Brickfield is an experimental temporary brickworks set up by Rosanna Martin and Georgia Gendall at Blackpool Pit, Trewoon, St Austell in 2019.
Brickfield is part of Whitegold, a new programme of art about the St Austell area where artists are working with people to look again at the “Cornish Alps”, the china clay tips and pits, with an eye on building a creative and sustainable future. The people of St Austell and the surrounding villages are being invited to help revive the centuries old Cornish art of brick making as part of a project designed to celebrate the unique history of Mid Cornwall and its links with China Clay.
Brickmaking in clay country largely existed as a trade in service to the china clay extraction industry making the specialist bricks and tiles for the clay driers in particular. We now know from local brick making expert John Osborne that the last local brick kiln to be fired was at Wheal Remfry Brickworks, just north of St Austell in 1971 and that it was fired by him.
Rosanna Martin in is working together with John Osborne and a small team to reconnect people with the material literally beneath their feet, taking groups on fieldtrips out into the landscape formed by mining, showing them how to mix brick clay from waste materials from china clay extraction, and to make a brick using the clay they have made using a simple wooden mould. The process is easy to do and is wonderfully absorbing – some people just can’t stop once they get started!
The project is supported by Imerys Minerals who are providing the site on an old gravel works at Blackpool Pit, support for storage on site and the materials used to make the brick clay. In 2019 they kindly opened up path ways around the perimeter of the pit especially for Brickfield participants to experience the surrounding landscape and on a clear day, tremendous views of Cornwall.
Dr Katie Bunnell, Whitegold Curator for the project, says: “Brickfield uses traditional brick making methods as a way of bringing communities together and exploring how through collective thinking and shared labour, we can make a new site of handmade industry. The processes involved in traditional brick-making are accessible and fun as well as providing a unique insight into an entire making cycle from clay collection to fired end product. Through this collaborative endeavour we aim to both galvanise existing communities and generate new ones”.
“We are incredibly grateful to Imerys for their support, without which we wouldn’t have been able to make Brickfield happen, and for the use of Blackpool Pit as a fitting base for a project celebrating clay past, present and future.”
Together with community groups from around Clay Country, we will design, make and fire a new Clay Country brick. Our aim is to make and fire a volume of bricks over the duration of the project and to use those bricks as part of a new community building.
Last year we made and fired 150 successful bricks so there’s plenty of scope in 2020 to up our volume of production! The 2019 Brickfield kiln was made with the invaluable assistance of John Osborne using bricks from the the old kiln at Wheal Remfry and the firing of Beatrice Bottle Kiln as we named her, provided a great focal point for visitors to the Festival to gather, tell stories and find out about the process of brickmaking.
What does the project involve?
The project invites participants to explore the china clay landscape around Blackpool Pit on foot, to experience how the china clay industry has shaped the countryside around St Austell and to see the incredible views all over Cornwall.
On site there will be opportunities to get involved in all stages of making the new clay country brick. This will involve: mixing and preparing clay, adding combustibles to the mix, wedging the clay to remove air, pressing clay into wooden moulds, knocking out the bricks and laying them to dry before they are finally added to the kiln to be fired.
With help from Imerys, Rosanna and her team will be experimenting with by-products collected from the industrial processing of china clay and combining these with other materials to refine a clay body that will have unique characteristics specific to the area and suitable for making bricks.
The traditional way to fire bricks is done using a brick clamp kiln which is, roughly speaking a big stack of bricks piled neatly on top of a fire that is contained in a tunnel below. The firing will take several days! Small versions of a clamp kiln will be set up on site over the course of the project, working towards a final firing as part of the Whitegold Festival 2019.
Throughout the project we will be exploring what kinds of architectural structures the bricks could be used for, with an ambition to build a space in 2020, for which events, exhibitions, residencies, talks, story telling and other community activities could be programmed.
Brickfield and the Clay Exchange is supported by IMERYS.