Aberystwyth Arts Centre: July/August 1994
by Jo Dahn
It is sometimes tempting to feel that the presence of Bernard Leach still dominates the world of studio pottery in Britain like a succession of warm cloudy days - the sort of weather that one can't really complain about, but which maintains a kind of levelling effect, and (dare one say it?) a dull atmosphere.
Micki Schloessingk is Harrow-trained, a consummate thrower, very much in the Leach tradition. The word 'clarity' has been used before in connection with her work, and I make no apologies for using it again here. This exhibition is like the break in the clouds that reveals a patch of sparkling blue sky. It is no exaggeration to say that the things Bernard Leach cared about - the ineffable qualities that he found in Korean, Chinese and Japanese ware - the notion of a ceramic tradition that is of the people for the people, and yet expresses a spiritual essence -these qualities can be discovered in Schloessingk's work.
Leach looked for a synthesis of East and West to bring out the very best of both traditions. It is significant that although she has not visited the Far East Schloessingk has travelled widely. In the early 1970s she spent time in India and became interested in the idea of a spiritual path (a 'yoga') that could be experienced through labour. Visiting a traditional pottery village outside Delhi she began to feel that working with clay and fire might provide her with the way of life that she had been looking for. When she returned to Britain she learnt to throw at a pottery in rural Ireland. Subsequently she was accepted to train at Harrow School of Art, and after that she attended West Surrey College of Art and Design at Farnham.
She has also worked at potteries in Brittany and Spain, absorbing different influences and acquiring the skills of making and firing associated with European 'peasant' traditions.
At first glance this is an unassuming collection of sensibly priced utilitarian pottery in salt-glazed wood-fired stoneware. Bottles, teapots, vases, jars, bowls, slab dishes and the rest - a range of functional shapes, refreshingly light and (perhaps deceptively) simple, waiting to be filled with food and drink and flowers. Micki Schloessingk is a generous potter: "I don't want the pot to make too strong a statement; I want the pots to be used comfortably and quietly in the home, so that people forget. They don't think 'That's a Micki Schloessingk pot' -they think, 'This is my pot'."
Nevertheless some elusive quality of personality is present, and it would certainly be a mistake to relegate work of this calibre entirely to the domestic realm, however easily it might sit there.
All the pots in this exhibition promote an awareness of the potter's hand and a memory of the fire. Although they remain principally a collection of functional shapes, there is a sense of freedom about them, they speak of the subtlety of aesthetic innovation discovered not through avant-garde experiment but developed from working within an established tradition. Throwing in series, Schloessingk begins by picking up a familiar theme, but she allows herself to 'play' with the last few pots so that a gradual progression is discernible in the work overall. The forms are soft and flowing, unforced, never laboured. They support her reputation as a thrower, and they suggest a meditative approach to the making process - a pleasurable concentration, light but intense, utterly, as she says, 'in the moment'. When Schloessingk does depart from the straightforward thrown form her work often has a distinctly oriental flavour, as in the colourful cut-sided tea bowls.
Wood-firing is central to Schloessingk, as is salt-glaze. The last was chosen for its simplicity, the first for its low-technology hands-on approach, where the skill and stamina of long hours manipulating the flame are rewarded by the 'replenishmg' effect of the whole firing process. Both methods impose their own unpredictable aesthetic, along with certain practical limits, such as the warping that occurs in flat shapes at high temperatures.
Schloessingk highlights three main criteria that she hopes to address in her work. Form is crucial, it must be strong and uncluttered. Allied with this is the 'feel' of a pot, it must lend itself to confident handling and not be overbalanced or sharp. Finally there is the surface colour and texture achieved by slips and salt, and encompassing a degree of chance since every piece is a canvas for the fire. It seems to me that she has been successful in all three areas, and that she has also achieved a degree of self-expression (exemplified by the selection of short-handled spoons) that is quietly satisfying.
The work repays prolonged attention. Dull gold/bronze full-bodied pitchers reminiscent of medieval German ware bear the marks of their encounter with the flame, and tea bowls in rust or dappled blue illustrate the same unfussy approach. A green vase with its imprecise rim and dripped glaze and slip effects irresistibly recalls the best efforts of Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie, and when it comes to altering thrown forms, I would go so far as to say that what I had wanted from Janet Leach's 'Squashed Pot' (Ceramics Collection, University of Wales, Aberystwyth) I found in Schloessingk's Orange Cylindrical Vase with Lugs'
All quotations and biographical details have been taken from Micki Schloessingk, interviewed by Anna Hale, cassette tape in the Ceramic Archive of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.
This review appeared in Studio Pottery Oct/Nov 1994 pp 13-16