5 Minutes with Ken Eastman

We took 5 minutes to talk to ceramics maker Ken Eastman, discussing working with clay, where his inspiration stems from and his Ruark R3.

Hi Ken, how are you?

I’m very well thanks.

Please could you tell us a little about what you do?

I am a maker, working with clay, and I have been working continually since 1980. I make one-off ceramic vessels and sculptures. Over the years I have done lots of teaching too, for many years at Glasgow School of Art, but making has always been at the centre of it all.

How did you get into the field of ceramic arts?

When I left school, I went to study landscape architecture in Edinburgh. The architecture department of the university was actually located in a building at Edinburgh College of Art, so whilst I was working on my drawing board, I could see the art students making things and painting and playing in the courtyard below. I wanted to do what they were doing, and I also realised that architecture wouldn’t allow me the freedom I needed to create. So, I decided to try and transfer to a course at the Art College. The painting and sculpture departments were full, but I was offered a place in the Design School, and so I set about visiting all the departments to see which appealed.

The ceramics department was the last one I found, right at the far end of the college, hot, dusty and noisy. I didn’t even know what the word ‘ceramics’ meant, but the staff were friendly and welcoming, and it seemed exciting and so I joined. Within a few days, I knew that I would work with ceramics for the rest of my life. 

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Each of your designs is very specific, where does the inspiration for your work come from? 

I find many things inspiring- people, landscape, music, reading, but I don’t need specific inspiration to work- making is a practice, it has to be done again and again – it’s hard and in a way, if you don’t have to do it, it would be easier not to. I work to explore and discover new things- a large part of the reason for making is to see things that I have never seen before, to build something which I cannot fully understand or explain.

For a long time now, I have realised that my overriding interest is making new forms out of clay. This seems for me to be the essence of pottery – to make shapes which occupy and contain space and to decorate those shapes. By decorate, I mean to glaze, to paint, to draw across the surface of the clay. The pots have no subject, they are not about anything in particular and they have no practical function; they are made purely for looking at – for joy. I try to make something which I want to look at, which has meaning for me.

Talk us through the process of creating a piece of art? How long would does one piece take you?

I start every piece, with only a loose idea about what I am going to make. I begin by rolling out slabs of stoneware clay with a wooden rolling pin. Actually, most of the rolling is bashing the clay flat and the rolling smooths the material towards the end of the process. Clay doesn’t really suggest much – it’s cold and mute, so decisions continually have to be made. Not what the piece will look like, which will in time become clear, but the details – how wide, how long, how thin or thick the slab- choices which determine shape.

The objects I make are quite sharply defined, they have clear drawn ground plans, smooth walls and clear edges, but this resolution emerges slowly. There are certain curves and undulations which a thin slab can manage better than a thicker one, but sometimes it’s the soft fatness of a rim or the weight of a piece which is more important. And scale is strange – it’s possible to make two pieces the same size, but one seems larger than the other, by just a small change in the thickness of the material or the tone of the surface colour. Recently I have tended to build with the clay when it is fairly wet and floppy – at the edge of my control, at the point of collapse, where the clay is twisting and falling into shapes I could not imagine. Initially it is quite an intuitive and sometimes chaotic process, but little by little the object emerges. The clay dries, it’s fired, and everything changes. It becomes cold and hard – more rock than rag and a different life has to be looked for through the painting.

Layer upon layer of coloured slips and oxides are then painted onto the surface of the work, with repeated kiln firings in between coats. I try to find the colour which the work ‘wants to be’ – where form and surface work together. And the way something is painted, the size of brush, the direction of brushstrokes – all this changes the work – a small piece can be made larger, a hesitant shape can be made confident, a quiet piece can be rendered bold, simply by the way it’s painted. And everything which is put into a piece, whether literally or metaphorically, becomes the content of that work.

Making things with clay takes quite a long time – from the start to the finish, a piece can take many months to finish, sometimes years, but of course there are several pieces in different stages at any one time. 

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What’s your favourite piece you’ve created so far and why?

I really don’t have a favourite, although in a way, every single piece is my favourite whilst I’m working on it, because you have to completely believe in something for it to work. Certain pieces loom larger in my memory and others are important for a particular reason – perhaps because they represented some sort of breakthrough, a new direction or a challenge achieved.

What’s your favourite exhibit to date, and why?

I loved the exhibition ‘I Maestri del Concorso’ at the International Museum of Ceramics at Faenza in Italy. The museum is such a beautiful and extraordinary place, and the town is so special. I like the way they exhibit contemporary ceramic art alongside historical works – so you see the whole continuum of the craft. I first visited the museum in the 1980s traveling as a student by bicycle, and then some years later I won the Premio Faenza Award, which launched my international exhibiting career. It was at that opening award ceremony in 1995, with crowds of people and television crews, that I realised that ceramics as a discipline is regarded very differently by different cultures.

Do you have any exhibitions or projects ongoing which you could tell us about?

At the moment, I have work in various exhibitions and galleries across Europe and the USA – Marsden Woo Gallery, London, Gallery Marianne Heller, Germany, Kunstforum Solothurn, Switzerland, Modern Shapes Gallery, Belgium, Galerie Terra Delft, Netherlands, Lucy Lacoste Gallery and Studio Tashtego in the USA. I am currently working on some new work, which will be shown in the autumn.

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You have a Ruark R3, originally purchased for your studio, before being moved into your house, why was that?

You’re right, I bought the R3 for the studio, but now it’s moved into the house. It’s so good to look at and so self-contained, that I realised it could work in the large drawing room, where until recently we haven’t had a music system. It just fits into our life, is quietly beautiful and makes such a great sound.

How would you say listening to music influences your work?

I play music most of the time when I’m working- some classical and a good deal of jazz. Often music enables me to relax into a place where things start to flow and I can find new ideas- actually the titles of many of my ceramic works, are related to or inspired by pieces of music.

And lastly, what’s your favourite thing to listen to on your R3?

The extraordinary musical improvisation of Keith Jarrett has been a constant for me for most of my life and something from his vast and broad output, would be top of the list. At the moment though, I am also enjoying some of the recent recordings from the Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson – its music I know well, but his playing is so luminous and original, everything sounds so fresh and new. But as I write, the CD in the R3 is actually ‘The Trackless Woods’ by Iris DeMent – the lyrics are poems by Anna Akhmatova set to compositions by DeMent, and it’s wonderful.

​Check out Ken Eastman’s website