How did it start? – Jonathan Chiswell Jones
February 15, 2021
Anyone who has ever picked up a piece of clay and rolled it between their fingers or hollowed it in the palm of their hand, is a maker.
My introduction to the lure of clay was rather more extended. On the banks of the Hoogli River in Calcutta, where the smell of damp earth and the suck of wet clay on sandaled feet was adventure enough for a 6 year old. I was led by my mother to potters seated before a great lumps of blue spinning clay, fashioning tea cups by the hundred laid out to dry in the sun on a maze of planks. These magicians were conjuring shapes from the shapeless, and one of them seeing my eyes grow wide beckoned me over and I sat before him and touched the tiny spinning vase. But what seemed to turn so steadily, at my touch, began to dance like a mad thing and threatened to fly back to earth till a brown hand righted it and I could breathe once more.
So seeds are sown to bloom years later and thousands of miles away. We never know the tangle of consequence from seemingly insignificant meetings.
At the age of 27, I decided to leave teaching, to become a potter. I trained very briefly at Farnham art school and worked with Joe Finch for 8 months at his newly set up pottery near Oban.
How well I remember the journey to work for him! My first trip to Scotland, setting out in my Mini traveller – blue with black woodwork- at last on my chosen path. There is somewhere on the road I took where the Highlands seem to begin- when great hills rear up on either side of a tiny winding road which curls over a bridge at the valley bottom, and threads its way up and out of sight; and suddenly I knew I had entered another country and my future and the vast emptiness of the landscape seemed to join hands and say- here we are, this is what you wished for.
Joe was younger than I but this was already the second pottery he had set up. We were to fire with wood- the great kiln had been designed and built with the help of his father Ray, and all was ready to begin potting. Together we made pots and filled the kiln and fired through the night- a slowly increasing rhythm of flame and heat and colour and then interminable days of waiting for the beast to cool, and the unpacking and sorting and assessing results.
I learnt about the practicalities of making pots in number- what sort of shelving was useful- what sort of boards to set pots on, how to keep clay damp, how to heat a workshop, how to make simple useful and unpretentious pots, and how to price them.
Then it was time to leave to say goodbye to the caravan that sheltered me and the wood yard and the damp hills and to Joe and Trudi who had introduced me to the reality of making pots for a living.