When Eva Masterman, Mary O’Malley and Katie Spragg look at the balls of clay in their hands, they see a leveler. A highly tactile, engaging, organic material that reacts to you immediately.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a 14 year old or an 80 year old, you can pretty much guarantee anyone who touches wet clay will have fun for at least five minutes,” says Masterman.
Such characteristics are rare and exciting in the digital age when young people come of age alongside the internet—their touch and intellect removed from physical reality.
Feature Image: Collaborative Brick Installation at Tate Modern, 2017, photo courtesy of Collective Matter
Masterman, O’Malley and Spragg make up London-based art collective Collective Matter. They first met in a ceramics graduate program at Royal College of Art, London. They arrived with various clay métier, explains Masterman.
“I’m fine arts, Mary has a very American craft background and Katie is UK mixed media and design,” said Masterman.
With nearby desks, the three engaged in a continuous tête-à-tête—often debate—navigating the function of technical skill versus concept-based art conversation in the classroom.
Their degree program at RCA, as well as material-specific art education in the UK (and the world), is fluctuating, undergoing massive funding cuts, quite literally swept under the rug by the UK government; “flat-lined,” as Masterman puts it. Aside from RCA, there is only one ceramics-specific program left in the UK—that’s Cardiff University in Wales.
This is the result of lines between mediums dissolving with fewer and fewer creatives categorizing themselves by media. This phenomenon, dubbed “post-media,” lays the foundation for a new normal contemporary artist that moves dexterously between droves of mediums.
So programs are closing, funding is being ripped out, even so, Masterman, Spragg and O’Malley are witnessing ceramics exploding in popular culture, finally embraced by the fine arts, Instagram culture and other art disciplines.
That inconsistency became the foundation of Collective Matter:
Why, when clay is so in vogue, are all the higher education courses being shut down? The WHY Question.
In Tuesday night salon style “clay club” meetings, the conversation continued. They invited students from other departments who were working with clay to hear what they had to say about The WHY Question. When things are in a state of fluctuation, “it forces us to change our perspectives on what we are making, and why we are making it.” These conversation groups became practical research for Masterman’s dissertation C-Forum, which is available to read in cfile.campus.
They organized field trips for clay club.“We started geeking out together!” They visited a brick-making factory that’s been hand-making bricks for over 100 years; and Grymsdyke Farm, an experimental architecture studio that was experimenting with clay robotics. As part of their degree show, the three organized a cross-disciplinary exhibition and panel discussion about clay and education and the WHY question of course. On the panel was Emma Woffendon (glass artist), Alex Hoda (fine artist), Sarah Griffin (curator), Silo Studio (product design duo) and Stuart Carey (ceramicist).
There was never any solution to the WHY question, but the panel agreed:
“Although we need to be careful that skills aren’t lost,” says Masterman. “A shake up in craft education is potentially really exciting and could open the doors to new ways of learning and engaging with materials in an interdisciplinary way.”
The Tate Exchange
The Tate Exchange is a program that brings international artists to UK communities to collaborate on performances, drop-in sessions, lectures and art within changing physical and cultural landscapes. The program, described as an “experiment” enjoys a whole floor of The Tate Museum London. With more than fifty UK associates including big corporations, charities, universities, healthcare trusts, community radio stations, you name it, each of whom has coughed up between £8-9000 to be in the program, the Tate Exchange has proven a useful model for community art making. But its also the age-old shady motive of business people, lets put artists in front, and make this thing more approachable.
After graduation, former tutor Martina Margetts handed Masterman, O’Malley and Spragg an application for the Exchange. Everything that comes next was made possible by the Exchange.
As part of the exchange, Collective Matter, as they had started calling themselves, was enlisted to design a program to bridge the gap between Nine Elms Vauxhall Partnership and the low-income, ethnically diverse community in the area. Nine Elms is an industrial neighborhood along the Thames River, smack in the center of London, in the borough of Wandsworth. The area is in breakneck flux. The American, Netherlands and Chinese Embassies are all relocating to Nine Elms starting this year.
“It’s the last little nook of London left to be developed.” Named for a line of elm trees (which were probably cut down ages ago), Nine Elms is an 800-year-old path between York House and Vauxhall. The Thames often flooded the area and was known for its “swampiness.” In modern times, there was once a railroad station, which became an“industrial wasteland” and residential council estates (aka subsidized housing). Currently, Nine Elms Vauxhall Partnership is waist-deep in a 30-year development project.
“What’s happening is you have all these communities that have been there for decades, and across the road there are banks and more banks and billion pound (£) houses and condos being built blocking the residents’ view of the river. Our whole project is trying to connect the local population with or give them a voice in the changing physical and cultural landscape of the area.”
It’s the same gentrification that is happening in every American urban center, and cities all over the world. A giant developer capitalizing upon a usually poor demographic with a relatively low cost of living. As the trend goes, the costs of living in the neighborhood dramatically increases, and the inhabitants can no longer afford to live there. Masterman, O’Malley and Spragg found them selves caught. “You couldn’t overtly say that the entire reason they were employing us was to make themselves look good.”
Each of the three women partnered with an established gallery in the area to experiment with different pedagogies. At Beaconsfield Gallery, Masterman wanted to experiment with self-learning, clay, and collaboration.
“We dumped 3 tons of clay in the middle of the space and just said ‘off you go!’”
In the photographs, children and teenagers are seen wearing lightweight, transparent coveralls as if they are being protected from biohazardous material. The result was a large-scale, unfired clay forest of bumps, balls and craters.
O’Malley led a workshop at Gasworks Gallery that offered modus operandi for creating “New Heirlooms.” “Explore the journey an object takes,” reads the poster. Some participants brought ceramics from their homes to incorporate or took shards from local thrift shop pottery, others were mud larked along the Thames. The results are Yeesookyung-inspired bric-a-brac sculptures that reflect Nine Elms’s site-specific material culture. Separately, she was encouraging people to try throwing digital pots on an app called Let’s Create.
“Its hysterical. A really funny digital version of my life as a potter,” says O’Malley. “You have to throw clay, fire it, you get commissions from people. The more colors and patterns you put on it the more it will sell for in auction.”
Spragg partnered with Pump House Gallery making bricks from red clay with youth in council estates. They went walking through a park looking for nature in unexpected places, like weeds through cracks in the pavement.
“Our idea of nature has to change as our cities change,” explained Spragg.
The bricks from the workshop were assembled into an installation at the Tate, as well as other work produced in Masterman and O’Malley’s workshops.
“Buildings around us are all made of brick but are designed and decided upon by someone else. By getting the participants to make a brick, we were giving them a metaphorical building block to take creative control over their individual territory. We also wanted them to connect directly with their local environment. The estate where this workshop was held is predominantly concrete so by taking them out to find and be inspired by nature, we wanted to highlight the importance of green space,” said Spragg.
Despite the disappearance of traditional, medium-specific programs, in a post-media world, multidisciplinary programs are the classrooms of the future. Even so, groups like Collective Matter and smaller, community-based programs and start-ups have a vision, and they will also play a significant role in that future too. We’ll be patiently watching to see how the art world, and society itself, responds.
Do you love or loathe this question from the worlds of contemporary ceramic art and contemporary ceramics? We’d love to hear from you. Share your thoughts in the comments.
6 thoughts on "The WHY Question | Delving into the Disappearance of the UK’s Ceramics Ed Programs"
An interesting article, congratulations to Collective Matter for their good work in reaching diverse audiences.
However, I refute the deficit model of a subject in decline, we have a thriving, healthy subject taught in its most diverse and egalitarian form possibly since formal education began. I don’t think that is what collective matter are saying but it is implicit in the text and reflected in the comments above. This argument was accurate 3 or 4 years ago, however it is important to recognise the present condition of the subject.
We have a range of protagonists across all level of education and engagement:
In no particular order off the top of my head, apologies for not using correct institution names and if I have missed anyone (I am in bit of a rush):
University of Westminster – PHD/research
Central Saint Martins – BA (Hons), MA, PHD, Research
Cardiff – BA (Hons)/MA
Bath Spa – BA Multi Disciplinary / MA
Brighton – BA Multi Disciplinary
Plymouth – BA Multi Disciplinary
Sunderland – BA BA Multi Disciplinary, MA, PHD, Research
Staffordshire – BA Multi Disciplinary
MMU – BA Multi Disciplinary
Farnham – BA Multi Disciplinary
Liverpool Hope – BA Multi Disciplinary
Wolverhampton – BA Multi Disciplinary
Morley College – adult Ed
City Lit – adult ed
essentially my point is there is a lot of specialist level tuition in higher education, though some of it might not be as visible as it used to be it doesn’t follow that there is a dearth of higher level tuition. I spoke at NCECA this year about the need for a creative curriculum in the face of the various forces at play in education, afterwards tutors at American universities told me that the rationalisation of courses had started to happen in the US.
can be found here.
In the flux of higher education rationalisation other agencies have grown and taken a role in the subject:
British Ceramics Biennial
Crafts Council – Make your future
Clay Studio Manchester
the Clay School
(and many more)
To clarify I am not trying to say its all perfect, its far from that, but at the same time it is important to recognise the positivity of activity across the breadth of the subject. Projects like Collective Matter are important in the engaging of diverse groups who might otherwise have not had access to I think to say that
One of the main issues with the subject in the U.K is that everyone thinks they are saving it and that they are the only people who’ve noticed its decline, when viewed from this parochial perspective it is very difficult to recognise the broadly positive growth in interest in the subject.
A few of us are in discussion with the BCB about resurrecting the National Association of Ceramics as a broad church to include the breadth of the subject, where we can come together to form a coherent network that supports each other… similar to the broad church thats NCECA, watch this space.
well done Collective Matter…
Despite the challenges in offering ceramics courses, there is in fact another ceramics specialist course in the UK and that’s the BA Ceramic Design programme at UAL’s Central Saint Martins, which is fully alive and well, and run by Tony Quinn with Duncan Hooson and Emma Lacey, all professional practitioners. I graduated from there in 2016, along with peers specialising in fine art practice, design, and craft – a fine mix of approaches to clay. Many of my cohort, myself included, are actively developing careers in ceramics around the world, using the broad and deep grounding in material and techniques we received. During the course, we were exposed to the material and processes, of course, but also to professional projects, public participation, workshops, as well as opportunities to think about and work with clay in a multitude of ways and contexts. After all, clay happens in the studio, but it also happens in public, in schools, at festivals, and in industry.
I agree very much with Sandy Brown’s comment – with the challenges of finding studio space, courses are missing a trick not to have ‘Graduates-in-Residence’. These could be long or short-term sublets or residences, during vacations if term time is too pressured, and be mutually beneficial, generating money for courses, and setting examples of professional practice and resourcefulness to students. Those of us who teach as part of our practice might easily be persuaded to offer something back in return, thus creating a true community of practice.
I disagree that UK educational institutions are business run to make money. if they were they would run ceramics courses in a much better way. They dont think like entrepreneurs. I did a workshop a few years ago at Harvard and was impressed by the fact that they have to make money and how they go about it. It is an excellent model for all educational establishments. First, they have within the ceramics complex artists studios to rent. So high profile public artists are there doing their work, and paying money. That energy ripples out through the whole department. The ceramics studio also runs courses of course for students at all levels. They even encourage the tutors and the director of Havard University as well to come in to participate, which they do. Students have 24 hour a day access. Of course they pay for it, this is America. There are technicians on duty, there are excellent facilities, and students love it. It is a great thriving creative atmosphere, and even caters for total beginners who have never worked in clay before. Every one pays, but they get good value. Near where i live in England a new ceramics course started in the College only 5 or 6 years ago, it was beautifully equipped. It closed last year and everything was sold. They could have modelled it on the Harvard experience and made it pay. There is no lack of interest in ceramics, in fact interest has never been higher. There is a lack of ability to harness this interest to the benefit of the educational institutions because they don’t know how to think commercially. Its not as though education is free any more! Students of all ages know they have to pay, and increasingly are willing to do so, as it is the private sector which is belatedly picking up the slack. Ceramics is thriving in a new way, but no thanks to the blinkered universities.
It is all very well having interdisciplinary workshops but understanding the processes and becoming skilled at ceramics or pottery demands in depth study for longer than a few weeks as part of such a course. The specialist skills are rapidly being lost and conceptual artists will find it harder and harder to find the “technicians” to carry out their ideas. There seems to be a trend in the UK for flung together ceramics but less regard for highly crafted pieces. Having studied ceramics at the skills based course at Harrow in the early 80’s , I feel sad that the only way to gain these professional skills now seems to be through very scarce apprenticeships.
The WHY Question | Delving into the Disappearance of the UK’s Ceramics Ed Programs. The answer, ceramics courses don’t make enough money for the educational institutions, and the educational institutions in the UK, are in the main, businesses that chase money, and it’s far more profitable to run cheap courses, that don’t have large energy and space requirements
I agree with Charlie…it all comes down to money.