in Ireland where you can buy handmade tableware of this calibre.
"Our casseroles and fish-dishes can actually be used," McAnallen explains. "We specialise in pottery that has been made specifically with food in mind. They're really tough and they can go in the oven or the dishwasher."
And with handmade ware it's worth remembering that no two plates or dishes are exactly the same. This is great on one level – everyone in the family has their favourites – but fitting them evenly into the dishwasher can be a challenge. For McAnallen, it's all about the food. "Food has a colossal importance in our house," she says.
"The vessel in which it is served, and sometimes also prepared, is really important too and the best way to appreciate food is to put it in a pot that was made by hand."
She picks up a soup bowl made by the English potter Clive Bowen. "They are so comfortable in the hand. They make you think of thick stew or soup. There's a difference between putting your food in something like that than putting it in a white mass-produced porcelain bowl."
There is also, McAnallen admits, a show-off factor in serving a meal on really impressive tableware, something that is beautiful enough to display on a shelf but also serves a practical function. "You can almost feel the energy of the maker within the piece," she says.
Prices at Gourmet Pots vary, depending on the reputation of the potter, but expect to pay from €25 for a mug, around €45 for a dinner plate, and up to €180 for a casserole dish.
You can also find a nicely-chosen selection of studio pottery online at www.iamofireland.ie, including truly beautiful cups (€22) and jug-like vessels (€35) from Jack Doherty, an Irish potter based in Cornwall (www.dohertyporcelain.com).
Bear in mind that most of Doherty's pots are art pieces, selling in galleries for hundreds of euro, but he is still committed to making a small amount of tableware for everyday use.
The old-fashioned artist potter – the sort of maker who puts their heart and soul, and all their creativity, into making tableware – is increasingly rare. With the availability of cheap handmade ceramics from the Far East, it has become difficult for Irish studio potters to make a living from tableware.
Thankfully, a number of emerging makers are still studying pottery skills. Some of these come into the profession via the art colleges, but others train at the Design and Crafts Council of Ireland's Ceramic Skills and Design course in Thomastown, Co Kilkenny (www.ceramicscourse.ie).
You can currently see the work of the most recent crop of graduates in Up From Earth, a show that includes both functional and art ceramics at the National Craft Gallery in Kilkenny (www.nationalcraftgallery.ie).
The exhibition includes work from Chloe Dowds (from €20), Karen Cody (from €40) and nine others, and runs until August 3.
Gourmet Pots: 086 8846953, firstname.lastname@example.org.