A ceramic story

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By Hans Börjesin

I started working with clay in Sweden in the 1950´s, when industry was prospering and at the artschools much importance was given to industrial design.

All this apperared to me uninspiring. I found the potter’s wheel the most important and challenging tool and conscious of the time and effort it would take to master. I wanted to learn the skill. I felt confident in throwing and was certain that the industry would continue to do fine without my contribution.

After having graduated from the artschool I went to England hoping to find a sympathetic craft environment that would prove an alternative to the industrial world. Via Lucie Rie I went down to Harry and May Davis in Cornwall. To give my English a last minute brush-up I read Bernhard Leach’s ”Towards a Standard” whilst travelling down to the far west of England. Leach’s ideas were new to me, I became fascinated by them and felt – quite litterally – that I was moving in the right direction.

Crowan Pottery turned out to be the ideal milieu for me, so many skills in arts and crafts, not to mention the human aspects, all gathered in one place. The sound of a huge waterwheel driving the whole workshop and the sight and smell of the yellow ballclay were experiences in themselves. It was my first meeting with the highfired stoneware and porcelain.

Cornwall and Devonshire in the Souhtwest are rich in ceramic raw materials. The geology of the area with its kaolin, ballclays and lots of other materials became a new challenge. I gradually realised that it was then I actually started my career as a potter – right from scratch.

Harry Davis was a master-thrower, and it was from him I should come to learn the skill myself.

We made the most of the splendid cornish geology. The conglomerate of the granites (granite is the basis for any glaze) turn out to be more or less accessible from numerous abolished quarries.

I returned to Sweden for a while in order to take advantage of my newly acquired geological experience. I searched Smaaland for raw materials – iron ore, granite, limestone and clay –they were all there for me to pick and choose.

I travelled back to Cornwall loaded with a heavy box of little stones, individually wrapped in old newspapers and carefully labelled with local Swedish names. – It goes without saying that it was a paramount task to try and explain the intended use of the boxcontents to the incredulous customs officers at Paddington Station. Eventually they gave up their request to get hold of a geigercounter, instead they had three men to load the box on to my train and ended up sending me off with good whishes.

Back at Crowan I made a lot of tests. Vaanga-granite with its red felspar crystals, combined with iron ore from Smaaland’s Taberg and limestone from Ignaberga, resulted in a deep blueish black tenmoku. Without the iron ore, but only due to the natural contens of iron in the granite, a clear green celadonglaze was made.

One day at teatime Harry and May announced, very surprisingly, that they were going to move the whole Crowan Pottery to New Zealand. I had a strong feeling of taking something very precious with me when I left England after 3 years, and together with Birgitte, who had been working at the pottery for the past year, we decided to start a workshop in Denmark. We found the old schoolhouse in Fulby and opened our own pottery in 1963.

This was the beginning of a new era and of our own independent careers.We had got the right place with plenty of space and also the 2 glazes. During the first summer we build our oilfired kiln, the size of 6 cubic meters and set about making saggars.

We were busy and confident with throwing plates,soupbowls,dishes,cups, jars etc.which we afterwards glazed in the black tenmoku or the green celadon. It was difficult to sell, but in 1965 we became members of “Den Permanente” and through their export-department we began to sell to “Nordiska Compagniet” in Stockholm and to “Bonniers” in New York.

Lots of cardboard boxes were delivered at Vesterport in those years. When the firing was good it was a great feeling to unload a kiln of that size and to see the piles of black plates everywhere. But the firings were tricky. The tenmoku-glaze needs just the right thickness, temperature and atmosphere in the kiln.

It was a time of reward and very hard work.

Davis came from New Zealand to visit us several times. He was rather impressed when he saw our rich bluish black tenmoku, which of course was a great encouragement. His visits were always a good confidence booster.
It has also been encouraging to have students in the workshop. In the course of time we have had 14 both Danish and from abroad, at least one year each, and many others for shorter intervals. Lots of ceramic problems were solved at the coffee  times and a lot of oval dishes were thrown. Most of the students carried on in the craftschools and some later started workshops of their own, either glass or ceramic.

In 1972 we went to Africa for a couple of years to work for Danida in Swaziland. It was an exciting time, we built kilns, taught and tested lots of local raw materials. We enjoyed the experience of being exposed to the African nature, mentality and love of life.

In the early 80`es we fired our first saltkiln, another new experience – new materials, new colours and new forms. Later we worked on various commissions. One could say that the size of our domestic ceramics had just grown. We were making benches for residential areas, columns that were part of the supporting constructions of new buildings, washbasins, tiles and flagstones.

Here in the 90`es I am working with the shape of the jar. I try to achieve the full tense volume, that makes me think of the old chinese masters. I want to preserve the structure of the clay and pass on the actual process, the stage when the clay is still wet. The colours and the decoration together with the character of the saltglaze will also help to emphasize my intensions.

Times are changing – new trends influence taste. The ceramic industry has become more sophisticated. They use the best designers and very good designs are on the market. Design which with advantage can be mixed with good potters pots – a teapot, a jug, a plate etc. Here the potters wheel is for me still the outstanding tool. Ideas and new shapes can easy be tested. It gives me a great pleasure to throw limited series of domestic ware on the wheel and it is at the same time important as an interaction between the repetitive and the free challenge from the clay.

Hans Börjeson 1993.


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