pictured above: fred Olsen's Transformer Kiln from the 1991 festival

In 1989 the first International Ceramics Festival was held in the small seaside, university town of Aberystwyth in Mid-Wales. over the next 20 years The festival has grown into Europe's largest and popular, educational ceramics event. In 2005 the festival celebrated its 10th event and, as a founder and co-ordinator of this festival over its most crucial years, this piece was written for the celebratory brochure.

Isolated Internationalism

Wales is a small country on the western edge of the British Isles. Its artists often feel isolated, both geographically and politically, from the world art scene and none more so than the ceramic artists who, by the nature of their work, are more tied to their studios and workshops. There is a need for direct contact with international artists.

The first International Ceramics festival was held in 1987 in the small, seaside, university town of Aberystwyth, in mid-Wales, as a direct response to this need. The university provides excellent facilities – accommodation in student rooms is on site and their Arts Centre provides the festival with large exhibition spaces, demonstration halls, cafes and bars and spacious outdoor areas for the trade stands and kilns. Geographically located in the centre of Wales, it is nonetheless one of the furthest points in the UK, far from main conurbations and easy transport.

In 1982 North and South Wales Potters Associations collaborated to organise the first Wales Potters Camp, a relatively small event held in Tredegar House near Newport - a very successful occasion and the precursor of the International Ceramics Festival. It was the experience of this gathering that, in 1985, inspired Adrian Childs, an excellent potter with seemingly boundless energy, to re-ignite the flame started those years before. There is no doubt that without Adrian’s enthusiasm and ability to inspire others, myself included, it is difficult to see how the first festival would have succeeded.

Driving to the inaugural meeting with SWP at Frank and Janet Hamer’s pottery along the narrow, twisting roads through mid-Wales, one could only wonder why would anyone come all this way to the far west coast. It really called for a leap of imagination. Since the first festival in 1987 the audience has grown, now attracting a nearly a thousand potters, teachers and students who make the biennial pilgrimage to, what is now, Europe’s premier educational ceramics event,

The early festivals were certainly driven by Adrian Childs, whose vision and determination moulded the form and content. The festival invites around 15 international guests to Wales to demonstrate their work and talk about their philosophy to a continually growing audience attracted to the event from all parts of the world.

The festival bears little resemblance to the commercial conference or popular ceramics markets or fairs. Organised voluntarily by potters motivated by an enthusiasm for clay and intellectual refreshment, they are able to retain their sensitivity of approach that encourages the best, and the easy openness which makes talk flow is consciously fostered by the festival organisers, with accessibility being a stated aim. The festivals are also forgiving; ideas and process are paramount, not perfection and end products.

In his Unknown Craftsman, Yanagi says, "One needs to put aside the desire to judge immediately and to acquire the habit of just looking". We should all be collectors, never saying no to observing. The festivals are about sharing experiences, philosophy and communicating ideas. They are about meeting people - people with a common interest in this world of ceramics. A world where language is not a barrier but the language of clay is universal.

To experience all that the International ceramics Festival offers is impossible. Simultaneous activities require difficult choices on the part of the audience. Non stop workshops, formal demonstrations, a full two day lecture programme, hands on projects, kiln building and firings, films, videos and social events, both organised and impromptu, mean that invited artists and participants have different opportunities to meet, talk and listen to each other. Add to this the exhibitions of international work, the guests exhibition and work on show from the University of Wales' impressive permanent ceramic collection and you can thoroughly immerse yourself in clay for the long weekend.

Contrasts are actively encouraged and our traditional concepts are constantly being reassessed. In 1989 the major political upheavals in Europe were highligted during a discussion between American artist Scott Chamberlin and Russian, Vladimir Tsivin when the interviewer raised the topic of censorship of the arts. It became clear that the economic censorship wielded on Chamberlin by the gallery system was far more imposing than the political censorship of the then Soviet state. The pressures of the market economy allow little time for experimentation or the cross fertilisation of ideas with other artists while the eastern block state support for ceramists gave time and encouragement for new work and ideas. “If you wanted to make a naked statue of Gorbatchev would you be allowed to?”, the interviewer asked. “Yes, but why would I want to make a naked sculpture of Gorbatschev”, Tsivin replied, as the smoke from the Nigerian women potters’ bonfire rose into the air outside the window.

One thing that gathers us under the ceramic umbrella is that we all create permanent objects by firing them, be it fine porcelain or large sculptural installations. Kiln building and firing have always been a popular and important part of the festival. We have demanded great technical achievements by our guests and incredible stamina from our student helpers. In 1991 Patrick Sargent arrived on a rainy Tuesday morning to begin building his anagama kiln, packed with pots on Friday and opened to the expectant awe of the onlookers on Sunday afternoon. I am sure many of the potters at that weekend will have joined me in admiring this feat on hearing of his death a few years later. Joe Finch has always inspired potters to wood fire and the two kilns he has built for the festival have been copied and built many times over since then.

In 2001 the spirit of American rivalry was kindled when potter John Theis built his two chamber Noborigama alongside kiln building pioneer and legend, Fred Olsen’s transformer kiln. A spectacle never to be repeated as hundreds clamoured to see the unwrapping of his Transformer Kiln, a sculpture built and fired during the festival week, red hot and glowing. The sparks sent into the Aberystwyth sky that night have ignited many new fires throughout the world.

I think everyone has their own recollections of the festivals, and this is its strength. We all take away something personal, something magical. Whether it is the sight and sound to two Japanese potters dancing on stage to the rhythms Bob Marley or the simple, hauntng song of a Korean potter, bringing many in the audience to tears. Both challenge our experiences in a different way.

While accepted ‘stars’ of the ceramics world may initially attract our audience, often it is the artists, previously unheard of here, that leave the lasting impressions. The consummate skill of two unknown Nigerian women, Asabe Magiji and Assibi Iddo overshadowed the 1989 festival. In 2001 Hungarian village potter Atilla Albert threw the finest of pots on his left-handed momentum wheel and at the last festival the quiet assuredness of Udai lal Kuhmar constructing traditional temple icons are magical experiences I certainly will never forget. Potters with incredible skills and sensitivity to their chosen material, on stage alongside ceramists who often have forgone the technical proficiency in favour of the promotion of ideas and concepts.

In Britain, burdened as we have been with the vessel tradition, we have tended not to see the ceramic world as a whole, with all its variations and facets. We do away with the unnecessary acquisition of skills and knowledge in favour of the safe, mainstream work we are used to. The festival attempts to challenge this by inviting a cross section of artistic traditions and ideologies to all appear on an equal platform.

The 3 metre tall thrown ‘Ice Cream for Aberystwyth’ made by Latvian Dainis Pundurs in 1999 or the words of his teacher Peteris Martinsons during the introduction evening slide show in 1995, “Welcome to Latvia, the most beautiful country in the world” - all make this world a little smaller. We ceramists are unique in the artistic world. The material of our mother earth binds us together and the technical skills we must acquire bring us all closer together and give us the ability to share our knowledge in a sympathetic situation.

We may not use all this new-found knowledge and inspiration, but we will have a grander view of what ceramics is and has been historically. We leave with a clearer picture of the interconnection of things in the clay world, giving us the ability to bring together techniques and knowledge from seemingly unrelated areas. We have to remember however that work born of the best technicians still needs a soul breathed in by the maker or it will be without feeling.

Recently I had the pleasure of working alongside Paul Soldner, a legend and revolutionary in 20th century ceramics and a guest at that first festival. It was interesting to hear his warm and enthusiastic recollections of that event – “. . . . like ceramic happenings used to be back in the 60’s. Everyone relaxed, friendly and eager to learn from each other.” - and he can still pronounce Aberystwyth as well.

The International Ceramics festival suddenly burst into life eighteen years ago and has continually developing in a climate of energy and enthusiasm generated by its organisers. I like to think that at a gathering of potters/ceramists/artists, call us what you will, an exchange of ideas, philosophy and knowledge will take place so that we leave with a broader view than when we arrived.

At the 1991 festival, the potter Janet Leach, then in her 80's spoke of the formative and perspective changing events in her own career - events that led her to Japan and her meeting with her future husband, Bernard Leach. Later she commented to me, "I was so glad to be invited. I'm not sure I made a contribution to the festival but it certainly made a contribution to me. There's a real spirit here".

As with many events of this nature the organisation is largely run on the goodwill and enthusiasm of its committee. I have been involved in the festival since its inception and co-ordinating the event since 1993, and I would like to thank all those who gave up so much of their time and energy to share a vision and help create these festivals, especially Meri Wells, Morgen Hall and Gavin Killerby for their tireless efforts and support. Thanks also to Alan Hewson, from Aberystwyth Arts Centre, for showing the confidence in this venture, Roger LeFevre from the Welsh Arts Council, who, during his time as Craft Director, gave the committee so much support and guidance but, of course, the real thanks must go to Adrian Childs for telephoning me one night in 1985.

I wish the festival every success for the future and hope it continues to inspire and stimulate the next generation of ceramists and widen all of our perceptual horizons.

Steve Mattison, 2005.

International Ceramics Festival web site: http://www.internationalceramicsfestival.org
© Steve Mattison
6 Chapel Street, Mochdre, Colwyn Bay LL28 5BB, Wales, UK