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Peter Hayes on clay, outdoor commissions, and sustainable practices

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 Hayes' inspiration and experiences working with clay. In this part, we explore further Peter's intuitive response to the earth and the medium of clay, and how these are deeply connected to the natural world.

Whilst you have engaged with communities throughout the world, can you describe your specific work in Africa? After living there for a decade, what drew you back to the UK?

In Lesotho, Africa, my job at first was to run a studio for pottery. These were the 1970s, and in those days a lot of artists went over to Africa to set up various projects, and potters were very much in demand as there are many potters in Africa. I was asked to go out there when I was twenty four, as an artist consultant. I was given an old brewery, and asked me to convert it into a pottery studio; I employed twenty-eight people, built kilns, working with the local community. Lesotho is an absolutely wonderful place. It’s completely landlocked, and so is all mountains and sky – it has the most beautiful mountains, and wonderful people.

After 18 months working in the studio, I wrote a report about how I felt that since there were many urban problems, wouldn't it be better if I went to where the people lived in the mountains and worked with them there, rather than having them come to the centre? About a year later, the report somehow ended up with the Commonwealth Secretary, who thought it was a good idea, so I was given a new contract.

They gave me a Land Rover and two horses, and rather than teaching at the studio, I was going on horseback to these villages right in the mountains and seeing how local people work clay. I did the same in Swaziland, and Botswana, it was really quite exciting. But the trouble with that kind of work was eventually I was becoming a kind of "briefcase expert", and I'm not; I'm an artist. I was spending lots of time in consultancy meetings, going around with a briefcase, and so after 10 years in Africa I decided it was time to come home. It was a very good job working with the Commonwealth Secretary, but I came home in 1982 to start my own work in England again.

You have been based at your current studio in Bath for many years since – do the natural surroundings of the studio, on the bank of the River Avon, influence how you work?

When we first moved to Bath, we bought this beautiful Georgian house, and I tried to convert part of it into a studio; but, that just didn’t work, as I can be fairly “anarchist” in how I work and leave quite a trail behind me! But I used to go on a lot of walks along the river, and there were these old toll bridge houses; they were completely deserted, and going derelict, but nobody had vandalised them.

They were listed buildings, and so I went to the council and said that these would make fantastic artist studios. I had thought these beautiful buildings, converted to studios, could make quite a little artist idyll. I managed to get one for a good rent, and that's how I got my studio in Bath. It’s right on the river Avon, an old three-storey converted toll bridge house. I’ve been there now for 34 years.

The river has played a part in creating some of my artworks. I’ve always been drawn to archaeology, to the found object; I like my artworks to have history, have a story. At one time, I was making these huge, 8ft Raku pieces, but to fire them was getting incredibly complicated. So I had the idea to still make large scale artwork, but to break them into pieces to fire them, and repair them like an archaeologist would. I would build the piece up almost as a found object, and then it has history – it’s been made, it’s been broken, it’s been repaired.

What I actually do, as I have the River Avon going past the studio, is sometimes I actually make the pieces and sink them in the river. Because I use copper on the ceramics, after leaving them there for two or three months, when I fish them out they have a natural patina, created by time. Because I've tried to forget all about it, the piece does become important – I have to discover it again, as I have to fish it out of the river, and clean the mud. It's like discovering your own piece.

Where do you source the clay for your sculptures, and what different qualities can they have?

Throughout my time I have used the most amazing different clays, and I use a lot of clays from different locations. At one point, I even got some Australian clay sent to me – I spent time working in Australia and they've got this wonderful clay called Ice White. They invited me to go to Bendigo to work; that's where the old potteries are in Australia, industrial potteries which are closed down, but every so often they invite artists to go over and play with their huge industrial kilns. They gave me a tonne of this wonderful porcelain clay, and after a month working with it, I fell in love with it. So that was an example of a very fine porcelain, but I work with all different kinds.

Much more locally, a clay I still love working with is actually everywhere in Bath. Bath is full of canals; when they were being built, in the 1790s, every third of a mile they put 20 tonnes of puddle clay on the surface or on a tow path. That clay has been on the surface for about 200 years.