North Wall Arts Centre
December 6th 2016 - January 7th 2017
It is the evening of the 28th November, a week before the opening of FLINT. I have just finished attaching handles to mugs and my hands are raw with cold. The bare stone walls of my workshop offer little insulation and it is well ventilated to say the least. The walls are made of flint, and so are the other farm buildings around them. Here and now in the South Downs, in the old gold of stubble fields and the new green shoots for next year’s growth, the landscape is littered with flint. It is a stone so ubiquitous that we barely notice it.
From the claggy mud, I pick one up. A flake from something larger. I drop it. I walk on. I pick up another. And another. The tip of an iceberg – too big. Another, another, another. Then this one. This one sits on my desk now as I am writing. It doesn’t look like much, no. Vaguely oval in shape, clay engrained in its cracks, two iron-orange tinged ridges run roughly over and round its unimpressive grey-brown surface. I will take it home and they will ask why there is a flint on the kitchen table.
Picking it up, I clumsily fumble with it in my hands and it suddenly stops instinctively, softly, perfectly in my hand; it has a story. It has a life. It has been chipped and clipped to finer and finer efficiency, over years of use worn into the shape it is, moulded into the hand that made it, that used it. A hand like mine - I can feel it - a human hand. In these fields there are tools of humans, and even Neanderthals, who lived and worked here between 10,000 and 100,000 years ago. And here I am holding it; holding, in some way, the hand of an ancestor, reaching across unfathomable time to something, and someone, to whom, as far as I can feel, I am so similar.
We have ceramic artefacts preserved in museums that are thousands of years old. They were fired at a fraction of the temperature to which I fire my work. Whether shattered or in one piece, whatever I put through that intense firing process will be on this earth, in that form and that altered, chemical structure, for an unimaginable length of time. Longer, perhaps, than any other manmade substance. I don’t know. Walter Benjamin in his essay The Storyteller, referring to the practice of oral storytelling, says: “traces of the storyteller cling to the story the way the handprints of a potter cling to the clay vessel”. My story, tiny in this vast time, clings to my work in my handprints just as the stoneage person’s story clings to the flint tool that I hold in my hand. My traces in a pot are, perhaps, only the start of a story of the uncountable hands that it may pass through, the users who may have held it, scraped it, dropped it, fixed it. A story etched and read in scratches, chips and cracks. A friend, Femi, asks: “is the storyteller then she who sits looking at the pot a thousand years from now, joining the dots, connecting the scars to assemble a chronology for the vessel in their hands?”
Whatever I put out into the world, leaves a trace. It makes vibrations that carry. Whether it is a physical presence that uses and changes substances and lasts in its physicality, like a pot or a painting or a puppet. Or whether it is a song sung, or a play, released into the world, heard, seen, talked about, reacted to, it makes an impact and vibration that, once out of my hands, whether minute or far reaching, is out of my control. But however big or small it is there, for somebody else to find, for somebody else’s story to fit into.
The work that I am exhibiting at the North Wall is displayed alongside some of the flint tools found at Rushmere Farm in Hampshire where I live and work. Unchanging, they are a reminder that there is already enough stuff out there. We know that. Looking out of the window I see stuff, railings, streets and lights, buildings, and chimney pots and cranes building more stuff.
But I need to make stuff.
So I find myself in a corner of contradictory motives. But it is a corner that inspires an ecological and ethical concern about the substances that I use and the things that I create. It is a corner that forces me to think about the future of my work and the impact it may have on, or contribute to, the people around me, the generations that follow us and the world in which they will live.
Risks are important; mistakes worth making; time lent to chance. I sit at my wheel facing the lines upon lines of flint that have seen the history of this place: pigs, a dairy, a carpenter, apparently another potter once, as far as anyone living can remember. I ask what my responsibility is as maker, as an artist, toward the things that I make. I remember, in those flint tools, finding a space left by and for a hand and, there, holding a tangible connection to my landscape, the people before me, and the unknown generations after.
Is it that we are losing touch? Touch-screen, touch-type, fingerprint-recognition, the hyphens long for connection: our hands, like the inky hands of writers, are our identities and dancing fingertips our scribes. And as they dance, the voices of the storytellers are fading.
In his book What Painting Is, James Elkins uses alchemy as a “language for thinking in substances and processes”. Well this is my language, and I speak through the alchemy of ceramics and the lumps of clay from which I make forms. And as I sit here writing at my computer, this flint tool beside me, I ask this:
where are our handprints?
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.