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Sasha Wardell (BAA ceramics 1975-78)

TRANSLUCENCE OF FORM

With years of experience behind her in the field of industrial techniques,
British author and ceramist Sasha Wardell is one of Europe’s foremost
exponent of studio slipcasting in porcelain and bone china.

profile by Ian Wilson for 'craft arts INTERNATIONAL' Oct 2006

The pale light of an early afternoon in autumn, coming through the glass ceiling of Sasha Wardell’s rooftop studio in Bradford-on-Avon, Somerset, fell onto piled photographs and texts, flyers for exhibitions and book launches, all of them documents relating to contemporary ceramics in Australia, from which country she had recently returned. ‘So much new information still to process; says Wardell, a maker of bone china, whose trip had many wholly unexpected pleasures and excitements; however, she accepts that the ideas and images resulting from these experiences might well take some time to filter through into her making.

Wardell has been wholly committed to bone china as a medium for more than 20 years and is one of Britain’s best-known practitioners of slipcasting and her book on the subject - which she is currently updating - has become a much-consulted text since it was published in 1997. There are strands of both "gallery" ceramics and an interest in design running through her oeuvre, and these are strands which, at least in part, can be traced to her student days. She was an undergraduate at Bath Academy of Art - where, at that time, there was little industrial focus - when she went on an exchange visit to Limoges and was exposed to plaster turning, casting in porcelain and mould-making, in brief, the techniques typical of the ceramics industry. It was while studying for her MA at the then North Staffordshire Polytechnic that she completed a stint at the Royal Doulton factory in Stoke-on-Trent. She suspects that her tutors might have given her this placement in order ‘to balance my absorbing interest in form’ as against the lesser enthusiasm that, at the time, she brought to design. It was above all the sense of resignedness emanated by many of the people working there which confirmed for the young Wardell that the design studio of a big commercial manufacturer was not the place where she felt that she could create her best work. The second visit to Limoges was when she was invited to be part of an exhibition at the Musée Nationale de la Ceramique Adrien Dubouché, where the holdings in porcelain are superseded only by those in the museum in Sèvres. As a result of this trip Wardell and her husband moved to France where they bought a house in 1988 and where they lived, south of Limoges, until 1996. Their home was near St Yrieix in the Limousin, where, as she explains in Porcelain and Bone China, the all important discovery of kaolin occurred in 1768. This was a discovery that served as a powerful and practical incentive to the porcelain industry of the area.

'Untitled' 2002, slipcast bone china bowl with water erosion decoration and glazed interior, ht 16 cm

'Pair of Winged Jugs', 2003-4, slipcast and airbrushed bone china, ht 11 cm

'Ripple', 2005-6, bone china vase with water erosion decoration, ht 20 cm

For some time a porcelain factory in Limoges granted Wardell working space and facilities in return for her undertaking translation and design work. Later she ran her own studio where she organised residential courses. However, she remembers this as a time when she seemed to progress even more slowly than usual. When questioned about this slow pace of moving forward, Wardell admits how extremely frustrating it can, especially when one is wishing for new directions in one’s work. ‘I am not a person who can change massively,’ but by the same token she is driven by the need to "perfect" whatever she is working on. Thus what might well be seen as an extremely measured manner of progressing on to projects of a different nature, is rather an instance of her determination ‘to get it as right as possible’ before pressing on to new areas. She has been involved with her "sliced" pieces for six years and only recently discovered that by working with larger sized vessels, she is able to take the cutting-back right up to the top instead of being restricted to the lower sections. For the viewer without any experience of these techniques, this may seem to constitute only the smallest of changes, but for Wardell it was significant proof that the whole slicing project still possessed the potential of being further developed.
'Space', 2004-5, wall light with layered and sliced decoration, diam,. 25 cm
'Pedestal Jug', 2003, slipcast bone china water erosion decoration, glazed interior, ht 12 cm

'Rose and Sky', 2005-6, tall and small altered rim vases, bone china, tallest 38 cm

To her regular practices of slicing, incising and water erosion, Wardell has added the technique of altering. She takes the vessel, whose shape at this point is round, and when it is bone dry and still raw, she scores an incision into the regular rim with a scalpel and then makes the delicate break with her thumb; although the cuts are always the same, the results are invariably different. After this act of alteration, there is a soft firing (950°C) which renders the bone china hard enough to accept the repeated sandings which it then undergoes. This is followed by a firing up to 1260°C and it is at this stage that the forms start to change.
The delicacy of the rim lines of these containers and the gentle, flowing roundedness where a segment has been removed, give them a tactile seductiveness that is very alluring. Seeing a group of them standing together gives one a sense that these are shapes which are holding a dialogue with each other. The character of certain of the pieces comprising this series of work is exemplified by the two containers illustrated. The bone white exteriors and the tranquil colours of the internal surfaces (from which the names Rose, for the smaller member of the pair, and Sky for the taller, are derived), the clarity of the silhouette and fluidity of the rim can awake feelings not dissimilar to those experienced when standing in front of one of Jean Arp’s sensuous sculptural forms.

'Blue and Green Space Bowls', 2005-6, slipcast bone china with layered and sliced decoration, ht 15 cm
'Flock Bowl', 2005, bone china, water erosion decoration, ht 20cm
Wardell feels she is now moving towards making larger pieces rather than being involved in runs of repeats. It was a commission from P&O Ferries that encouraged her to focus more on producing tall, narrow objects. In a niche (75cm high and 25 cm wide) located in the restaurant area of the vessel Arcadia, Wardell’s slender vase, lit from above and below, stands on a clear glass pedestal. In making the work connected with this project, she found that there is a "phenomenal" shrinkage of these pieces during firing, which becomes apparent when a fired vessel is placed alongside the model from which the mould was made. However, the "endless" technical difficulties involved in these making processes have been an incitement rather than a deterrent to continue working on this scale. But these more largely proportioned artefacts in no way reduce the immense pleasure and satisfaction which Wardell derives from making cups and saucers, teapots and jugs for the dining table. One of her favourites among the courses which she teaches is "Design for Manufacture" precisely because it gives her the opportunity to not only encourage students to think about the relationship of design and utility, but also to pass on the knowledge concerned with the physical shaping of such necessary functional features as handles and spouts. It is from their handles - both the solid and the "open", though more particularly the former - that the Winged Jug and Teacups take their name and these tablewares are excellent examples of a certain buoyant light-heartedness that is to be encountered in many of the forms that she creates. The upwards tilting of the rim of the jug suggests a readiness for takeoff, for trying out its wings, and there is gentle humour in the unexpectedness of these vessels being elevated by the hemispherical pedestals upon which they are insouciantly perched. Their unadorned whiteness not only echoes that of the interiors, but also contrastively highlights the coloured designs on the body.
'Grass Bowl', 2005,  layered and sliced decoration,
ht 15 cm
'Winged Jug and Cups', 1998, bone china airbrushed decoration, ht 6 cm and 8 cm
Sasha Wardell might well feel that she has not set about processing, sufficiently thoroughly, all the information with which she returned from her trip, but time away from her accustomed workplace did provide answers for other problems. An example of this was the realisation that the early version of a large bowl on which she had been working for some time, had too squat a shape, so that the mould was remade with steeper sides thus creating a more satisfying outline. One awaits with interest to see how, with time and thought and practice and perception, her travels in Australia will find expression in her work.
'Shoal Bowl', 2005, slipcast bone china, layered
and incised, with glazed interior, ht 22 cm

 

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