Ireland’s pottery making tradition, born out of the necessity for practical cooking and eating vessels in the dark Neolithic past, is in a new phase of development today.
Renewed in recent decades by the likes of Stephen Pearce and Nicolas Mosse, the Irish output developed an emphasis on aesthetics so it wasn’t simply functional, but decorative also.
Exposure to techniques from other cultures, especially Japan, has informed a new, finer and more sophisticated ceramic product, rooted in strong design skills which straddle art and design — putting it on a par with the best worldwide.
Playing its part in supporting this is the two-year ceramic skills and design training course run by the Design and Craft Council of Ireland at the Island Mill in Thomastown, Co Kilkenny.
Now in its twenty-first year, it attracts applicants from Ireland and abroad.
The quality of work made by this year’s graduates is impressive and was on show recently at the National Craft Gallery in Kilkenny in an exhibition suitably entitled Cré, meaning clay, earth or pottery in Irish.
Gus Mabelson, the course manager, and himself an accomplished ceramicist who graduated from Loughborough College of Art with a degree in ceramics, has overseen the establishment and development of the course.
“The skills the students have acquired through many hours of hard work and the creative use of those skills, form the foundation of all the work in the exhibition,” he explains.
So what you see is testament to their own skill, their knowledge of clay and glaze technology, kiln theory and operation, surface treatments, drawing and design, along with the history of ceramics and contemporary practice.
“Learning through doing and then doing it again is at the core of the course curriculum,” Gus says.
“They have gained self-confidence, professional pride and a sense of identity through the objects they design and make.”
But in addition to developing individual creativity and innovation in design and production, they also have to cover subjects like pricing, marketing and photography, fuelled by the DCCoI’s remit to develop the business viability of the craft sector.
So, no longer should we see pottery makers and ceramicists as impoverished makers, beavering in rural workshops unable to make a living from their craft.
Students also undertake work experience projects to get hands-on experience of working with clients and in community-based projects to help develop skills necessary for working in a team.
The programme is accredited by NUI Maynooth, has no course fees, and all materials are supplied, but it’s not simply a case of applying and getting a place.
Applicants must be 18 years or over and an EU citizen or resident, and they undertake an aptitude test, although successful applicants, so far, usually have prior ceramic making experience.
Of the 10 graduates this year, four will have their work showcased in the windows of Kilkenny’s shop on Dublin’s Nassau Street.
These include Andrew Ilsley from Herefordshire who is showing smoke fired ceramic musical instruments, including Udu drums which are native to Nigeria.
Outsize spherical moon jars by Claire Murdock sit alongside Bridget Timoney’s sculptural and highly textured vessels, while Polish-born, Dublin-based Marta Ozog shows porcelain tableware decorated with blue and turquoise glazes.
The scale of diversity in the students’ output is marked, with makers like Babs Belshaw creating porcelain bowls and narrow necked bottles finished with crystal glazes, and Martha Opher’s tablewares decorated with original illustrations hiding colour interiors.
Aisling McElwain adds the luxury of 19ct gold lustre to her celadon vessels and, by contrast, Fiona Shannon’s sturdy, earthy dishes are made for the practical purpose of serving food, a throwback to the original purpose of Irish pottery, but employing modern techniques and skill underpinned by design.
Clearly, the course has had its success stories as among its alumni are Karen Morgan and Derek Wilson, two of the leading ceramicists in Ireland today.
But it’s not just ceramic making that is the subject of this sort of course.
Jewellery making and goldsmithing are covered in another programme which follows the ceramic skills and design course model, and has the same criteria for entry every two years.
Also run by DCCoI, both are part of the organisation’s vision to develop similar courses for other craft disciplines in order to increase a skilled workforce with the experience and expertise to continue to develop the crafted design sector.
For more information on the DCCOI’s skills and design course go to:
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