Working Lives

The Norfolk Potter (1999-2019)

Location: Salhouse

Potter Pat works in an old thatcher’s yard in Salhouse, Norfolk. She uses local silt in her work, following the process of cleansing the Broads, her work becoming lighter and brighter, with a sense of water moving and times changing.

 I was brought up in Hellesdon and went to Firside primary school, I stayed in Hellesdon until I was eighteen when I sought the bright lights and the big city of Norwich.

I always wanted to be a potter from about the age of ten. We were very fortunate in Norwich because Peter Lane who was and still is a potter working in porcelain was in charge of the teacher training scheme at University of East Anglia [UEA]. Everybody who went through teacher training learnt how to use clay, kilns and how to use clay contextually. So if you were doing history you might be making Iron Age pots, which was a very good way of engaging the children in a subject.

Teachers tended to stay in Norwich after training and at that time virtually all the primary, middle and high schools had kilns and every child was taught to work with clay, so I was very fortunate.

I left school at fifteen and very much wanted to be an apprentice. Every Saturday I used to get the bus to Stump Cross, walk up Tombland and up to Elm Hill where I would go and pester the potter Robin Dauncey. I would stand behind him and watch him throw and every week I would ask him for an apprenticeship and every week he’d say ‘I’m ever so sorry I really can’t afford to take you on’.

I went to evening classes at Wensum Lodge, just for the enjoyment. My parents’ compromise as an occupation was for me to be a florist, which I stuck for two years. My father then got his own way and I ended up in the civil service staying there for eleven years until we had our first child. I was then able to go off and do ceramics.


It was very difficult to find anywhere to train locally, the nearest place I could find was at Lowestoft College. Our child was eighteen months old when I started there. I started doing a course which was an Ordinary National Diploma [OND], the equivalent of two A ‘levels. They then validated the OND up to a Higher National Diploma [HND] so I stayed on to do that. After we decided to have another child I took a year off and during that year the course was made up to degree level, so whilst I was having the year off I did all the essays and paperwork to bring my HND year up to a degree level year.

When I went back into the second year of the degree I had a five year old that had just started primary school and a five month old who was in the crèche in Lowestoft. I was paying quite a lot for the crèche so I didn’t want to miss a minute which meant being in Lowestoft for eight thirty in the morning. I graduated in 1999.

Pottery in Cosseys Yard, Salhouse – starting my business

This building used to be an old thatcher’s yard owned by Mr Cossey and I would drive past it every day taking my son to primary school, and I thought that it would make a nice pottery. When I graduated in the summer I found out who owned it, and the local land owner was amenable to me not paying him very much rent because it’s not a very lovely building. I moved in here to work in October 1999 so come this October I will have been here twenty years.

Starting a pottery requires a lot of equipment. You need to buy a kiln, a wheel, clay, raw ingredients for glazes and a whole host of other bits and bobs that you wouldn’t even think you needed until you started doing it. A kiln is essential and whilst you don’t have to have a wheel to make ceramics if you are doing it commercially it would be virtually impossible to make a living hand building  because of the speed that you work at.

I started off working in high firing earthenware which is what I was doing for my finals at college. The disadvantage of using earthenware is that you can’t really use it for domestic ware as it is not terribly vitrified, it doesn’t leak but stoneware is strong enough for general food use, it can go in the microwave and dishwasher.

So I switched to stoneware, which requires firing at a higher temperature so it’s much more expensive. Because you are firing at a higher temperature you have to buy a whole new range of glaze ingredients as you need fluxes that melt at a higher temperature. So this decision to switch was not taken lightly.

Electric kiln

The electric kiln is a commercially built kiln and has all the safety features built into it. These days they are computer controlled so basically I select a programme, flick a switch and go home for my dinner.

You should not open a kiln until it’s basically cool enough to touch anything inside with your bare hands. If you’re opening it before that then you are being very impatient and it’s not doing the work any good.

This technology means that the kiln won’t go wrong but it doesn’t mean that if you put a dodgy piece of work in there that it will come out well, it’s not foolproof, there is still immense room for user error. We all have disasters, but I’ve not had too many.

The electric kiln

Clay, colour and glazes

Studio potters will always use one clay and keep their choice of glazes to an absolute minimum because you need to know them inside out. You do not want to open that kiln and get any nasty surprises, you want to open it and know exactly what you are going to find.

Different clay bodies will give you different colours, if you use white clay you will get a different glaze result than if you use a grey clay, simply because of the amount of iron oxide that’s in the clay body. It is a bit like the difference between painting on the back of a white envelope and on a government buff envelope, it’s going to change the result because of the background colour.

We use metallic oxides to colour our glazes, so for example cobalt oxide will give you blue, copper oxide will give you green, manganese dioxide will give you a sort of purplish brown colour, red iron oxide aka rust will give you brown and glaze recipes are very much that, they are recipes, it’s just like a cook book.

When you first start making up your own glazes it’s a bit of a Delia Smith job, you follow the glazes religiously because otherwise it will go horribly wrong. And then like the more experienced cook you become, you know the flavours of things you know that I could tweak that a bit, I could tweak this a bit I could tweak that a bit. And then once you get to that stage you start developing your own recipes which are very much your own voice.

When you’re having an exhibition and you walk into a gallery you want your work to be recognisable as your work, not only in the form but also in the surface treatment. It’s not really, ‘Oh Pat’s doing yellow this week.’ No, it’s not like that.

I very much like green as a colour, I’m surrounded by green, I’m not quite so keen on blue, but virtually everybody else in the entire western universe seems to be so I have to do a little bit of compromising.

It’s the only craft that has so much chemistry and physics in it, so we’re not just mud puddling. A lot of the hobby potters buy commercially prepared glazes, they want it to be reliable, if it goes in blue they want it to come out blue. If you are operating at that level you don’t have the experience or the knowledge.

Going back to the cookery, buying a commercially prepared glaze is a bit like buying a ready meal rather than cooking the meal from scratch from your own recipe. It’s reliable, it might not be the most flavoursome thing in the world, but it will do what it says on the tin.

I don’t want to work with commercial glazes, I want my own voice to be heard.

Buying materials can be expensive but it depends on the quantity that you buy. One bag of clay is going to cost a lot but if you buy a tonne of clay, proportionately it is going to cost less. My clay comes from Etruria, Stoke-on-Trent, but I don’t know where it comes from prior to that. I will usually have a tonne delivered at a time, which they very kindly just park at the top of the hill, wave cheerfully and drive off. So when I go home to my husband at the end of the day and say ‘I’ve shifted a tonne of clay today,’ I really do mean that I’ve shifted a tonne of clay today, so it’s all very physical.

Collaborating with Creative Arts East and using Norfolk silt in my work

This is quite exciting, and came about initially as a result of a collaboration that I did with an organisation called Creative Arts East some time ago. They paired six traditional Norfolk crafts people with six traditional Norfolk crafts. This being an old thatcher’s yard I was paired with thatchers, who had me doing all sorts of exciting things like running up roofs in February, making brotches [a split length of hazel or willow, pointed and twisted to form a staple].

As a result of this work I had to make a work inspired by working with them, to be used in a touring exhibition that would go around Norfolk.

It was a bit tricky being inspired by the actual work so what I ended up doing  was taking the thatch that they had removed from a local roof, burning it to make ash, and then making a glaze from that ash. Thatching reed is very high in silica which is the glass making part of the glaze.

When I heard that Hoveton Great Broad was being excavated I started wondering what was likely to be down there, the Broad hadn’t had anything done to it for a very long time. There was going to be the very finest of particles of silt that had been blown off the fields, the size of particles I’m interested in for glazing. There would be dead fish bones, dead snail shells which would give me calcium, a relative part of glaze. I understood that the anti fouling paint put on the bottom of the Broads’ cruisers was copper based, which would very likely give me green.

So I thought that it was worth a go and arranged with a Natural England warden to be taken out on a boat and I obtained some silt from him.

I did some experiments initially in my electric kiln, and it looked like a dog’s dinner, so that was a bit disappointing, but I used it in the wood kiln where it magically turned into a wonderful and beautiful glaze.

There is no one else using Broads’ silt in their work. There are other potters around the country who specialise in using local materials. There is a chap up North who uses ground up local flints and stones.

Finding this new material to work with had an impact on the work that I was doing, the influence on where the material had come from. I had just started working in a way that stretches the clay from the inside when it’s thrown, it’s difficult to describe verbally. Normally when you’re throwing a pot, and you’re raising sides to make it thinner and taller and give it shape, you have one hand on the inside and one hand on the outside and you’re drawing the clay up. When you’re using the technique that I’m using you initially shape the pot so you have the rim the size and shape you want it, and you have the base the size and shape you want it, and the remaining clay in between is very much a solid cylinder, without shape.

I then put a contrasting thin layer of clay on the outside and I use that most traditional piece of equipment as used by potters in the olden days, a paint stripper to very very quickly dry off the outside. So the outside is a little bit dry, the inside is still very wet, I then continue throwing the throwing process but I can only stretch the pot from the inside, I can’t touch the outside because I will spoil that surface quality.

Because the outside is a little bit dry and I’m stretching it it’s got to give, so what that does is it splits the porcelain into very stretched marks, similar to the sort of marks that you see in mud on a very hot day.

So the earth has cracked and dried, and I wanted to bring that method of making together with the concept of the restoration of the Broad, that it was going from something where nothing was surviving. The fish weren’t surviving the plants, weren’t surviving, everything was slightly desiccated and unwell. The water was cloudy and dark and as the process of cleansing the Broad went through, I was intending that my work becomes lighter, brighter, lighter greens moving more into blues and becoming less stretched and becoming more whole and more cohesive. There is a sense of water moving and times changing.

Japan and Japanese ceramics, visiting Mashiko and learning from Hamada Tomoo

I have always been interested in Japan from a very young age, it seems so distant and strange, especially the images that we used to see in the1960s and ‘70s.People walking about in kimonos, speaking a language that you couldn’t even begin to understand, it seemed magical.

When the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts first opened they had a big Japanese exhibition that I went to and I wandered around with eyes like saucers, thinking ‘one day, one day, maybe one day’.

I take a magazine called Ceramic Review which is the international magazine for potters and ceramists. There was a one line advert on the back page of the ads in 2009 saying ‘workshop in Mashiko, Japan with Hamada Tomoo, email for details’. I thought ‘this will never happen, I can’t afford it’ but then thought ‘I’ll have a go at sending an email’. So I sent my first email saying, ‘Please could you tell me more about it’.

At seven o’clock one Sunday morning the telephone rang and a broad northern voice said, ‘Hello my name’s Steve if you want to come I’ll meet you at the airport, I’ll give you a lift to Mashiko, you can stop at my house on the last night on the way back. I’ll take you back to the airport again, how about it love?’ I thought ‘I can’t really say no, I’m not going to get a better offer than that’.

So that’s how it started. Hamada Tomoo is the grandson of Shoji Hamada who is perhaps Japan’s most famous export potter. He worked with Bernard Leach in England and Japan!

It was not only an amazing opportunity to meet and learn from his grandson but also to visit Mashiko where Shoji Hamada worked and where the Hamada compound and museum is. So to learn from him and have him show us around his grandfather’s workplace was very emotional and wonderful.

The ceramics produced in Japan are wood fired. It is done a little bit in this country but it’s not hugely popular, obviously flicking a switch on a computer controlled kiln is much easier.

I could have learnt to wood fire in this country but it would have meant going to Devon, which would take me twelve hours and as it takes me twelve hours to get to Japan I thought I might as well go to Japan.

Wood firing ceramics

It is a very longwinded process and any ceramics made by wood firing will be more expensive simply because of the length of this process. With a wood kiln firstly I have to get the wood and cut it to size to fit the fire box. My kiln is based on a design by a chap called Fred Olsen, not the shipping magnate; it is called a fast fire kiln and has two fire boxes. Normally you would have one but I have got two, one either side of the kiln. So I’m scooting around the kiln, putting wood in every five minutes or so. The fire is at the bottom of the kiln, the pots are in the chamber and the chimney is above that.

The object of the exercise is that the flame, the ash and all the gubbins resulting from burning the wood is going up through the ware box. You have got flames licking all around your pots, ash landing on your pots and the smoke going up the chimney. When that ash lands on your pot because the temperature is sufficiently high for a sufficient time the ash begins to melt, flux and turn in to a very rudimentary glaze.

That’s how glazes were discovered by the Koreans a very long time ago. Someone noticed that when they used wood from a particular type of tree stuff came out a little bit shinier, than when they used wood from a different type of tree and that some trees have got more fluxing materials in them. That‘s where the whole glaze technology started.

It is extremely important to keep the consistency of the heat. Traditionally potters would do it by eye and ear but I am very lucky as we have technology to help. I have a little thermal probe, a thermocouple, in the kiln which gives me an exact reading.

It’s the only thing in ceramics that’s slightly counterintuitive because when the temperature goes down your instinct is to put a big bit of wood in.  If you put a big bit in the temperature will go down even further, because it’s taking more energy to burn the wood initially than the wood is giving out. And that can be quite stressful and nerve wracking, I’ve seen grown men sobbing.

Tsubo form

At the moment I am looking in to Tsubo form. The Tsubo is the water carrier and part of the Japanese tea ceremony, it is the vessel that is used to bring the water into the room which is then transferred in to the kettle to heat it.

They are spherical to hold as much as possible, they have a reasonably small neck, generous form, but beyond that they are in the eyes and hands of the creator.

They are usually very plain, the concept of wabi-sabi is perfect imperfection.

Through my work I am trying to combine my connection and influence from Japan with Norfolk influences. There are some potters interested in Japanese ceramics and they just make Japanese pots and that’s fine but my training as a ceramic designer won’t let me do that. For me, it is you make your own pots because someone has already made that one so why make another one.

So what I’m very much trying to do is bring together the feeling of the Japanese ceramics, the feeling that I get from it and the feeling that I want to convey to the viewer.

I’m not Japanese I don’t come from Japan, I can’t claim that culture as my own, I’m a Norfolk girl, that is my culture. So I’m very much trying to combine the two so that forms have a resonance within Japanese culture but have a relevance to contemporary Norfolk life.

Ichihana – one flower pots

I think of my work as both functional and decorative. My training as a florist means that virtually all my work will be suitable for flowers. My most popular line is the ichihana, which is Japanese for ‘one flower’, and I make little bottles which are for one flower.

I started making these when I started doing the thatching reed glaze, as testers initially, because I could see how the glaze ran down the shoulders. Was it too fluid? Was it fluid enough? How does it react on textures? As some glazes pick up texture very well.

You can’t just put a flat tile in a kiln to see how a glaze will function because it doesn’t give you enough information. If you think ‘oh yeah that looks fine’ you then put the glaze on a bottle and  if it’s too runny it’ll just shoot straight down the side glue itself to your kiln shelf and that’s neither practical nor commercially viable.

So you have to do a lot of testing and that was a very good shape to test, plus I can get a lot in the kiln at once. So I can gain a lot of information from one firing.

Where you put the pots in the kiln can affect how they look, so when I’ve done a wood firing I open the kiln up and take some very quick pictures for reference, information for the next firing. I want a record, as pots nearest the flame will get juicy bits and the ones hiding in the middle will get less.

They sold very well at the touring exhibition that we did with Creative Arts East and galleries started asking for them and people started wanting to collect them.

Marketing and selling work

Initially I sold locally, it’s difficult to get your name known, perhaps more so twenty years ago than now as the internet wasn’t much of a thing back then, it was only just starting. There weren’t the likes of Facebook, Twitter or Instagram as there is now to advertise your work. Local galleries at the time had the artists that they wanted to show and weren’t too interested in new work, so it was difficult. Nowadays I probably spend at least as much, if not more, time marketing as I do making the pieces. I sell through galleries, exhibitions and a little bit online, online is very much dedicated collectors. I will also put some of the nice photos that I took after firing and put them on my Facebook page. Half an hour later I might get a call from someone in New York saying, ‘Can I have that one please?’ It’s a funny old world.

Pat in her studio

Collaborative work with Norwich Cathedral

In one of the side chapels there is a great big container on a big metal stand that you can light candles for people that have died. I suspect that it might have broken as I was asked to make a replacement.

It was one of the most challenging things that I have ever had to make, not least because it was twenty inches wide and my wheel head is ten inches wide.

There had to be a certain amount of imagination involved as to how I could turn ten inches into twenty inches and this involved a biscuit tin, some super glue and making a wooden wheel head. A wooden wheel head that was twice the size that I glued on top of the biscuit tin, then glued on top of one of my bats that then fitted on the wheel head. So it was very Heath Robinson, I also discovered halfway through throwing it that I’d got a broken rib which was why it was hurting quite so much. Essentially the wider a flat piece of ceramic is the more dangerous it is in terms of it warping and breaking. And I had to make three of the jolly things to get one that didn’t warp.

But it’s there and it’s being used every day, which is very lovely. As a member of Norfolk Contemporary Crafts Society we exhibit in the Hostry at Norwich Cathedral every year just before Christmas so I usually go and give it a little wave and just check that nobody’s dropped it.

There is quite a long tradition of potters having work in cathedrals, so it is nice that I’m from Norfolk and I’ve got a bit in our cathedral.

This piece in terms of width was the largest piece I have made, but in terms of height the largest would be the three pieces that I made for my finals for my degree. They are three very tall cylinders that come to just above my hip, I’ve still got one, one is still with my old college and the other one is in a local stately home where I believe it is being used to keep the owner’s walking sticks in, which is a very nice use for it.

Pottery courses

I have been teaching for a long time, I was teaching at Lowestoft College as soon as I left, returning as tutor in the October. I also taught for Norfolk adult education at Wensum Lodge for quite a long time. I had so many people asking why I wasn’t teaching here in Salhouse because it’s such a lovely place to come to, next to the Broad. I did a bit of rearranging in the workshop and for the last three years I have been teaching here, doing full day courses and two hour taster courses.

People are usually very very surprised at how physical it is, you can watch someone throwing it’s a fantastic spectator sport. You can watch someone and see what they are doing and as a result what happens to the clay but what you can’t tell is how much pressure they’re putting on.

People watch me do it, then it’s their go and they put their hands against the clay and say ’but nothing’s happening’ and I say ‘yeah, you’ve got to push about twenty times harder than that’. Everyone is surprised, they think that it’s just soft squishy stuff.  Clay is very tactile and you don’t know how much pressure is too much until you’ve done it wrong about ten thousand times.

I only teach adults in my workshop but I go into schools as often as I can when I’m invited and when they can afford it. It is noticeable rather more so nowadays that children are less keen on touching the clay than they used to be. When I was a child I was literally making mud pies, literally, and I think that perhaps some parents aren’t quite so keen on their children getting dirty within the home environment but if you can’t make a mess at home where can you make a mess.

Pat Southwood 2019

Pat Southwood (b. 1961) talking to WISEArchive on 30th April 2019 in Salhouse.

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