Nature - not objective
nature out there but subjective nature within us - maker and
viewer is what interests me. Us, as part of nature.
in Western European Art might describe my work as sculpture,
and that the content of the sculpture deals with ideas about
pottery. I chose to call myself a potter in support of the gradual
acceptance of pottery into mainstream Western contemporary art.
Having begun to work as an artist in South Africa - twenty years
ago - when European notions of high art and other cultural imperialist
attitudes were being seriously questioned, the pot offered a
format of universal appeal and a common human visual language.
Implicit in what I do is the questioning of the reality we create
for ourselves and the questioning of Western notions of high
art, and culture in general. In an increasingly global community
I believe an understanding of the commonality of human experience
and cultural development needs to be reinforced.
Using the pot as
a metaphor for the human body, I seek to explore the psychological
will to use the object to express and communicate thoughts,
emotions and concerns beyond utilitarian need. As conscious
beings I feel we forget the role biology plays in our lives,
especially with respect to aesthetic experience. How often do
we have a sense of appreciation, of intrigue but cannot explain
why. For me this experience is both physical and mental. Pots
posses a highly developed visual, social and material language
of their own. It is this inherited language, and how as a contemporary
maker I can use and reinterpret this language to express something
of the age that I live in, that interests me. Language, in its
structure and vocabulary reflects our poetic and symbolic imaginations,
as in my pots I am not interested in the usefulness of these
objects but in their ability to carry ideas and emotions, and
to communicate these to others. Intrinsic to this language is
the material clay, and the elemental qualities of fire and water
- stuff of the earth. I seek to explore the relationship between
nature and culture; the relationship between what we make, why
we make and the resources and process used to make, as an exploration
to understand our existence.
on scale and form, it is how we respond in a very direct physical
manner to these characteristics, which intrigue me. Scale is
defined by the relationship to our own body size. Form, is almost
felt more than understood. Form as a bodily awareness. The rhythm,
structure and pattern of the form create a particular mood or
feeling - a poetic image. In particularly the dialectic of exterior
skin or shell and its inner void, of positive and negative.
I am as interested in the inside form as much as the outside
form and the way light reveilles these elements. I like to think
that my forms grow from inside to out. Working in coarse stoneware
clay my pots are constructed from elements thrown on the potter's
wheel. It is the process of exploring my own natural creativity
that generates how my pots look. The importance is not in the
object itself, but how the object can communicate the surprise,
the bracing effect on our lives that the expression of creativity
COMPUTER AIDED DESIGN
The physicality of
the real pot was what I found I missed when working in virtual
reality and exploring the possibilities of multimedia technology
in the CD-ROM, 'The Language of Pots'. That is not to say I
did not thoroughly enjoy the exploration of the virtual world
but it is something else, not a substitute for the real world.
In our minds we might live in an equivalent 'virtual world'
but we have a long way to go before the home computer can get
anywhere near that experience. Three things in particular struck
me while working on screen. Scale, orientation or the effect
of gravity, and that lack of physical contact. These then have
become particular areas of perception that I have explored in
my studio pots. I was made aware of just how important these
qualities are within pottery, and our appreciation of pottery.
How we measure scale in relationship to our own bodies. How
the pot sits on a surface and its weight - an objects physical
presence. It is a thing we can walk around, that we can identify
with and read with our bodies, our whole being and not only
our minds. In virtual space objects appear to float, but in
the real world we know materials have weight. In the pot Bowl
that is suspended at head height I wanted to maintain some of
that feeling of the pot floating, like a thought, while emphasising
it's earthiness in the realisation it is made of stoneware fired
clay. The 'stuffness' of the material is lost in virtual space.
In the CD-ROM I explored sound associated with pottery, and
the idea of sending the viewer inside the virtual pot. With
Bowl I am inviting the viewer to consider the inside of the
pot as well as the outside form. Put your ear near the lip of
the pot and listen to that inside space. With the series of
pots entitled Hand held Pot I am concerned with the scale of
the pot. The measurement of size against the hand. They are
pots that fit comfortable in the hand. With the idea that we
can feel form - haptic awareness. These pots have no specific
base. They settle on a surface however you set them down. They
are conceived as object to be held in the hands so do not require
a base. In the group of tiny porcelain pots I continue to question
our perception of gravity and scale. These pots play with our
sense of orientation, like objects held in the imagination they
are free, suspended in space. We are reminded that the physical
world becomes a construction of our own subjective perception.
Mirrors and lenses lead us into other realities.
MUSIC AND MAPPING
- DRAWING STATEMENT
In this body of work
my interest is in drawing for its own sake, as an abstract visual
language. I enjoy the immediacy of the expression, its directness
and simplicity of means. The basic formal elements of surface
and mark can carry an essence or feeling. It is this essence
of creativity, of thought, of idea, of communication and not
representation that I aim to capture in these images. I would
like my work to be felt more than understood. This is why I
use the analogy with music. Often I take a solo instrument,
line, and while considering the whole, the composition, the
structure and the relationship of differing elements I explore
tone, form, rhythm and the subtlety of each. Some of these drawings
have been made using black iron oxide and magnets. The process
becomes important as a way of exploring the 'nature of creativity'
and offers a way of mapping it out. I am interested in the natural
abstract qualities underlying creative expression and how we
collectively respond to these systems. By sprinkling iron oxide
over the paper and then drawing it around with magnetic forces
from underneath the paper I am playing with the paradox of chance
and control. The magnetic force has a life of its own independent
of the forces I bring to bear. The imagination of the viewer
then completes the creation.
THE LANGUAGE OF POTS
(Ceramics Review, no 193 Jan/Feb 2002)
Candida Wingate - arts consultant
Clay and its use
as a creative and expressive medium, is what links the range
of work produced by the South African artist potter, Jonathan
Keep. While the forms and decorations of his domestic ware reflect
his passionate belief that pots should be handled and touched,
"What a shame", he reflects, "to walk past a
shelf and not touch a pot", it is in the larger sculptural
and architectural pieces that his principle preoccupation becomes
most obvious. This preoccupation lies in the many analogies
between pots and the human body, both in their formal design
and the symbolism they contain; from 5-feet high sentinel pots
to kneeling figures and large-bellied vessels, his work speaks
to us of pots as people and people as containers.
It may appear, therefore,
somewhat incongruous that, consumed as he is with the physicality
of pots, he should wish to create a CD-ROM programme in which,
by definition, the pots have only a virtual existence, devoid
of any tactile qualities. Yet he was immediately drawn to the
possibilities presented by such a challenge; "I felt there
was potential here for a really interesting interpretation of
what I do," comments Jonathan. "Using computer-generated
multimedia seemed an ideal way of making my work and the concepts
that lie behind it far more accessible to a wider public."
The resulting work,
'The Language of Pots', contains nine distinct elements, moving
through the development of the archetypical form to an exploration
of virtual bowls moving in space and on to experiments in symmetry.
It would be wrong, however, to suggest that there is a definitive
route through the work. On the contrary, 'definition' is anathema
to Jonathan's working practises. His virtual pots, just as with
his studio pieces, pose questions about perception over experience,
what is real and what makes it so and why we respond as we do.
It is up to the viewer to supply their own answers.
he had to provide some answers of his own. A complete novice
at computer technology, Jonathan had to learn how to manipulate
the various pieces of software used to make the programme, a
task that immediately became easier once he discovered the many
similarities between the digital processes and physical pot
For example, using
modelling software to explore archetypal forms through a series
of evolving wire frames, it became obvious to him that he was
working the frames just as he would a lump of clay on the potters
wheel, pulling, stretching and drawing up the shapes. Transforming
the throwing process into another visual medium led him to work
at a conceptual level, experimenting with shapes that could
not be sustained by the physical material of clay.
Similarly, he was
able to create a visual reference for the transformations that
occur during the glazing process, capturing the liquidity of
the material that happens, unseen, in the kiln. Using animation
software, Jonathan applied surfaces to the forms, which on screen
continue to evolve and alter the pattern and colour as the viewer
goes deeper into the image.
While building this
part of 'The Language of Pots', another similarity between the
digital and physical experience arose; that of having to wait
until the end of the process to be sure of the results. Once
the animation films had been created, they had to be 'rendered'
onto the pots, a process that took several hours. "Until
the computer had done its job you could never be certain what
would emerge," says Jonathan. "It was very like waiting
to open your kiln door to find out if you had achieved what
you thought you would."
One area where multimedia
effects overtook the material process was in the extent to which
viewers could interact with the vessels. Initially, Jonathan
was concerned that presenting 2-dimensional images on screen
would be proscriptive, as he was essentially choosing how the
pot could be viewed; in the real world, a pot might be displayed
on a plinth or a mantelpiece with the viewer free to choose
their own angle of observation. He wanted to offer a similar
freedom, and found the means within the software QuickTime VR
which captures the image photographically in 360 degrees. The
viewer is then able to click on the pot and turn it around,
upside down and even view it inside, a possibility that certainly
would not be available in many gallery settings where large
'DO NOT TOUCH' signs are often attached to exhibits.
One of the most
exciting aspects for Jonathan was the creation of a series of
mirrored forms, exploring the concept of reflected symmetry.
Relating back to his studio work which contains constant reference
to the natural world, the series question how we arrive at and
react to our perceptions of that world. Is it because we see
ourselves in another human being that we respond positively
to that person? And to what extent is it our observations or
assumptions that trigger our reactions? His mirrored forms not
only demonstrate perfect symmetry, but emphasise how little
in nature is truly symmetrical. Creating his programme extended
Jonathan's understanding of the processes employed by the ceramicist
but, more importantly, it gave him the opportunity to think
laterally about what drives his own work, extending the metaphor
of the pot as mirror of the human form and condition. It also
provides the perfect platform from which to encourage us, the
viewers, to examine more closely, consider more carefully, what
Images of his lips,
shoulder and foot morph into corresponding parts of the virtual
vessels, while photos of skin, hair and even his wife's arm,
grid-marked and swollen after a lengthy allergy test, are tiled
onto their surfaces. Zooming in on large, revolving globes reveals
areas of his body, an obvious if slightly voyeuristic reference
to the potter's body, i.e. clay and his own body as a potter.
'Look at my pot, see me' could be an alternative title for this
The roots of this
fascination with clay as the embodiment of the human condition
go back to Jonathan's childhood where, growing up in South Africa,
clay was a natural and abundant play material for all children.
His interest continued throughout school and he went on to do
a Fine Arts degree at Natal University. It was during the time
of rising Black consciousness and he found himself at the heart
of the debate concerning the relevance of the European art and
its hierarchy over indigenous African Art. When he came to England
in 1986, he was dismayed to discover that, paradoxically, a
less liberal attitude towards ceramics prevailed here, with
pots being 'pigeonholed' as crafts and not recognised within
an artistic context as they had been in South Africa.
The influences of
that indigenous art are evident in much of his work; it also
provides the context for another recurring question he addresses
in his work, the need for pots to be useful. "African pots
were obviously made to fulfil a function, to carry water or
to hold grain, but they were also beautifully made and embellished.
My virtual pots cannot be useful in that sense, so does that
mean they are not 'good' pots?"
It was the potential
to provide a vibrant visual interpretation of his work, rather
than as a tool to create new pieces, that attached Jonathan
to the CD-ROM project and, once it was completed, he was keen
to get back to the physical world of his studio and start making
'real' pots again. He recognises, however, that his experience
of virtual reality has informed his latest body of work, in
which he explores this question of function over form.
HAND HELD POTS is
a series of pots without any sense of orientation, a direct
link with the forms in 'The Language of Pots'. They do not have
a single base and so may be laid on their side, upside down
or upright or, as the title suggests, held in the hand. Given
this degree of ambiguity, does this mean they are not good pots?
Jonathan would argue that the answer does not matter; he is
not concerned with definitions but rather with how the viewer
or, in this case, the handler, relates to the work. As an object
maker he is interested in using his craft to evoke sensations
and responses, to plant questions and stir emotions. He uses
his craft to engage in constant dialogue with his audience,
as admirably demonstrated in 'The Language of Pots'.
EDITORS NOTE: 'The
Language of Pots' is one of a collection of ten original digital
artworks created specially for INSITE. In addition to the artworks,
the CD-ROMS contain video clips of the artists responding to
questions about their professional lives and text pages containing
information about their work together with biographical details.
INSITE has been developed by Suffolk County Council and is funded
by the National Lottery through the Arts Council of England
and the European Regional Development Fund. For more information
about INSITE please contact the Suffolk County Council arts
consultant, Candida Wingate, telephone 01986 784720, e-mail
INTRODUCTION TO EARTHNESS
(Catalogue for Solo exhibition, The Pearoom,
Linda Theophilus - Freelance exhibition organiser and
It is doubly appropriate
that this exhibition 'Earthness', Jonathan Keep's first solo
exhibition of sculptural ceramics in the UK, should be shown
at the Pearoom. Travelling to Heckington across the flat landscape
of Lincolnshire, one is very aware of earth - dark, fertile
fields stretching to a full circle of far horizon. On arrival,
the second floor gallery seems to float above a sea of soil,
glimpsed through its windows.
From Stornoway to
St Ives, there is a tradition in Britain to stage the very best
of contemporary visual art away from the cities; to make the
audience seek it out in 'special' landscapes. The Pearoom has
established a reputation for doing just that, for contemporary
crafts. Keep joins an impressive list of studio craft artists
who have responded to Clare Bryan's invitation to exhibit at
this very particular place; like other old buildings converted
to galleries, the Pearoom does not provide a neutral 'white
box'. The long low dimensions of the space, the natural light
through Victorian sash windows, the posts and beams, the work-worn
floor all combine with the volumes, and textures of Jonathan
Keep's sculptural forms to make a satisfying whole. Keep has
also made new work for the walls. Exploiting the linear quality
of the smaller gallery, he assembles separate pieces of fired
earth to build tile "pictures" of great beauty, while
in the main gallery, he counterpoints circles, hemispheres and
horizons in pared down compositions that lose nothing of the
voluptuousness of his earlier small sculptures.
Earthness is a collaboration
between venue and artist; location and sculpture; all interacting
to make a site-specific exhibition of great power.
catalogue for Solo exhibition, The Pearoom, 1999)
Les Bicknell - Artist
Jonathan Keep is
a potter; his insistence on the title is at the core of understanding
his work. Part of his time is spent creating domestic ware.
The duality of his practice informs the sculptural work. His
acquisition of craft skills and their employment in the making
of the pieces lead to the creation of well made pieces, which
understand themselves and the context of their making. This
anthropological understanding of the context of clay, its presence
as part of our everyday, is at the core of the work.
The pot exists as
an idea beyond its physical form. To drink a toast is to do
more than just nourish oneself. Keep talks about the ability
in certain cultures to insult ones sexuality purely by the method
of holding a pot. There is an understanding about the connection
between the pot and the soul, its metaphorical role as body.
mineral? Although made from the earth the work is definitely
animal in both form and intent. This includes man. The work
exhibits the internal spaces and external forms of the animal
world. A single piece can contain forms, which might suggest
elements of several animals, be it a cows hoof, the internal
organs of a cuttlefish or the shape of a snails shell. Each
twist and turn of an individual piece reveals another aspect
and connects us to each other. The ambiguity of the form is
not confusing. It is this journey, the discovery of numerous
elements which delight and intrigues one about the work, one
canfind a sense of place within them and reflects on the earth
and mans place within it.
Technically I seek
to keep things as simple and as direct as possible. I have worked
in clay since being a schoolboy and over the years I have developed
a fluency in throwing, coil building, slab building and basic
moulding techniques, and use whichever process is relevant to
the work being produced. Often incorporating a number of techniques
in a single work.
Similarly I use a
variety of clays, depending on scale, desired surface quality
and where possible I select the material and technique to support
the content or idea in the work. Such as layers of different
coloured clays when referring to geographic striations or stratum
and coil building with different clays when conveying a sense
of layering or growth rings. The glaze I use (fired to 1220c
in an electric kiln) is a blend of china clay and wood ash.
In differing proportions, subtle variation in surface quality
and colour are achievable. The simplicity of this glaze appeals
to me, and the fact it is made of such basic materials, clay
and ash is very satisfying.
My basic working
method is to throw a number of pot forms, then working on a
small group manipulate, cut, stick together, turn up side down,
cut again until an image or idea begins to emerge. Once I have
this I add or subtract to refine the form and consider the surface.
With pots that are slab built, the slabs are first moulded over
bag formers. Once stiff, or leather hard these elements are
cut and joined as with the thrown forms. I would be continually
turning the form looking at the line, volume and balance as
The pole sculptures
are made up of extruded pipes of clay threaded onto a metal
pole. The natural fired colours of the clays are allowed to
show, giving a pallet from an earthy red, through brown, grey
and touched with highlights of blue and turquoise glaze. In
the tile works I similarly allow the intrinsic material quality
of the clay to become the pallet for natural pattern making.
All work can be sited out of doors and depending on the design
is surprisingly robust.