Andrew Webb, Saltglaze
Andrew Webb sings the praises of Micki Schloessingk's saltglaze pots. Ceramic Review 147 - 1994 17
In A Potter's Book (1940) Bernard Leach wrote: "But today one wonders why some potter does not give us saltglazed jars and vases, fruit and cake bowls, clean and sober in form and clay-like in throwing." The most exciting and rewarding development in late 20th Century studio potting (in this country at least) has been the introduction of functional saltglazed stoneware. Bernard Leach's wish has been granted many times over by many fine potters, delighting those of us who use and appreciate simple-but-exciting saltglazed table ware. Micki Schloessingk is one saltglazing potter relatively unknown, whose work I particularly admire because it fully lives up to all of Bernard Leach's ideals about the making of pots. She has been saltglazing almost full-time since 1974, first in North Yorkshire, and more recently in Wales, producing jugs, vases, lidded jars, mugs, plates, bowls, teapots, tea bowls, tiles, butter slabs, bread bins and many other forms - in great number. All have been wood-fired and saltglazed. Stoneware has predominated; occasionally porcelain has been used. Most have been wonderful to hold, touch, feel, look at, and use. Micki has an instinctive and superb feel for form, throwing pots that are naturally right for the hand and the eye. This, combined with the use of a variety of slips, and with the wood-fired saltglaze process, has produced exciting and pleasing pots. No stage of the process is more important than any other, but it should be noted that firing the kiln with wood, as opposed to gas or oil, is important for the rich and warm appearance of the pots. In Yorkshire Micki used ash, sycamore and elm (off-cuts from pit props); in Wales, pine off-cuts. Michelle Schloessingk-Paul was born of German-Irish parentage in Hampstead, London in 1949.
At nineteen, taking a year off from her university course, she travelled to India, where she first came into contact with traditional pots and pot making. Micki visited the Delhi Blue pottery, where the Singh family of potters gave Micki her first experience of throwing. Knowing immediately that she wanted to be a potter, Micki returned to England, abandoned her course, and started to pot. Her initial workshop experience was in Co. Mayo, Ireland, with Gratten Freyer who had spent time at the Leach pottery in St. Ives. Micki worked on the farm as well as in the pottery, and learnt the basics of throwing. Leaving Ireland Micki enrolled on the Harrow Studio Pottery course, 1970 to 1972. This was fortuitous, as it was at this time that the Harrow course came into its own. Unique and highly gifted teachers and students came together, producing a new generation of studio potters who remain influential standard-bearers to this day. Victor Margrie, Mick Casson, Mo Jupp and Walter Keeler were all important teachers for Micki. John Reeves and Gwyn Hanssen were visitors who had a special influence; the latter (working in La Bourne at the time) setting a strong example as an independent and successful woman potter. On the kiln-building course Wally Keeler introduced Micki, Jane Hamlyn, Sarah Walton, Peter Starkey, Zelda Mowat and many others to the wonders of saltglazing. All took up saltglazing with gusto, and have since based their careers on the technique. This experience of saltglaze gave it a strong impetus in the U.K. A second, and equally important, influence came from the French saltglazer Tiffoche. Travelling to Brittany during the summer after her first year at Harrow, Micki sought and found Tiffoche's workshop. Here she saw the benefits that wood-firing gave to the salting process - a rich and warm glaze with a wide variety of benevolent 'effects', such as the oatmeally flecks caused by the settling ash. Here, also, Micki saw how effectively a countryside-based, saltglazing workshop could be run. From '72 to '73 Micki travelled to France and Spain for further workshop experience and spent the following year in London making lead-glazed earthenware.
In 1974 Micki married and moved to Bentham, north-west Yorkshire, where she set up a saltglazing pottery, working in the name of Micki Doherty. The kiln was 75 cubic feet -large by today's standards - and took many weeks throwing to fill. The first pots were produced in 1975; in 1976 her first son Ciuin was born, and there followed an eleven year period of pot making and mothering. The big kiln was fired irregularly (three or four times a year), and although Micki claims that the success rate was not as high as she would have liked, some wonderful pots started to appear in the Craft Potters Shop in London. The Bentham pots were characteristically strong, vigorous forms - on the whole more traditional than those she makes now. One particularly distinctive feature that has become almost a trademark, are the 'throwing lines' that appear on the sides of bowls, jugs, vases which are satisfying to both the hand and the eye, and do much to shape the pot. An important form introduced at this time - and continued still - was the straight-sided tea bowl, ideal for an English version of the Japanese tea ceremony. Her slip decoration has always been patterned or abstract, never figurative and this has become another important hallmark of her work. The large kiln had successful and unsuccessful areas, where the variously coloured slips reacted differently with the salt vapour, which had anything but a uniform distribution. Although there were disappointments, a large number of glorious pots were produced, and began to attract the attention of serious collectors. If anyone can be said to have discovered Micki, it is Michael and Xandra Webb. On a visit to London in 1976, Michael Webb - ex-director of Sotheby's and one of the world's foremost carvers of netsuke - was captivated by a pot he spotted in the CPA shop. His wife Xandra was equally taken with the purchase - an austere and beautiful cut-sided bottle vase. They contacted the maker - Micki Doherty - and embarked on the first of many pot-buying trips to Bentham. Their friendship, support and encouragement over the years was and is extremely valuable to her. Their large and fine collection of her pots has also inspired my own, and that of John and Sue Moor. Michael Webb made the 'M' seal with which Micki marks her pots.
In 1987 Micki moved down to the Gower peninsula in south-west Wales with Al Pelowski, their son Jo (born in 1979) and Ciuin, setting up a new pottery in the idyllic surroundings. With a smaller kiln (1 cu. m.), Micki settled into her second, and current, stage of pot making. Micki's work continues to be vibrant and exciting. The forms are more varied, as is the decoration: sometimes shells from the local beaches are impressed into the clay. The kiln is easier to control, the distribution of the salt more uniform, and Micki achieves an impressive success rate in each firing. Her pots are increasingly seen in galleries around the country. As family commitments have diminished somewhat, so Micki has been able to pot with a new fervour. Many of the best pots from each firing now find their way to the galleries she supplies, whereas before they were immediately snapped up by her loyal collectors. In 1995 she hopes to travel abroad to work with other potters, with the intention of broadening her outlook and experience. For me the essence of Micki's pots is that I never tire of them - they are a constant source of delight, they give pleasure every time they are used or looked at - which is every day.