Arriving at the 14th International Ceramics Festival, at Aberystwyth in Wales, UK, visitors were confronted with a life size rhinoceros under construction. Big surprises are what we’ve come to expect, (and this was really big – two tonnes of clay), but the Festival is all about challenges in clay, what else should you expect? All around the campus of the Aberystwyth Arts Centre, where the festival was held, were examples of everything that is excellent, challenging or merely fun in the world of ceramics. British sculptor Stephanie Quayle’s rhino, created on the spot in an exhibition space, only to be dismantled later, was just one example of the dynamic modelling possibilities of clay. The animal theme continued with American sculptor Beth Cavener Stichter, whose demonstrations could not possibly show the huge scale and scope of her work. The sumptuous finish of Beth’s pieces, the flowing muscles, the range of movement and expression conceal a life spent solving huge logistic and physical challenges, yet Beth remains an engaging personality, extremely optimistic, always musing about the development and meaning of her work.

One of the most striking aspects of the Festival, was the degree to which some demonstrators talked about the philosophy behind their work, often challenging our preconceptions or just being playful with clay. Takeshi Yasuda from Japan, began throwing some porcelain. With the wheel silently turning before him, he took the opportunity to ask some life’s big questions for potters: what shapes our decisions in making? We usually make the handle to suit the pot, he declared and then offered us the challenge: “have you ever made a handle and then considered what to put it on? Why not? Turn convention upside down, re-assess what you have learned.” The relationship between demonstrators, their confidence as performers and the variety of work produced made for some fun events. Jitka Palmer from the Czech Republic, partnered Virginia Scotchie from the USA. Jitka paid homage to the Welsh venue by painting characters from Dylan Thomas’s play “Under Milk Wood”* on a deep handbuilt bowl. Why paint on clay, she was asked? Because you can paint on the inside and the outside was her response, as the fictional characters materialised before us. Virginia’s precise rounded thrown and altered forms made a strong contrast, but at the last minute, she moved across the stage and began stealing Jitka’s slips to decorate her work. Outside, the sensible and slightly mad kilns glowed in the night. A gas torch blasted into the yellow arch of a kiln comprised entirely of phone books (Peter Lange and Duncan Shearer from New Zealand). If you felt hungry, it might have been possible to eat another of their kilns – made entirely of potatoes. This is the delight of the ICF, a wonderful mix of the extremely serious and the seriously silly. For the thousand or so people who attended, there was a thoughtfully conceived programme of lectures, films and demonstrations with plenty to inspire, debate and enjoy, keeping up the standard and looking good for the next festival in 2015.

by Mary Cousins

*Dylan Thomas, 1914-1953, a Welsh poet whose radio play Under Milk Wood was broadcast by the BBC in 1954 with Richard Burton as the First Voice, later made into a stage play and a film starring Burton and Elizabeth Taylor

Mary Cousins MA I qualified as a journalist on an evening daily paper, later becoming a teacher of English as a Foreign Language at a college of Further Education and at a University, but attended pottery evening classes as career changes allowed. Finally, when retired from teaching, I developed my ceramic career, writing about ceramic events and exhibiting my work in a number of galleries.

Photos: 2013 Festival photographer Glenn Edwards


The 2013 International Ceramics Festival:

Beth Cavener Stichter: Takeshi Yasuda: Virginia Scotchie: Mary Cousins: Photographer Glenn Edwards: