Denise Hall: Clay art lifts earth to new heights

Two of Darren Francis Cassidy's figures from his Little People series.

Q&A: Darren Francis Cassidy
Society of Cork Potters keeps ancient craft alive in an exciting art format.

Clay is abundant, cheap and adaptable and the earliest recorded evidence of its usage dates back to the late Palaeolithic period in central and western Europe.

There is early evidence of experimentation with clay at a site known as Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic where figurines made of clay mixed with crushed mammoth bones were discovered.

The introduction of pottery is generally believed to coincide with the adoption of a more settled agricultural lifestyle. 

When the hunter/gather population gradually gave way to a society who grew and produced their food, durable and strong vessels and containers became necessary so that foodstuffs could be safely stored and preserved.

Initially, pottery was made out of coiled strips of clay and hardened in open fires. Then the first ovens began to appear in the Near East, used to parch cereals and bake bread. 

This allowed people to control fire and produce high temperatures in enclosed facilities. But it was open firing techniques that were used to produce the earliest pottery.

By analysing the chemical composition of pottery fragments, it is possible for archaeologists to determine at what temperature the pottery was exposed, enabling them to determine the level of technological sophistication of a society.

Pottery can be used to date archaeological sites, especially important where written records cannot be found or if they remain undeciphered. 

It can also provide valuable evidence of trade and exchange networks. The shape, type of surface, colours and patterns can help us to understand the artistic development and aspirations of a society.

Human beings being naturally creative and inventive, unique styles and decorations developed and perhaps one of the most unusual is a style known as horsehair pottery, developed by the American First Nation people, the Navajos.

A Pueblo potter woman discovered this art form when her long hair accidentally made an impression on the hot piece of pottery she was removing from the kiln. 

She was fascinated by what she saw and tried this technique with other materials such as straw, pine needles, feathers and finally, horsehair.

She found that the thicker and coarser horse hair left striking and clear impressions on the pot. Navajo people continue to commemorate their horses through horsehair pottery.

A ceramic is a non-metallic, non-organic solid structure, processed by heating to a great temperature, causing the material to become rigid and durable. 

The first examples of Irish ceramics, in the form of pottery, made from clay dug from the ground, date from around 6,000 years ago. Fragments of coil-built pots were found in early burial mounds that were probably air-dried rather than kiln-fired.

Traditional Irish pottery is usually divided into two types - coarse ware and fine ware. 

Coarse ware consists of strong, robust items that are used for everyday activities such as sturdy cooking bowls and jugs, crocks and similar vessels for buttermilk and cream, chimney and flower pots. 

These items would generally be either stoneware or earthenware. Fine ware began to be made in Ireland in the late 17th century. 

Using native fine white clay, this pottery is more delicate and decorative. Belleek Potteries, in operation since the middle of the 19th century, are still producing Irish fine ware and porcelain of quality.

There are numerous potteries around Ireland still producing excellent ceramics, using both traditional and modern techniques and increasing numbers of individual potters producing unique and striking work.

The Society of Cork Potters represents more than 30 ceramic artists and potters who are trying to make at least a part of their living by working with clay. 

The Society reflects the wide diversity of current creative ceramic activity in the region. Darren Francis Cassidy is a member. Based in Banduff, Cork, but planning a move to West Cork. Darren told me about his discovery of ceramics.

Darren, I believe you went through several other creative outlets before ceramics came into your life?

Yeah. I was a quiet child who lacked self-confidence and I loved the solitude of drawing. It wasn’t until very recently that I discovered that I was dyslexic, which explained a lot. 

I went back to school a year ago at night and studied maths and English and it was an eye-opener. I’d always had difficulty with things like spelling and art had been an like an anchor for me. 

I studied Design Communications in Dun Laoghaire College of Art and Design and Ceramics in Crawford College of Art and Design. 

I was the first person in my family to go to college, and during that time, I did bar work to help bring money into the house. 

And because I was always the arty one in school, it was a bit scary to suddenly be around people who were all arty too. I got a distinction in Design and spent a number of years working as a graphic designer. 

I’d also studied woodcarving and furniture making. But it wasn’t until I first came into contact with clay that I found my true calling. This was what I should be doing. I love experimenting with clay.

Carving is still an important part of your work I believe?

I learned a lot about carving when working with wood where the material you are working with can snap off and so I started to prepare by carving on sticks of chalk so that my fingers were even more sensitive. 

Then I applied for a position teaching ceramics although I didn’t think I had much chance of getting the position. I think on the day of the interview that it was passion that won the day and as soon as we started, it wasn’t long before the clay worked its magic. 

I think that it’s very important to share your knowledge, pass it on to others. But I never thought I’d be a teacher and now I have a waiting list for my courses, which I constantly fine-tune.

I understand that you are currently planning a move to West Cork?

I have friends in the area and I’ve always loved it. The countryside is beautiful and there are so many creative people in the area, so my wife and I are really looking forward to it. 

I’m running my next classes in Skibereen. I didn’t start teaching for money, although that is obviously important. 

It’s the passion that motivates me. And as an artist, you have to be able to diversify. I exhibit in several galleries and I want to do a craft range, items that are accessible to everyone. 


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