Louise Darby sits at the potter’s wheel, gently coaxing a nondescript lump of brown clay into the smooth contours of a straight vase.

It’s soothing to watch the skilful process, soft ridges rising up the rotating form as she uses the edge of a small hacksaw blade to draw it up.

Beside her, the barn door is open to the fresh morning air and birdsong, while in her beautifully tended garden, trays of clay creations in all shapes and sizes rest on walls of fossilised stones, drying in the sun ready for the next stage in the creative process.

Clay Barn, her converted barn home and studio, is nestled in the Warwickshire countryside near Stratford-upon-Avon.

‘I’ve known this building all of my life. My parents farmed this land, living in the old farmhouse next door, and when I was five moved just two fields away,’ Louise explains.

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Pottery workshop

In 1983, when she was looking for a workshop to set up her own pottery business, her father ‘marched me around the farm buildings and said “you can have this one or that one”…’.

A former pig-sty and stables, the crumbling building she chose was almost derelict when, with the help of her father and some farmhands, she turned the ground floor into her pottery workshop, installing the vast gas-fired kiln and some windows and doors.

Ten years later she converted the hayloft above, ‘which had holes in the roof and you couldn’t stand on the floor upstairs safely,’ into her living space, and today is a beautiful airy and light-filled space open to the raft ers, with exposed honey-coloured beams.

‘It’s much better to have my home and studio together. It takes 12 hours to fire the kiln, so I can put it on at four in the morning, go back to sleep, and come down again in the morning to turn it up. There’s always a panic in the run up to an exhibition to finish the work, dry it, get it through the kiln and decorate it. So I can take breaks and then go back to it. It does have its drawbacks in that you never shut off ,’ she adds.

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Holding exhibitions

The barn is the perfect setting for the biannual exhibitions that Louise hosts, showcasing her own white stoneware and porcelain ceramics, as well as the work of other selected artists and crafts people. Over the last 30 years, she has developed a range of work, perfecting her own technique of carving animated images of animals, including cats, frogs, and hares, freehand on to the leather-hard clay of plates and vases, the decoration then inlaid with her signature blue, green or graphite glazes.

These pieces are complemented by those with a simple satin glaze, or wax-resist banding, to a ‘domestic’ range, brush decorated with free-flowing flowers, while her Art Deco-style pierced vases have almost become her trademark. Th e design of straight lines with small diamond piercings was inspired by rail tracks. ‘It was the shiny line of the rail track going through sleepers and gravel, with the bolts and rivets making the holes,’ she explains.

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Lifelong passion

‘I blame my godmother,’ says Louise, recalling the moment she became passionate about ceramics. ‘She took me to a summer children’s pottery class at Canon Hill Park in Birmingham,’ and from then on she was hooked. After an art foundation course, she studied three-dimensional design at Loughborough, before working as a potter’s assistant for the late Reg Moon of Torquil Pottery in Henley-in-Arden for five years, while also teaching at Warwickshire College.

‘I never thought I’d set up on my own,’ Louise admits. ‘I didn’t know how I’d keep ideas going, which is the creative person’s constant fight.’ She has found, however, that inspiration often comes from exhibition demands – ‘the title can be that spark to fire your imagination,’ and many ideas are then informed by the wildlife and flora in her natural surroundings.

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Practicing skills

She will carefully practise a design ‘to be fluent enough to commit it to a three-dimensional object,’ and the feel, texture and weight of a piece is as important to Louise as its aesthetics. ‘I always encourage people to pick up my work; I don’t think you can judge a pot until you can feel it. People often say, “Your bottoms are as nice as your tops,”’ she laughs, ‘because they are going to turn it upside down to see the stamp, so it’s important that it looks nice on the bottom too.

Inspired by Hans Coper and Lucie Rie, leading figures of the 20th-century studio pottery movement, Louise’s work strikes a happy balance between beauty and function. ‘If that is your style, and that works, you are just always trying to get better and perfect it really.’

Making ceramics

Each piece is handled many times in the making. Here Louise explains how her work is created:

Preparing the clay

1 I first prepare the clay – known as ‘wedging’ – to create an even consistency free on air bubbles. The better the condition of the clay the better the throwing session will go. I then weigh the amounts needed for each piece.

2 I ‘throw’ the first ball of clay onto the wheel head or bat and ‘centre’ the clay on the wheel until it runs true – to draw the clay up into the required form.

Throwing and centering the clay on the wheel Throwing and centering the clay on the wheel
3 Once I have finished the throwing, I will put the day’s making to one side to start the drying process, which must be done steadily and evenly. Beginning the drying process
'Wiring' the pots 4 Once the pots have dried enough to handle they are ‘wired’ free at the base using a cheese wire and carefully turned over – to dry the base.
Trimming and smoothing the base and other areas Trimming and smoothing the base and other areas

5 Once each piece is of an even, ‘leather-hard’ consistency, it is stored in polythene until the batch of throwing is completed.

6 I then begin the ‘turning’ – trimming and smoothing the base and other areas where a design will be added. Selecting a ‘chuck’ – which acts as a support for the pot so as not to distort or damage it while being turned – this is centred on the wheel head. Having the clay of the right consistency is an advantage: too soft, turnings will not shave off cleanly; too hard, you will struggle to achieve a smooth finish.

Decorating the piece
Decorating the piece Decorating the piece

7 Each piece to be decorated (incised and carved or pierced) at the leather-hard stage is then individually worked on from two to ten hours, depending on the complexity of the design and size of the piece.

8 The ‘biscuit’ kiln is packed and fired – a 12-hour steady firing to 1,000 degrees centigrade. This changes the clay chemically and all chemically combined water is burnt off; it can no longer be returned to workable clay.

The ‘biscuit’ kiln is packed and fired
The ‘biscuit’ kiln is packed and fired The ‘biscuit’ kiln is packed and fired
Each piece is then ‘fettled’

9 ‘Glazing’ is done by pouring and dipping. If it is an open form, I can dip the entire piece at once; if a vase, I do it in two parts: inside first, allow it to dry overnight, and then the outside.

10 Each piece is then ‘fettled’ – to clean off the glaze drips and the inevitable finger marks touched up. In the case of the incised pieces, each area of the design must have the raw glaze carefully scraped off and sponged clean, leaving the glaze inlayed in the design. If it is a brush decorated piece, this happens after fettling, and is created by brushing on oxide colours and scratching details – called ‘sgraffito’.

11 ‘Gloss’ firing takes another 12 hours, rising faster to 1,280ºC, with half hourly checks.

12 The pieces are finally completed. The whole process taking about a week.

The pieces are finally completed’
The pieces are finally completed The pieces are finally completed

Louise offers a few words of advice to anyone considering trying their hand at pottery:

  • Everyone immediately thinks of ‘throwing’ – making pots on a potter’s wheel – but all you need is a bag of clay. You can even get craft clay that doesn’t need ‘firing’ (baking) in a ‘kiln’ (oven). Good artists’ shops should supply this.
  • The internet has a wealth of hand-building guidance – there are all sorts of suggestions from basic tile making and decorating, to pinch pots, slabbing and coiling.
  • If a local college does evening classes, sign up for a term. You then have all the materials and facilities for glazing and firing your creations, as well as the technical guidance.
  • You can ‘smoke fire’ work, or ‘Raku’ – without buying a kiln. Make your own in the back garden – so long as you don’t live in a smoke free zone.

To find out more about Louise’s work visit louisedarby.co.uk or call 01789 765214 to visit her studio

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