Ceramics New Zealand

A Primal Collective

Sarah McClintock in conversations with Jen Bowmast

SM: While I wouldn’t call you a ceramicist or potter, clay has become a critical material in your work. How did you come to it?

JB: An appreciation for clay as a material came to me through osmosis by time spent with Anne and John Crawford while living near their studio, Hector Pottery. Finally, a trip to Japan was the catalyst that propelled me into working with clay myself. The organic forms, earthy tones and glazes of the Japanese pots were intoxicating en masse. I had read about the philosophical concept of wabi-sabi but encountering it in context was profound.

SM: What is it about the medium that interests you and how does it fit with the conceptual framework of your practice?

JB: Clay has a willingness to transform, listening to me and without judgement of my skills, ideas or intent. It enables a conversation and in turn collaboratively engenders something into being. I am interested in different ways of knowing, and clay allows me a line of enquiry which disengages my conscious thought. I am seemingly unable to impose my will on it, instead placing my intuition in charge. 

SM: Conversation seems central to your art practice – with and between objects, time, space and people.

JB: Sometimes it seems my conversations are witnessed and facilitated by the objects I have made. When I first joined a community pottery group I suspected the clay, in a sense had called us together, creating the group. At a club pit-firing the rhythm of the process informed the moments in-between where members exchanged ideas, knowledge and stories. We were all at the mercy of our self made temporal kiln. There was shared anticipation and speculation around what effects our collection of banana skins and animal hair would have. The communal unloading of our pots from the hot ashes was the penultimate ritual of the exercise. To me the whole experience felt like a relational art project. 

At times other makers with more skills are involved in my bigger projects. The personal engagement around this process I see as imbued into the clay. The making is an act of reciprocity, between the makers and the clay. I see the objects as artefacts of our encounters or perhaps extensions of the conversation between myself, other makers and the site in which it was made.

SM: You speak about your practice, and clay, in very spiritual terms. It is such a magical substance – the way it transforms through fire in a type of alchemic process, its linkages to ritual in many cultures, and the ways in which it bridges life and death. We use it to eat and drink, but it has also been found in countless grave sites across the world. One of my strongest memories of clay is visiting an archaeological site in North-west Thailand where my sister was working on discovering artefacts from over 3000 years ago. It was a blisteringly hot day and it was a huge relief to descend into the 7 metre deep pit. It was also very confronting. We were there when they uncovered their 300th body and with many of the skeletons were large decorated ceramic pots as burial offerings. Clay was so important to them that they buried their dead with, and sometimes even inside, these impressive objects. Your work navigates many of these divides as well – life and death, light and dark, reality and myth, art and craft. 

JB: What a wonderful experience that must have been to witness the discovery of ceramics at an archaeological dig. I remember as a child digging up fragments of plates with faint flower patterns prompting me to imagine what they had been used for, by whom and how they had come to be in the garden. It seems to me clay is omnipresent across cultures in both spiritual and domestic rituals, embodying the idea of the everyday and the divine coexisting. Using the same material my breakfast bowl is made from to create an object intended to reference a potential sacred use is endlessly interesting to me. 

SM: The art vs craft divide is one that simultaneously fascinates and frustrates me. I love the conversations it provokes about value, labour, gender and education, but the arguments often ignore the reality that it is, and will always be, and unending debate with there is no ‘right’ answer.  Have you had to have any of these discussions with potters? What has your experience been like engaging with local pottery group? Has there been any resistance to your type of relationship with clay?

JB: I really enjoy starting this conversation to hear potters opinions on the persistently complex topic of art vs craft. Opinions tend to flow easily while making alongside others, with heads where hands are. Community pottery group members are generally broad thinkers and curious about my more abstract shapes destined for art installations. My clay forms often act as catalysts for lively chats about contemporary artists and surprising uses of clay. I wouldn’t say I have encountered resistance but perhaps assertive encouragement to learn some more skills, such as throwing at the wheel, to more efficiently make my forms. The sharing of knowledge is an invaluable function of community pottery but for me it’s the primal collective experience of making with an ancient material that keeps me coming back.