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Peter Hayes on Raku and international ceramic traditions

As international art consultants, Artelier specialises in curating art and feature walls for luxury residential, hospitality, yacht and aviation projects. Artelier's feature wall collection – Artist Walls presents a collection of artists whose originality of ideas and dedication to their materials makes them true contemporary masters. Through collaborating with Artelier, they have created large-scale custom art commissions that reinvent the concept of the mural for the modern age, pushing the possibilities for feature wall art.

Peter Hayes is a ceramic artist who has worked closely with artistic and indigenous communities all over the world. From his travels in Africa, Australia, Japan, India and Nepal, he has engaged with the ancient practices of these cultures, and has incorporated them into his own ceramic art – including ceramic wall art, ceramic feature walls, and free standing sculptures.

In a two-part interview, we learn more about how ancient practices have inspired Hayes' ceramic art and use of materials. In this part, Artelier discusses his early career in Africa, and how he came to use Raku and other Japanese traditions and ceramic firing techniques.

In your early career in Africa, the Commonwealth commissioned you to open a pottery studio and engage more widely with local artist communities. How did you embark on this, and how did the journey evolve?

I had my first studio down in St Mawes, in Cornwall – an old cow barn, on the way to the beach – but at that time I wasn't a full time artist. It was the art of survival; working early in the mornings and late at night with other jobs, and used the time during the day to work in my studio. Life was good there, very social, and it's a beautiful part of the world. But one day, I received a letter asking for potters to apply for a job in Africa. I was twenty four years old, and I had always wanted to travel; I was hired, and three months later my young family and I moved to Lesotho. The mountain kingdom of Lesotho is an absolutely wonderful place. A little independent country which is completely surrounded by South Africa – it's all beautiful mountains and the sky. We said we'd go for 18 months, and that lasted 10 years.

My job was very involved in the community; I ran a studio for pottery. In those days, the 1970s, a lot of craftsmen went over to Africa to set up various projects. They gave me a big old brewery to convert into a studio, and work with local potters in Lesotho.

We built kilns, I employed over 20 people, and it was a great success. After 18 months, my work there changed – I had written a report that explained how I felt that, rather than having people come to the pottery, wouldn't it be better to go and visit them in their own communities? The Commonwealth Secretary saw this report and liked the idea, so I was given a Land Rover and two horses, and started going on horseback to these villages right in the mountains.

My life started changing, as rather than teaching, I went to remote villages and saw these talented local women making traditional pots – great, big beer pots, or storage pots. It was just wonderful watching them make them. I thought about how this was the time when one needs to be mouth shut, and eyes open. Because, in actual fact, I started learning their methods of working with clay. After three years, I was then asked to do the same in Swaziland, and Botswana, it was really quite exciting. But the trouble with that work was that eventually I was having to spend more time in consultant meetings, and was becoming a kind of "briefcase expert", and I'm not – I'm an artist. So I returned back home to England in 1982. Everybody thought I was mad leaving, because it was a very good job working with the Commonwealth Secretary, but I wanted to take what I had seen and start my own work in England again.

What is an example of subjects that inspired you in Africa, and more broadly what is your process for creating and developing the ideas for a new work?

When I was at college, I used to do a lot of archaeological digs; I've always been really interested in pre-history, found objects, the art of discovery, the art of putting pieces together. So my work, it's largely not been inspired by high art – it's very, very earthy. So, for instance, when I was in Africa riding on horseback, we had these big leather water bags that went over the shoulders of the horses. When the water was empty, the leather used to crinkle up like old men's faces, to shrivel up. When you filled the leather water bottles with water, they became these wonderful, voluminous sort of shape. I liked that transition. I've always been been very interested in surface textures, and the idea of almost broken surfaces, as you have with old leather. So I was inspired by these water bags. The water in itself is very important that's the other thin – in Africa, water is precious. I wanted to base some work around that, and so I made these artworks that I called the 'Water Carriers'. It's all about texture and symbolism, really. While it was just a casual idea at the time, the shapes seemed to work very, very well. I'm not a minimalist artist, but I do like artworks that tell a story rather than just themes.

The most important thing to point out about my inspiration is that I've spent my life travelling. I've worked all over the place, from Africa to Australia, New Zealand, spent much time in India, Japan, Nepal. I've always loved working and learning from people – I've worked with the Lesotho, the Inuit, the Mauri, many people. Most of them are artisans, and just making roof tiles or a practical craft, but the way they make them – and their community – offer so much, so I love getting involved. I've always taken something something from their ways of working. Ceramic is such a basic material – most civilisations have to make some something out of clay. It's so interesting to travel right through the world, and see how different people have used it. So I've had a lot of inspiration from a lot of other cultures.

Where there any ceramic traditions that especially influenced your use of techniques? Could you describe some techniques you've picked up, and how you've incorporated them?

Very much so, I think in actual fact being influenced by different ceramic techniques is the principle of my work. For example, I spent some time in Japan, and was very interested in not only their ceramics, but the whole lifestyle, the whole story behind ceramics – it's very deep. It's not just about making a pot, and putting it on the shelf. There's a whole story behind it.

I went to the Tokyo museum of ceramics, where you can go to floors and floors of magnificent ceramics; ones that were made for the Emperor, which were fired 40