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Artelier Interview: Peter Hayes on Raku and 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 times, you can learn about the styles of different families. It's actually astounding, and you almost get culture shock with the volume of what's there. Right at the end, there was a showcase, with these little broken pots – these pots were made by the millions. It's almost like our polystyrene cups that now people drink out of once and throw away; these little pots were made out of terracotta, and you drink your wine and so on, and then throw them away and never use them again. They were made by peasants in the millions.

What the Japanese did, was they got their top artists to pick up the pieces and repair them with gold. The story behind that, is that clay is the most humblest material in the world, made usually by the peasants, who are the humblest people in the world. Then you have the opposite – the Emperor's top artists, repairing these broken, shattered pieces with gold. Therefore, you get this kind of yin and yang. The crack is probably worth more than the piece itself, for the gold and the craftsmanship. That's the whole Japanese philosophy, working with opposites. That's just one of the stories that really impressed me, as working with opposites resonates with me.

The other thing that appealed is that a lot of artists work with perfection, and I've never wanted to work in that way. I'm drawn to the broken, and the repaired. The name of this Japenese method is Kintsugi; it shows how if a piece is broken, and you love the piece, instead of throwing it away you can actually repair it with gold, and it becomes a very important piece. So that's another idea that I incorporate, I work with clay and gold and resins together. I often even break my artworks into pieces, in order to fire them in smaller sections, and then repair them again. Kintsugi gives artworks a story, of having been created, broken, and created again.

You often use Raku firing for your ceramics, which is an ancient method for firing; could you talk about how you came to use that as a method?

The idea of working with literally fire, water and earth is important; when you bring those elements together, it's a very basic, right down to the ground level. You put it in the fire, and wait until the surfaces have started melting, and then you take it out with tongs from the red hot kiln and plunge it into water, and then into sawdust. If you use materials like copper in the piece, you get a copper reduction – because you're putting the molten material in sawdust. And with copper, if you starve the copper of oxygen by putting it in sawdust so that no oxygen can get in, you get these lovely, wonderful colours. It's just that.

The story of Raku is in particular what I found fascinating. It was said that when the Japanese invaded Korea – hundreds of years ago, but I'm not a historian, I don't know my facts – but when the Japanese armies invaded Korea, the armies saw these villages in the mountains and they glistened in the sunset. They thought they'd reached paradise, because the whole villages were glistening. So they sent their artists and knowledgeable people to discover what this magic was. And it was the tiles, on the tops of the roofs, that glistened in the sun.

They discovered that the way they used to make their tiles was a very, very strange technique – when they made the tiles, being a mass produced thing, they used to have these huge, big kilns called dragon kilns that went up the side of the mountain.

They put millions of these tiles in, taking out the tiles in batches, and while they were red hot they would wrap them in straw. Of course, as soon as they were wrapped in straw, they would burn – and it was the ash that went round the straw that actually insulated the tiles so they didn't cool too quickly. The actual ash gave a kind of protection. So when the ash blew away, they got these wonderful colours. Really rainbow colours, ranging from reds, to purples, to pinks, and they were all iridescent. As they made them, each one would be created different, because of the way the tiles were stacked. So some where red, some were pink, some were blue. When they put them on the roofs, they were absolutely lovely. The Japanese thought this was marvellous; and rather than just using it for roof tiles, the Japanese wanted to make it into an art.

So, the Japanese started doing these tea ceremonies, and they used to make these special Raku bowls for them – these bowls were made by master, master artists. The whole point of the tea ceremony, is when you have tea out of a Raku bowl, you actually look into the bowl. It's not like just drinking a cup of tea, it's a whole ceremony where you appreciate the mastery of the artist, of the accident of the fire, and everything else. And there again, if there's a little crack, it was repaired in silver or gold; they used tongs to get the Raku bowls out of the kiln when they're hot, and those tongs used to score the outside of the glaze. That was all part of the Raku process.

Which part of the Raku method intrigued you, encouraging you to use it for your own process?

When I went to Japan, I went to a Raku exhibition in this huge space – I went there thinking there were just going to be lots of cups, but I didn't know anything at the time. And in this enormous space there were five Raku bowls on pedestals, with these Japanese millionaires around them, pondering over these bowls and deciding which one to buy. Even in those days, which was about 30 years ago, a Raku tea bowl would cost £3,000-4,000 to buy.

What is so interesting is that they were made by their hundreds. The master potter would make a hundred of these bowls at one time. He'd put them into the fire, but only one or two of them would be selected; they would all be displayed, and then he would go break 99% of them off the shelf. That one would be the master one. So, it's not a process of creating one masterpiece – instead, hundreds of them would be made, and few would be chosen. The process is very similar to my way of working, too. I make a lot as I experiment, and then throw most of it away, rather than sitting down to create one masterpiece.

I use the same method for creating artworks with Raku as it had been done then. I started making very, very big Raku sculptures and was firing them in this huge kiln. But every time I had a firing, I was firing these 8ft Raku pieces, and I needed 5 people to fire a kiln! These huge flames were going everywhere, and it was getting too reliant on engineering for me, far too complicated. So I decided to still make large scale artworks, but I would break them into pieces to fire them, and then repair them later like an archaeologist. I repair them in golds and coppers, building them back up like found objects.

Peter Hayes has collaborated with Artelier's art consultancy on numerous artwork commissions, including a current art commission project for an indoor spa and pool area, where he is creating a large-scale Raku triptych feature wall. He is included as part of our 'Artist Walls' collection – visit his dedicated page on our website here.

Artelier's art consultancy plays a fundamental role in all artwork commissions, and as the appointed art consultant for projects we bring artists and clients together to achieve forward-thinking and intelligently curated art installations. Learn more about Artelier's feature wall collection: Artist Walls.

To read the other instalment of the two-part interview, where we discuss sustainable practices, his use of clay, and his outdoor commissions, click here.


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