/ 22 February 2013

Throwing pots for dramatic effect

Ian Garrett's designs.
Ian Garrett's designs.

Appearing like a manual, the method is similar, in ways, to the making of the traditional pie crust. Except this is the ancient craft of fashioning and making use of earth.

The round base is pressed on to the wheel and then pinched. It is then built up in coils that are rolled by hand. After the rotund surface is smoothed out, the walls of the pot are decorated with unusual objects. On his website you can see Garrett producing dotted circles with the serrated edge of a mussel shell.

Looking at the process brings some sort of visceral comfort, like watching a child playing in the mud. It reminds one of how we’ve lost our connection to the elements. How we once used water, fire and clay to produce something essential, something as basic as a household pitcher.

“I create hand-built burnished vessels that are inspired by ancient ceramic techniques,” Garrett writes in his mission statement. “These works combine archetypal vessel forms from prehistoric Europe and India, which reflect my ancestral background, with elements and ideas influenced by the contemporary ­African traditions that I have studied and collected.”

In a written interview, Garrett tells us that his method gives his pots “a slight unevenness and almost imperceptible organic quality that reveals they are hand-made. After patterning the pots, the remaining spaces are burnished or polished with smooth pebbles”.

He tells us that this is a laborious process and it takes hours to complete each pot. The ­finished pieces are pit-fired with aloe leaves, tree bark or cow dung “to give a smoked, silvery-black colour.”

But why, in this century, does a white man go back to the techniques of old Africa to create limited ranges of items that become, not useful but highly collectable? “I am fascinated with the process of pattern making, and view it as an artistic challenge equal to that of figurative representation,” Garrett writes.

About the origin of his inspiration, he says: “I’ve always been fascinated by archaeology, and as a child used to discover ancient pot-shards in the beach middens where I grew up in the Eastern Cape. Experimenting with making my own pots and trying to fire them in the back yard at home got me hooked on pottery.

“Later on I studied fine art and then specialised with a masters degree in ceramics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, where I finally got to encounter ­living traditions of the type of pots that had always interested me.”

Garrett’s most recent series of pots, now on sale in a limited edition from the boutique Okha in Cape Town, are both dark and steely. They have contradictory effects of sharpness (in pattern) and roundness (in form) that give them a dramatic presence.

“I received a commission last year to make some vessels to accompany one of the most important ­private collections of Zulu ceramics in Europe,” Garrett writes.

“I specifically wanted my work to be compatible with the ‘feel’ of Zulu pots, so I used some of the ‘canons’, like leaving the neck undecorated.

“I usually explore my ideas … into a short series of pieces — and the pots [on show] at Okha are part of that same series.”

Ian Garrett’s pots are available in Cape Town at Okha, 109 Hatfield Street, Gardens. In Johannesburg they can be found at the Kim Sacks Gallery, 153 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood. Website: iangarrettceramics.com