Review by Jody Stone
“Are you sure that I’m not going to hold everyone back?”
“And this workshop is definitely for beginners?” I asked my close friend Clodagh for the third time.
Clodagh not only introduced me to ceramics but happened to be one of the the organisers for the Cameron Williams Workshop, hosted by the Central Coast Potters Society, recently.
I had never done wheel throwing before and in fact only began, my now genuine fascination with all things clay, this year. I’ve been a beginner in hand-building, slip-casting and now wheel throwing.
This workshop was like nothing I had ever experienced before as a student. There is a wonderful lesson to be learnt within every lesson delivered by clay masters. Cameron Williams is definitely a master of his world. He carries the rare qualities of a quiet strong sense of self and almost no ego. He knows where his strengths lie, whilst at the same time retaining a humility that makes him reachable to students needing to ask questions. (Over and over and over again)
He is renowned in the world of clay as a “big thrower” and has been developing his unique techniques across his 30 years of practise. Watching his demonstrations over the four days was captivating. Seeing someone demonstrating with such a love for their trade was simply inspiring, but not overwhelmingly so.
On my first morning my stomach was filled with butterflies. I talked to a couple of other students, and found out I wasn’t the only one with a bit of nervous anticipation. We began each day setting up at a lovely pace, making a cuppa and easing into the day of satisfying practice and hopeful but not overly expectant production. Our teachers emphasized that the focus of the workshop was not to take home loads of bowls and vases. Practising the steps and replacing the humps of clay onto the wheel repeatedly to move towards an outcome of sorts was the overall emphasis. I found this hugely reassuring. Yet we all did produce and take home some lovely work in the end. It was merely a gentle starting point for all of us to learn without too much pressure.
After set up we would then be given a demo of the day’s focus. The first day was decent sized bowls using Cameron’s unique large throwing techniques, to be applied the next day with larger lumps of clay and larger vessels. We took notes, and digital footage throughout, in order to remember the steps once we moved back to our work spaces.
Then, it was game on. I personally need to “throw myself in” as opposed to sitting and thinking when I feel daunted. So, as soon as I got to my wheel, I got a lump of clay, secured it as we had been taught and began centering. It worked! I couldn’t believe it. Then, I somehow un-centered it…. Looking about the room wondering if Cameron was busy I caught the eye of Cameron’s trusty assistant Neil Fenning. Neil was exactly like a very fit looking version of Father Christmas, including that lovely gentle way that gorgeous grandads have about them. Having Neil catch my eye, and see the “please help” look he immediately came over.
And that is how the workshop ran, with Neil and Cameron circulating the room with quiet, confident and patient understanding, attending to all of us with our questions and skill acquisition phases. Looking around the room at some very skilled and experienced artists working away was also a wonderful part of the experience for me. The work got better, bigger and more polished as the days progressed. I kept thinking, one day I could be producing such work, how amazing would that feel? As it was I was feeling pretty satisfied with my learning curve. I came home with three beautiful bowls and 3 vases. Partly assisted in their creation, but proudly sharing those memorable moments by way of initialing Cameron’s Neil’s names on one bowl and vase each. Both wanted me to just put my name alone on them but I wanted to remember my teachers and my beginnings.
The workshop built upon the previous day’s knowledge in order to have us producing larger and larger pots, plates and vases over the four days.
I’ve left one of the best features of a Cameron Williams workshop until last. This man is not only a skilled artisan, great teacher, but also a fantastic cook. We were lucky enough to experience delicious lunches produced by the man himself from his purpose-built, clay-fired pizza/tandoori oven. Cameron and Clodagh and a couple of others would down tools at 12:30 to prepare the meal, then we would all be eating by 1pm and back to it at 2pm with a few of us on clean up rotation with Clodagh.
Watching Cameron have fun at work with the pizza dough and produce such culinary delights was a moment I looked forward to in the day. I happen to have a very healthy appetite for gorgeous food, so for me this workshop had it all!
I want to say a personal than you to Cameron Williams and Central Coast Potters Society for giving me a wonderful start into the world of wheel throwing. The efforts behind the scenes by some very hard-working volunteers have created such value to my life that words really don’t cut it. But worth giving it a shot.
Shannon Garson’s visit to CCPS at the end of May was a delight. The Friday evening presentation provided a wonderful introduction to her background and work, offering plenty of inspiration to all present, and preparing workshop participants for the weekend ahead. The focus for this workshop was surface decoration - an opportunity to explore the surface of our clay pieces.
Coming from a painting background, with rich knowledge of colour ingredients and mixing, and skill in brushwork, Shannon’s approach to surface decoration is simple and experimental at times. She breaks the “rules”, mixing oxides, terra sigillata and stains as required to achieve the right consistency and colour. Her techniques have come from much experimentation and testing. She has built up a repertoire of marks and techniques over many years, developed from close study of the bushland near her home in Maleny, Queensland. Shannon’s beautiful drawings display a combination of these marks. They wrap the whole surface of her porcelain pieces, articulating stories from the natural environment, providing moments of discovery as you lift a cup or turn a plate.
In the course of the weekend workshop Shannon shared many tips and techniques; we were constantly busy applying them to our bone dry work. Shannon began by taking us step by step through “The Paddock”, one of her compound designs - layering the grass, filling in the background, adding the dragonflies and small decorative elements. It’s a process of storytelling as each layer embellishes the surface, is wiped away to create greater emphasis, covers the piece with colour or incises the surface to add detail. Lines are painted and filled in to highlight differing features of this well-thought-out design.
Shannon’s stackable ceramic paint palettes are in constant use. “The Paddock” design is made up of a blend of copper oxide and copper carbonate, and yellow, brown and orange underglaze/stain mixes. Clay or other colour mediums are mixed together to achieve the desired colours and consistencies, and to avoid the jelly quality of the underglaze.
From “The Paddock” design we learnt how to break down our ideas into a collection of symbols and techniques; how to use brushes loaded with underglaze to paint blades of grass and backgrounds; how to raise the grass using shellac resist and wiping back; and feature grass stems, flowers and dragon flies with sgraffito, infill, scraping back and touching up. We took these techniques and applied them to our own pieces, inspired by the items we brought to the workshop. To avoid wiping off or scraping back aspects of a design, careful consideration must be given to which technique is used and when - how will the design be layered?
Shannon demonstrated the creation of her “Nest” bowl where we discovered how to play with positive and negative line markings using sgraffito and infill. Shannon reinforced how important it is to draw directly from your source object. We played with slip trailing after watching her describe her "Dandelion" design with confident strokes from the slip trailer, embellished later with watercolour style line work.
Shannon also shared her “Moths in Wallum” design. It was a pleasure to watch her masterly hand using her pin tool to draw. Shannon has distilled the most important aspects of the moths to describe them in great detail. In creating this design she explained the importance of relating the “patches”, of linking them with spotty marks so they relate to each other.
Terra sigillata plays a big role in this design. Shannon’s simple recipe of ground clay, water and time provides a ‘no fuss’ base to a variety of colours. Oxides are added to the terra sigillata and underglaze mixes to alter the colour. To lighten, use a white terra sigillata rather than slip.
We were able to fire our test pieces overnight and view them on the Sunday. This gave us a taste of how our new-found techniques worked on the clay bodies of our choice. It was a challenge to think about the dimension of the surface, to work out how to bring about an idea in layers using each or some of these techniques, but it was great practice in breaking our ideas down and building our collection of marks to use in different ways on future work.
I found the following, very practical tips from Shannon most inspiring.
Paying attention to breathing - breathe in as you load the brush or pick up a tool, and out as you work. This ensures a steady hand when working on your piece.
Support your drawing hand - draw confidently by supporting your arms in a tripod configuration including using your chin.
Take a relaxed, 'anything is possible' approach - be open and unrestricted in your ideas for making and decorating.
Compile inspiration books - build a library of your photographs and ideas through the many differing online bookmaking sites such as Photobookshop, Blurb and Snapfish.
Draw from the source - this maintains integrity in your drawing, it looks alive not contrived.
Press objects into clay - see inspirational objects from a different perspective by pushing them into wet clay and printing with them. This can assist you in building your mark making repertoire.
Find a way to be creative that works with your life situation - look for ways of creating a fit between your life and being creative, with the time you have.
Shannon was incredibly generous and open with her knowledge. She spent considerable, concentrated time with each participant and her calm, positive energy created a focused and relaxed working environment. Thank you Shannon, we’d love to have you back again.
I encourage you to check out some of Shannon Garson’s videos on her Vimeo page.
Kylie Rose McLean
CCPS Educational Workshops Team
All photographs by Kylie Rose McLean
Clodagh, Jules and I would like to acknowledge Lynn Treers for her help in making and turning all the bowls for Shannon to demonstrate on. Thanks Lynn, it was a great help!
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Central Coast Potters Society is a non-profit, community organisation of like-minded volunteers who love clay.