Chatting Bricks & Slabs. Reflections on ‘The Great Pottery Throw Down’.

Chatting Bricks & Slabs. Reflections on ‘The Great Pottery Throw Down’.

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.

Setting the scene

If you’re a hardcore potter 🔨🏺 you’ve probably already caught up with episode two of ‘The Great Pottery Throw Down’, which aired on 17th January 2021. Otherwise, reading this is like listening to the football results before you’ve had a chance to watch the match ⚽️. If you want to catch up with the series yourself, you can watch the episodes (until the beginning of April). If you’re outside the UK and have never watched ‘The Great Pottery Throw Down’ before, here’s a snippet from the first episode. Otherwise, you might want to look away now. This isn’t a review, more a wandering of thoughts while watching a programme.

The Throw Down’ is filmed in Stoke-on-Trent, home to the British ceramics industry. The programme is usually filmed at Middleport Pottery but this time it’s at Gladstone Pottery Museum –  both are heritage buildings. It’s good to see hand building being the focus, it’s the pottery technique that you can do pretty much anywhere.

I hope Irina keeps the fluff away from the clay store, I’ve made that mistake before.

  • Gladstone Pottery Museum

Chatting slabs

The main task for the remaining eleven participants is to create little buildings using slabs of stoneware clay. From these buildings, light will be dispersed. This would have been technically difficult but more effective with porcelain. The design is going to have to be tall and strong enough to take its’ own weight. The right amount of space needs to be allocated for the windows, otherwise what’s the point? It may as well be a box. 

How to get light to radiate from an object made from porcelain has been something that has played on my mind since I started working with it. It’s something that is harder to achieve with stoneware and air-drying clay but easier with bone china. I’m hoping to be able to experience more bone china in the future. I’ve already developed a ‘taste’ for it and want to experiment with the body. 

  • Porcelain pinchpot.

My cheeky self wanted to question some of the methods for rolling out clay slabs. In the end, the structures didn’t appear to be distorted and it’s not my building. A nice roll in one direction is better, then turned 90 degrees, roll and repeat, rather than small backwards and forwards motions. I’m being a porcelain snob here. 

It’s important to make sure that all the components are an even dryness when they’re being joined together. Too floppy and it won’t stand up. Attaching a piece of clay that is bone dry to a piece that has been freshly rolled is not going to work – there’s more chance of cracks appearing at the joins, if you do get it to join. The best way to join slabs of clay is to keep all the pre rolled parts stored together in a sealed bag (before joining). The result is an even distribution of moisture.

I’ve hand built some large forms from porcelain, most of them ended up getting recycled. You’ve gotta let go of the things that aren’t working, no amount of patching up is going to fix it. If the mistakes can be embraced and made part of the design, sweet. 

I only had one piece which I’ve embraced for its’ flaws, but someone else is getting precious over it. I don’t consider it finished. I’m sure it’ll be ‘finished’ in some form one day. 

Who's putting in the work?

Eleven participants are down in the studio but I ain’t gonna spoil the story and tell you about all of them.

The most ambitious concept in this episode is by Alon, an architecture student. I like his ideas; he’s trying to push the boundaries of clay and construction. If Alon’s approach to pottery is anything to go by, his architectural designs will at least be experimental. I just wish he’d tested the idea of the slip on his work before taking it to the pottery studio. The slip trick wasn’t going to stay stuck to the bisqued body but it was an interesting visual effect.

The building featuring mushrooms by Adam was definitely the most detailed. There were many components, the end result was proof as to how well the idea was executed. I like keeping an eye out for mushrooms – here’s some fungi from the garden. 

  • Turkeytail fungi in the garden.

If you want to find out more about this year’s contestants, you can read more here.

There’s some realism in this episode with some bleeps. As there are mishaps during the process, you can’t expect no failures .

What I really admire about the people that go onto ‘The Great Pottery Throw Down’ is their ability to work to a specific brief. This added to the limitations of time makes the task even more of a challenge. A set time frame is fine within an official setting, but when it comes to being creative, a timescale of a few hours seems stifling for creativity. The contestants plan their projects beforehand, there’s no way they’d going into this blindly. 

Chatting bricks

The second challenge the participants faced was making some handmade bricks using the traditional method. Richard (one of the judges) demonstrated how to make a brick by slamming a ‘clot’ of clay into a wooden mould. This method is still used today, particularly for supplying traditional bricks for restoration projects.It is considered a heritage craft in the UK

  • On the way to Kate Malone's open studio, 2019

Brick making is a good example of how a few basic tools can make something functional and long lasting. I vaguely remember someone explaining how to do this, but I have never seen the process in real life. Brick making is something on the never-ending ‘things to make’ list. It would be a dream to make a house from handmade bricks, or a small scale brick sculpture like Gwen Heeney (because bricks can be architectural and pretty). Heeney’s work can thankfully be seen in Birmingham.

  • Gwen Heeney brick sculpture in Birmingham

If you’re making hundreds of items that are uniform, there has to be consistency. This is true within brick making and pottery and to an even higher level within industry. As I shift away from the hobby realm, I’m able to apply new planning skills. It’s important to be aware of what your aims are.

I’m tempted to explore some slab built houses after watching The Great Pottery Throw Down. It’s the big kid in me! I have some little porcelain miniatures that would go well with them. It’s easier to gain a slab built house than it is a real one. Here’s a quick one.

Clay house

The wrap up

I don’t watch a lot of television programmes but when there’s an opportunity to learn something or spark some inspiration, I’m there. At a minimum I’m making some mental notes, there’s a lot in this virtual filing cabinet (and all the notebooks). I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to learn from other ceramic artists, both in real life and via the internet. Never stop learning – no one knows everything.

You can’t get ahead in pottery unless you surround yourself with people who understand what they are doing. Get an idea of your tutors’ knowledge of clay by looking at the work they produce. If they’re demonstrating growth, that can only be a positive influence . In any creative field, my favourite teachers are the ones that push boundaries. Who wants to be doing the same boring thing over and over again?

The next stage in my learning journey is to do a research degree in ceramic glazes for industrial use. I need access to some scientific equipment so that’s on hold for the time being.

Pottery takes time, patience and experience to master – there is no quick fix. Give yourself space to be creative and make mistakes, these are the safest type to make, it’s only clay. I still recycle more than half of the pots I make. If you’d like to find out a bit more about my creative journey, you can have a little read here.

If you have any queries about pottery, I’ve covered some of the most basic ones in the FAQs