Nigel Webster: “watching a lump of clay being converted to a pot is a meditative experience”

Nigel Webster from Gledfield Mill Pottery opens the doors of his studio and lets us have a peek at the amazing process of loading, firing and unpacking of the kiln.

Gledfield Mill potter Nigel Webster checking the temperature of the kiln during the firing. © Silvia Muras
Loaded kiln before the firing. © Silvia Muras
These cones collapse inside the kiln at different temperatures. © Silvia Muras
The firing takes a whole day. It starts with a gentle firing up to about 900ºC, then a reduction firing between 900º and 1000ºC. © Silvia Muras
Flames, pots and collapsed cones during the firing. © Silvia Muras
The door of the kiln has just been taken down and the pieces are still very hot. © Silvia Muras
Nigel keeps records of each firing. © Silvia Muras
A bowl just out of the kiln. The pieces are carefully unpacked one by one and allowed to cool down. © Silvia Muras
Pieces in the studio, showing the different finishings of the glazes. © Silvia Muras

When did you first become interested in pottery?

For as long as I can remember I have collected items of studio pottery. I think this got me interested in investigating what it took to make the sort of items I was buying. I also got the chance to meet with a few of the more famous potters at that time and they showed me around their potteries and gave me some information about kilns and such like. I studied Medicine in Leeds and there was an Art college there with a pottery studio, so I went along to evening classes there for about three years. However, moving around the UK with my job precluded me setting up my own pottery studio until I retired four years ago.

I am particularly interested in Japanese pottery and have visited Japan a number of times with frequent visits to several potteries. I like Bizen pottery which is very hard stoneware and is fired using wood as fuel in a traditional kiln called an anagama kiln. This type of kiln is essentially a long brick tube positioned going up a hill with a firebox at one end and a short chimney at the other. Multi-chambered versions are called naborigama kilns. They can be very long – 30 or 40 metres. These kilns take between 4 and 14 days to fire and so require much wood and quite a few shift changes of stokers.

Did it take long to learn the techniques?

There are quite a few different techniques used in pottery and I have tried most of them. My own favourite is making items on the wheel – known as throwing. I learnt to throw pots on a treadle wheel but now use an electric one. It does take a long time to learn to throw pots. The most difficult part is the initial positioning of the clay in the centre of the wheel and it can take a few weeks of constant practice to be able to do it properly. Once you can do this then you can start making cylinders by lifting the clay up from the bottom of the centred pile of clay. Almost everything starts off as a cylinder shape and then altered from this to form bowls, vases, jugs, mugs and even plates which start as a flat squat cylinder.

It helps that I am ambidextrous since both hands are used equally in throwing. The direction the wheel spins dictates which side of the centred clay you put your hands. Most of the world uses the clay spinning in an anticlockwise direction with the hands positioned on the right of the centred clay. However, Japanese potters use the wheel spinning in a clockwise direction with the hands positioned on the left.

What was the first piece you made?

Because it takes a while to learn to throw pots and can be very frustrating, most people learn to make a pot by building it from a rolled out slab a little like making something from pastry. I was no exception and my first pot was a vase made by rolling a slab of clay around a round piece of wood and then joining the edge and adding a piece to form the bottom.

When did you decide to build your own kiln and pottery studio?

We purchased Gledfield Mill about five years ago with the intention of building a studio there. It took a couple of years to get the studio and kiln built. I now make enough pots to have at least two firings a year.

What’s your favourite part of the process?

Actually making the pots is my favourite part of the process. I think most people find watching a lump of clay being converted to a pot is a meditative experience. In fact the BBC used to use a film like this as an interlude during an interruption in programming!

Who or what are your biggest influences?

Japanese pottery and potters have been my biggest influence, Hamada Shoji in particular. He really established a pottery village called Mashiko a hundred miles or so outside Tokyo, but also worked with a famous UK potter – Bernard Leach – in St Ives in Cornwall. They were both active between approximately 1920 and 1980. There are now quite a few more descendants of Bernard Leach who are also famous potters. Similarly Hamada Shoji has a son and grandson who are also famous potters.

Do you prefer to be called a potter or a ceramic artist?

That is an interesting question. A potter is an honest craftsman making items that are generally useful. They usually do not make much money by doing it and usually just about manage to scrape by. To me the term ceramic artist conjures up an image of a person making works of art, not generally useful, that are often expensive. I do also like making sculptural items so I guess these would be art forms but most of the pots I make are related to Japanese pots usually associated with the Japanese Tea Ceremony. I am sure that Hamada would have considered himself a humble potter – however, his small tea bowls now command a very high price. Picasso and Grayson Perry also make and decorate pots – I guess they would consider themselves ceramic artists. Apparently, according to one potter I know, to be able to charge large sums of money for sculptural items they have to be cast in bronze so I guess this would rule out most ceramic artists.

Where do you find your inspiration for colours, textures, etc…?

I have been told by another potter that there are ‘brown’ potters and ‘non-brown’ potters. I am definitely a brown potter. The beauty of the wood fired kiln is that it imparts its own magic to the pots. Most of the glazes I use are called ash glazes (made from a mixture of wood ash and crushed stone) and these also tend to be muted colours.

Do you have a favourite spot in the Kyle of Sutherland area?

The view to the banks of the river Carron that my studio overlooks is fantastic.

by Silvia Muras

BIO: In my working life I ended up as Professor of Medicine in Aberdeen working on the intensive care unit for 25 years with research interests related to sepsis. On the more creative side I studied etching at evening school for a few years and I am also a member of the Royal Photographic Society – I have been interested in photography for more years than pottery and use old fashioned wooden cameras and black and white film.

Pots can be purchased in person from Gledfield Mill pottery -please email before visiting to ensure we are around. We are also happy to send you photos of any pots you are interested in and these can be posted or delivered locally. We accept PayPal, bank transfer, cheque or good old cash! We are also on Facebook, or you can phone 0790 060 3649.

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