NPA Bursary Award for 2020-21

Northern Potters offer 8 bursaries a year towards new clay projects. Liz Kent and I have been successful towards aiding a new creative collaboration we have been developing during lockdown.

The Vessel Project

Liz Kent and Sarah Vanic

Sarah and I met in the Autumn of 1989,in a bright white studio at St Albans School of Art. Some where in that class we began a conversation, and we haven’t stopped talking since.

The Vessel Project arose out of our longstanding friendship and desire to collaborate artistically. We see the project as a conversation, a dialogue about process and how one makes meaning, not just through words, but through making. Clay, line, colour, drawing; the external and internal space of vessels. Vessel as symbol and quotidian object.

During the March lockdown, we started to face time each other twice a week. Often one or other of us would have made artwork, or we would be talking whilst making. At the beginning of lockdown, I started to draw domestic objects: mugs, bowls, teapots, objects that were small and to hand. Sarah was engaged in making tableware, a chiminea and a rhubarb forcer.

We started to discuss our processes, and show each other our works in progress. Sarah sent me a square, thick, handmade sketchbook. I started drawing in it. A while back I had bought Sarah ‘The White Road’ by Edmund de Waal, she mentioned she was reading it. I had a copy, so I started reading it too.

We decided to work together for a year, to see where our collaboration took us. Repetition of shape, repetition of pots drawn and made. A focussed interrogation of vessel, accompanied by a tale of white as a third way of thinking about vessels.

Our dialogue begins to be about inspiration, starting points. Her making pots linked to my drawings and colours. My drawings linked to her pots. My writing about the project, not just sketchbook notes, but an essay. My drawings are contained in books. It’s all about the imagination, observation and relationship.

Over the summer, we hear we have secured seed funding from Northern Potters, exciting news, a validation of our ideas. We keep making and thinking.

In October we spend a FaceTime call looking at her newly formed porcelain pots. She shows me her experiments, re-forming the pots, changing their shapes, using water to slump and wave them, using sharp tools to scrape away. I watch as the top edges of a pot sink in on themselves, meeting to form a whole, an ellipse. The pot becomes rather like a Cornish pastie, then squashes up and out to become a bulb. Eventually it becomes a ball and disintegrates. It cannot be remade back to its pristine vessel former self. Sarah speaks about clay memory. We ponder over this idea together; clay memory as both a physical reality and a metaphor for psychic reality.

She sends a photograph of the pots in her kiln. I am preoccupied by the spaces between them and their clear whiteness. As the image on my screen is backlit, they are dazzling.

Since March I find I can’t find a way to paint white. The more I look, the more colour I see in the white glaze, pale yellow reflections, blueish lilac shadows, greys. I stop trying to paint white. I’ll come back to it. Yet there is something seducing me about the white and what is contained within it. It isn’t blank. The white is just the beginning. Kate Bush suddenly in my head with her song ‘Fifty Words for Snow’, and Stephen Fry intoning complicated words, ‘whiteout’ is the one that sticks.

Trying not to worry about painting white, I think about space, curves and boundaries instead. The internal space of a vessel, made to carry something. To contain. If there is nothing in the pot, does it mean it’s empty? Schrödinger’s cat miaows softly in my ear. Not quite the same idea, but almost.

I paint an imaginary blue pot, an ancient shape with a rounded belly and a small opening, handles on each side. It’s colour a deep blue black, and inside, resting on the bottom, golden seeds. Alchemical.

The process of transformation. Each time a pot becomes, each time a drawing starts, each time we engage, with curiosity and a free floating attention, change happens. In Sheffield and in South East London, across the ether of a video call, we witness from far off that artistic, alchemical process.

I long to hold one of those becoming porcelain vessels, but for now I have to imagine the weight on my palm, my fingers cradling the shape, feeling the texture and presence of the porcelain whiteness.

Liz Kent