Gareth Mason – Ceramicist Q&A

“I tend to piss all over the multifarious ‘thou-shalt-nots’ of ceramic orthodoxy.”

www.instagram.com/mudfondler/



Courtesy of Ben Boswell – www.benboswell.co.uk

Gareth preferred to take part in The Practical Creative project in written form which offers a fantastic opportunity to read his distinctive written voice.

I first came across Gareth’s work at an exhibition of Moon Jars – a traditional Korean jar form often associated with serenity and quiet reflection.  Most of the other jars in the exhibition were just that – restrained, smooth, calm and peaceful.

Then I turned a corner to find myself confronted with a veritable explosion of ceramic energy; warts, encrustations, collapsing sections, glazes running whilly-nilly, and even a kiln brick stuck to one side of something that looked like a moon jar that had been dropped into a volcano and promptly vomited back out.

I had absolutely no idea how to respond to this – it was violent, ugly, tortured, and appeared to break every rule of ceramics.  It was also imbued with a defiant, raw energy that was palpable.

I’ve been wanting to speak with Gareth about his work ever since, and managed to track him down on Instagram @mudfondler

 

Why clay?

Ceramic Experience is unparalleled in my view. Other media utilise fire but none somehow so integrally as ceramics. My reliance on the metamorphic force of fire is a constant source of wonder and sheer animalistic relish to me. Same goes for clay. Its plasticity is redolent and resonant – calls to mind any number of associations, especially in the mind of the viewer (of the final work) and that is the most important part.

It’s history too cannot be over stated, but this is not foremost in my thinking. Ceramic history is moving to me, all those vessels, all that endeavour, all that investment, from the very first objects moulded by distant ancestors. I love the continuity of that, but that is not a reason for using clay, rather, a benefit. I love that it is there.

Essentially, though, as a sensualist, clay is the ideal medium. It is a wanton recipient of bodily energy. I need that – it is a contact sport.

 

What motivates you? What drives you to return to the studio day after day? What makes you start again after disaster/failure/unfulfilled vision, to keep going?

Photographer – Robert Cass
Image courtesy of Jason Jacques Gallery

To say that I am a hard core addict is not to overstate or trivialise the nature of my engagement. It is a deep need. It is identity stuff. It is self-actualisation. It is real. I am not fucking around. After many years of this kind of engagement, I now find that my notions of ‘success’ and ‘failure’ are becoming increasingly fluid. I am insanely persistent. I extract potential from the most unprepossessing of ceramic circumstances. I often have recourse to a hammer and chisel, but then the shards become useful. Everything is potentially useful. My penchant for re-integration was described by an abstract expressionist correspondent of mine as ‘composting’ and I like that. The ‘vision’ is never unfulfilled. The work is the by-product in a sense of my restlessness.

Nothing challenges me like mud. Nothing.

 

Is there anything you do to prepare yourself for creative work? Either daily routines (coffee, music, etc.) or wider life choices?

Hmm, pre-dawn zen practice, yoga, extravagant flagellation and tightrope walking. No. I go to the workshop and work. Everything is relevant. I walk in the hills when I can but that is no more integral to my practice than any other part of my life. Last few years riding my mountain bike – an external and corollary activity, with many overlaps (I did an instagram post about that a while back).

I have no superstitions and no particular routines, but many habits – ceramics has a lot of those. Little bits of identity found in often the most everyday of activities – scraping clay off a batt, mixing powder into liquid, applications of brush/splat/smear/hand, material consistencies i.e. wash-to-paste, placement of kiln props, smell of moisture on dry surfaces… mostly these are sense-based and ‘felt’ things, as is most of my life.

Habits are comfort-inducing in many ways, and I recognise and value mine. Intimate. Sustaining things. But mostly the preparation is in my head – an act of will, initialising the whole unsolvable project again and again, day after day.

 

What questions are you asking yourself as you make? Are they different at various stages? ie. at the beginning of the process: what will I make? vs what will I discover? At the end of the process: is this good/honest/complete? What’s missing/wrong?

Photographer – Robert Cass
Image courtesy of Jason Jacques Gallery

Felt experience again. Thinking-in-material is very different from thinking-in-words. Very different. I am interested in the act of translation required to bridge the two but the ‘material voice’ is an entity entirely unto itself, which I ‘speak’ rather well, as far as it goes, because I have learned and unlearned very hard for most of my life doing so. It exists largely beyond word-access, in spite of my repeated and ongoing attempts to engage it verbally and in writing. So ‘Questions’ is entirely the wrong word.

I work with states, and chase them, capture them and juggle them and otherwise engage with them be that via a caress or a punch. There is a lot of space for intuitive un-thought engagement, and equally a lot of space for subsequent reflection using the regular intellectual faculties. I value both equally but I work from sense and senses first; my go-to place is feeling. And the beginning is often fraught – getting started is a loaded act, which requires some ‘working through’. Same at the end – but my slippery definition of success and failure helps me because at least I am not working to a set or predetermined outcome – discovery is a felt experience for me too, and it is never complete. I am a lot more exacting and accepting the more I do.

Those two states, of rigour on the one hand and acceptance on the other, are not as mutually exclusive in material terms as they are in their ‘word’ state. I am a long way from articulating this in practice, but I am working on it. Give me another decade or two.

 

Do you get stuck or blocked, unsure of where to start or how to progress? How do you move forward from this?

Photographer – Robert Cass
Image courtesy of Jason Jacques Gallery

Default position, in many ways. The only answer is to work. Sometimes I will do something utterly mad and counter intuitive, sometimes out of desperation, just to get going. I suffer from terrible ‘blank canvas syndrome’. Work. Work through it. Get results. Respond. Adapt. Push. Grow. Work and work again. Get results.

Results are crucial. It absolutely cannot all happen in the head. Reflection and response is really important but I am careful not to let it spoil my day. Nor to be stymied by hang ups around the need to repeat myself or replicate anything I deem ‘successful’ – I deliberately use some materials in a non-repeatable way for that reason, to keep things new (one of many strategies I deploy to keep me on my toes).

I am anti-ceramic dogma. I tend to piss all over the multifarious ‘thou-shalt-nots’ of ceramic orthodoxy. This, also, helps keep things fresh and keeps me at the edge of my ability, which is where I need to be.

 

What is your view on ‘play’ as part of the creative process? Is it something you value or make space for? If so, what does that look like?

Crucial. Let down the barriers of expectation. Let fly. I am interested in what I call ‘the malleability of skill’. I do not regard skill as set in stone, rather, like clay, something infinitely mouldable. I selectively relinquish skill in order for other things to happen, things that will hopefully surprise or even shock me, not always in a pleasant way either. We need (I need) unpleasantness to rock me back on my heels and stave off complacency.

I am ruthless with myself. Burn your babies. I will sacrifice pet qualities if a piece does not work, committing to the work with a strong sense of risk, or the value of it, as a spur to aesthetic progress. Always prepared to jettison my darlings.

 

What has led to or informs your aesthetic? What is ‘beautiful’ to you?

“Beauty should slap us in the face,
punch the solar plexus
and leave us in breathless awe.”

Mine is an aesthetic of irreparable visible flaws, of patching and repairing, of an attachment/attraction to the sublime (visceral) and awareness of its unattainability. Beauty is the coruscating majesty that underpins everything we behold. It reminds us of our humanity. It is enormously important. I am preparing a written piece on beauty currently. On going project. It is crucial to me. I hold no truck with trendy beauty-denial. That, it seems to me, entirely misses the point that the universe’s final, indifferent beauty is what we see in everything from sunset to the faces of those we love. In comparison to which we are both nothing and indescribably precious.

It is not something that can be trivialised or deemed ‘out of fashion’. Beauty should slap us in the face, punch the solar plexus and leave us in breathless awe. Beauty is more than ‘pretty’. So much more. It is at the heart of all of my endeavours and endlessly puts me in my place because that ache is not something that can be replicated in material form. I try to sate it (the ache). Beauty is a primary mover of my world. It can be vicious and I would not have it any other way.

 

How would you define ‘creativity’? I know this is as broad as they come (and deliberately so). I’m curious to hear how people answer this question – in terms of the context they choose, the language they use, the amount of gravity they imbue…

For me it is tied up in the process of self-actualisation. There’s a whole philosophical/psychological underpinning to that, which I shan’t bother with here because that only matters in detached terms as a kind of underpinning research (which I haven’t really even begun to get my head round), but I am a self-actualising individual – I am making myself in what I make.

Photographer – Robert Cass
Image courtesy of Jason Jacques Gallery

This is not just the ceramic practice – it is walking in the hills, riding my bike, preparing an instagram post, buying groceries, putting out the bins, building a workshop, doing the dishes, you-name-it – perhaps not the groceries exactly — but the urge is to extend the endeavour into every sphere of life, not exactly to render everything quotidian because I know that everything is not — some experiences are more ‘heightened’ than others and so they should be, but if I can be more attentive to the creativity of life itself in all its aspects then the whole damned shooting match becomes more fulfilling as a result.

Obviously my work is my central outlet. Sounds idyllic, huh? It is not. It is a practice. It takes mindful attention, a kind of discipline, especially at times when everything seems to be going tits up. Creativity is, like all else (for me), flawed, faltering, human and endlessly ‘becoming’. It is never a project that can never be completed.

Creativity is a great informer-of-experience. I want it central to mine, for as long as I can sustain it. It needs to be fed, stretched, and it is voracious too, is demanding, has a hell of an appetite. It is a relationship, a ‘knowing’ and a letting-go, a push-me-pull-you and a guide, a respite and a trial. It does not feel like a choice though I know it is. It is unspoken and it is the loudest and clearest voice I have. I am increasingly giving it words, and will persist in that because I think words are important, but its ‘language’ finds its most meaningful form for me in the phenomenon that is material, and in the arcane business of sublimation, transmutation, metamorphosis: in ceramic experience, which I cherish really (naturally). It is close to me.

You can see more of Gareth’s work here: http://www.jasonjacques.com/contemporary/gareth-mason

And if you’re interested in ceramics, check out photographer Ben Boswell’s site: www.benboswell.co.uk (he took the fantastic portrait of Gareth at the top of the page).  Ben has created a fantastic collection of images of celebrated potters that he’s taken over the years.

 

Get a sense of Gareth’s robust and direct approach to handling clay: