The Loft PotsSteve Harrison at Blue Mountain School
In Cannon’s film, Harrison peeks into the kiln, shielding his face from the heat with a visor. The roar is constant, guttural and hollow, the pots luminous orange in the 1300-degree heat.
Steve Harrison’s latest exhibition, The Loft Pots: Firing, Selection and Contemplation presents an archive of previously unseen work by the potter from the past 20 years. The pieces inhabit two of three exhibition rooms at Blue Mountain School in Shoreditch, London, and demonstrate Harrison’s exemplary technical skill. In the third room, a short film made by photographer and filmmaker, Richard Cannon, documents Harrison’s firing process.
Harrison practises a combination of wheel-throwing and 18th century press mould techniques, working at his studio in Enfield and an outdoor kiln in Wales, where he slips, glazes and salt fires his pots. The soft mottling effect of the salt glaze has become something of a signature finish for Harrison, first prompted by an offhand remark from late studio potter and friend, Michael Casson, who thought the work would benefit from the process. Pouring salt into the high temperature kiln creates a dimpled ‘orange peel’ effect: small rivulets in the coloured glaze, which reveal the surface of the white porcelain or stoneware beneath.
After Casson’s death, in conversation with his son, Ben Casson, Harrison discovered that he and his friend had shared a vision for a sparse room dedicated to contemplating pottery. In a tribute to this mutual sentiment, the first room of the exhibition has been left relatively bare: a single black chair, and a red lacquered table built by Casson, set with a tray of cups and a teapot, is all that occupies the space. “I’ve always loved the idea of an empty room with a single pot in it,” Harrison says. “It’s the first thing I do when I open the kiln: I walk off somewhere with just one pot, so I can see it in isolation.”
The centrepiece of the exhibition is a ‘fantasy kiln’ in the second room, where an archive of pots made between 2000 and 2019, in an array of glazes, is housed in a wooden replica of the kilns Harrison hand-builds to fire his work. Deeming each of these pieces too personal and important to be shared or sold at the time they were made, he took them straight from the kiln to a box in his loft, labelled ‘Fantastic’. Now known as ‘The Loft Pots’, this is the first time they have been shown. Placed alongside one another, they present the linear development of Harrison’s work in one moment, gathered as if for a single, imaginary firing.
Many of Harrison’s pots are embellished with a sunflower motif, inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. As a child, he saw a print of the painting at his grandmother’s house, but only when he studied A-Level art did he realise the extent of Van Gogh’s fame. This deterred him from using the painting as inspiration until a tutor and friend from the Royal College of Art recommended Lust for Life (1956), a film depicting the life of Van Gogh. “I made a series of sunflower vases immediately after watching it,” Harrison says. “The sunflowers and all the other flowers flowed freely after that.” The same friend later presented him with a flower he had crafted from plaster, which Harrison in turn made into a mould and used as a detail on his own creations. “I loved that a man would give another man a flower,” he says. “It reminded me of the impulse Van Gogh felt to paint the sunflowers for Paul Gauguin.”
Another of Harrison’s close friendships resulted in the short film Orange Peel by Richard Cannon, which is shown in the third room. “We’ve just got this magic,” says Harrison. “We both work for the doing of things, not the outcome.” The film has a cyclical feel, opening with Harrison moulding clay and ending with him standing in a clay pit, delivering an impromptu and impassioned monologue on the material’s integral role in his process.
It takes Harrison between two and three months to produce a full load of work for the kiln, which he builds in Wales, 200 miles from his home in Enfield. An open, redbrick structure without a door, the kiln holds 100 pots, and is sealed by more bricks and mortar; a few spaces are plugged with heatproof bricks that can be removed during firing, to allow more delicate pieces, such as ceramic handles, to be extracted with an iron rod. In Cannon’s film, Harrison peeks into the kiln, shielding his face from the heat with a visor. The roar is constant, guttural and hollow, the pots luminous orange in the 1300-degree heat. Some are just one millimetre thick. “I may only fire four or five times a year,” Harrison says. “That’s 400 or 500 pots a year. On maybe 10 or 15 occasions, I’ve come back with no pots at all.” In order to get the pieces out, he chips away at the bricks. Eventually, once the quality of the firing has degraded, he destroys the entire kiln.
For Harrison, creating is an instinctive and all-consuming process, and one in which he finds immutable joy: “It’s my whole life. I’m fanatical, obsessed about what I do. I love the pots, more than anything, anybody, more than any money; I love them and still do to this day.”
The Loft Pots will run at Blue Mountain School until 25th January 2020.