A creative clay revolution in St Austell is underway with some of the best makers in the
UK and the world, exhibiting artworks in the town famous for its international china clay connections.
Professor Neil Brownsword was awarded Whitegold’s Quartz prize in 2019 and has created two inter-related artworks for the town that will be launched at the Whitegold Festival on the 19th September. ‘Relic’ consists of fragments of porcelain flowers carefully arranged on the surface of the old pan kiln at Wheal Martyn Clay Works and ‘Taskscape’ is a film and object installation on show at White River Place, the main retail centre in St Austell.
Through these two artworks Neil explores the entangled histories of St Austell
and the Potteries of North Staffordshire, bound together by the mining of china
clay and its transformation into ceramics.
Relic Wheal Martyn Clay Works, St Austell
‘Relic’ is the culmination of five-years of research during which Neil has archived the incredible hand skills of Stoke-on-Trent china flower maker Rita Floyd. He has captured every stage of the hand modelling involved in mass producing the many types of flower that Rita has in her repertoire, and enshrined them in a series of porcelain fragments.
These abstracted individual elements are carefully arranged across the pan tiles of Wheal Martyn’s china clay drying shed – petals, leaves and mounds of discarded flowers, reminiscent of local sky-tips, can be seen as metaphors for the loss of skills and the need for safeguarding endangered craft practices for the future.
Taskscape, White River Place, St Austell
In ‘Taskscape’, Neil focusses attention on moments of china clay transformation coordinated by human hand, showing us processes seldom seen. Incidental elements, the flowing, bubbling, accumulation of materials and turquoise waters that occur in extracting, separating and settling the clay are framed aesthetically and offered up for poetic contemplation.
Neil’s work highlights the human ingenuity embedded within objects and practices that have shaped the identity of industrial regions such as St Austell and Stoke-on-Trent. He draws our attention to the relationships between human actions and the behaviours of raw materials as they are processed and refined to create china clay, and crafted into ceramic objects.
Neil says, “Whitegold offered me the opportunity to draw together interests in place and practices. I am very interested in industrial regions, the industry of China clay production in St Austell and ceramic production in North Staffordshire. For over two hundred years these industries have been intertwined and so I wanted to find a way of connecting them in my work”
Jo Moore, Curator of Wheal Martyn Clay Works says “I’m really excited to see the site used in different ways. Neil’s installation is an extra-ordinary juxtaposition of the pure whiteness of the clay against the very mottled grey tiles of the old pan kiln. As the light changes the pieces are lit from the spaces where the liquid clay would have poured through from the settling tanks. It’s magical!”
Neil is Professor of Ceramics at Staffordshire University and University of Bergen, Norway. This commission for Whitegold has been kindly supported by Imerys, Staffordshire University, Spode Museum Trust and Valentine Clays.
The below film, created by Neil explains how the principles of china clay extraction and refining have changed little since William Cookworthy discovered it in 1746. Traditional wet-mining methods harnessed the forces of erosion and gravity of natural watercourses to ‘win’ the clay from granite dug manually from hillside sites.
Today explosives, high pressure water cannon and systems of dry mining have greatly increased access to reserves improving maximum yield. The arduous labour once performed by teams of workers with picks and shovels has been substituted by the likes of dump-trucks, bulldozers, centrifugal gravel pumps, jaw crushers and belt conveyors. With the advances of automated technology, human engagements with the landscape have reduced largely to sedentary contact with vehicles, keyboards and tele-remote systems that control and transform Clay Country’s industrial topography.
These ‘performative landscapes’ coined as ‘taskscapes’ by the social anthropologist Tim Ingold, remain an active assemblage of human and material actions that intertwine in a constant state of flux. In his film Taskscape, Neil illuminates moments of material transformation coordinated by human hand. The liminal spaces and by-products of china clay production – effervescent matter, incidental accretions and turquoise waters associated with methods of extracting, separating and settling – are framed as aesthetic entities. The film is accompanied by physical tools that retain the visible traces of the combined rhythmic labour of human and non-human agencies.
Taskscape focusses attention on phenomena seldom seen and offers them up for poetic contemplation. These phenomena bring into being the material we encounter often in our daily lives in medicines, paper, paint and in the ceramics from which we eat and drink.
We caught up with Neil for the 2020 online Green & Whitegold Festival, find out more below.