An Apparent Simplicity

by Jane Hamlyn


A surprisingly large proportion of salt-glaze potters are women - surprising because it is a labour-intensive technique and physically demanding. Paradoxically, Micki Schloessingk says she chose to do it because it seemed simple. Apparent simplicity and a certain directness of approach were the reasons she decided to fire with wood, attracted to the spontaneous and unpredictable results produced by salt-glazing in a wood burning kiln. A strongly pragmatic approach has been implicit in her determination to find a way to make pots independently. When she was 19, she travelled to India and it was there, coming into contact with the making of traditional earthenware, she first became aware of pots and decided to become a potter. On returning to England, she heard about the Harrow Studio Pottery course, was interviewed and persuaded a doubtful Mick Casson that she could get a job with a potter and learn to throw before starting the course. Eventually she found work at Terrybaun Pottery in County Mayo, Ireland, and in a few months became a competent thrower.
At Harrow she blossomed as a potter and when I began there as a student in 1972, after she had left, her ability was spoken of with awe, even by some of the teachers. The Harrow course tended, especially in its early years, to be rather male-oriented and in common with many of the women students, Schloessingk wanted to be 'one of the lads' - to win their respect. She was part of a group of students, primarily women, taught by Walter Keeler, and occasionally by Gwyn Hanssen, who began the revival of interest in salt-glazing at Harrow.After Harrow, at 22, she travelled and potted in France and Spain, returning to England in 1973 when she married and set up a basement workshop at the Barbican in London making red earthenware and firing in an electric kiln. She says it was awful, the pots would not come right. She was demoralised. She had thought that a good potter could make any sort of pot and was shocked to find that such was not the case.
In 1974, she moved to Bentham, Yorkshire, 250 miles from London and proceeded to do everything 'the hard way'. The farmhouse needed extensive repairs and, despite many difficulties including a marriage break-up, she built a large wood firing kiln which took 24 to 30 hours to reach temperature and needed several people to help with firings. She was working steadily during these years and occasionally her pots found their way to London but mostly she was working in obscurity. In 1982, to be near her mother after her father's death, she moved with her children to Cheriton, Gower, in South Wales.
The pottery at Cheriton is compact and well organised, with a much smaller (1 cu m.) well-designed and manageable wood kiln which she says is "a joy to fire with its peaceful steady crackle, so calming and completely involving". She usually fires alone and takes pleasure in becoming absorbed by and focused on the kiln, glad to be free from the disconnection, which inevitably results from lengthy and laborious firings. She employs part-time local help for sorting and stacking wood and mixing clay; she says she has learned that she simply does not have time to do everything herself. It seems that the help a woman potter employs is invariably commented upon yet the support of wives is often taken for granted.
Micki Schloessingk (she has reverted to her maiden name) is a calm and self-contained person with an elemental view of life. She says she finds it difficult to balance her strong emotions but that through clay and fire and the salt kiln, her feelings find expression. Since 1987 she has been learning and practising Shiatsu - a Japanese form of healing by pressure. Her hands are strong from throwing and she feels that Shiatsu practice and pot-making feed and complement one another both physically and mentally.There is something natural about Micki Schloessingk's pots; the colours are of earth and plants, slips and glazes leave marks like water flowing over rocks. It may be a truism to say that pots are like the people who make them and indeed, sometimes they seem to contradict the outward persona of their makers. In the case of Schloessingk, her pots have a clarity which seems a true reflection of her nature. Clarity is an attribute which is not simple or easy to achieve and her pots are not simple or easy to make although mistakenly one might assume them to be so. The best of her pots are clear, pure, bright, undimmed, free from obstruction, difficulty or complication. And they are hard-won; it's just that the struggle doesn't show. She writes meticulous notes on each firing, testing, recording and analysing in order to understand and continue learning. She describes herself as a functional potter but, rather than making a full range of pots she has chosen to concentrate on certain preferred shapes. At present the bottle form is favourite. However, although these bottles may be used for flowers, function is no longer central to their purpose; they are intended to stand alone. These are archetypal narrow-necked evocative vessels. Firm rather than soft, there is a sense of the bones beneath the flesh.
The correlation between pots and bodies is difficult to describe and too complicated to be capable of explicit analysis. There is a danger that the circuit of meaning will be closed by direct identification; explanation can result in narrative closure denying or limiting further or alternate interpretation. But it is possible for pots to evoke a subliminal response. The relationship between pots and the human body is both obvious and hidden. What our hands feel, our bodies may recognise while our minds remain uncomprehending. Philip Rawson wrote: "It seems that human beings in exercising their analogising faculty on the world around them inevitably project into ceramics a body image."1Fondling a mug, one becomes aware of raised surfaces where the potter's fingers have pushed from inside the pot, moving diagonally when the clay was soft and moist. After firing, the bumps feel hard and bony. Sometimes memory invokes understanding. This experience reminds me of the sensation and sight of foetal movements within the womb. When I speak of this to Schloessingk, she too recognises it although she had no conscious thought or intention to inspire such a reaction. This is a powerful, mysterious analogy that we both acknowledge. Desmond Morris has written of "the age-old concept that sees all vessels as the universal symbol of the womb."2 To be a creative potter is to be powerful. Power has most often been the prerogative of men; women's quiet power has always been associated with child bearing and fertility.
This review appeared in Ceramics Art and Perception no. 10, 1992. References.1.Philip Rawson. Ceramics. First published, 1971._Oxford University Press.2.Desmond Morris. The Art of Ancient Cyprus. First published 1985. Phaedon