extract from journey in clay

by Emily Stapleton Jefferis

Extract from Journey in Clay (my MA Dissertation)

I envelope the bag of clay as I heave it upwards. The bag’s shape changes, its inner potentiality revealed. I untwist the tie, untwist the plastic and peel it back. A sticky, smooth lump. I grab at the clay with my fingers and build mounds in my palms, enjoying the traces, the marks of myself. Marks on the clay as the marks on my skin: creases and folds, hills and lines, recording a story, building a narrative, a pattern of touch1. The clay as a landscape, a mirror to its origin. Bumps as mountains, wet hollows as mines - scars across the wild. Manipulated, enhanced, destroyed by man. A map of action, process, and like a real map incomplete in its representation - unable to record the many layers of being2. Even a map at 1:1 scale would be inadequate, incapable of capturing the rich seams of memory embedded within a landscape3.

Somehow, however, memories are kept in clay. The clay remembers how it has been handled, its very structure affected by previous actions. Clay molecules are disc-shaped like plates, positively and negatively charged, with weak bonds occurring between each other. The water of plasticity (present in combination with clay molecules acting to give the clay its characteristic plastic behaviour) operates as a kind of lubricant between the bonds. As the platelets slide over one another these bonds are broken and reformed but not completely - there is an elastic nature to this breakage which means that the bond that has been made and broken actually remains, and the bond therefore pulls the molecules back together over time, although not to exactly the same position as before4. To roll a sheet of clay on one side, and to not roll it flat on the other, will cause it to curl upwards during its firing. Slicing a bowl off the wheel and distorting its rim to an oval, even if it is then moved into a round and dried as such, will end up with a warped oval rim once again, as the clay particles move back into their original position in the heat offered by the kiln. A teapot spout thrown on the wheel must be added onto the teapot body at an angle, so that during the course of the firing the spout will unfurl, twisting backwards to be positioned perpendicularly. The record of touch/making left on an object’s surface also acts to physicalise memory, in terms of its creation. An archive of process, of method: I press, twist, rub the clay between my palms, bring forth coils, lengths, strands. Building my piece upwards it grows and shifts. I press softly, stroking, a whisper of a touch. Discreet nuances of pressure, generating movement, life. Like Bernard Leach5 I wish to retain evidence of this object’s conception. To retain a truth to the material, to know how it was made, to give it a sense of vitality6. The energy of the work is dependent on the marks of the fingers left on its surface, throughout its glaze7. Marks as the height of egoism, as the ego cannot bear the emptiness, the void of non-recognition.

This retention of the making process, of history captured in clay, prompts a memory of a lecture in which James Rigler speaks of architecture: of cornices, lintels, friezes8. On the surface these architectural features are uniform, regular, devoid of human touch. But concealed within, trapped inside, hidden from sight, are the marks of hands, of thumbs, of fingers forcing, moving, shaping the clay. Pushing it into plaster moulds, transforming formless to form. A secret record of production, of human gesture, in a contemporary world of machine-made goods. This action of the hand providing variation, originality, an avoidance of homogeneity. A metaphor for society, a society embracing difference and diversity, where we are not all one and the same, moulded and manufactured as industrial goods. I want to get inside these features, to release the hidden expressions of the human, to map the past with my hands.

To feel my hands on old hands, a sense of connection, a common humanity. A repetition of actions, a thread running through time. An echo of hands which have come before: hands which wedge and knead, coil and slab, touch and hold. Hands which are busy to act, to make, to build, to create the world around us9 as agents of motion fulfilling our desires10. Hands which are not hands any more when I make, hands which become pincers, press-moulds, a naked faculty11. Hands which are my tools, defined by their creation rather than their flesh and bone12.

Touch to artistic creation is crucial, as touch is to humanity. Despite being overlooked, undervalued, considered secondary to the other senses13, touch allows us to discover the three- dimensionality of existence, locating us in space, grounding us in reality14. Aristotle regarded touch as the lowliest of the senses, found in all animals and hence necessary for being, not wellbeing unlike the other senses15. Yet scientific experiments have proven touch to lower blood pressure, to increase trust. ‘Touch is ten times stronger than verbal or emotional contact’16. Just as touch transforms us, it also transforms raw materials: cotton to cloth, bark to paper, clay to vessel. Touch offers us the chance for change, to shape our world. Through this action of touch, of making and creating as affirmation of existence, we are empowered18. We can be agents for change. Just as emptiness allows space to imagine other possibilities, touch provides the motivation to take action.

– Emily Stapleton Jefferis


1. Michael Serres quoted in Steven Connor ‘Five Senses’ in Empire of the senses The sensual cultural reader, edited by David Howes, (Oxford:Oxford International Publishers ltd, 2005

2. Rebecca Solnit, A field guide to getting lost, (London: Penguin Books, 2006) p. 162

3. Ibid

4. From an unrecorded conversation with Philip Wood at The Royal College of Art (5 June 2017)

5. Bernard Leach was a 20th Century potter widely credited with being the father of the studio pottery movement. Reference: Frank and Janet Hamer, The Potter’s dictionary of Materials and Techniques, (London: A&C Black, 2004) p. 207

6. Emmanuel Cooper, Bernard Leach, Life and Work, (London: Yale University Press, 2003) p. 368

7. Edmund De Waal, 20th Century Ceramics, (London: Thames and Hudson, 2003) p. 91

8. James Rigler, My Practice, (The Royal College of Art, London: Ceramics and Glass lecture series, 2017)

9. Diane Ackerman, A natural History of the senses, (London: Chapmans, 1990) p. 11

10. Darian Leader, Hands, (New York: Penguin Random House, 2016) p. 3

11. Michael Serres quoted in Steven Connor ‘Five Senses’ in Empire of the senses The sensual cultural reader, edited by David Howes (Oxford:Oxford International Publishers ltd, 2005) p. 321

12. Tim Ingold, Being Alive. Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description, (Oxford: Routledge, 2011) p. 57

13. Susan Stewart, ‘Remembering the Senses’ in Empire of the senses The sensual cultural reader, edited by David Howes (Oxford: Oxford International Publishers ltd, 2005) p. 61

14. Diane Ackerman, A natural History of the senses, (London: Chapmans, 1990) p. 96 ‘But, above all, touch teaches us that life has a depth and contour; it makes our sense of the world and ourself three-dimensional.’

15. Susan Stewart, ‘Remembering the Senses’ in Empire of the senses, The sensual cultural reader, edited by David Howes, (Oxford: Oxford International Publishers ltd, 2005) p. 61

16. Diane Ackerman, A natural History of the senses, (London: Chapmans, 1990) p.123

17. Ibid

18. Marvin Gaye Chetwynd & Nina Power, Do we still have a subconscious? How to interpret the contemporary? (The Royal College of Art, London: Visual Cultures Lecture Orientations Locate & Reshape, 2017)